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A presentation by Christopher Haworth in the colloquium musicologicum. Location: room 3.01 at Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16

Detail Summary
Date 23 January 2020
Time 15:30

Popular music is often understood to have a special purchase on hype as a promotional and communicative strategy. As a Sunday Times article from 1968 put it, hype is ‘an American word for the gentle art of getting a tune into the pop charts without actually selling any records’ (quoted in Powers, 2011). The increasingly centrality of the internet over the last twenty years has if anything intensified the relationship between popular music and hype. Recommender services like ‘hype machine’ hard-code the ‘positive feedback loop’ (Ibid) of hype into their systems, as the music people discuss on music blogs and Twitter is crawled through and served back to consumers, fuelling further discourse on social media which in turn fuels algorithms. On the side of production, recent ‘net native’ microgenres like vaporwave, seapunk and witch house use the affordances of the internet to exaggerate hype-like qualities of simulacra and speculation. By invoking vapourware, the term used for software that is promoted without going into production, vaporwave drew implicit links between the anti-innovative excesses of predatory capitalism and the pre-emptive hype characteristic of the music press. Vaporwave was a term before it was a genre, and the genre was ‘dead’ as soon as it was formed.


The challenges of analysing hype are multiple. How does one historicise phenomena whose constituent parts are excess, whether all or in part? What approaches are appropriate to the analysis of phenomena whose dimensions—material, textual, discursive—may be in contradiction? How do internet technologies amplify and multiply the capacities for hype-generation in relation to music? This talk will analyse a group of musicians, critics, theorists, and philosophers whose collective influence on contemporary internet culture is great, even if the work they produced is little understood: the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), active from 1995-03. Cultivating, spreading, and theorising hype were central features of CCRU activity. The group spread misinformation about their formation and existence, as though deliberately obscuring their tracks for later historians. They participated in the propagation and ‘spreading of hype’ related to contemporary technoculture — most notably with Y2K, the computer bug that threatened to bring down the world economy. Hype was also central to the theoretical and practical work of the CCRU. They theorised hype, first, through the cybernetic concept of positive feedback (‘cyberpositivity’), which was the material driver of what would later (retroactively) be termed ‘accelerationism’; and second, through the concept of ‘hyperstition’—fictions which make themselves real—which informed the group’s writing in theory-fiction. Central to much of this play with authenticity, at least in the later years, was the internet. Using as an informal base for they operations following their departure from Warwick University, they experimented with its capacities for inauthenticity, ahistoricism, and mythos in ways that directly anticipate the strategies of simulacral-genres like vaporwave.

Yet despite the clear centrality of hype to the CCRU’s work at the time, its pertinence is most striking in the present day, as a new generation of musicians and web-users rediscover the group and in the process amplify and expand the fictive universe they created. Was the the hype self-fulfilling, or do media experiences of the present create new conditions for the CCRU's reception?

Christopher Haworth is Lecturer in Music at University of Birmingham. He is currently the PI on the AHRC funded Leadership Fellowship (2019-21) Music and the Internet: Towards a Digital Sociology of Music. In 2018 his article 'From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-mediated musics, online methods and genre' was awarded the Westrup Prize for the best article published annually in the journal, Music and Letters.