Sonic Futurism
Essays Culture Music

Sonic Futurism

Benjamin Roberts

The Impact of Sino-pop, K-pop, and Universal Pop Music

Pop music is everywhere. Its omnipresence is taken for granted, blaring incessantly from storefronts and cellphones. As capital’s sonic handmaiden, pop obliterates particularist traditions, cordoning off their pasts and futures. Different cultures produce their own pop, but the gaudy sets, aesthetic palettes, sexual magnetism, and rhythmic hypnotics are all the same.

For China, pop is nothing more than a hedonic trifle and nothing less than liberalism’s speartip. As China charts an illiberal, anti-capitalist path to global power, it must wrestle against pop universalism’s cultural containment. How can liberalism’s pop hegemony be replaced instead of mimicked? For would-be illiberals, it is necessary to construct a pop without capitalism, a pop tethered to place, and a pop capable of development.

Early in Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher describes capital’s deterritorializing power as the “conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, [where] the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” This is evident across pop-space: from K-pop’s token flashes of Korean traditional dress to pop-country’s tractor fetishization. Place is reduced to a set of superficial signifiers, deployed as placating winks to the cultures they replace. Local musical and expressive traditions are obstacles to penetration of the collective psyche, so they are sublimated into music video trinkets.

Pop’s global, cyberspatial addiction imperative demands deterritorialization. In destroying cultures and communities of place, “pop is experienced not as something which could have impacts upon public space, but as a retreat into private ‘OedIpod’ consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.” At scale, the result is a worldwide network of consumer-addicts. Pop functions both as aural escapism and Xanax.

In this way, pop manages to change everything and nothing. This artistic stagnation is alienating, so depersonalizing that the self begs to be connected in any way. Pop is more than happy to provide, plugging grateful consumer-addicts into its world-thumping kaleidoscopic pastiche. Acting as neon sex and a numbing agent—anytime and anywhere—Fisher considers pop to be “cyperspatial capital [which] operates by addicting its users.” Korea is an unabashed champion of pop, Russia fell to it, and China continues to do battle with it. No one has fought pop and survived for long.

“Star System” Supernovas

K-pop idols are manufactured and marketed by megacorporations. Groups are tinkered with under the “star system,” a corporate manufacturing process designed to cultivate pop sensations. New bands are “released” as products after each member is trained, shaped, and refined by the star system. Unsurprisingly, this hyper-commodified cruelty is popular among a certain breed of young liberal. Its superficially subversive androgyny and infinite customizability is a perfect platform for vicarious expression. K-pop represents the ultimate logic of capital stripped bare: a panoply of specially curated, focus grouped sono-slaves, offering a facsimile of connection and drama sorely lacking from this short and dull century.

Anglo-pop functions, for all intents and purposes, just like the star system. American idols are draped in self-starter regalia, but a cadre of record labels and Hollywood kingmakers decide each decade’s stars. Hand-wringing about abuse and exploitation are swept aside and forgotten in the wake of each overdose and crack-up, each generation’s idols bush-burned to make way for the next.

The star system’s death toll is high, and South Korea’s suicide rates are the world’s fourth highest. Each celebrity suicide triggers a wave of copycats, spreading throughout the public like a virus. Most stars in training are housed in dormitories, separated from their families and constantly immersed in the idol manufacturing process. They train for years in hopes of being assigned to a successful band and enjoying all the fame and glory of a popular “release.” Leaping from dormitory isolation to 24/7 tabloid surveillance, fan obsession, and ruthless criticism is too much for many idols to handle. One way or another, stars are eventually written off, or write themselves off, as “damaged goods.” In this sense K-pop functions as capital in miniature, cyclically clearing out wealth in spectacular crashes to make way for new investments and modes of exploitation.

There is an underlying understanding that contemporary pop creates in society what it contains in its songs. However, the liberal regime is so powerful that there are little to no examples from the past of victory against pop.

To Preserve and to Create

The Soviet Union was conscious of music’s utility and danger. The Party regulated expression accordingly. The first era of Soviet music followed industrialization and the accompanying rhetorical annihilation of class and sect difference. No longer did narodnyi (folk) apply to an agrarian and medieval peasantry. Rather, it came to mean people, and so the peasant musical tradition was approved for state revivification. Patriotic music hailing the virtues of Russian socialism thus became the basis for a new “popular” music, capable of commanding total national engagement. Folkloric Soviet pop developed and dismantled its serf inheritance in equal measure. Themes of Christian spiritualism, individualism, and vestigial paganism were done away with. Folk music was reconstituted as the collective expression of the laborer, and socialist composers applied new stories to ancient rhythms. The mission of folk pop was “to preserve [sohkraniat] and to create [sozdat],” to articulate the infantile righteousness of presocialist Russia and develop its culture in preparation for collectivist utopia.

Soviet pop eventually developed into a folk-classical synthesis, though the differences between the two traditions resulted in significant production difficulties. As the Soviet Union opened and weakened, Anglo-European pop grew in influence. In response, the Party developed Vocal-Instrumental Ensembles (VIAs), which imitated Western pop’s style but replaced their narratives with Soviet triumphalism. This attempt at sublimation failed. Folk’s telos is community and continuation, and pop’s telos is atomization and addiction. This is part of why pop is able to achieve universal status—it makes no appeals, no arguments. Pop was never bound to a particular time or place as it is nothing more than the pleasure it provides, ritualistically repeated, indefinitely. Pop’s capitalist connection to base impulse, its addiction imperative, unraveled Sovietism’s musical defenses. Ultimately, in conjunction with the USSR’s failing economy and corrupt elite, pop cracked open Soviet culture. China’s soft power today is contained in a similar way.

Sinopop and Sinofuturism

China understands pop’s power as well as the Soviets did. Under Mao, Chinese popular music was denounced as obscenity—hopeless in its vulgarity. Odes to revolution took Sinopop’s place until Dengism arrived. Deng’s opening, unlike the Soviets’, introduced enough pop, with enough restrictions, to vaccinate the country against its thumping magnetism. Censorship has been successful thus far. The challenge and triumph of the Xi Jinping era, though, is to turn China outward on the world. As its leading scholars and tastemakers explore new syncretisms by which to fully enter and tame modernity, they wrestle with pop power.

Amid Korean trade disputes, China banned K-pop for several years, and continues to police its domestic reflections. 88rising’s Higher Brothers, a Chinese group, typify Anglo-Pacific pop’s homogenizing danger. Their lyrics often center around China’s place in the world, “Made in China,” or its urban touchstones, “7/11,” but only through the echoes of Anglophone art—the aesthetic is the same as American hip-hop and the content is equally licentious. The Party censors pop, rap, and hip-hop’s deleterious themes, but this is a purely defensive act. In an era of Chinese optimism and aggression, they have no pop offense. Revolutionary anthems and paens to patrimonies are excellent for unifying and stabilizing one’s own country. However, they have no scalability, nor any hope of going global. China’s new wealth and international interconnectedness makes them more vulnerable to pop infiltration. As this risk has heightened, the Party has taken steps to drive a wedge between expatriates and citizens, even warning women of handsome foreign spies.

Contrast this aesthetic weakness with China’s expanding sphere of influence. With One Belt One Road and its associated projects, China is building global power out of illiberalism and infrastructure. However, its power projection is mostly material and, as such, comes in places of aesthetic weakness where local art and tradition is left deveined and bloodless by Anglo-Pacific pop-power—mostly landlocked Eurasia. People ride Chinese rail and listen to Korean music. No one in Almaty dances to Sinopop. In its state of aesthetic disempowerment, China is a tellurocracy penetrating other tellurocracies, and liberalism is halting its march across the sea. Encompassed by an Anglo-Pacific cultural milieu that threatens to contain China’s dreams of Sinocentrism, or at least multipolarity, China’s only options at present are quarantine and subsumption. They neutralize hallyu’s seraphic allure by banning or imitating it, with Sinopop functioning the same as Soviet VIAs. Currently, it’s just as impotent.

Pop Poltergeists

When Sinopop and the Higher Brothers depart from mainstream materialism, they appear most similar to vaporwave—which is itself an Orientalist reimagining of the 1980s kawaii-hallyu vision of the future. As Fisher describes, vaporwave is a hauntological commentary on pop modernity’s “inability to make new memories.” It is a spectrophilic attempt to trace exactly what this inability feels like. Vaporwave’s past future is the ecumenopolis, the world-city. Towers are clad in Blade Runner’s Sony girls, and globalization’s New Babel swirls and drowns in hallyu’s cybernetic distinctiveness.

That this feared and promised aesthetic is reproduced memetically as a never-born object of nostalgia, reflects the utter anesthetization of what happened instead: the numbing drowsiness of pop’s abject sameness. On the surface, the ecumenopolis seems similar to the present. However, the former at least permitted sadness: allowing for off-world cataclysms or transhuman tragedy. Pop cannot comprehend the past or future, nor can it tolerate melancholia, and accordingly rushes to fill the void with a pleasurable enough present. The prophesized dystopia is now fantastical escapism, a sublime dreamworld of past futures. This mode of aesthetic “exit” is emblematic of what cyberspace makes possible.

Present Futures

Cyberspace operates in a state of perpetual contradiction: it is intrinsically universal. Everything is connected, all the time, with no chance to opt out. In this way, it generates conformity. However, operating under this universalism are what Fisher calls “new discourse networks,” the constellation of blogs, Twitter micro-influencers, and forums where subcultures emerge, expand, splinter, and die. This has no parallel in the “real world,” where pop dominates mass consciousness—but cyberspace’s infinitude and anonymity allows for much more heterogeneity than the “real world.” There’s plenty of illiberal dreaming in the internet archipelago, but, without venturing into the “real world” to replace pop and the socioeconomic edifice that nurtures it, these dreams will remain just that.

Attempting to slyly distribute illiberal messaging via pop hedonia’s framework is impossible. As an extension of capital, pop is “profoundly illiterate.” What it says is much less powerful than what it shows. Pop’s rhythm, beats, and visuals are all integral to its influence. Modernity is above all an age of aesthetics, and a pop replacement will have to communicate along these lines, convincing without argument—persuading by aural and optical experience.

It doesn’t matter how many elections you win or how many appointments you make. Neither reaction nor true radicalism will ever be possible as long as Ariana Grande and Sam Smith are on the radio. Though there is no return to Eden, reactionary reterritorialization may be the only thing capable of slipping past pop’s end of history music and restarting the future. A music for a people, like Soviet pop, with a state that can sustain itself, like China, should be the model for illiberal dreamers. Only pop and opium are made the same for everyone.

In a world beholden to pop introjection, any illiberalism’s future lies in replacement. In a world where liberalism has marched through the institutions, mass exit, a collective pulling up of drawbridges, can only be a respite from its relentless pursuit. Capital’s ability to release pressure from a thousand microcultural valves is extraordinarily effective at dampening upheaval. However, as the liberal world order continues its visible decay, ravaged by populism, pandemic, and pandemonium, opportunities for direct political impact will increase. Neither Sinocentrism, Western illiberalism, or any other attempt at substantial political change will succeed where Sovietism failed until pop, liberalism’s sonic avatar, is replaced or dismembered.

Benjamin Roberts is an NYU Abu Dhabi undergraduate interning for the Wallace Institute. He has written previously for The Daily Caller, the Oxford Political Review, and others. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.