IN MY EARS #17: Aristophanes and the Global “Scene"
Track: Aristophanes (貍貓) - “Humans Become Machines (人為機器)”
Lately I’ve enjoyed the new single by Aristophanes (貍貓), a rapper from Taiwan who’s popularity around the world has exploded over the last year. It’s a rather aggressive, weird and dark hip hop single, and sounds a lot more polished than Aristophanes’ previous work, which has been sporadically released on Soundcloud over the last three years. I look forward to hearing more of this developed sound on her first official release, which will come out later this month. But the reason I keep coming back to “Humans Become Machines” for now is because it I think it’s an interesting case study in how globalization affects the world of underground music.
Aristophanes' work — especially her earlier material — is a mix of experimental, ambient, and psychedelic electronic soundscapes and esoteric, poetic rhymes. Her lyrics often address female sexuality and gender identity, subjects that are typically avoided in the heavily male-dominated Mandarin hip hop world. I have several friends in Beijing’s underground rap and producer scenes who are fans of hers, acknowledging her distinct sound and skill.
Aristophanes and Grimes
Aristophanes is from Taipei, but isn’t particularly active in the music scene there. She’s quite well known in the West, though, thanks largely to her “discovery” by the Canadian alt-pop singer Grimes. The story goes that Grimes stumbled upon Aristophanes’ music on Soundcloud and became an instant fan, inviting her to sing on her 2015 track “Scream” and later collaborating with her on music videos and live performances, including one at the major US music festival Coachella. The beat on “Humans Become Machines” is by Grimes, her first work as a producer.
The rest of Aristophanes’ success story reads like a cheerful commercial for globalism: collaborations formed on the internet, distribution and media praise funneled to global culture centers like Los Angeles and New York, without much, if any, sense of background or context. Do those even matter any more? Is it important that Aristophanes comes from Taiwan, and raps in Mandarin? Does her work’s critical reception in the West represent a new, global paradigm for “Mandosphere” music?
I don’t think so. Aristophanes has gotten a lot of media attention because Grimes gets a lot of media attention. A 2016 Fader article — "Meet Aristophanes, The MC Taking Mandarin Rap Global” — quotes Grimes describing Aristophanes' music as “the new shit”, a meaningless compliment that shows the basic aesthetic criterion of globalization: an endless fetishization of novelty, and a rush to absorb and capitalize on it as quickly as possible.
I don’t mean to pick on Grimes in particular, although I would describe her free appropriation of Asian culture — especially the Japanese manga aesthetic — as clearly fetishistic. But the Western hunt for “the new shit” in music is not a new or unique phenomenon. Producers like Diplo have made entire careers as globe-trotting crate diggers, ripping sounds and scenes from their context and slotting them in to certain clubs and radio stations in New York, London and Berlin to keep the global hype-machine rolling. I also sympathize with Western music journalists trying to cover Aristophanes. You can’t really expect someone writing for Fader in New York to pick up Mandarin overnight, so they’re often stuck having to write about the sounds of the production and Aristophanes’ voice or, at best, a translation.
Still, I think this is pretty strange. I can’t imagine a music journalist writing a review of something like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or Danny Brown's Atrocity Exhibition without at least partially understanding their lyrics, or possessing a basic historical and geographical understanding of Compton and Detroit. While I’m glad Aristophanes is exposing a much wider global audience to underground music sung in Mandarin, I think it’s equally important to establish her context, to listen to her as an artist reflecting a specific situation in Taipei today in addition to creating the “new shit” that Grimes happens to be listening to at the moment.
Humans Become Machines (人為機器)”:
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.