I’m listening to Car Seat Headrest’s “Sober-to-Death”/”Powderfinger” mash-up and–I–just–love them so much. I can’t get over what a beautiful mixture of sounds the whole thing is–the injection of folk americana Civil War mythos into “Sober-to-Death”, one of the most self-indulgent and depressing songs off Twin Fantasy, turning the whole thing into something universal, legendary, American. As American as Edward Hopper paintings, or lonely gas stations, or 24-hour diners. Or prairies, or young men with guns, or colonial plantation houses. In How to Leave Town, Toledo claimed that he’d “never been” to America, but that alienation from one’s own country also similarly strikes me as quintessentially American. The transformation of the individual story into national mythos–a universal feeling–it’s these kinds of things that make me feel American, or feel nostalgic for a dream America. The same way I felt while reading about the Trace Italian in John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, the same way I sometimes feel while listening to the McElroy brothers’ podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me”. The feeling that there’s some long lost part of me that grew up in America, and still remembers all the state names. Lost America, dream America, America as collective memory, America as a universal collective dream a la Freud…
A nervous young man in the backseat of his parents’ car, parking it in various public parking lots (as the etiological legend of Car Seat Headrest goes), and recording his vocals there into his laptop, because he can’t bring himself to record at home where he’s young enough to still be living with his parents, and singing about a disintegrating relationship. This young man alone in his parents’ car singing to himself, “we were wrecks before we crashed into each other.” A young man alone in his parents’ house in the town he dedicates several albums to expressing his desire to leave, singing the resolution to his own depression–singing himself better in the close, “Don’t worry, you and me won’t be alone no more.” Over and over.
Leesburg, Virginia, Americana. This room that he spends so long looking up at the ceiling of in “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” off a later album. As Hua Hsu has written in a profile of Will Toledo, “a pop song can take you higher but it can’t take you out of Leesburg fast enough.” Virginia, plantation houses and the confederate flag, Virginia. Virginia in the Civil War and the boy with his father’s gun in Powderfinger.
Toledo transforms his depression into something legendary, which is sometimes to say American. The Sober-to-Powderfinger-Death transformation is like when Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1” transforms from the narrator remembering his father’s suicidal tendencies into the desperate, prostrating chorus of “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST–JESUS CHRIST, I LOVE YOU, YES I DO,” of “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 2“.
Dream America, with its skinny nervous young men desperate to leave their parents’ homes in the town they grew up in and the hatred of which they’ve been nurturing their whole lives, mumbling to themselves about a gun, or a white boat, or Jesus Christ. Car Seat Headrest transforms the depressive mania of “Sober-to-Death” into a national creation myth of the same monumental proportions as the Civil War.
And me, I sleep outside of America, but I dream along all the same. If in a previous post I wrote that Death Grips are the simultaneous arch-nemeses and champions of American values, the dark ambiguous character watching from the wings, then Car Seat Headrest is my broken golden American hero, if only because they don’t hide behind the same cape of irony and because they dare to assume the universality of their longing. I’m trying to find the words, too, to make This grander than it is without romanticising it, to also find a place where all This can rest next to the lives of others. There is some comfort in your nightmare belonging.
In the past few weeks, there has only been two moods for me, musically: Death Grips on repeat, for my previous piece, and Car Seat Headrests’ How to Leave Town on repeat. “I Want You To Know I’m Awake/I Hope You’re Asleep” is off the latter.
We have a lot of great songs about one-sided relationships, usually sung from the perspective of the one who loves more, because it’s heartbreaking to love someone more than they love you. However, this song is, for me, from the perspective of the one that doesn’t love enough. The betrayer.
One of the telltale signs that your relationship is doomed is when you start comparing yourselves to other relationships: towards the end of this song, Toledo compares his relationship to other famous, dysfunctional relationships, such as Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the split of The Beatles and the Beach Boys. He speaks of them like friends, singing, “Frankie and Ava broke up today,” followed by the refrain, “but we’re not like them, no, we’re nothing like them” after each line.
The refrain is ironic, or maybe just sad, because he’s listing all these couples only for the purpose of reassuring himself that at least we’re not like them. In the naïveté of first/young love, you’re convinced that your love will outlast everyone else’s despite what everyone else says. That high school relationships don’t last, that long-distance doesn’t work, that the average person goes through several relationships in their lifetime, that your heart will mend and you will learn to love others if a relationship doesn’t work out. You don’t want to believe that those things are true, because it suggests a betrayal. When you’re young, and especially if it’s also your first, you want to believe that you, specifically, will be the one who will go over and beyond with your love–through sheer willpower you will just love better than anyone else ever has.
And then the crushing disappointment of your own failure, especially coupled with the knowledge that it’s not even your partner’s fault, but indeed your own. It’s almost as if the fact that you couldn’t love enough hurts more than the idea of losing your loved one; the fact of your own ability to betray a love hurts more than losing the one you’re betraying. Elsewhere on the album, Toledo has another refrain where he sings, “Love isn’t love enough…”
Toledo abstracts, moving beyond famous couples and wonders about The Beatles, a band that made monumental music, but all the same still a band that couldn’t quite cut it despite all the beauty they were able to produce together. John & Yoko separated for a year–eventually the legendary Beatles broke up too–and Paul started doubting everything he did. But we’re not like them, can’t be anything like them. Richard Siken, from his poem, “Scheherazade”: Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. / These, our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it.
(Which is a way to say: sometimes I still dream about you.)
Death Grips is one of those bands that have become a subject of ridicule on the Internet, as wont is to happen to most modern bands that have a largely white, male fan basis. In fact, the white, male fans even make fun of themselves–the whole enjoyment of Death Grips seems to be necessarily ironic and self-deprecating, earning them their own page on KnowYourMeme. The band was shot to an Internet popularity by 4chan’s /mu/ board, and also by “Internet’s busiest music nerd”, Anthony Fantano, a.k.a. theneedledrop, who is famously hard to please. Fantano seems to have a sort of reverse-Midas touch, in that everything he touches and enjoys instantly becomes fodder for memes about pretentiousness, especially the pretentiousness of white, male hipsters. The Internet and meme culture have turned us into people who can only enjoy things ironically and that makes me genuinely, unironically sad.
To be fair to their fans, the band cultivates this irony themselves. They indulge in their status as an Internet phenomenon: for example, the opening track of their latest album is titled “Death Grips is Online”, after their most viral tweet, and they also collaborated with the director of Shrek on the music video for “Dilemma”, another song off the album. They are a band that dedicates themselves wholly to absurdity and nihilism, especially the kind of absurdity spawned by the chaos of living in the 21st century digital world where everyone is literally online. Their music offers ideas about the void, meaninglessness, insanity, violence and paranoia, but often dulls the edges of these heavy topics (or takes them to their logical extreme?) by packaging them in absurd lyrics, lurid cover art and confusing PR stunts, all of which I’ll give further examples of throughout this essay. My purpose here is to attempt to take Death Grips a little seriously, just for the fuck of it. I want to attempt to recuperate Death Grips’ reputation from the ironic Internet sensation it’s become (even though no one’s asking me to), and I want to posit that the void, paranoia and violence are all the domains of women. In this essay I will posit that only a woman could truly appreciate Death Grips unironically.
I'll mostly be referring to songs. Death Grips has been a prolific band since their inception, but due to me knowing certain albums more so than others, this post will be a bit lopsided despite my attempt to give a shout out to songs across their discography. Here's an abbreviation guide to the albums I'll mention and their respective years: NLDW = No Love Deep Web, 2012 TMS = The Money Store, 2012
TPTB = The Powers That B, 2015 BP = Bottomless Pit, 2016 YOTS = Year of the Snitch, 2018
The first Death Grips song that truly grabbed me was the eponymous “No Love” off 2012’s No Love Deep Web. It’s the most dreadful and chaotic song I’ve ever heard, in the best way possible. It starts off with a terrible booming like an evil siren coming from somewhere deep under, while MC Ride screams, “YOU WHIMPER WHILE I CHECK MY PHONE.” For me, through all their different sounds and albums, the most powerful has always been this feeling of dread that the band is able to inflict on its listener. In a Pitchfork interview from the days right after NLDW was released, Zach Hill explained his vision for the sound of Death Grips and his hopes that people listening to it could weaponize it, echoing the ethos of punk music: “Say you were being bullied in school: if you have our music in your headphones, no one is really bullying you anymore. It’s like taking a pill that makes you super-human.” The sound of dread in Death Grips pours out into your ear holes, but the fear also emboldens you to feel like you really can do whatever the fuck you want. The fear has turned you into a beast who will push the limits of what it takes to get out. In NLDW’s opening track, “Come Up and Get Me”, MC Ride is at the top of an abandoned building, pushed to such a desperate situation that he no longer cares about what happens to him, singing, “So I’m surrounded / Geiger count it not goin’ out shits ‘bout to get kamikaze / AHHHHH / FUCK A NAZI.” However, at the end of the day Death Grips’ music seems to fall into the same trap that has ensnared other Western punk bands (and I do believe DG’s music is a form of punk), namely that their music only serves to empower those that are already empowered. In this day and age (an age that seems to have lasted eternally, incidentally), do white men need to feel more super-human than they already do? For the cover of No Love Deep Web, the band chose a picture of Zach Hill’s penis with the title scrawled on in black marker. I didn’t ask for this dick pic though.
The fear that MC Ride sings of is a fear that exists in this world. It’s not just a catchphrase to “stay noided”: it’s a constant state of life for a lot of women. Have you ever watched David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film It Follows? To summarize it quite simply, it’s a horror movie about a young woman who feels herself followed by an entity that’s constantly changing shape, and while she can outrun and outdrive it (as it’s always just stuck in a walk), she can never truly get away from it. It is always walking in a straight line towards her. It’s the scariest movie I’ve ever watched, and for weeks after I couldn’t go outside on my own at night. Even in the day time, I kept looking over my back. It’s this same paranoia I hear from Death Grips’ songs, like “No Love” and “Come Up & Get Me”, the feeling of being trapped in a terrible place with something evil always coming towards you no matter where you go. That terrible, menacing boom. The raw relentless screaming.
Some of the dread that the band feels is a result of not knowing what direction our digital age is headed towards, and being anxious about the vastness of the Internet, the anonymous companies extracting our information through obscure methods, and overwhelmed by the saturation of information & images. And if the Internet is a scary place for the members of Death Grips, it’s an even scarier place for women, who are constantly bombarded with idealized images for how a woman should be, and who are constantly cutting themselves up into fragments for social media. It’s no use trying to find excuses for it now: social media is destroying the self-esteem of women and girls at an increasingly younger age all over the world. The increasing violence and prevalence of pornography is also destroying their self-esteem at a younger age all over the world. The woman online is the woman who’s constantly watching herself (“watching me watch them watch me”) as if she were not part of her own life. Like the closing track to NLDW, it’s an “artificial death in the west”, where the subject online suffers an artificial death through being disconnected from their own selves. No Love Deep Web starts this theme of Internet anxiety which carries over into the rest of the discography, from Bottomless Pit‘s apathetically named “Eh” and “Trash”, to The Powers That B’s “Inanimate Sensations” (which gave us the line “I like my iPod more than fuckin'”) and Year of the Snitch‘s cacophonous “Shitshow”.
Funnily enough (ironically enough), one of Death Grips’ most accessible songs is also the very song about paranoia that popularized the term “noided”. In “I’ve Seen Footage” (TMS, 2012) MC Ride sings about feeling followed and watched after footage he’s seen on the Internet (suggested to be footage of police brutality) over a beat and heavy breathing that are both reminiscent of Salt-N-Peppa’s “Push It”. The absurdity that Death Grips is known for is in response to the dread, in an attempt to contain it. In an attempt to become super-human, as Hill has said. So they have MC Ride sing about the fear of police brutality over an aerobic anthem.
Death Grips adopts a nihilistic stance, where they put themselves beyond good and evil because the modern world that they’re living in no longer makes any sense to them according to traditional ethics. Just as they experiment with their music, so too are they experimenting with morality and rationality. In one moment, MC Ride could be expressing his dread at an apocalyptic “destitute wasteland” he sees in “Artificial Death” (NLDW, 2012) but in the next making outlandish statements like, “shoot pussy through your chest you die.” A lot of Death Grips’ lyrics are often incomprehensible yet evocative in the same way that poetry is, and they’re punctuated by ridiculous and crude statements, which makes the combination “absurd”. They may make sense according to ever-shifting Internet linguistics, but they are absurd still in the conventional grammatical & syntactical sense. They also experiment with aesthetics, often borrowing from the Internet experience or using imagery as provocative as their lyrics. They feed their Internet image with bizarre music videos, such as the one of a glitched-out hologram-like MC Ride dancing awkwardly in a car to “Guillotine”, or the one of an anonymous white kid staring unblinkingly into a strobe light for “Streaky”. That’s also not to mention their various album covers, from No Love Deep Web’s dick pic, to Bottomless Pit’s insinuated ass-eating, to Year of the Snitch’s holes of teeth (possibly a bastardization of the Rolling Stones’ infamous tongue symbol). You can understand why they’d attract irony when so much of their music and marketing is based on the absurd, the unthinkable.
Yet the whole thing about irony is that it’s based on a presumed rationality, a superior mental state. I enjoy Death Grips, but only “ironically” because I know that they’re mostly joking around themselves. I share unspeakable cursed images “ironically” because I can see that they’re disgusting, not because I enjoy them. However, while the dread may produce the absurdity, the absurdity also in turn feeds the dread: in response to all the terrible things happening in the world and our alienation from political government, young people tend to turn to the internet to express themselves, with the internet becoming more insular, absurd and auto-cannibalistic to the point where it’s scary to think of how far the irony and disillusionment will go.
Maybe it’s OK for white men to descend into layers of irony, just for the fuck of it, because it’s funny. But for women, we are faced with the absurdity of life all the time, on- and off-line. Living in the modern world is truly intolerable, because of what the fear makes us do. The fear pushes us into corners and makes us do things we don’t want to do–or it scrambles our desires, so we no longer know what we truly “want”–in order to please men who are all not as intelligent, funny, beautiful or as kind as us anyway. We wake up every morning and look at ourselves in the mirror and think about ways to fix the unbroken face we were born with. If anyone understands what it means to live for nothing, and to die for nothing, it’s women. If anyone knows the true poverty of beauty, language and morality in our modern society, it’s women. If we had to set our hearts to music, maybe it would sound like Zach Hill’s impressively violent drumming, or MC Ride’s heavily distorted screaming.
Everything rigged at this place, it's not me / Don't break my concentration with those thoughts baby / I don't care about real life, I don't care about real life / I break mirrors with my face in the United States.
I’ve heard about how intensely MC Ride can get “into the zone” while doing live performances; he’s notorious for performing shirtless most of the time. I wish I could watch them live and experience that total abandon, the intense ferocity of losing yourself, along with them. Girls never get that. The kind of “losing yourself” that women aspire to is the state of total dissociation when you can’t even feel the direct harm of the bad things being done to you or the bad things that you do to yourself, every single day. It’s the kind that means we focus very hard on trying to look pretty and then maybe we’ll be a bit happier or maybe they’ll treat us better. “Losing yourself” as in being able to momentarily overlook the fact that he’s about to consume you and spit your bones out; so smile. When MC Ride scream, “I FEEL SO SICK TODAY / (I’m afraid to be here with you) / YOU’RE GOING TO KILL SOMEBODY / (I’m afraid to be here with you)” in “The Fear” (YOTS, 2018), it reminds me of the way certain men will look at and speak to you, and how you have to pretend to smile or laugh if you don’t want worse happening. In the song, his screams are followed up with something that sounds like gulps being made very rapidly.
The dangerous thing about artistic movements that attempt to portray the philosophical ideals of nihilism, existentialism, absurdism, is that they often take it to the extreme that there is nothing to live for, nothing worth dying for. That life is all a joke; that, solipsistically, life and language only mean as much as you think they mean. Movements like Futurism, Dadaism and Postmodernism all prefigure the language of the Internet. Though I’m not saying that the Internet style is directly influenced by them, I mean that we have faced these movements before, have read them, have heard men talk of similar ideals in a similar language, and have seen their poverty in effecting real change to the point that the world we live in now seems a kind of absurdist nightmare. There are groups of men in government playing out their own terrible daydreams with the lives of others, and groups of men online similarly trapped in their own heads, speaking their own incomprehensible languages, allowing themselves to love nothing. These works, like Death Grips, have their own inherent artistic merit despite their ethical grey area–art doesn’t have to be and often isn’t defined by what it contributes to the world politically–but while their fanbase’s response to it seems to be to revel in it, to desecrate the band as they desecrate themselves and the whole institution of art, I think more can be gained if we learned to appreciate them seriously.
Admittedly I’m not sure what that would look like, besides having the courage to say, “I enjoy this band,” and mean it, wholeheartedly. I wonder why there are so many young people, especially young white men, who participate in meme-making, shitposting and other heavily ironic & incomprehensible groups online, and what this says about our capacity to respond to evil. I wonder why, in the wake of the man-made destruction of World Wars I and II, the intellectual men behind Futurism, Dadaism and the Beats decided that the only available response is to go insane. In one of their most iconic songs, “On GP” (TPTB, 2015), Death Grips makes one of their only references to a “you” that isn’t confrontational or threatening, singing, “all the nights I don’t die for you / wouldn’t believe how many nights I ain’t die for you / on GP.” Irony and absurdity are easy, but they’re a staircase winding to hell.
If anybody should have the right to irony, it should be women, who are constantly spreading their emotional capacity thin for no real tangible gain other than that it is inherently human to care. If there is any group of people who deserve the right to be distrustful, it is women. When used in excess, irony can become crippling, which explains why so many people on the Internet these days can be stingingly funny but also severely depressed (“it’s all suicide to me“). However, when used purposefully, irony can also be a form of power, a way to “LAUGH HARD AT THE ABSURDLY EVIL,” to quote a Jenny Holzer truism. I’ve mentioned that I believe Death Grips is a splinter of punk music, and at the heart of punk music lies the values of speaking truth to oppressors, expressing rage against violent systems. It’s a weaponized music, “super-human”. If the only thing that boys on the Internet can do is make fun of the things they love, then let women be the ones to show the proper meaning of a beatdown.
 Without going into too much speculation, it may be a state for MC Ride as well, as a black man, and it’s always amazed me that Death Grips has the reputation it does for being a “white guy band” when its frontman is literally a black man. Shouldn’t it be classed as part of the afropunk movement?