Last semester, a sudden urge came over me that required immediate attention in the form of intensive Witch House research.
Witch House, if the term eludes you, has been, for the past couple years, a genre of music born and raised in the back alleys of the Internet. Its output is full of somewhat scary-sounding drone noises, as one might expect from a cultural movement inspired by the occult, but also basks in the valley of chopped and screwed remixes of 90s R&B. It arrives soaked in supersaturated images of triangles and crosses, and pasty dudes making their own voices sound like Biggie. It encompasses everything absurd and wonderful about online culture: hyper-specificity, unquestioned comfort with cognitive dissonance, airtight attention to personal branding and cats.
I wanted badly to understand the Witch House community, and luckily a friend of a friend was himself a fine purveyor of the genre. Eagerly, I interviewed him about his musical project, the online forums and IRL meet-ups, and the role of symbols and signs in this form of artistic expression. The idea that a system so rich — at once rigidly defined and freely moldable — could come from a platform of social networking was fascinating, both sociologically and aesthetically.
So, in love with all things Internet, I had to join in. My suitemate and I bought long black skirts and triangle earrings and fancied ourselves a Witch House band. We photoshopped eerie images of our cats with crosses for eyes and, for Halloween, threw a Witch House-themed party where we “released” the music we had been working on, which was, in reality, basically Kate Bush songs at a fraction of their normal speed.
The problem, I suppose, is that I am admittedly not a particularly witchy person, whatever that means. I idolize bands with names like The Softies and Dressy Bessy and own several pairs of floral shorts. Consequently, I recently got in an argument regarding the sincerity of my foray into Witch House. Apparently, in what I thought was an exploration of a generative aesthetic, I was necessarily mocking the genre. It was not an “authentic” representation of a creation I truly wished to display as my own; in other words, my irreverence was making everyone uncomfortable and that was NOT okay.
“Authenticity” in artistic production is a touchy subject among certain consumers of culture. In the case of Witch House v. Wexelblatt, lines of genre were drawn in the sand: indie pop girls can’t rightfully wake up one morning and decide to be in a band called ▲MB‡GR∆M§. On one hand, this ultimatum is understandable; one doesn’t ever want something they value to be reduced to a series of meaningless stylistic gestures. The sort of essentialized and regurgitated creative process — in which we were admittedly engaging — crops up insidiously in the kitschiest and most propagandizing instances of art.
On the other hand, the idea of a single genre defining the entirety of an artist’s desire to express herself is just about as artificial a constraint as is possible. My personal favorite example of this is the hilarious existence of Chris Gaines, the soul patch-donning alt-rock alter ego of country star Garth Brooks. Though originally the character was created in conjunction with a proposed film that never ended up seeing the light of day, Gaines was a legitimate outlet for Brooks to explore a type of music that would immediately have been considered a betrayal of Brooks’ persona by his fan base. In a strange and affirming turn, the Gaines project actually garnered Brooks his only U.S. Top 40 pop single.
Of course, the phenomenon of wanting one’s art to move in unexpected directions isn’t only true of music. Booker Prize-winning author Julian Barnes writes crime fiction as Dan Kavanaugh and early Pollocks don’t look like anything spilled (and, of course, the artist George Costanza moonlights as architect Art Vandelay) but we don’t say that these less-familiar forms are mockeries. Whether by taking new identities or simply revising one’s own, artists who desire to create usually are inspired by more than a single source, and are rightly respected in their alternate pursuits, even if these pursuits cross boundaries of style or even medium.
In a talk David Byrne and James Murphy gave on campus last week, the two discussed the limitations they felt on their non-musical pursuits. Murphy divulged his loved for writing, but then expressed his concern that his work would be judged only on his celebrity — “Some guy in a band writing about being in a band” — rather than on its artistic merits. He mused that he would have to take a pseudonym if he ever wanted to publish.
As someone named after a pseudonym myself — Rrose, my middle name, is culled from Rrose Sélavy, the female alter ego of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp — I firmly believe that veering from the expected trajectory of one’s artistic career (or, in my case, dabbling) is incredibly rewarding. There is no reason why Barnes can’t be Kavanaugh and Brooks can’t be Gaines. If the limits of a cultivated identity are restricting, shed them. Be on the lookout for more ▲MB‡GR∆M§ release parties.