Last November, Jerry Paper played his set at the Center for Digital Arts in Brattleboro, VT, wearing nothing but a pink satin robe and grey socks, bunched at the ankles. This was, apparently, not atypical. Before the show, I’d familiarized myself with the work of Jerry Paper, whose ‘host body’s’ name is Lucan Nathan, by reading his feature with The FADER, where he discusses his typical show attire, as well as his attraction to pre-linguistic sensory experiences, both in musical and religious settings.
During the set, Paper moved in ways I’d never seen anyone move. It was oddly seductive, the way he belted into his microphone, the farting and belching sounds he made between songs. Oftentimes, he’d crouch low to the ground, as though he were attempting to hide underneath his synthesizer, while also stomping his feet in alternate wide-legged strides.
In the other room, through a Christmas-lit doorframe, a set of iMacs displayed Jerry Paper’s new video game, which accompanied his latest album, Big Pop for Chameleon World. Nathan, in addition to being a musician, designs digital worlds in which he is the main character, pottering through his own dreamscapes. I’d been standing over the shoulder of my friend Julia, who was seated at one of the computers, when she pronounced, “I’m about to score some MDMA.” The digital version of Paper stood at the bar in a mostly empty nightclub. Julia hit the T-key on the keyboard, which prompted the digital Paper to give some of his virtual coins to the bartender in exchange for ecstasy. Immediately, the club began to quake and all we could see was the back of Paper’s head as his brain began to suffer the effects of the virtual MDMA. Julia hit a slew of keys, trying to get the shaking to stop. “I wish I hadn’t done that,” she said, sighing. On screen, in fancy print, appeared the words: I DON’T THINK THAT MDMA WAS PURE.
Jerry Paper’s set came as a relief seeing as I had spent the last half-hour trying to force myself to enjoy the opening band, whose conceptual drivings had almost certainly overshadowed the consideration of musical craft. A tall skinny boy with long black hair had sung into the microphone the way one sings into a comb while pretending to be a rockstar in front of the mirror, at home, alone. He used his other hand to make wild gestures above his head, arm outstretched, fingers reaching for the stars. He sang in a mostly broken and frantic falsetto while twirling his lean body around the carpeted stage. Occasionally, he knocked knees with the people sitting in the first row. This did not faze him. “Everybody wants to be somebody upstairs,” he crooned, over and over, during one particularly heartfelt song, whose background track played on his iPod and which he sang over. After each song, the iPod would immediately begin to play the next track and the boy would rush to it, pause the music in order to consider which song he wanted to play next, and then press play. Throughout all of this, a sea-themed screensaver projection colored the stage, the boy, his iPod.
When he was done, the audience screamed for more. This both baffled me or did not baffle me at all. While I’d found the music itself intolerable, there was something about the performer’s abandon, the bright reverb-laden tracks, and the porpoise projections that seemed important. I was skeptical of this sentiment then and still am, but I can’t shake the feeling. In the middle of his set, I turned to another friend, who was seated to my left. “Maggie,” I said, in the quiet between songs. She turned to face me and I stared at her for a moment before whispering, “What is happening here?” She laughed, but I stared on. I gestured toward the Christmas lights, the metal folding-chairs, the dorm-style lamps, the eroding carpet. “This all feels so familiar. What is happening to us?” She shrugged, but not before nodding in agreement.
There is a sound I hear all the time now, in the music that surrounds me. Or rather, it is a type of sound that I can only describe by listing the things it reminds me of. It sounds like nostalgia for the future, like robots at the beach, like the darkest depression and the brightest cheer you’ve ever felt. It sounds like carefree but not because I don’t care but because I can’t care. Like, these are the times we’re in, the world is ending, we have no future but I promise I’m having fun.
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But it’s not just a sound. On the last day of the Hudson Music Project, which featured headliners like Flying Lotus, SZA, and Kendrick Lamar, I witnessed a woman sporting an oversized t-shirt with a picture on it of one of the baby Olsen twins – I couldn’t tell which – and the caption: COCAINE. I had the same feeling I had watching the boy squealing against the beach background in that tiny room. This isn’t just funny, I thought. This means something. But what? What is happening to us?
The last day of the festival was canceled due to a thunderstorm. This severely disturbed the droves of Bassnectar fans who’d trekked to Saugerties, NY from god-knows-where. I suspect I will never again in this lifetime see as many Bassnectar tattoos as I did that weekend. As I wearily packed up my tent, I heard a man making rounds through the campgrounds. “Horny and high!” he exclaimed, apparently offering last-minute copulation services, as though to counteract the general low morale that had taken over the festival-goers.
I carry a reel of these events – these images, strange encounters, strange sounds – in my mind, as I try to connect the dots. I think of how sad Jerry Paper looked but also how luminous. When I try to answer my own question about what is happening to us, I come to this: We are trying to improvise small paradises in a landscape of doom. This is, no doubt, heavy-handed – but if every era dreams of what the next era will be, and tries to manifest that dream in everyday life, here in the present, then it is clear that our dream of the next era isn’t a very good dream. In fact, it’s a nightmare. The future, if there is a future, is disjunctive, incoherent, figuratively drug-addled, melancholic. The future has been canceled due to a thunderstorm.
In the 1974 film Space is the Place, when Sun Ra speaks of shuttling the black race into space, it was because he could conceive of no future for the race on the planet Earth. We don’t talk about transcending space and time, generally speaking, unless we feel doomed – headed for some fate we should like to avoid. So we improvise new futures. That’s what the porpoise projections were doing. That’s what Nathan’s kimono was doing. Opening a portal, by way of transcendence, to a vision of ecstasy.
But what have we transcended, if anything, and how? It’s worth noting that the voices I hear are markedly plainspoken. A day or two before Jerry Paper’s show, at a house concert in a basement in Hadley, MA, I was struck by one particular lyric I heard, for its sincerity. The guitarist sang, “When I was a kid, I fell down,” as he played, with remarkable skill, music in a world somewhere between Daniel Rossen and classical guitarist John Williams. This set was preceded, somewhat inexplicably, by a reading from Finnegan’s Wake from a man in tall hiking books and was succeeded by a death metal outfit whose lead singer yelled into a microphone made out of bone. There were Christmas lights there, too.
If the future isn’t a viable option, then all we have is right now, which means we have no choice but to make all the mundane things feel more special than they really are. What the boy who sang along with iPod lacked in musical talent, he made up for in heart; and if there was a time when all these strangenesses were merely chicaneries, that time is over. I don’t say this because I particularly care for displays of inappropriate lighting or equally inappropriate readings of James Joyce, but rather because I am perhaps sick with the same ailment I see afflicting those around me. I’m not standing up for anything in particular, but I’m also standing up for it all. I will fight for the future of this planet until I die or it dies, but I’ve also already given up. Throughout my days, I sometimes lose bodily awareness, not because I’m lost in thought but because I’m lost in observing what is around me. How beautiful and entirely absurd it is. How uneventful and awe-inspiring. I feel more and more like a child. I feel more and more like I am in mourning for a death that hasn’t happened yet.