In the early 19th century, humans, faced for the first time with the existentially terrifying concept of “free time,” invented boredom. Less than 200 years later, with the official rollout of the Apple iPhone, on Jan. 9, 2007, boredom was eliminated. The iPhone didn't accomplish this single-handedly. Early smartphone usage, like AIM on the T-Mobile Sidekick making speaking on the phone obsolete (simultaneously making the human voice irretrievably unhip and sending countless Jerky Boys and Crank Yankers to the unemployment lines), and pirated pornography, the raison d’etre for the internet (along with surveillance and Zork), laid the groundwork. But it was Steve Jobs’ triumph of design that made it so that the human mind would never again be burdened by oppressive possibilities of leisure. At last free time was eliminated, and all play could take on the omnipresent and dignified stressfulness of having a job. And that might have been the end of it; mandatory fun for every waking moment. But boredom, as either human virus or inherently human trait, proved itself to be wily and indomitable.
No stranger to cliches, boredom would cut a vacuum as soon as you look at it. It took just five years for humanity to adapt to the void left by ennui’s death and produce an antibody. On March 12, 2012, answering an evolutionary need for some semblance of meditative disquiet, the first Mac DeMarco album was released.
Mac DeMarco, for the reader who has not dated a youngish white urban male, or driven through greater Los Angeles in the past 10 years, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who plays a loose, ’90s slacker variation of ’70s soft rock (a genre he calls “jizz jazz,” presumably because “Jason Mraz” was already taken). He’s blandly handsome, looking like a freshman pledge in a less-toxic fraternity, or a slightly less punchable Matt Taibbi. He smokes cigarettes. Which, to the reader of a certain age, may not seem like a distinguishing characteristic. It speaks highly of young people’s wise distaste for the tobacco industry that, for DeMarco, apparently, smoking is “his thing.” (As of this writing, DeMarco may have quit smoking. But so, in death, did Humphrey Bogart. Iconography bucks history.) While not a household name, DeMarco’s Spotify page has more than 10 million monthly visitors. His song “Chamber of Reflection” alone has been played 332,000,000 times. He has hundreds of thousands of fans, including such notable aesthetes as Post Malone and the YouTube vlogger Emma Chamberlain. What DeMarco might lack in pop-star fame or omni-culture radio play, he makes up for in influence. There are hundreds of Mac DeMarco clones, of every gender, with millions of plays on Spotify and YouTube. He also, more than any other contemporary artist, has, as CREEM writer Kirk Podell puts it, given “permission to young white guys to not have any fashion.” In fact, it is this willful inclination to dress like shit that, as much as the smoking or songs, Mac DeMarco is best known for. It’s not that the singer dresses “badly,” per se. Rather, in his flaccid collared T-shirts and assiduously distressed baseball cap, DeMarco dresses like objectively nothing at all. Taking the Regular Joe anti-showbiz aesthetic of hardcore to its logical extension, DeMarco proudly puts on his biz called show looking less like someone who might acknowledge live music as performance and more like a Little Leaguer on laundry day, whose parents also actively dislike him.
Prior to Mac DeMarco’s debut, smartphones and Pornhub successfully conspired to reduce human possibility to four main projects:
(1) Hurting strangers’ feelings, either about politics or Batman, while using as few vowels as possible.
(2) Playacting as magical Italian plumbers on a Sisyphean, bootlicking, go-kartian quest to earn the affection of the feckless scion of sentient-mushroom royalty.
(3) Spitting directly into the mouths of hairless stepmothers.
(4) Not paying for music.
Mac DeMarco’s debut, the slight, and sleight-of-hand misdirectionally named, Rock and Roll Nightclub, did not add a fifth option. That distinction belongs to the Prince of Indie Rock’s second album, released the same year: the reasonably titled 2. And the epoch-shifting nature of this work is clear only in retrospect, and when seen as part of a larger narrative. The ascension of Mac DeMarco was a conspiracy, one divorced from intent but still with the pernicious confluences of a coup.
Neither Big Tech nor Big Porn operated from any larger complicity than using what was at hand to maximize profits. In the same way, Mac DeMarco benefited from a number of trends, none of which had goals outside capitalism-mandated voracity, if any agency at all. Among these trends were: the rise of alternative party rock (the attempts, drawing from Springsteen and Guided by Voices and codified by the Hold Steady and Japandroids, to claim/reclaim mainstream, traditionally “jockish” behaviors—such as drinking beer to excess, enjoying baseball, and wearing brimmed caps regardless of the position of the sun—as outre contra-culture activities); the desperate trend-hopping of a post-Napster independent music industry; the microblogging service Tumblr pivoting, in 2012, from an anti-ad stance to one that charged $25,000 per branding package; the second and third waves of the opioid epidemic; and, perhaps most obviously, the anti-fashion reactionaryism of “normcore.”
Normcore was, depending on who you ask, either a diagnosis of the usual and inevitable youth rejection of the trends immediately preceding any given collective youth’s coming of age (in this case the faux-individualist styles associated with Generation X) or the successful branding of stylistic retreat into giving up in general, and that retreat’s equally understandable justifications (the trend’s manifesto, entitled “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom,” was published, in size 20 “normal” font, in 2013, by the trend forecasting collective K-HOLE). The heavy, flattening “alternative’’-ness of the 1990s was (small o) oppressive to squares and hipsters alike. As tattoos went from subculture signifiers to semi-mandatory ruination of the flesh, both populations were subconsciously looking for an exit strategy from all that omnipresent difference. The early aughts provided a useful last gasp, with bands like Murder City Devils and Dead Moon (both bands, as almost a sweet tribute to the movement that got us all in that particular mess in the first place, being from the Pacific Northwest) briefly popularizing monochromatic, rudimentary, decidedly nontribal tattoos. This proved to be less a tattoo renaissance than indicative of a larger tipping point, in which ritual-free scarification was just one of the ready-made gestures toward mass individualism that the kids would reject. By 2008, in part of what Mark Fisher called the “destranging of music culture,” the wearing of black T-shirts/jeans was finally regifted to heavy metalheads and ninjas. Interpol lost their most bespoke bassist. Both rap and indie saw tight pants as a bourgeois affectation. In this vein, the entire project of tattoos was declared finished (or at least returned to its rightful owners: strippers, sailors, practitioners of one hardcore or another).
Mark Fisher saw this “increased tendency of those in music culture to dress and look like digitally and surgically enhanced versions of regular folk” purely as a negative. But there’s something to be said, at least initially, for Mac DeMarco’s regular-folk shtick being entirely unenhanced. He looks and talks like any number of imaginable wayward uncles/cousins. Whatever level of authenticity one grants DeMarco, it’s clear he tapped into a larger need for an outward style that was attainable to those without access to funds, a good thrift store, a surfeit of imagination, flamboyant friends, or even a Lydia Lunch mood board.
Normcore Fever found a willing carrier in early-’10s Tumblr. Whether the platform’s encouragement of “indie” as predominantly a visual signifier—one easily divorced from the quaint, arguably self-flattering/deluding notions of “independent cinema” or “independent rock”—was a new trend or merely another blip in the commodification of cool that began with ’60s ads for the Volkswagen Beetle (and has been the hate-erotica soundtrack to Baffler writers being conceived ever since) is up for debate. Another point of view is that the need to consider the anachronistic Tumblr (and, by extension, tangential blips like “sea punk” and “cottagecore”) at all is a symptom, fitting snuggly under either the internet porn or iPhone umbrella, of the information overload that got us in the Death of Boredom jam to begin with. Tumblr, with its prioritizing of image over sound making for an ideal showcase for a musician whose appeal was as much vibe as anything, and the site’s endless scrolling making common cause with the artist’s essential waviness, certainly did its part to make DeMarco a cultural vibe unto himself. But, in this reading, Tumblr is no more than a fading echo of MTV, with only its shorter lifespan of cachet to distinguish itself. Tumblr trends might be essential to our understanding of Mac DeMarco’s fame, but so might be the early filmographies of John Cusack/Curtis Armstrong. One can credit Tumblr to whatever degree one likes, but being out of fashion, especially when framed as The Bighearted Slob vs. The Vacuous and Prissy Non-Farter, never goes out of fashion.
The first big band to take Mac DeMarco on tour was the aggressively unprissy, most assuredly fart-capable rock ’n’ roll outfit Japandroids. Japandroids were a Vancouver band who gained fame by taking the critically beloved “underground” post-hardcore indie sounds of two decades previous and whittling away all the venom and awkwardness until what remained was song after song of in-the-red, party-palatable variations on “Surfing Bird.” This flagrant fun-mongering might have been found suspect by critics of a different generation, but writers in their mid-/late 20s, driven mad by insecurity at not being invited to coke parties at the turn of the century, embraced Japandroids as a band with Death From Above 1979’s sound and cachet, but one that eschewed snobby hard-drug culture in favor of an “everyone’s invited” kegger mentality. In turn, sensing a kindred spirit (and one that, as an opener, would pose no threat of blowing them off the stage), Japandroids embraced Mac DeMarco.
At the same time, DeMarco was signed by the Brooklyn label Captured Tracks. The musician and record store clerk Mike Sniper initially founded Captured Tracks to document the NYC Flying Nun cosplay scene that arose in the midaughts, when coastal indie rockers began to come to terms with the fact that there was nothing new to say. By the 2010s, Sniper was looking for a slightly less oblique guitar sound with which to keep the label’s lights on.
The ascension of Mac DeMarco was a conspiracy, one divorced from intent but still with the pernicious confluences of a coup.
Happily for Captured Tracks’ electricity bills, music consumers, disenchanted with the alternating scuzziness and pomposity of the aughts (or too young to care about the Strokes or Arcade Fire either way), were ready for an affable goofball as well, one who loved beer and skate shoes. Without conflating (too much) DeMarco’s success with a larger norm(core)alization of cannabis use, the heroin epidemic of 2010, the Purdue Pharma relaunching of its Partners Against Pain campaign in the same year, and the rise of fentanyl that began in 2013, it can't be discounted how closely Mac DeMarco followed on the heels of Ariel Pink, hypnagogic pop, and vaporwave; three symptoms of a fandom looking for music to match their new narcotized lifestyles. Though DeMarco is not a pot smoker, it also can’t be discounted just how easy it was to misread the singer’s slack for stonerdom, and just how much listeners projected their own habits upon him. As a bonus, fans received the depressive, near-death sound they craved, a singsong, bouncing-red-ball matching of guitar melody to vocal melody that could be followed along with from even the deepest stupor. And all this, but with the enlivening signifiers (beer! Untucked shirts! Acting a bit like an asshole!) of rock ’n' roll. Devil horns could be thrown, the existence of sex could be implied, jeans could get stained, all without leaving the comfort of one’s own coma. While Ariel Pink, hypnagogic pop, and vaporwave are all closely associated with Mark Fisher’s theories of “hauntology”—the (sometimes) knowing acknowledgment of the inescapability of nostalgia—Mac DeMarco renders such conceits absurd. The warm, reverie-inducing familiarity of his sound makes the truth of his hauntology the pretentious purview of nerds. Rock ’n’ roll, distilled into a series of gestures since roughly 1958, spits in the eye of hauntology.
(Mac DeMarco in particular has the inarguable appeal of not just expectorating in the face of any pretentiousness, but burping in it as well. Of course, the problem immediately arises that DeMarco’s aversion to pomposity is so aggressive that, in comparison, Nirvana are pretentious. All those cardigans and carefully disheveled layering of fabric; next to Mac DeMarco, Kurt Cobain was positively rococo.)
Rock ’n’ roll’s rendering of hauntology as redundant is especially glaring when run through a teen dream machine. Jon Maus, the Caretaker, Burial—all amateurs when compared with Ricky Nelson counting ghosts in “Garden Party.” And, as adorable and anodyne as Rick Nelson, with the modernist gilding of hardly giving a shit, DeMarco plays at recurrence like a huggable, gassy stuffed animal. Hauntology is melancholy by design, but DeMarco’s melancholy is... something else. Something suspiciously complex. If the ’60s psych re-creations are too legion to count, and Jack White spearheaded re-creating the blues, then is Mac DeMarco the baby-faced re-creation of...skiffle? Well, no, because skiffle was a preteen concern; an earnest, shallow whiff of R&B, tailor-made for pre-sex-crime Jimmy Pages still living in their happy homes. DeMarco’s music is the pain felt after all the nerve endings are worn down by anesthesia; the ghost itch of a phantom limb.
The comments on Mac DeMarco’s YouTube videos are overwhelmingly concerned with unrequited love, memory, and being neither happy nor sad. While not entirely different from the comments under other pop music videos (DeMarco’s good, good heart and transcendent physical beauty are common themes), the overwhelming tone is one of an almost abject nostalgia. A yearning for a distant, better past, when happiness was still possible, that one expects to see posted by boomers under, say, a CSNY video, but that is jarring when the high keening is about a song from 2015, posted by users who are young enough to still be on their second or third dog, tops. But who convey the world-weariness of someone who knows the layout of their local pet cemetery by heart. While it’s nice to see that, even as videogames have taken its place in the larger cultural hierarchy, some music is still soundtrack (or at least ambient texture) to life’s pivotal moments, the disconnect between the strength of feeling expressed and the actual circumstance described (mainly getting dumped in high school/college) can lead to the suspicion that some of these testimonials existed in draft form since before the relationship ended, as though a degree of wistfulness came free with the purchase of the song, as part of Salad Days' preorder rollout package. If the Caretaker is the hauntology of a prewar, distant past, DeMarco is the hauntology of post-puberty, 15 minutes ago.
The artists that came, and continue to come, in Mac DeMarco’s wake are, against all probability, even more wavy than their father. Eliding DeMarco’s weird tuning, his flat microtonal sharpening by a fourth, his messing with tape speed, artists like Clairo, Boy Pablo, and Rex Orange County build only from their aesthetic mentor’s least compelling aspects; taking DeMarco’s happy/sad, major-key beach-blanket wooziness to manufacture Spotify “Big Mood” playlists out of prosaic diary entries, until there’s a stack of frowny-emoji-stamped papers, each thin re-creation with its own 4 million listeners. While made by the terminally fresh-faced, it’s not new. It’s post-hippy insouciance and mist repeated, slack motherfuckered pastiche dipped in anime; Laurel Canyon baby-step journeymen, embracing OK boomerdom before their time. Worrisome not just on its own merits but because when your mother is in the cancer ward, and the hospital’s programming pipes in Steely Dan’s “Only a Fool Would Say That,” you can hear that and think, “Yes. This makes sense. The world is cruel and this gives some perverse solace.” But what will the former kids do when their own parents are dying, and Rex Orange County’s “A Song About Being Sad” comes on, and they’re no longer allowed to draw their own distraught conclusions?
DeMarco’s music is the pain felt after all the nerve endings are worn down by anesthesia; the ghost itch of a phantom limb.
Because none of this music is truly sad. Rather it serves to remind the listener that there is a thing called “sadness” that they might consider feeling; in the same way that the television show Euphoria uses music as interspatial shortcuts that the viewer might travel on their way from one sexy/ triggering lacuna to another. Nor is any of the music truly nostalgic, at least not in a traditional sense of nostalgia-inducing music. What DeMarco’s music references (Harry Nilsson, Todd Rundgren) might as well be martial band music of 1812, and the music his adherents reference was born, free of origin, on a mattress-on-the-floor half shell in 2013. And all the wars any of it might be relevant to (should Spielberg ever be inclined to use “Ode to Viceroy” over a long panning shot of drone operators goofing off in between wedding bombings) were proxy, secret, or otherwise of little interest to the average Jizz Jazz aficionado.
What is this music, if not all the things its listeners and makers claim it to be? Are we going to be so insanely arrogant as to tell a legion of floppy-haired emotionalists that their feelings are wrong? Well, conceding that arrogance, and granting the subjective nature of all these discussions, I would like to suggest one more thing that all the music coming out of the School of DeMarco might be; it might be boredom. I say this not in the “haha the kids suck! Why don’t they listen to exciting music like Dinah Shore and Stabbing Westward???” sense, but in the way that when one is in uncharted territory, feeling one’s way across a mass of gray, it might be helpful to be told about the existence of elephants. This music might be all the romantic things its fans say it is. But it also may be the boredom that those who have never truly experienced boredom, because modern iPhone life is so unrelentingly thrilling and/or taxing, lack the language to identify.
As the psychotherapist Adam Phillips defines it, boredom is “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” That application of a minor-key narrative to nonevents, as though you were writing fan fiction of your senior year of high school? That’s boredom. That feeling that’s not being happy and not being sad? That’s boredom. That memory that is not quite a memory, but more like an itch? That’s nostalgia, of sorts, but it is also being bored. When we are children, and we tell our parents we’re bored, they tell us to go outside. It’s the (not terribly helpful at the time) alternative that helps define what we’re feeling. But if the threat of going outside is something we only bring out when the big guns are needed, when being commanded to “touch grass” is a metaphor for the impossibility of escaping the white noise we eat, drink, and live in, then we're already divorced enough from our own nature (let along trees and badgers and shit) that we can be forgiven for calling a tree a car, the sky a banana, and boredom “nostalgia” and/or “romance.”
This music might be all the romantic things its fans say it is. But it also may be boredom for those who have never truly experienced boredom.
How does the music of Mac DeMarco achieve its infectious, wistful power? On the surface, his songs resemble what one might find played on any 70s AM radio station. He’s even less slick than that era’s numerous soft-rock reenactors; in Mac DeMarco’s version of The Virgin Suicides, the strains of sweet solipsistic reverie are coming from the bathroom where the smokers congregate. With his manipulation of tape in the studio and his matching of vocal and guitar lines, DeMarco taps into raga rock meditativeness. Combined with lyrical themes that, conveyed in assiduously chillaxed tones, refuse the high stakes that heartache normally implies, the effect is daydreamy. Albeit a dream where the memory of having once flown is discussed, but flying itself rarely occurs. Memory of flight admittedly is its own delicate pleasure. And lucid dreaming can be a path to examining one’s interior life. The songs of Mac DeMarco work as all earworms do: by means that Oliver Sacks' erudite examination of the phenomenon, Musicophelia, explains as “fuck if anyone really knows” (not an exact quote). In the same book, the ethnomusicologist Jeremy Scratcherd is quoted as documenting, from studies of early folk music, that the original term for an “earworm” was “the piper’s maggot.” In DeMarco’s case, this designation is more apt. Not as a way to neg DeMarco, but rather to acknowledge the sensation, so close to unbeing, that his music evokes, while appreciating that maggots are people too, and their getting fat can be another way of saying that, in tedium, something small might grow.
When I was 19, the house I was living in rented out a room to a friend who didn’t live there. Instead he used the room to grow trees of marijuana, just as a personal challenge. When the plants were finished he emptied out the room and put the entirety of the room’s shake in a single batch of brownies. Despite his warnings, I ate one. I considered myself an adept drug user and couldn’t imagine that a single brownie might be more disorienting than the eight fluid ounces of Robitussin I was comfortable drinking. I spent six long hours on my chair, unable to move, watching syndicated episodes of The Simpsons, sobbing, positive that what was happening to me was my literal soul leaving my body. That’s what listening to multiple Mac DeMarco albums in a row is like. It’s not like drowning, exactly. It’s more like feeling like the “Tooth Child,” of creepypasta/Channel Zero infamy. But instead of countless creepypasta teeth covering me, it is sheets of warmly moist and suffocating lasagna pasta, and the overriding sensation is the fear that, after death, nothing might ever come back.
I hate the music of Mac DeMarco, but that position itself is deeply boring, as most cruelty is. So other interpretations must be drawn.
The boredom that comes from Mac DeMarco’s music is not to be confused with the meditative quietude already associated with dishwasher/wind-chime genres such as “drone” or “new age.” For those musics, as characterized by the Disintegration Loops album series and the Pure Moods compilations, there are stated goals, be they achieving a state of either revelation, transcendence, or calm. They all existed before the Death of Boredom, as viable alternatives to either religion or mowing the lawn. DeMarco’s music, however, is like ASMR, the newly popular genre of video performance where charming online personalities make a therapeutic musique concrete out of, among other things, the tapping of manicured nails on glass and the disassembling of Styrofoam. Safety is a tool to reach ineffable sensation. Tone and texture, far more than narrative (or explicit emotion), are the point. In this comparison, Mac DeMarco makes some sort of positive sense. ASMR, as both the only truly new, viable art of the 21st century and proof that Daredevil’s origin story is plausible, shows us once and for all that as one human sense atrophies, another grows in its place as compensation. With the potential “tingle” of ASMR, one finds a sibling for the not-quite-nostalgia, not-quite-any-accurately-designated-emotion itchiness of DeMarco’s outward-spreading oeuvre.
As of this writing, little good, or even passable, art has come from Mac DeMarco’s influence. Critics, fearing irrelevance, may try to pretend otherwise. Critics, betraying the long-lashed and noble pony, did the same with the automobile. Progress justified by its own reality is just fatalism, and social critics did Robert Moses’ and Henry Ford’s work for them. The music of Mac DeMarco, based as it supposedly is on singular charisma and winsome idiosyncrasy, should be difficult to replicate. But DeMarco’s clones, sanding down an already smooth surface, re-create not only a sellable approximation of the Laid-back Prince of Indie Rock’s sound but his success as well. If the number of hits on any given Clairo or Gus Dapperton video is any indication, this success is achieved, in terms of either art or labor, without anyone involved breaking a sweat. What this has made of this particular musical landscape—popular and introspective soft rock—is akin to a fugue-nightmare perversion of Mark Fisher’s hopes for a meaningful melancholic art. Written by and for the parasitic mites that travel through Spotify’s invisible wires, it is music that is made not only to fit on a smartphone, but to mold itself to a smartphone’s exact diminutive specifications. Even its imagination is iPhone-diminished; deathlike solipsist-pop with all the qualities of autoerotic asphyxiation but the final going (or cumming).
But, as my father said, before he himself got going, “We live in hope.” Boredom has always been an inactive hassle. But one that commanded, to an irksome degree, possibility. If technology and pornography, and the oppressive burden of limitless information stripped of value by its nonexistent (or invisible) cost, have eliminated a vital source of essential restlessness, it can be hoped that Mac DeMarco and his ilk are, like ASMR, laying down the foundation for tedium’s replacement. What may come out of this alternate, needling void is hard to know. But the gift of elderly hacks such as myself is that we can’t accurately imagine what will come next. John Berryman wrote, “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” He said so, and wrote it down while writing a number of other severely neat-o poems. Then he jumped off a bridge. But the bridge, and river below, come for us all. Who knows what all these newly bored—as translated in their strange new language—kids might come up with, before their own personal Mississippi River shows up to take them further down the line; to the open-world RPG where both nostalgia and boredom are truly and finally vanquished by an endlessly amusing God? Where all your old iPhone batteries are waiting for you, there is no Adderall drought, the angels smell like clove cigarettes and honeysuckle beer, and you’re eternally, impossibly satisfied with the first thing the pornography site shows you.