'The anxious, urgent, freak-out art of 2018' / Ivana Brehas
Looking at the output of film and music in 2018, I noticed a recurring thread binding numerous works together across mediums, forms and genres — a sense of anxiety and urgency. The best term I have found to describe this is simply “freaking out”.
From the music of The 1975, Brockhampton and Earl Sweatshirt, to the films of Adam McKay, Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Schrader, Sebastián Silva and Boots Riley, works of art in 2018 were infused with the same energy: I’m freaking the fuck out and I don’t know what to do.
This anxiety not only influenced artistic content, but also bled into (and often destabilized) form itself. With urgency came messiness- desperation overtaking sophistication. This is not a bad thing. The rawness of a work sometimes more accurately conveys the feelings of its creator.
This rawness is evident in The 1975’s latest album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. The single “Love It If We Made It” is an obvious example of “freak-out art”. Its lyrics function as a kind of catalogue of the 2018 zeitgeist, presented in a disorienting and chaotic stream with no clear system of organization: “A beach of drowning three-year olds / Rest in peace Lil Peep… Fossil fueling / masturbation / immigration”, etc.The same sense of rawness permeates other tracks on the album, too. On “Give Yourself A Try”, singer-songwriter Matty Healy forgoes meter and rhyme in the service of blunt honesty, too crucial to be tidied or diluted into formulaic symmetry: “And what would you say to your younger self? / Growing a beard’s quite hard and whiskey never starts to taste nice / And you’ll make a lot of money and it’s funny ‘cause you’ll move somewhere sunny and get addicted to drugs”. Its moments of breaking from formula (money/funny/sunny/addicted to drugs) are jarring, shaking you out of any kind of pop-music reverie — suggesting a strong desire on Healy’s part to make you pay attention. In the music video, Healy dances around like a man possessed, while song lyrics randomly appear onscreen. He continues dancing even as he sings of a fan who killed herself — over the same bright instrumental, in the same tone of voice — this dissonance making his perpetual motion seem more frantic than upbeat. The cumulative effect is one of mild, self-aware mania: I’m freaking the fuck out and I don’t know what to do.
American boyband Brockhampton also released an album in 2018, the gritty and confessional iridescence. It’s an album that was inevitably and unavoidably informed by the disillusionment and devastation of parting ways with a band member (and, indeed, losing a friend) after abuse allegations surfaced against him that year. The album is not about this experience — it is only directly alluded to once; on FABRIC, Kevin Abstract asks, “Why the hell the BBC only write about me / When it comes down to controversy?” — but its echoes are felt in the tone of the work itself. A departure from their past three albums, changes in style reflect the irrevocable changes in perspective that the remaining Brockhampton members have undergone. Optimism is replaced with doubt and caution (“Why the fuck would you share this shit with these people? / I don’t know these people” sings Bearface), and where there were once beat loops and choruses, industrial sounds now fracture and disintegrate. Though iridescence is clearly an artistic evolution, a step forward for the boyband, it’s also markedly chaotic — put together in 10 days while the band was on tour in London, its urgency is palpable.
Self-described “maniacal” Brockhampton member JOBA has always been a symbol of volatility, but on iridescence his deranged, attention-grabbing verses were brought to the fore. He bursts onto NEW ORLEANS crying “Impending death is the only sign of life”, while on J’OUVERT he screams louder and louder, “I thought I knew better, wish I knew better, should have known better, wish that I was better”. His manic energy is both cathartic and emblematic of a pervasive sentiment of our time: that freaking out is the only logical response to an absurd and tumultuous world. Numerous members also casually allude to suicidal thoughts throughout the album, while Abstract openly states his priorities on WEIGHT: “I’m still worried ‘bout when [fellow Brockhampton member] Ashlan finna put the razor down / So I don’t really give a fuck about what story they done spun.” There is no time to be distracted by the trivial — in the art of 2018, the stakes are life and death.
Another 2018 release, Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs, is an album directly affected by trauma, released in the wake of his father’s death. The album cover — ostensibly a blurry phone selfie, in which we can make out a toothy smile amidst the motion-blur light trails — is in itself hurried, manic and unrefined. Comprising of 15 tracks, all of which are less than three minutes long, the album amounts to a total of only 24 minutes. The songs are short, mumbled bursts of ideas and feelings, in which many lyrics are hardly intelligible over lo-fi instrumentals. The intentionality of the album’s roughness has been noted by numerous reviewers. Rolling Stone’s Charles Holmes describes Sweatshirt’s vocal delivery as “studiously [imprecise]”, while The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas posits that the album’s “lopsided backings perhaps evoke a blunted mind”. Likewise, Pitchfork’s Timmhotep Aku writes that the album “is based on abstraction, where form is secondary to mood… the project is distinctly rough around the edges”, and deliberately so — with the intention of capturing and externalising a messy interiority.
The films of 2018 were no strangers to turmoil, either. A cacophony of arresting and traumatic imagery constitutes much of Adam McKay’s Vice, with editor Hank Corwin cutting the film at a feverish pace and splicing in footage of bombings and torture like they’re horror-movie jump scares. Such a viewing experience is brutal and viscerally unsettling, but this effect is clearly intentional — pulling us out of willfully ignorant comfort zones through unflinching exposure to the realities of the Iraq war. Once again, life-and-death stakes dominate any desire for stylistic “cleanliness” or refinement. Everything here is frenzied and extremely alarmed, evoking a sense of crisis. It’s as if the unspeakable horror of its subject matter has rendered the film itself formally unhinged — a kind of post-traumatic style.
Even stylistically refined works like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed vibrate with anxiety. Both works highlight the fragility of life (the former on a human scale, through the symbol of infants; the latter on a global, ecological scale), leaving us as tense and alert as a nervous parent. An earthquake disrupts the peace of Roma’s newborn nursery, reminding us how quickly and easily it can all go wrong, while in First Reformed, a lengthy scene is devoted to the discussion of global warming — inducing anxiety in viewers who cannot separate the film’s reality from their own; who know that the statistics and predictions mentioned apply to the world in which they are living. The danger and dread of First Reformed can’t be confined to the cinema screen, and the perpetual trepidation with which Roma is infused feels wholly contemporary.
In his band The Coup, Boots Riley has been making “things-aren’t-okay-and-you-should-be-concerned” art for years, but his 2018 directorial debut Sorry to Bother You brought this perspective to a wider audience. The film very much intends to bother you, freaking audiences out and making us uncomfortable in order to suggest that this is the exact response we should have to our modern capitalist society. Employing absurdist body horror and a kind of sickly comedy, Riley brings the world of telemarketing — and of late capitalism, institutionalized racism, and the military-industrial complex — into the realm of the grotesque. As in Vice, its “crazy” formal style seems entangled with the “craziness” of its subject matter, as if trying to match it in absurdity. As Eileen Jones writes in her Jacobin review, titled “Crazy” Anticapitalism, “[the] surreal aspects of Sorry to Bother You represent an honest attempt to suggest the kind of crude madness we live in every day”.
Sebastián Silva’s unnerving Tyrel achieves a similar state of anxiety through opposite means; extreme naturalism, rather than surrealism, unsettles us as its protagonist Tyler (Jason Mitchell) endures a weekend full of racist micro-aggressions and alienation. Shaky, hand-held cameras capture the film’s drunken debauchery to nauseating effect and unease permeates the film, all the more disquieting for never reaching a climax. Rather than being neatly tied up with conventional narrative resolutions, Tyrel raises issues and then leaves them to hang over subsequent scenes, sustaining discomfort throughout the film. By fixing its premise firmly in the real world, Tyrel’s anxiety has a similar effect to that of First Reformed, seeping out of the screen and into the audience. Viewers are unable to remove themselves from the film’s anxiety, as it has its roots so explicitly in their own world — directly referencing events like the Women’s March and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. At one point in the night, a group of drunk men dance and scream along to R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, its ironic, defeatist title alluding to the nightmarish political climate before them. Despair is expressed through upbeat music and frenzied movement, presenting an image of manic hysteria that echoes Matty Healy’s performance in the “Give Yourself A Try” music video.
Though varied in style, a sense of “freaking out” seems to unite numerous films and albums released in 2018. The works I’ve explored are a fraction of a much larger whole, and are part of a long tradition of creating formally and stylistically chaotic art during times of socio-political tumult. Sometimes this art is a deliberate response to the world around it; other times, the influence of the zeitgeist is unconscious or incidental. In his 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera recounts an anecdote from the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. A man sees another man vomiting in a public square, and tells him, “I know just what you mean.” In many ways, these works of art are counterparts to that vomiting man — confronting and messy, making conspicuous that which is difficult to digest, and perfectly capturing the spirit of the times.