THE PSYCHEDELIC TECH-DYSTOPIA OF TRAVIS SCOTT AND GOOGLE

18 AUGUST 2021



Travis Scott’s 2018 album

ASTROWORLD

is, most of all, an exercise in aesthetics. The record, like the artist’s 2015

Rodeo

is characterised by the atmospheric psychedelia he popularised and is now mass-produced. Reverbs, echoes, disorienting cuts and textures are paired with layered vocals, creating a hazy, space and time bending ambiance in the nearly one hour long album.

Aesthetically, it mimics sonic forms of the 1960s and 1970s, forms we might expect to hear on a Pink Floyd, Hendrix or Doors album. The backdrop to

ASTROWORLD

however is not that of consciousness-expanding psychedelic experimentation and welfare states of the 60s and 70s, but cyberspace-induced nausea, and austerity politics, endured only by pharmaceuticals. Replacing the

LSD

induced space and time distortion, are the effects of cyberspace on neurology, a comfortingly disturbing information flow. The cybernetic facets of 21st century technology are a crucial component of

ASTROWORLD

’s aestheticism. Through the use of autotune, blurring the distinction between human and machine, Travis mirrors the relationship with portable tech apparatuses and their increased blending with the human body. A perhaps unintended, but fitting theological response to these conditions is expressed on the song ‘

SKELETONS

’: ‘Took a church visit, you know, 'cause the world hectic’, voicing cravings for a break from the demands of the 24/7 tech-dystopia. (Of course, the content of the lyrics do not matter much, as they are mostly placeholders in postmodern culture.)


With the original 1960s and 70s contexts long passed, but their aesthetic qualities preserved, a strange split occurs. Berardi’s phrase “the slow cancellation of the future” expresses these conditions clearly. Artists working today, for either cultural or material reasons, are unable to innovate, returning to the sounds of the past. Culturally this is the result of the saturation of the present with the past (nostalgia), while materially the removal of any support structure for young people in the arts.

ASTROWORLD 

thus exemplifies cultural products of the postmodern capitalist era. Devoid of ideology and reduced to aesthetics, the album returns to the past, as the present is undesirable, or rather intentionally “cancelled”.

In a similar exposition of contemporary technology and experiences, Google’s 2021 ‘It Starts with Summer’ advert illustrates the absurdity of brand communication in present day capitalism. The two minute advert was often played before videos on YouTube in 10-15 second edited versions. It consists of the Google search bar with questions being typed, over video footage of thematically relevant scenes. The advert however, if analysed outside its intended, cyber-haze context, contains revealing reflections on both contemporary communication and the corporation’s politics. Questions typed into the search bar in the advert range from mildly bizarre: ‘things to do outside’, ‘how to talk to people’ ‘how to be the best dad’, ‘how to remember dad’, ‘can we hug now’; to outright existential: ‘how to be happy’. The questions carry an aura of confusion and coldness about human activities, almost as if an AI is enquiring how to be human, or vice-versa, here too portraying the blending of cybernetics and human bodies. Its eeriness arises from the familiarity of the situation, that of Googling how to be happy and finding meaning, an outsourcing of human experience and curiosity to a tech corporation. The shared familiarity of the decimation of meaning precisely by the apparatuses through which then we return to

seeking meaning

is a disturbing image. The uncanny aspects of machine learning and data collection for exploiting anxieties and desires surrounding such questions only complicates these relationships further. As a communication of Google’s brand, such messaging displayed ubiquitously is perplexing – surely challenging emotions and existential dread isn’t the best way to promote sales, and the overtly positive tone of tech-giants still generates more profit. Contrary to this though, as with lyrics in music, the messaging does not matter much. Google’s, or any established corporation’s adverts are not about their contents. Similarly to

ASTROWORLD

, the Google ad as a cultural product, is merely a sign – in the former case for psychedelic music, and in the latter for Google itself. The message of the advert could be nearly anything, vaguely sounding resonant to current times but carrying no substance. The aim of it is not to convey why a product is useful as before the popularisation of the

PR

practices of Edward Bernays, nor to show why it’s desirable for spectacular consumption, but of as a postmodern sign, to reminds us “we’re Google, we’re still here.”

Both

ASTROWORLD

and ‘It Starts with Summer’ are cultural products that show what 40 years of capitalist negation to public and private lives achieved.

ASTROWORLD

is a metaphor for emerging art, while Google a metaphor for corporatism, both devoid of substance and clouded by the cyber-haze that is their backdrop or primary facilitator. Welcome to dystopia.




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