Let it Die! Let it Die!

(Depression, Lo-Fi Music, and the Slowing of our Cultural Time)

by Morgan Noll

This past winter I went into a tumbling depression. Everything in my life was going well, on paper. I was in a top drama school in the UK, I was set to be married in February, I had a cheaper flat in the SE, I was writing a show with my partner, I even had a job I didn’t hate. Yet I still could not shake the big black dog. To feel this way when you have so much, can make you feel incredibly selfish and stupid. Many people who struggle with the same mental illness also experience that sense of guilt which starts a negative feedback loop, continuing to nourish your ever-growing numbness to life. As I struggled, I tried to figure out what it was that could possibly be bothering me. I could not name what it was that was making me feel this way. There was just this great sense of…nothingness. 

“To be alive in the 21st century is to experience 20th century culture in high definition and through high speed internet”Mark Fisher 

I heard this quote for the first time while listening to a ‘lo-fi chill hop mix to sleep and study to’ playlist while in one of these more depressive states. I was watching his lecture in one tab and blasting these chill beats in the other. (A practice I feel a lot of people can relate to in this fast-paced over-stimulated world). When I heard this perfect sentence tumble out of Fisher’s mouth, I felt chill go through me. A light switched on. Finally, it seemed, something was clicking. Fisher had started to pull at the roots of what this malaise was at its core. that something in me, or around me was missing and for the first time, I could pinpoint the cause. 

As the lo-fi played in the background, I remembered the lyrics to my favourite Talking Heads song, “same as it ever was, same as it ever was”. 

If you’re not familiar, lo-fi is a style of music making that emulates low production styles. Often the beats feature crackles, record skips, and noise grain as a part of the music, the purpose of which is to evoke a more “authentic” and simpler sound, reminiscent of a time period long gone or in some cases, of a time period that never was. The play counts on these beats are massive, often in the tens of millions. I had been working for some time on a project investigating the genre and what I noticed time and time again was this constant need to be perceived as “old”. VHS lines, time stamps from ancient camcorders, samples from 50s songs or old 90s movies (However, of course, all of these were digitally produced with state-of-the-art digital software more than capable of “cleaning up” these sounds). These little stylistic tics add a flair of floatiness to the tracks, an anachronistic mashup of old and new that seems to flow across space and time. The appeal is understandable, perhaps not even consciously. I used to listen to the genre as a means to calm down after work. It’s not really something that demands my attention and it was the perfect backdrop to any hangout where all I wanted to do was be in the same room as someone while we both scrolled through Twitter. 

However, much like the older hardware of music this genre wants to evoke, there seems to be a darker B- side to lo-fi. A by-product of this dreaming nowhere feeling seems to be that it evokes (or appeals to) a stubborn depression. Just take a look at the comments section under any of these tracks: 

Lots of lost voices spilling their unresolved feelings, wishes for death, senses of yearning, or laments over a lack of purpose. In fact this phenomenon is so well documented in the comments section for these playlists that the original creator of the chill hop lo-fi beats playlist (the one with the now iconic anime girl studying) released an updated mix in which, half way through, the familiar anime girl breaks down over her books crying and eventually attempts to kill herself with a knife. Afterwards, the screen goes black and white text with information on suicide hotlines appears. To appropriate more lyrics from that Talking Heads song, after I saw this I had to ask “How did we get here!?” Why was this music linked to suicidal emotions? To find out, I returned to Mark Fisher, and listened more to his thoughts on what he calls, “The Slow Cancellation of the Future”. 

I, like many young people, felt stuck. If you asked me “What do you think the future will be like?”. The answer I would normally give you is “we’ll all be dead so it doesn’t matter”. This is a feeling I seemed to share with a number of peers. It’s no secret that there’s a lot on our collective plates right now; the economic bullshittery of late capitalism, the inevitable ecological collapse, the stagnation of wages, and the shrinking availability of affordable housing. It’s a painful time to exist and it doesn’t seem like there is much we can do about it as long as neoliberalism, in it’s current bestial form, reigns supreme and unchallenged. So, I don’t blame anyone who finds all of this a bit too much sometimes. When your future seems like a horizon that is constantly burning up, it’s only natural to want to look backwards as a long, organized, and structured span of history. If looking forward is a pathway to flames and famine, then the past can be a safe haven. However, I think the problem with this extreme safe-havening is that the past begins to eat the future. It gorges until a future is no longer a conceivable horizon outside of this ever-present and dolled-up corpse of the past. 

We seem to be living in an age in which culturally, nothing can truly ever just fucking die. Take a look at the last 20 releases of films. Count how many are reboots, reimaginings, or remakes. In 2020, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, and Rage Against the Machine are coming back with tours. Friends, a show that ended in 2004, is still so popular that it is regularly caught in bidding wars between streaming services, and cost Netflix $100million to briefly retain. Speaking of Netflix, Stranger Things, one of its most popular IP’s, is an 80s pastiche that had us all chasing perms and ringer tees 30 years after their sell by date. There is nothing wrong with enjoying these things, I just think we have to responsibly consider, as Fisher suggests, whether we should be so complacent with continuing to treat these media efforts as consumable and acceptable. These things can be both good, and unacceptable. 

The nostalgia machine has dire consequences for our conceptions of cultural time. While our everyday lives are speeding up and our free time is shrinking, our societal time scale is screeching to a dead stop. Have your doubts? Well Fisher posits a simple thought experiment to illustrate this: “If you imagine, beaming back any music from the 21st century into 1994…what would happen if people heard that music? Would they go, ‘My god!…I’ve never heard anything like this!’ I don’t think anyone would do that. I think the reverse would be the case, if you beamed back music from 2014 to 1994 I think people would go ‘Are you serious? This is coming from 20 years in the future!? It doesn’t sound that different from what we’ve got today’”. Fisher then asks if the same could be said for 1994-1974? Or 1974-1954? If I asked you to perform this same analysis for 2010-2020, we’d probably have a hard time with pinpointing specific sounds and only have technological upgrades to name. 

Returning to the music of lo-fi, with its confusing ‘no-time no-place’ aesthetics and its lost in space beats, its ability to evoke a deep existential depression in its listeners now seems clear. In fact, if you go looking for a playlist of ‘futuristic lo-fi’, ( An oxymoron in its own telling right), what you’ll find is a sobering pastiche of retro-futurism and sci-fi synthwave. What we still deem to be “futuristic” music are styles of music that are easily now more than 50 years old. 

What Fisher helped me realize was that what my depression (in part) seemed to be stemming from was this feeling of nothing ever being able to make an impact, change, or truly influence our present moment into a breath of the “new”. Where once young people used to drive cultural whims and experimentation, 2020 seems to be a place where what “trends” is often hand- picked by whichever corporate platform youth culture has been neatly corralled to for that year (Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, TikTok, etc. ). 

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. So what if I can name my depression? Where do we go from here? Doesn’t it feel worse to know we’re living in a time capsule? Well, I actually think finding Mark’s work has proven vital for a renewed (God can I even use that word seriously?) sense of my own agency. For the first time, I feel like I can start to formulate an action plan now that I know a fraction of the enemy. That manifesto is simply: 

Reject the past. Do not go to the film. Break out of that playlist. Romanticize nothing. 

Let time hold us accountable. 

While that may seem extreme (and indeed is a departure from Fisher’s ideas) I’ve found that this small radical action has been a very therapeutic practice for my mental health. While I do sometimes want to go back to the safety blankets that are Nostalgia Lo-Fi playlists with rosy images of Ghibli Films I’ve seen 45 times, I feel this practice for me, does more harm than good. While this small action is in no way a replacement for the very necessary societal and systemic changes that need to take place to get us out of the quagmire that is our past, I find it to be a good first step. When I was in the throes of my depression, sometimes just getting up to shower was enough. Small things can instigate big ideas and I think we can all say, to some degree, that in these times, we are all afflicted with a communal and political depressive impotence. Sometimes fighting back can seem a massive task with no clear place to start. 

I get overwhelmed easily, so when something big stares me in the face, I find myself in a paralysis of passivity. This however, has helped me find a bit more of a fire in me I didn’t know was still left over from the devastation of recent years. So, if you’re feeling a sense of depression that emanates from nowhere and everywhere at once, if you’re feeling like something needs to be done but your sense of autonomy has been drained of its reserves, then perhaps delete your favourite playlist. The one you have downloaded for the tube. Let those 5 songs go. Just for a day maybe, or a week. Perhaps you’ll find too that by refusing to find shelter from the acid rain of the 21st century in the hollowed out VHS sleeve of the past, that the grip of the big black dog may begin to feel a bit weaker. 

And besides, Vinyl is terrible for the environment.

This was a guest contribution from Morgan Noll. Morgan is a 23-year-old theatre-maker, bass player, and internet historian hailing from North America. She is currently completing her Masters in Advanced Theatre Practice at RCSSD specialising in gig and verbatim theatre. Morgan works as a script reader, venue manager, and freelance dramaturg. In her free time, she makes beats on loop stations.