Tumblr might seem like a pretty innocuous Web platform—like a more media-rich Twitter, it allows users to share photos, videos, text, links, audio, and quotes, plus follow other users doing the same thing. But it’s already being accused of heinous crimes against culture. On March 20 former Pitchfork editor Scott Plagenhoef wrote a well-argued piece for the A.V. Club explaining what he sees as Tumblr’s negative effects on musicians—including an uptick in faddishness in the indie-rock world, which once imagined itself above such things. His core assertion seems to be that Tumblr is “merely a way of broadcasting things a user finds cool, attractive, unique, or funny without explanation.” Other critics—like, for instance, Drake—jump straight to hand-wringing predictions that Tumblr will rob an entire generation of its ability to express itself creatively, despite the fact that its user base is dwarfed by those of social-networking behemoths like Twitter and Facebook.
I agree that there can be drawbacks when musicians get heavily into Tumblr—Plagenhoef is spot-on with his concerns about artists becoming mere “content generators,” maintaining a steady stream of output to keep up with the ongoing online conversation and in the process abandoning quality control—but Tumblr is hardly going to kill creative thought. And at any rate, it’s yet to be demonstrated that what I call “Tumblrfication”—the propensity to make constant remixing of material and ideas a part of the creative process—is actually a result of Tumblr, rather than a preexisting phenomenon that explains Tumblr’s popularity (and that of similar sites like Pinterest). Anyone with genuine creative instincts is unlikely to be satisfied with simply reproducing others’ work, and most Tumblr users who post nonoriginal content are media consumers rebroadcasting their intake, not artists wasting their creative energies. Some Tumbloggers who post largely or entirely nonoriginal content (including the enigmatic Alaskan Eyes and Chicago-based weirdos and micro-scale style icons Molly Soda and Clairey Pear) do so in ways that employ guided randomness and serendipity to project themes, trains of thought, and even narratives—that is, they’re making art out of it. And of course collage and assemblage (art forms with very long histories) are already among the dominant creative modes of our time, both online and offline—even if Tumblr had never existed, it wouldn’t change that situation.
Repurposing found sound (or other people’s music) as your own artwork probably started with tape music in the 1940s and has been mainstream since the sample-heavy early days of hip-hop, but the Tumblrfication of music is less a method than a mind-set. It’s the notion that concepts can and should be remixed as freely as sounds, and that unique new work can result from replicating the kind of controlled randomness that a Tumblogger can use to transform, say, a bunch of photos of forests and train-hopping punks into the outline of a story.
Internet-based microgenres like witch house and seapunk—and the untold number of new ones propagating as we speak—are at the leading edge of Tumblrfication, and they’re often praised or derided as much for the ideas and aesthetics they play with as for the music they play. In some cases they can succeed as a “brand” even when the music is a failure. Witch-house progenitors Salem attracted a lot of fans who didn’t feel strongly about their sound but liked the idea of combining the aesthetics of druggy Houston rap and druggy trailer-park doom metal—I see long-haired stoner-looking dudes wearing flat-brimmed baseball caps way more often than I hear Salem tracks played in public.
But guided randomness and a “remix everything” philosophy aren’t solely employed by bleeding-edge Internet-based acts. As John Seabrook points out in the recent New Yorker piece “The Song Machine,” the cabal of producers and songwriters behind most of the big pop numbers on the charts works in a similar way. The producers, in this case a duo called Stargate, create a selection of beats, then go into a studio with a “top line” songwriter who provides the vocal melodies. The top-line writer’s job involves a lot of improvising—Ester Dean, who’s profiled in “The Song Machine,” is responsible for some of Rihanna’s best hooks, and she writes the same way many rappers polish freestyles into verses. As the raw melodic material is recorded, the producers cut, paste, and rearrange it. In this fashion they might knock out a dozen or more songs, some of them destined to be hits, in a single session. Some fans find this disillusioning—the image of the Dylan-esque auteur sitting down at a piano with nothing and walking away with a finished song is too romantic for them to give up.
Even rock music—according to its most humorless fans, the last bastion of authenticity in an ever more artificial world—is becoming more and more like Tumblr, and in this case the doomsayers might have a point. Though I haven’t seen many examples of rock musicians using Tumblr-style guided randomness, the genre’s creative progression seems to have been stalled by an increasing focus on replicating and recombining sounds from its past. (This could be because “rock” tends to be defined negatively these days—that is, as something that’s not hip-hop, dance, R&B, pop, metal, et cetera—and that leaves it little room to maneuver.) Recently I stumbled across Busting Visions, the new album from Toronto four-piece Zeus (also the backing band for Jason Collett of Broken Social Scene), and it sounds uncannily like cleverly edited-together clips of classic-rock songs—a Beatles verse followed by a Lennon-solo-album chorus followed by a Queen bridge.
But bummers like this count for little in my eyes compared to the many examples of Tumblrfication working out in compelling ways. Beat makers in the hip-hop world have taken to chaos as a creative tool with a fervor that ought to make Brian Eno swell with pride. Clams Casino admits that his sui generis sound has been influenced by music that he found by searching file-sharing services for words like “blue” or “water.”
And then there’s Party Supplies, aka producer Justin Nealis, who teamed up with rapper Action Bronson to record the new album-length mix tape Blue Chips. In a recent Village Voice profile, author Phillip Mlynar describes the “YouTube party” portion of their process: “The duo came up with ridiculous phrases—’a 100-acre burgundy carpet’—and searched for them on the streaming-video site, then clicked until they unearthed something like ‘an old Indian pop song with 45-year-old Indian men doing funny dances.’ Once they struck gold, Party Supplies would plug his MPC sampler directly into the headphone port of his computer and loop the found footage while Bronson wrote his raps.” The first part of that process is similar to the way many Tumblr users find material to post, making Blue Chips to my knowledge the most Tumblr-like album of the year so far. Anyone worried about what Tumblr might do to musicians’ creativity should worry a little less—Blue Chips is one of the most exciting albums of the year as well.