Review Summary: 10 years after its release, The Money Store proves to be a harbinger of a phenomenon I can only call meta-masochism, or awareness without action.
Heads up: this is long. It needs to be.
The first time I heard Death Grips in public was this past August at a hostel in Nicaragua. I was in an open-air common area that sat directly over a beach, and the whole area was serviced by one PA-sized bluetooth JBL. DJ permissions were lax at best but still psuedo-democratic; if your taste didn’t match the vibe, anyone was liable to reset the speaker and connect their phone to play “Pepas,” which happened at least five times every night. This did not encourage certain people to start giving a ***, but I still couldn’t hide my surprise when I recognized the not-guitar-but-synthesizer at the beginning of “I’ve Seen Footage.” The culprit was a guy I’d met surfing, and he conceded that he didn’t like the band outside of this song despite giving them a fair chance via his friends back in Oklahoma who were die-hards. I told him I was jealous that he had people in his life smothering him with a band I would love to regularly enjoy with other people when I realized that it had been nearly ten years since I started listening to The Money Store. I also realized that my longing to find someone to share it with is directly related to what keeps pulling me back to it, and that perhaps it meant something that after all this time the pull was strengthening.
In case you somehow missed the mountain of press this album received upon release, here’s a quick rundown of what blew people away and still rings true: Ride’s disaffected flow on “Get Got” causes the distorted dial tone he’s rapping over, which is sampled from a song from Western Sahara, where music is illegal, to literally glitch out (“Wit a pair of crow skel/eton wings”); “Punk Weight” pitch-shifts another sample of music from a Saharan cell phone into a pixelated horror show before Ride dares someone way tougher than any of his listeners to fight him; “Bitch Please” successfully deploys the words “Quasar,” “droze,” and “Templar,” over synthesizers replicating steel drums; “Hacker” has a hook that sounds like Ride’s soul is being sucked into Internet purgatory (“Everybody’s like ‘Noooooo!’”). These details accumulate into a perfect balance of raw natural energy (Ride’s vocal delivery, Hill’s drumming) and synthetically replicated textures (Ride’s lyrical content, Morin’s production) that produces a sum-total effect on the listeners’ nerve endings that mirrors the fight that has defined that last decade of Western society between individuals and the powerful digital systems that run our world.
These digital systems are rooted deeper in our culture than the mere products which represent the desires of Facebook and Google executives. In fact they are so deeply embedded that they seem to be dictating our behavior from a metaphysical distance. It’s best described as a switch from the Internet controlling us to a collective decision to act out the Internet’s interests despite them being destructive to humanity. So if we are aware of how awful the Internet is for humanity, why do we continue to act in its interest and not our own? We do it not because “they” are controlling us, and not because Skynet is forming before our eyes, but because we have been so conditioned to do the Internet’s bidding that our interests have been internally replaced by the Internet’s to the point that we now believe them to be our own. The desires that govern our lives are now a psychically shared product of the Internet that has been adopted and fully assimilated into our culture such that we are doing the Internet’s bidding and don’t even know it. We have finally turned ourselves into cyborgs.
This digitally-bred collective consciousness is best explained by the “discipline” (Discipline) of the Foucaultian Panopticon. From the chapter “Panopticism,” in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the end result of this Discipline is “a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state.” Writing in 1975, Foucault is referring to a nineteenth-century revision in the design of prisons to be a single guard tower surrounded by a circularly tiered arrangement of prison cells (a Panopticon). The goal of these buildings is “to procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude,” and this architectural concept has since spread from prisons to the workplace, schools, and hospitals. The Discipline is the residual effect of these designs on the buildings’ inhabitants, which is that the inhabitants act and think as if they are constantly under surveillance until the rules imposed by the prison are woven into the behavior of the prisoners and they conform without force or temptation from the guards. This effect has permeated beyond architecture into the underlying fabric of Western society to the point that every waking moment takes place in an endlessly nested series of Panopticons.
As astute and prescient as this observation is, Foucault could never have anticipated that scale models of these buildings would be crammed into our pockets to allow every individual to double as both the observing guard and the observed prisoner to help constitute “the circuits of communications [that] are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge. . . We are neither in the amphitheater, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism.” That the result of the Panopticon’s surveillance is a powerful network to gather and accumulate information, and that the use of this information to pursue knowledge and truth is the ultimate excuse for those in power to abuse their power, is perhaps Foucault’s most lasting insight. Consider that the current mainstream Internet is the result of those in power who dangling the carrot of infinite information in order to discipline us into thinking we can spend hours staring at screens and still be free as long as we are consuming the proper aesthetic of accumulated knowledge, all while normalizing the feeling that it’s absolutely vital to stare at a screen.
For those of us that this holds true, we belong to the cultural phenomenon of an Internet-fueled collapse of thought and action into one unconscious solitary stroll and scroll through life. It is a sinister intention of the Discipline to get us to believe our isolation is rebellion because “. . . it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.” In the face of a corrupt or repulsive society, many of us feel motivated to withdraw into digital worlds that better constitute an exact makeup of our individual desires and tastes in response to a mainstream society that cannot or will not fulfill us. Resistance to such a society is necessary, but the Discipline has purposefully tricked us into believing that isolated individual Internet consumption is a legitimate form of resistance when this is actually the exact step the Discipline wants us to take. Remember, the Discipline’s intentions are “to procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude,” or in other words, to create a system where an individual is culturally, financially, and emotionally incentivized to seek time alone consuming ideas and perpetuating memes into a circular feedback loop that constitutes an abstract repository and authority of all knowledge and information. The problem isn’t that the Internet actually does hold the largest ever accumulation of knowledge and information in history; it’s that we believe the consumption of such knowledge is a sufficient replacement for freedom and resistance regardless of the state of our lives outside of the Internet because the physical act of staring at a screen, regardless of its content, feels better than enacting any ideas of freedom that can be found on a screen. So we live hooked up to a constant false promise of enlightenment while tolerating the erosions of our physical and political freedoms, and we will do so willingly as long as our screens feel satisfying to look at. We are so controlled by the Discipline that we are doing what it wants us to do while we believe we are resisting its influence.
This is the ultimate effect of The Money Store, and this is why it is the logical musical conclusion of a society gripped by the Discipline: in all aspects it communicates that the most subliminal, pervasive, taken-for-granted, controlling, and surveilling force in our lives is also the perfect platform for distributing cutting-edge ideas of freedom at almost no cost to the global population in order to level the playing field once and for all. The genius of the album is that it realized its existence and distribution would be impossible without the Panoptic machine, and thus the only people who would hear it’s message of “pushing past everything that makes people slaves without even knowing it” were exactly the ones who needed it: those of us who have been driven farthest into isolation by the Discipline and, consequently, been duped by it into listening to the album repeatedly in said isolation while doing nothing else despite believing that its ideas of freedom and higher consciousness are working on us. The truth is that the only people who spend enough time on the Internet to find this album are the ones who are most controlled by the Discipline, and anyone who is that online is not free no matter what they are reading or watching or listening to because any benefits of such content have been superseded by the controlling effects of its mode of delivery. Put another way, there’s not much time to be free if you’re too busy to get off the computer.
If this is all coming across as trivially as “don’t think, act,” or “go outside,” I must concede it’s really not that far off. But to be more precise, my point is that there is a large Discipline acting on us that is making us believe that thinking and knowing are enough and that action is unnecessary. In other words, the very fact that a statement like “go outside” sounds potentially insane or banal or cliche is bad ***ing news. The appearance of an album like The Money Store, one which sonically embodies and warns against this exact ideological shift while also existing in a space and a medium such that it lands directly in the laps of those who need to hear it most, is a truly remarkable phenomenon. I say all of this having been in the throes of said phenomenon for a decade. Hell, I’m writing this essay to be distributed to you across the Internet, without which it would never reach you. When The Money Store was released I was 16, listening to it through headphones in the back seat of my parents’ car on long drives instead of talking to them. I would hide in the album on endless weekends on the Internet in my bed, waiting for a time when I could move on to a different place and social circle that I felt I belonged to. My point is not only that I felt isolation was a viable course of action, but also that I would have been one of the least likely candidates to discover The Money Store if I wasn’t so addicted to the Internet. This addiction is a prerequisite for both finding and appreciating the album because it is about freeing yourself from said addiction. This phenomenon of Internet-addicted individuals stagnantly listening to an album about quitting exactly what they’re doing is what creates an artistic embodiment of “masochism by information," a feeling Death Grips correctly identified in our society a decade ago that has since evolved into a new beast I’ll call meta-masochism, or awareness without action. It is the awareness of the aforementioned Discipline, and it is what has led us to be perversely over-educated on the exact evils of our society and continue to walk headlong into them as if we were ignorant.
Ten years later, this phenomenon is everywhere once you know it exists. Here is a Geico ad (see comments for links) where a couple’s apartment is the set of a talk show while they and their friends express clear fatigue and discomfort with their surveillance. On the flip side, here is Nathan Fielder de- and reconstructing talk show anecdotes on a talk show at a painful level of self-awareness, all while managing to entertain both the talk show audience and the Nathan For You audience. Here is Jim Carrey, an icon of icons, star of the ***ing Truman Show, on a literal red carpet sincerely renouncing the ideas of iconoclasm, free will, and meaning. Here is an anchor on the sports betting show Diamond Bets whose office backdrop features both Infinite Jest and The Pale King, two novels which deal with the tantalizing yet paralyzing effects of modern comfort, stardom, and entertainment, as well as the alienating effects of societies built on increasingly digitized and abstracted transactions of data and currency. Infinite Jest in particular explores these ideas as they relate to hyper-competitive sports. So seeing these books in this context is like seeing a “Guns Do Kill People” poster at an NRA convention during a how-to presentation on 3D-printing AR-15s without hearing a peep out of the audience about said poster. But with the exception of Geico, this isn’t an insult on the strength or willpower of any of these individuals, although I suspect the workers at Geico who churned out that commercial were stuck in the all-too-common willpower-crushing corporate chain of command and hated what they were doing. But this is exactly my point: they had to do it anyway, and instead of all of our knowledge and awareness breaking us free of such drudgery, all it does is put us through more self-torture because we have been led to falsely believe that action is unnecessary as long as we have enough information. Even if fighting back is a literally Sisyphean task, the pain of working towards freedom and self-actualization is better than the pain of sedentary awareness, even if the freedom is never achieved. The awareness alone does nothing but cause more pain, and without action, even pointless action, there is no remedy for it.
Furthermore: we now have a corporate Metaverse spawned from the literary Metaverse of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (we also have, slightly more benignly, derived Snowcrash the company from Snow Crash the titular drug). It takes an impressive amount of hubris to reference the origins of the Metaverse and still create a corporate-sanctioned realm that pushes us further into the depths of simulacrum and viral dissemination of information, which, it goes without saying, we still haven’t found a way to handle as a species. Many (including Stephenson) would argue that language and religion themselves are age-old examples of such viral phenomenon, and while I agree, the point here is not that this is a novel concept, but that we’re actively pushing new informational viruses on ourselves despite being acutely aware of how horrifically they wreak havoc on our species. Whether it’s stupidity or malice that’s driving this decision is immaterial; the fact remains that somebody at the Company Formerly Known as Facebook read Snow Crash and wanted to make a Metaverse that was not a community-built venue to push the boundaries of human freedom and expression, but is instead a giant digital corporate boardroom used to harvest even more personal data from suburbanites too domesticated to care about their privacy. Snow Crash reached the exact people who, evidently, needed to hear its message most, and it did nothing to stop them. At what point could we have ever claimed to be so up to date on counterculture that there is a seamless coexistence between it and the mainstream? Are the inmates running the asylum? Or is it that the Discipline is pushing us further in this direction while deceiving us into thinking that as long as we feel the pain of knowing we’re evil then our actions are excusable?
And finally: there is a forthcoming movie adaptation of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a novel so blatantly anti-mass media, anti-consumerism, and anti-technology (“Jack, you’re the only one I know who’s educated enough to tell me. . . were people this stupid before television?”) that I simply cannot wrap my head around anyone reading the book and wanting to cinematize it for a streaming service. My only guess, besides the likely answer that it’s just another studio gobbling up any book they can get their hands on and rolling the dice on profitability, is that the producers thought that Netflix was, by definition, the perfect medium to broadcast a movie with an anti-streaming message. In other words, the readers of this book (and likely the eventual viewers of the movie) have been enveloped by the same aura that Murray observes when (Jack) Gladney takes him to “The Most Photographed Barn in America,” an aura that we cannot escape and are actively contributing to that replaces everything real in this world. This aura has turned into the Discipline, and now White Noise itself has become a part of it. Instead of believing that viewership and photography creates reality (not that it ever did), we now believe that the endless feedback loop of consumption and awareness creates freedom. What’s terrifying is that we seem to believe this on both sides, and if Netflix does in fact believe that a film about this idea will free those enslaved by their services, they’re wrong; it will only further disguise the loop and further solidify the effects of the Discipline.
Which sounds a lot like the album of this occasion. But it begs an interesting question: if the culture war The Money Store tried to warn us about has only gotten worse despite the lasting presence of the album, does that mean it failed? The answer lies in this video of jpegmafia saying Death Grips fans are worse than the Alt-Right. His point, unsurprisingly, careens over the heads of the entire comment section full of Death Grips fans (whether they’re trolling or not is irrelevant; mockery is a reaction to ignorance), so I’m going to spell it out here: Animal Collective and Real Estate are less distinguishable in every imaginable dimension than Death Grips and jpegmafia and yet Death Grips fans, jokingly or not, consistently draw unfair and racist comparisons between the two. If that idea sounds ludicrous to you because two black men making forward-thinking rap music need nothing more in order to be mistaken for each other (and two bands of college-adjacent white guys making “indie” music do not), then, despite what you may think, you are completely controlled by the Discipline. That this point is blasphemous to most Death Grips fans is exacting proof that the album was birthed by the same Discipline of Internet-delivered psuedo-freedom that these fans themselves came of age in, and although there were times in my life when this criticism of Death Grips fans may have been lost on me, it is not now. But what I’ve learned after ten years is that it is not a failure of The Money Store that people still listen to the album and act this way. It is a failure of us. If you can still hear The Money Store after all this time, there is something valuable in you that it is trying to awaken in the face of an omnipotent machine. Do not ignore it, especially if it hurts.