For my 1 Album, I’ve chosen to write about my relationship with the 2015 dance-pop record, “I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler” by Portland-based band, YACHT. This album continues to be an important influence in my recent work as both a visual artist and musician.
In the last year, I’ve spent time contemplating how art can continue to bring people together – even if we cannot occupy the same performance space.
That said, my personal goal is to make critically engaged art that is both accessible and (potentially more importantly) fun. This goal first came into focus when my graduate school advisor assigned me to write an Artist Manifesto in 2012. In my Manifesto, I literally merged pop music with art theory.
I created a video with the karaoke version of Britney Spears’s 1998 hit song, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and overlaid a slideshow video of lyrics I had written, to appear on a black screen and a voiceless, yet familiar instrumental backing track. I called it, “POP MY LANDSCAPE: CRAZY BUT IT FEELS ALRIGHT IN MY REGIONAL AGENCY.” It was absurd, weird, and fun and achieved my goal of creating interesting dissonance, and presenting art theory using the vehicle of pop music.
Going back even further in my life, I’ve come to recognize more and more that my love for contemporary pop music was a sort of personal rebellion to my family life (which recently came to the surface when I was interviewed on the What the Punk?! Podcast).
I grew up in a conservative, Christian home with loving, and hard-working parents. But as a family, we listened to more Gaither Vocal Band, Point of Grace, instrumental hymns, and contemporary Christian music than anything else.
Therefore, my first encounters with synth and beat-heavy pop music happened when listening to the radio with my new friends in fifth grade – and it felt exhilarating. I should mention, my parents are SO supportive of my art and music endeavors and can now sing ALL the lyrics to many of my songs – so it isn’t like they have anything against pop music. In fact, some of my fondest childhood memories are waking up on Saturday mornings to the distinct smell of baking oil when my dad would play Bomboleo by the Gipsy Kings on full volume while making homemade pancakes for my younger brother and me.
And then, for Christmas of 1999 (I was eleven), Santa brought me four new CDs: Britney Spears, “Baby One More Time”, B*Witched, “Awake and Breathe”, Backstreet Boys, “Millennium”, and N*Sync’s self-titled album. I listened to all of these records on repeat at the turn of the Millennium, and I still feel like these albums forged the groundwork for my love of pop music today. Listening to these records felt so new, like the newest, sparkliest music that could possibly be made.
To me, this music felt like the gateway to the future.
It was as if these albums were MADE for the turn of the Millennium year 2000 because the songs and sounds themselves were so futuristic. Big synths, beat drops, and sugary vocals that cut through everything. Britney released “Toxic” in 2003, and that song still, to me, feels like the penultimate pop music of the future.
Granted, at this point, I hadn’t yet discovered Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Giorgio Moroder, or Talking Heads yet – these contextual influences came about while I was in college and frequenting Texas music festivals like ACL, SXSW, and Free Press Summer Fest. Many of the artists and music I gravitated towards at the time (Hot Chip, Cut Copy, Empire of the Sun, Neon Indian, Yeasayer) cited their own artist influences and my music palette continued to expand, along with the increasing ability to find music available on the Internet.
Since writing my first artist manifesto, and creating many of my own performance art pieces and pop songs, I’ve aligned myself with and started to chart out my own context for music that is also critically-engaged visual art. It is an ongoing process.
YACHT was the first contemporary band I encountered with hard-hitting synths, dance tempo and beats, and slick electronic pop sound that also infuses critically engaged art and compelling lyrics with their music. And it is important to mention that the lyrics on this album are predominantly sung by a female – Claire L. Evans.
The first time I heard “I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler”, I was laying on the floor of my first artist studio space in Chicago. It was in early 2016, and I was staring up at the ceiling – as one does when feeling mind-blocked. Unsurprising to me (but nevertheless shocking at the moment), the algorithms of Spotify had figured me out.
My playlist ended and the bots decided to play the title track off of YACHT’s album, “I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler”. When I heard the first lyrics to this fun, upbeat disco track – I had to stand up, pause the song, and play it again. And again and again.
“Crowdsourced cults, all lit up on LED:
Next thing you know, you’re sipping on a battery
Infinitely scroll through a SWAT team on the sidewalk
Serving death by remote control and unrestricted sidearms”
And later in the song:
“Got my broken heart –
I got it sold right back to me –
By an algorithmic social entity!”
Let’s pause and consider: Who uses the phrase “algorithmic social entity” in a pop song?! YACHT does. I would, too.
I realized and learned after several listens that the song contains several massive cultural commentaries. It points out police violence, the exploitation of social media companies, and in the words of YACHT, “the ascendance of content over art, pleasure as a teleological end in itself, vaporized stimulants, and using the word ‘drone’ to mean both a killing machine and a remote-controlled toy,” (Genius Lyrics, 2015). I initially found YACHT’s explanation of this song (the one that I’ve quoted) on their lyrics page, and began my deeper dive into who this band is.
The concepts mentioned above are, of course, salient and relevant in 2015’s future: our own present, 2021. Someone even made a recent YouTube comment that this album should be the anthem of our pandemic-ridden 2020.
The title of the album itself (and this song) reflect on a future world still grappling with the vicissitudes of technology, fractured cultural landscapes, and the way online content has dominated our aspirational lifestyle culture. These are concepts I explore in my own work, and I was pleased to find them front and center on “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler”.
When I started searching for YACHT’s live performances in 2016, I found a low-rez video on YouTube (since removed) of the two primary members of YACHT, Claire L. Evans and Jona Bechtolt on “stage” in what looked like a university lecture hall. The wonderful thing about contextualizing their show as a “presentation” as much as a “performance” in an academic space amused me. They had PowerPoint slides shifting behind them as well – that provided the dissonance.
I DID find this video (below) where you will get the idea of the projected visuals they incorporate into their shows. To me, the visuals in the first song have so many similar elements of contemporary photographer Barbara Probst’s work (who I deeply admire).
At this juncture, the pieces started coming together. Claire L. Evans and Jona Bechtolt were like me – delivering social critique through pop music. I was fascinated, inspired, and empowered – and I had only listened to one track on repeat! I read on Wikipedia that they were known to incorporate lengthy PowerPoint presentations into many of their live performances. Mind blown.
I went back to Spotify to discover that one of their tracks was titled, “L.A. Plays Itself” – the same name of my long-time favorite film essay by Thom Andersen. Andersen’s film essay investigates the way in which films have transformed the city of Los Angeles into a character of its own – but one that is often overlooked as it plays the backdrop in so many classic cinema hits.
A massive synth bass line was paired with Claire L. Evans’s delivery of referential lyrics that seemed an obvious reflection on Andersen’s film.
“Never give up on the city
No, you can’t live anywhere else
‘Cause it commands every scene
And it always plays itself
Think it’s expensive, baby
But all the simple things are free
And every street in your dreams is already on the screen”
When I discovered the music / lyric video for “L.A. Plays Itself”…I was everything but drooling at the screen.
The track was released shortly after it premiered as part of an exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles – which further legitimized the social and art context for YACHT’s music. The video (above) was released through a website that offered access to the video as well as a remix of the song at times when Uber prices surged in Los Angeles – here is the campaign video.
As someone who has filmed myself running through the Midwest’s longest strip malls, doing balance beam acts in New Urbanist Subdivisions, written songs about shopping malls, and filmed music videos in decrepit ruins on the outskirts of cities… I loved YACHT’s clever video. They placed lyrics on street corners filmed in the process of driving through Los Angeles. The campaign that brought the music itself was an act of social agitation.
It also reminded me of Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). Ruscha’s photographic work is a 25-foot long accordion presentation that gives the viewer two continuous views of the mile and a half section of the Sunset Strip, “one for each side of one of the city’s landmark thoroughfare,” (Getty Blog & Archive).
The album as a whole provides messaging about the broken aspects of our culture, and how digital technology is still a force to be reckoned with. “Miles & Miles”, the first song on the album, is an 8:21 minute build that is infused with unsettling existential questions wrapped up in cute “uh oh’s” and a driving beat.
Uh oh just like we always have
We’re born, we live, we die
Uh oh just like we always will
We float here, we get by
Not to mention, the album opens up with this eight-minute track – unusual for anything pop and pushing the limits of even a dance remix. It spirals into itself in repetition and builds in layers of synths and beats. The construction of the song is so much a parallel to the lyrical content – a composition strategy that my creative partner, Ryan Black (Musician, Composer, Producer), and I also have embraced.
YACHT’s track “White Mirror” delves into the strange and distanced relationships we have through social media portals. The song “Matter” starts with a new word, “Chiroplastic” – a combination of “chiro” (prefix that means “hand”) and “plastic”.
Chiroplastic in the sea
You may not matter and you matter to me
All the stories no one reads
You made a verb with other words, all I need
Mediated war zones and countries full of death
We all die on our own without anybody’s help
The strange thing with “Matter” is that the beat is upbeat, fun, bouncy… it is easy to overlook the deeper commentary on perpetual wars, death, and the invisibility of war to those who don’t witness it directly.
This song caused me to recall writer and activist Rebecca Solnit’s words in her essay, The Visibility Wars when she says, “Perhaps it would be better to regard war as akin to wildfire or contagious disease that may flare up anywhere in the affected region, though human beings and their weapons are in this case the pathogens or sparks,” (Solnit, 2014).
“Ringtone” is an aggressive piece that seems to reinforce the instability of relationship communication. The mobile phone is a direct line (pun intended) to a human – and when the person doesn’t pick up… there can be excessive anxiety.
“I Wanna Fuck You Till I’m Dead” is perhaps the most optimistic of the tracks on the album, and maybe the only one that describes a healthy relationship that acknowledges the passage of life and time. The music video starts with a clip in night vision – recording a sexual encounter between the two band members… until Jona’s head is transformed into a monstrous skin monster and it spirals into the creepiest sci-fi horror show (organs falling out, goopy stuff, etc) you’ve ever seen.
“Hologram” is a lustful song with highly manipulated vocals, where the voice (Claire L.
Evans) – it may be a computer or A.I. – describes why they want to be a hologram. It
pleads for a body.
Daughter of a prism
Through light held imprisoned
I wanna be touched baby
My hands are passing right through you
Am I still here baby
Or am I smoke and mirror”
“Don’t Be Rude” explores loneliness, and a larger search for truth/meaning, and urges optimism for intelligence, and the will to keep imagining possible futures. Again, this track is a total head-bobber – and it is worth reading the lyrics after listening.
“The War On Women” is a disco track at first filled with a futuristic hope that the patriarchy has ended. Or at least, women can make themselves feel like that is possible if we just close our eyes… “If you wanna tell yourself a lie,”. The song confronts the systemic problems born out of a sis-white-male-dominated society… and the need to keep fighting. It is a disco anthem that resonates with me, and I love that it presents this truth with such poignant simplicity.
“The Entertainment” discusses the need for approval on social media. My favorite line is “I’m content if you’re content.” It implies that both/all parties are content (the noun, not the adjective) and the image of oneself online holds currency. “I’m living for approval til I’m out of breath.” It is a dark and purposeful end to the album.
I’ll end with one more connection that YACHT brings to mind as I think about my own associations between pop music and the future. The phrase that keeps popping into my head, and that is approached in so many of the songs on YACHT’s album is, “The Shock of the New” coined by art critic, writer, and producer Robert Hughes.
In his BBC series titled The Shock of the New, Hughes discusses modern art’s rise and decline. He begins the series by discussing the introduction of the Eiffel Tower (and earlier) and continues by addressing the technological and scientific advancements that changed the context for art. Part of his argument in Episode 8: The Future That Was is that our relationship with technology has led to post-modern commercialization – art as entertainment, art as content, art as media. In turn, art has lost the ability to “shock” without a dominant “Avante-Garde” aesthetic.
There’s some to tease through here in thinking about Hughes’s argument. I think the “shock” or “spectacle” of art can happen, but maybe it needs to be in constant conversation with the present – the experiential art, the art that can be recontextualized by spaces, music, or community. It isn’t surprising that immersive VanGogh experiences, Christmas light shows, and WNDR Museum models are surging in popularity (even in a pandemic). They bring together art, installation, the familiar, the unknown, and a “spectacular” experience that holds social currency online.
On the flip side, art, music, technology, entertainment, and our social relationships can all exist on a small glowing rectangle in our back pocket; the spectacle is scalable.
But in thinking about “the future” and where we are now, it seems apparent that there is a lot to learn – and a lot that needs to change in our fractured culture for moving into our own imminent future. As I mentioned at the start of this reflection, maybe pop music is the democratizing force that can do its own work in bringing people together. Maybe it can get a conversation started about what needs to change in the world, the systemic problems of our society, and even the everyday boring problems of navigating our glowing, futuristic technocracy to connect through it all.
YACHT’s album “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler” evokes so many threads of thought on these topics, and the band certainly has over 200,000 followers on Spotify alone… not to mention the shows and boundary-pushing art/activism projects they’ve started since 2015. To me, it feels like the work is being done, and I am inspired to add to the conversation.
Album Cover, Push Button Future by NÆ (2021) | Photographed by Ryan Black.
JaNae Contag (NÆ) is a Chicago-based artist and musician and is a Kansas City native. Her art practice investigates a fractured American cultural landscape. Her current body of work involves the NÆ persona. NÆ’s musical allegories illustrate the cyclical dichotomies that white privilege contains. Through the use of multiple caricatures of white women, she investigates systemic entitlement, boredom, addiction, and over-consumption as a result of privilege. Her various caricatures are dominated by an insatiable thirst for social status and personify the hapless results of aspirational lifestyle marketing.
NÆ’s upcoming 2021 release, the album Push Button Future will be released on February 12th, with a live stream launch party to follow on February 13th.
JaNae Contag teaches courses in digital and film photography and design at The Art School at DePaul University. She received her MFA in Visual Art from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Art at Washington University in St. Louis and her BA from Trinity University in San Antonio. Her visual work has been exhibited at contemporary art spaces, museums, and galleries across the country. Her work as NÆ has been featured in The Chicago Tribune, Woozy Magazine, The What The Punk?! Podcast, and The Advance Your Art Podcast, amongst others.