Last December, I went back home to California for winter break. Despite the (relatively) frigid temperatures down there, I was appalled to wake up every morning and see the bright sun beaming through my window, deceiving me. At least Seattle is honest with you; the gray overcast sky won’t taunt you for choosing to spend a day in a vegetative state watching Twin Peaks. There, the siren song from the sun lulls suburban civilians into a sense of security, overexposing the dark underbelly that luxury feasts on.
California, the third album by experimental band Mr. Bungle, encapsulates the role of endless progress for technological innovation in the rise of materialism. Hailing from Eureka, California, Mr. Bungle is vocalist Mike Patton, bass guitarist Trevor Dunn, drummer Danny Heifetz, and guitarist Trey Spruance with lyrics written by Patton, Spruance, and Dunn. 1999’s California warns about the acceleration of robots made in the image of man and fashion’s triumph over truth to the tune of abrasive blends of genres from “the good ol days.”
In California, Mr. Bungle are fearful of the racing pace of technological advancement and the battle of humanity against their own creations. The song “None of Them Knew They Were Robots” fuses 1920s jazz and Californian surf rock sounds to create the chaotic soundscape of the artificial intelligence takeover. In the lyrics, Mr. Bungle peels back the façade of endless innovation, writing “From history, the flood of counterfeits released/ The black cloud, reductionism and the beast.” The counterfeits are representative of AI, or other technology which replicate human behavior yet ultimately fail to capture it entirely, as scientific reductionism inherently distorts reality. Reducing humanity to its parts can be dangerous, as explained by later lyrics which say “With my machines I can dispatch you/ From this world without a trace/ Our nostalgia ghosts are ready to take your place.” Here, Mr. Bungle warns that embracing these technologies could be deadly and that reductionism commodifies humanity into something replaceable.
On “Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy,” Mr. Bungle uses the golem from Jewish folklore as a metaphor for artificial intelligence. Golem II is described as “self-perfecting/ Lie-rejecting/ Human mind correcting,” illustrating technology’s potential to improve past humanity and ‘perfect’ human nature. This is reiterated in “The Holy Filament,” in which machines are described as “self-reflecting” as they mirror human desires and ideals. These tracks lay out the theme of man vs. the machine and human participation in their own commodification.
Man-made machines embody the culture and ideals of their creator, pushing past human limits to achieve their maker’s idea of perfection. California looks towards a future run by robots with anxiety, as the leaders of this innovation are motivated by profit above all else.
The largest man-made machine to run awry is capitalism. California is riddled with references to materialism and the harms of a profit driven culture, encapsulated on “Retrovertigo,” which diverges from the surf rock sound to a solemn ballad. The title “Retrovertigo” was coined by member Trevor Dunn while living in San Francisco and seeing an uptick in vintage shops, Dunn said “I remember being disgusted by this sort of retro-gression … so the vertigo part was about my own nausea about this trend.” Dunn critiques the nature of commodified nostalgia, which glosses over the bad parts of history to turn it into a fashion, a product that can be bought and sold. On the final chorus on the song Dunn writes “See the vintage robot wearied, then awakened by revision theories,” representing the purpose of comfortably repackaging the past.
“Vanity Fair” is easily the most relistenable song on the album, a catchy doo-wop pop song comparing beauty culture to self-flaggelation. The lyrics use the Skoptsy, a sect of Christianity which practiced castration as part of their beliefs around abstinence, as a metaphor for the beauty industry’s endless invention of new ideals which warp one’s natural beauty to an inhuman standard. This is evident from the first lyric, “You’re not human, you’re a miracle,” introducing the song’s use of religious imagery and distinguishing nature from purity. On the chorus, the narrator asks “Will you hurt me now and make a million?” criticizing those who profit off of plastic surgery or promoting beauty trends in media, like the Vanity Fair magazine. The narrator follows the ideals of the Skopsi on the bridge during “the moment of [their] de-sexing,” which they then celebrate declaring “Now I’ve made it/ I’m finally naked.” These lyrics use extreme self-flagellation in the name of purity as a metaphor for contortionist efforts required to be beautiful by the standards of a given time. The conflation of anti-sex purity and nudity delves into the impossible demands of beauty standards; embodying the Madonna-whore complex or being a “sexy baby,” as Taylor Swift put it.
Within Marxist thought, commodities become fetishized when assigned a price or value dependent on its social status as opposed to its utility, which leads producers to maximizing the social value of their products. California exposes these intentions, warning that producers solely seeking profit are chasing inhuman ideals. Commodity fetishism describes the reverence given to materialism and its role in turning the wheels of innovation. California’s eclectic nostalgic sounds create an uncanny unplaceable sense of deja vu, reminding listeners that this 20 year old album’s fears of the industries heading technological advancement have only become truer.
KATE WATANABE | A Preacher With An Animal’s Face | KXSU Music Reporter