I’ve been thinking a lot today about the new video for inconsequential Oakland rapper G-Eazy’s “Tumblr Girls.” I don’t care for this video/song/artist/category of human/theme at all, but the video is sticking with me – mostly because I think it exemplifies a few aesthetic trends that I’ve been noticing for the past few years in pop music. I think that this is a good opportunity to lay some of them out.
In a lot of ways, this is an extremely typical white-boy hip hop video – skinny girls of ambiguous race doing sexy things like having tattoos and doing drugs, filmed through an Instagram filter and set to a mournful, Clams Casino-ish beat. We’ve seen this very many times before and it’s not very exciting. What’s interesting to me about “Tumblr Girls” is that even though all of this ought to be visually appealing and sort of arousing to me, it isn’t – it ultimately just makes me feel like shit.
I think critical authority/top Youtube commenter “Nicole E” speaks for many of us when she says – “This video made me sad. This is not a happy and fulfilled way of living. These girls are represented as not real humans but simply ‘Tumblr’ girls, scantily clad alcoholics/drug addicts with skinny waists and no personality. It’s depressing.” I’m not sure if this is praise or criticism, and I’m also not sure if it matters.
Based on my initial assessments of G-Eazy’s attitude toward women and sexuality, it seems likely that he may very well want this clip to be taken as super sexy. At the same time, though, it seems sort of implausible that anyone involved in making this could have expected it to turn out as a fun time. The women in the video – who are all some degree of Tumblr-famous – are very attractive, in front of very nice cameras, and very often not wearing clothes. They’re also very often not smiling. G-Eazy seems to indicate that he enjoys spending time with them, but he also seems pretty bummed out about it – he reveals so much in poetic lines like “you and I were made of glass / we’d never last” and “right now, I can’t feel my heart.” The beat is sort of a banger, but it also employs isolated Weeknd “ooohs” over Lana Del Rey major/minor piano chords, which is basically 21st century semiotics for “feeling wistful.”
All of this comes together to present me with something I ostensibly enjoy that simultaneously forces me to experience a painful sense of lacking. I have something, but there’s something else missing. I’m doing something wrong. I don’t like that I like. I feel gross.
This mode – half psalm, half keen – is incredibly pervasive in contemporary R&B/hip hop. It arguably started with the Weeknd and exploded into popularity with Drake. It shows up in a more moralizing tone in Kendrick Lamar, makes up for 50% of Rihanna’s existence, and most recently spawned ILOVEMAKONNENs absolutely beautiful “Tuesday.” It’s real progenitor might be Kanye West, and though “808s and Heartbreak” deserves the aesthetic credit I think the middle of “MBDTF” (the “Devil In A New Dress” to “Runaway” transition, particularly) is it’s artistic peak. Or it might go back to Jay Z, who put a song about international misogyny over a tender Just Blaze beat and made a line about “Chief Lots-O’-Dough into heartbreak. (I’m not sure if it existed before 9/11 but I’m open to suggestion – if it’s anywhere it’s probably in Mick Jagger.)
To isolate it exclusively to hip hop would do a disservice to the EDM and top 40 world, where more and more artists seem to be taking what Lady Gaga tried to make into anthem and transforming it into self reflection. Britney Spears experimented with it early on in “Till The World Ends” – Calvin Harris has made it into an industry – Sky Ferreira, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande might be it’s masters – Lana Del Rey has transformed it into a high art form.
I don’t know what it is exactly. It’s an aesthetic of loathing for the very thing it presents favorably. It celebrates while relishing the emptiness of the celebration. It’s remembering the time you had the club going up on a Tuesday while you stand in the dark later that week and meditate on how little any of it got for you. The dual motion is essential – the embrace of the club at the same time as its rejection.
You can see its existence in the progressive use of the phrase “I can’t feel my face” in reference to the sentiment one has after doing Scarface amounts of cocaine. When Lil Wayne used to say it, it was exciting and fun. Now it feels empty – it’s the set-up for a punchline about heartbreak.* You take it now for what it means – the purpose of my life is partying and I feel absolutely nothing and I don’t know if I like that or not.
When you take that aesthetic of nihilistic debauchery and splatter it over a representation of weighty reality, you get the video for “Tumblr Girls.” When I hear “I can’t feel my face” played over the images of women who are – by virtue of existing – NOT “simply Tumblr girls,” sung by a guy who treats them like they are but who obviously feels weird about it – I feel terrible. I’ve reduced the world to an object for my own personal viewing pleasure, and I’m confronted at the same time with the knowledge that there’s a whole lot more beyond that. I’m doing to the world what cocaine’s doing to my face. The fact that I **can’t** feel it demands the qualifier that there’s **something** to feel.
I’ve been calling this aesthetic “post-slutwave,” adding the self-reflective modifier “post” to the label used by the late-great Carles to describe artists who “favor sex appeal – suggestive dancing, scant clothing, explicit lyrics – to promote their career over their actual music.” To call something “slutwave” with any seriousness is fucked up and reductive (that was “sort of the point” of Hipster Runoff), but it’s become a niche-y term to describe the prevalence of sex positive imagery and themes in late 2000s and early 2010s pop music – a trend that, no matter how you feel about it, undeniably existed and continues to exist. Post-slutwave then is the inversion of that – the use of Gaga-era aesthetics, presented affirmatively, to point toward the absence behind party culture. It takes a celebration and makes it into a tragedy. It transforms pseudo-pornography into exploitation. It turns “I can’t feel my face” into “I can’t feel my heart.”
“Tumblr Girls” is one of the least subtle examples I’ve seen of post-slutwave, and the song’s obvious intent (especially Christoph Andersson’s outro) over the exploitation of real women for NFSW clicks is hardly admirable. But it’s an clear and easily explainable example of something I’ve been seeing for a long time.
I think there is a lot of ground to cover here and it’s hard to talk about it. There’s a lot of critical theory floating around right now that might be helpful – particularly Raoul Eshelman’s theory of dual frames – but it’s a difficult topic to write about. It’s much more than irony and it’s not far short of Sadean transgression. It might make everything Ariel Pink’s ever done completely permissible. Maybe I invented it, or maybe it never existed, or maybe it’s something that can’t, by definition, exist. I don’t know. But I think we have a problem with our critical understanding of artistic perception, and I think the failure of contemporary criticism to adequately address how I feel when I listen to a basic player-rap song is proof that we need to reassess some things.
* That was not a set up for a punchline about duct tape.