Eliza Levinson on moving out of quarantine culture, the blandness of TikTok, and DJ Khaled as an action movie.
When I first moved to Berlin, I lived it the fuck up. The year was 2017, into 2018. I was 21, with no knowledge of German, no friends on the continent, and absolutely no plan. With a fearlessness I now can’t quite understand, every invitation was accepted with the belief that every social activity was an adventure: raucous dinner parties; cheap flights and cheaper youth hostels; smoke-filled wine bars; flashing neon lights; thumping techno.
Berlin is really famous for its clubs, which are famous for their music if you’re into techno but are — if everyone’s being honest with themselves — more universally famous because the parties start late and last forever and there are rooms designated just for anonymous hookups and there are drugs everywhere (ketamine is a particular favorite among Berliners). I heard about a guy who brought his dad to Berghain and made the bouncer cry because he thought that was so beautiful. I knew people that took taxis directly from the club to work on Monday morning, and one time, I did, too.
If you haven’t been to a club in Berlin, allow me to set the scene: you’ve managed to frown your way past the bouncer. It’s at least 3 in the morning. The club consists of at least one dark room, swirling multicolored lights and plumes of cigarette smoke, because young people in Europe still smoke and everyone in Berlin smokes inside. The lines to the bathroom are endless, because that’s where people line up to do drugs in the bathroom stalls. You stay at the club for approximately 110 years or until your friends want to leave, just bobbing around and feeling the strobe lights throbbing against the outside of your eyelids. Upon resurfacing, it will take days, it seems, to get the lingering stink of smoke out of your hair.
During the pandemic, clubs around the world have done their best to keep the vibe alive. Boiler Room was primed for streaming performances by big DJs; nightlife organizers in Berlin continue to curate virtual events through United We Stream; apparently there’s some virtual rave called “Space Rave” in the UK. But in Berlin, part of the Benjaminian aura of the city’s clubs — in addition, of course, to the undeniable erotics of being surrounded by sweaty, dancing hotties — is that the bouncers cover your phone camera with a small, circular sticker, so photos and videos are explicitly Not Allowed. Contrary to the appeal of ketamine, the numbing dissociation — not to mention the isolation — that comes with hours in front of one’s screen has no place at the club, at least not where I live.
I mention all of this now because Berlin, finally, finally, finally, is beginning to reopen — slooooooowly — after seven months of lockdown, and I’m finding myself overwhelmed wondering what post-pandemic life is going to look like. Faced with the prospect of an influx of IRL stimulus, I’ve gone numb.
Today I felt seen listening to this album by the cryptic, extremely online Only Fire. A robotic, female voice narrates graphic lyrics about sex, drugs, and the internet over electronic and trap beats. Though the robotic voice uses colorful language about its activities, all lyrics are delivered with the same, dispassionate cadence, overlaid with catchy — but not exactly up-tempo — beats. The songs are sexual — songs like “Asmr” or “7 Rings” leave no doubt about that — but it’s a ketamine version of sexuality: distant, disembodied, kind of absurd, wholly irrational. In a song called “Cruel Summer,” for example, the voice drones confusing insecurities: “was my mouth too small? / was my pussy too tight? / was my tongue too short? / was my left boob too right?”
Drugs and very explicit descriptions of sex feature centrally in each song, though the lyrics feel as if constructed through algorithm or translator (notably, through Instagram searching, it does seem the person behind Only Fire is a young Eastern European dude). In “Cruel Summer,” the cyborg voice riffs: “it’s a cruel summer / i got my heart broke / now i’m a sad bitch / and i wanna do coke.” The robot voice feels like a mechanical version of a ‘90s-era valley girl: vapid, flippant, un-self-aware, unintentionally funny.
Only Fire’s music is a lot like the vibe of Lil Miquela, the robot influencer: a feminized cyborg refracting back our weird ideals of hedonism, materialism, and grotesque womanhood. Something about these robotic iterations of women online — the hollowness I can’t help but feel when attempting to pursue feeling alive through consumption alone — continued to resonate when I read another article Rebecca Jenning wrote for Vox this week: this time, an exploration of “the blandness of TikTok’s biggest stars.”
One of the TikTok stars written about by Jennings is Bella Poarch, “who once held the title of most-liked TikTok video ever for bobbing her head to the beat of a song,” and who just released her first single, “Build A Bitch.” As Jennings correctly notes, “It’s a clever (and extremely catchy) song with a slickly produced video that ironically criticizes the very same system that created Bella Poarch ... In other words, if the internet could ‘build a bitch,’ it would look exactly like Bella Poarch.”
Crucially, it’s not just a gender thing, but it does seem to be inescapable in modern media: a recent piece for the New Yorker by Sheldon Pearce describes, brilliantly, the “empty blockbuster music of DJ Khaled.” “Everything he did came to feel like marketing,” Pearce writes, “most of all his music.”
But while the feminized — Only Fire, Lil Miquela, Bella Poarch — skew to the robotic, or the cyborgian, Khaled’s blank saleability is shunted into the language of an action movie, the performance of war. Khaled’s music is described as “high-profile mashups devised as heat-seeking missiles.” While Bella Poarch’s latest depicts a dystopian assembly line of women’s body parts assembled to meet the whims of men, Khaled is likened to a “Michael Bay”: just as formulaic, with pop hits churned out of “big set pieces with explosive combinations.”
~Catch up on Dirt~
— TikTok co-owner Zhang Yiming has stepped down from his position at ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, saying “I’m not very social” — citing lax tax rules, more and more influencers are moving to Texas — Facebook is making a modern version of QVC, a “live shopping channel” where brand ambassadors will answer user questions “in real time” — Twitch has taken away the ability to feature ads from the most popular lady who live streams while in a hot tub, which is apparently something more than one person does — TikTok diet trends may not be all they’re cracked up to be — Kaya Yurieff breaks down which social media apps are moving towards “tipping” creators, and which haven’t yet implemented that as an option — it is the 20th anniversary of Shrek, and The Guardian says Shrek sucks which is up for debate but his existence as meme is undeniable
— Kat Tenbarge considers “mediocrity and possibility in the TikTok industrial complex” — Anna Wiener on “renderporn” for The New Yorker — a guy made a digital rendering of contemporary George Washington and a historian responded — Palestinians on TikTok are participating in memes, going viral and showing the reality of life during the violence in Gaza — 10 years after its release, Cameron Kunzelman writes about the video game LA Noire — @BQUEERPRAISEGOD encourages people to use Snap Maps to see, in real time, the difference in what was going on between Israel and Gaza — By Eliza Levinson