Pop at the End

This is what the end of the world sounds like

Today , wars outlive schoolchildren, relentless surveillance by government agencies and corporations is tolerated with ambivalence, and entire populations, homes ruined by empire, are driven into the sea. Societies, peoples, and alternative ways of being have been disappeared through casual violence and a forgetting enforced by structural control. The past is painted over, vandalized, and replaced with a slapdash mural of colonial fantasy. We look behind us and see an abyss; ahead, more destruction. In our visions of the future, vague promises about history’s moral arc have been replaced with images of metropolises being destroyed in spectacular fashion: a Miami beneath acid oceansa Seattle torn in two and eaten by the earth, and all before we pay off our student loans.

What’s to be done on an ending world? As might be predicted, this state of affairs has inspired an emergent artistic mode, a pop-eschatology. Last year, the artist Grimes posted on social media a Spotify playlist defining the artistic movement she sees herself as part of as she develops her next release, a “nu apocalypse [genre]” called “fae.” “The fae are the children living at the end of the world,” she wrote, “who make art that reflects what [it’s] like to live knowing the earth may not sustain humanity much longer. . . . the influence of this reality is inescapable for the fae.” Grimes’s framing of the playlist recasts the songs as Pompeiian vignettes, giving the listener a kind of anthropological distance with which to see how Armageddon operates uniquely in each song. Contemporary pop songs are put evocatively into past tense: SZA’s cascading synths sound tectonic, there’s defeat in Kelela’s pleas for companionship, Grouper might be a real ghost.

One of the protagonists of the Fae playlist, Lil Uzi Vert’s frenetic lyricism is transformed, his careless angst is refracted into buried anger and hurt, guarded by a pose of taunting apathy. Frivolities (good taste, restraint, fraternity) are discarded in favor of aggression and self-destructive impulses. School’s out, in other words; there are no rules left that matter. “XO Tour Llif3,” Uzi’s most popular song ever, sees him yawning the majority of the song on a single muted note, before suddenly ratcheting up an octave and letting out the molten emotion of a generation watching economies collapse, its scariest bogeymen metastasize, and the concept of accountability being made into myth.

From the sidelines, the fossils who maintain control of terrestrial radio and other traditional media engage in their usual scolds, pouncing on every misstep with a chorus of rebuke. Watching young people’s responses to inheriting a ruined world, older generations were eager to clean their hands by issuing performances of dismay at the incoherent, drug-addled youth, running around ruining the institutions of the past with their Gucci Gangs, their Goth Boi Cliques, their XO Tour Llif3s. Responding on Twitter to a common reprimand, 21 Savage defended himself and his peers for making “drug user music,” noting that it had made rap “the number one genre of music right now.”

In the phrase “drug user music,” 21 may have submitted a synonym for “fae,” another attempt to name the music made as part of a movement of young artists inspired by collective feelings of powerlessness and desperation. Twitter, SoundCloud, Snapchat, and other social media platforms are populated with the frenzied productions of young minds reacting to the apparent meaninglessness of the present, the torment of the past, and the wholesale deletion of any idea of the future.

A fair amount has been written about literature’s dystopian turn, and the new wave of “radical pessimism.” Not nearly as much attention has been paid to the apocalyptic dreamscapes being created by the young people living, for real, in the dystopias that haunt the imaginations of fiction writers. Uzi, for his part, has taken to posting inverted crosses and the number of the beast on his Instagram page, revealing a Final Fantasy–ish relationship to Christian symbology. In a year of obsessing over the end of the world, our eschatology peaked with the song of the year, an epistle from a bored 22-year-old begging Xanax to make his pain go away.

The book of Revelation does not only detail the final battle between good and evil in which all sinners are judged, evil is destroyed, and the dead are reawakened. Before the return of Christ to Earth, the comedy of humanity reaches its most climactic act. It’s death, life, excess, poverty, pain, and ecstasy, all in their most extreme forms, competing to swallow everything, and us waiting at the sidelines for something to win, only kind of paying attention. It’s the intoxication of absolute power chased with suffocating impotence. It’s a song about extreme alienation that sounds better in the club than anything else. It’s the reign of the absurd, a world where everything is deathly serious, but nothing matters. It’s a throwaway song on a “one-and-a-half” EP most successfully capturing what it felt like to be young and alive in 2017.

On the ending world, even clarity about impending doom is a commoditized privilege.
In 1966, Star Trek’s opening sequence offered the first space-race generation a tantalizing rebranding of extraterrestrial space as “the final frontier.” Fifty years later, as a new space race accelerates, the consequences of the crossing of preceding frontiers have become so severe that space travel has become less exploratory and much more urgent. In 2018, Forbes reintroduced its famous list of the wealthiest people alive with a headline inviting readers to “Meet the Richest People on the Planet.” Those same richest people on the planet, to a number, are moving ahead with clear-eyed focus to get the fuck off the planet.

2018 is a landmark year for the Forbes list, with Jeff Bezos dethroning Bill Gates officially as the richest man on Earth. His space company is called Blue Origin; on Bezos’s Instagram he reposted a bit from a Conan O’Brien monologue about Bezos’s intent to use all of his fortune getting to space, imagining Bezos thinking, “I’ve seen what you people buy, and I don’t want to be near you.” Bezos is just one of the billionaires using their purchasing power to perfect technologies that will allow them to colonize other habitable planets: Other Forbes listers spending millions on privatized space travel include Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise, named after the Star Trek spaceship of the same name, collapsed and crashed in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.) and Elon Musk, who is Grimes’s new boyfriend. I wrote this essay before we knew that, and it confounded me as much as it seemed to confound everyone. As others have elucidated, though, it makes a lot of sense. It’s a canny move, one that leaves open the question of whether, when the “fae” are swallowed by the rising sea, Grimes will look back from her lifeboat.