Apparently one of the most exciting stories in music this year is a lack of excitement about music. In January, the question “Is old music killing new music?” went viral when a newsletter by the jazz historian Ted Gioia (republished by The Atlantic) highlighted data showing that, from 2020 to 2021, listenership for freshly released songs—in comparison with listenership for older songs—decreased. Gioia argued that the music industry had “lost confidence” in the new, and he shared anecdotes suggesting that kids today are strangely enamored with past generations’ hits. Many people who shared his post on social media used it as an opportunity to declare that listeners were stuck in a retro rut, that today’s music was bad, and that the internet had killed off the very concept of newness.
The conversation generally brushed past the fact that streaming allows us to quantify something that has always happened: People listen to their favorite songs, regardless of when those songs were released, over and over again. But the theory of the old killing the new clearly has broad appeal right now. As we enter the third year of a pandemic, the passage of time feels broken. More than a decade into the Spotify era, culture has fractured in a way that makes it harder to talk about the latest hot thing. The internet’s endless archives have put the past in direct competition with the present. Record labels, as Gioia pointed out, are recalibrating around this reality. Is our culture? Are our artists? When the past is endlessly available, does it shape how the future sounds?
As social media kicked around these questions, I was deep in the throes of an obsession with a new musician: underscores, the recording name of 21-year-old Devon Karpf, who makes intelligent, guitar-loaded electronic pop about the anxiety of being alive. So far their main claims to fame are opening for the hyperpop duo 100 Gecs and working with Blink-182’s Travis Barker. But Karpf’s 2021 debut album, fishmonger, sounds like an expertly produced band with a record deal and not, as is actually the case, an unsigned SoundCloud dabbler who was stuck in their parents’ house because of COVID-19. The music’s glitches, hip-hop backbeats, distorted vocals, and emo melodies feel very now—yet it also drips with nostalgia for 2000s pop punk, ’90s alt-rock, and, most surprising, far-from-cool Millennial touchstones such as MGMT and Cobra Starship. When I first heard the album, I couldn’t work out whether I was so taken by it because it was familiar, or because it wasn’t.
Fishmonger stayed on loop for me—and then underscores put out a follow-up EP, boneyard aka fearmonger, that was even better. The new songs careened from acoustic ballads to EDM freak-outs, with jeering keyboards and fragile, pouting melodies. The vocals seemed to slip between identities—you feel like you’re listening to a cartoon pixie in one verse, a tattooed punk in the next—while delivering mysterious, evocative lyrics. The more I listened, the more I was reassured that the old-versus-new hand-wringing online was about economic structures, not generational aesthetic yearnings. Now, as always before, young people would keep using the past to push ahead.
When I spoke with Karpf on the phone in January, they came off as smart, self-aware, and very much in love with music. As a kid in San Francisco, they started out by using their dad’s computer to burn CDs with loops of their beats. In high school, Karpf became a jazz-band geek with a penchant for music theory. But their most important influences were the scenes they discovered on the internet—especially dubstep, a dance-music subgenre that surged in the early 2010s. “Skrillex birthed a whole legion of kids who were 10 years old when ‘Scary Monsters’ came out and realized that was what they wanted to do for the rest of their life,” Karpf said, referring to a famously swoop-haired DJ and his 2010 song and EP titled Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.
Dubstep, which supercharges reggae rhythms with quakes of bass, acquired a stereotype of bro-ishness as artists such as Skrillex and Diplo gained fame. But for Karpf, dubstep was “like rocket-science shit,” suggesting the endless possibilities of electronic production. “It is a method of making music that is experimental in ways that no other sort of music is,” they said. “The structure doesn’t change at all, but the places where you experiment, where you become well regarded, is the sound design.” Karpf mentioned Skrillex’s signature “growl” noise, which other artists have struggled to precisely duplicate. “The concept of there being an equation that has been unsolved by anybody over 10 years is so fascinating to me,” they said.
Underscores’ recent music only sometimes sounds like dubstep. But it does reflect the sensibility of someone who has logged countless hours playing with audio software and swapping streaming links. In Twitch livestreams for fans, Karpf picks apart their songs’ layers of sounds, samples, and effects. References abound: They’ll talk about a bass line evoking Rage Against the Machine, or about how MySpace-era bands inspired them to write a song in a certain key. Such fastidious, playful production is crucial to the music’s freshness. One standout track, “Tongue in Cheek,” makes pop-punk tropes feel new in part thanks to how the instruments move within the mix. The riffs are like a submarine—motoring beneath a placid surface, and then breaking it.
The vocals are innovative as well. Following in the model of the 21st century’s most important pop musicians, Karpf uses technology to sing beyond the physical limits of the human voice. The way that 100 Gecs’s Laura Les, a trans woman, “manipulated her voice to make it sound more authentic to her identity” gave Karpf the confidence to feature their own vocals at all, Karpf told me. In general, Gecs’s rise to prominence in the past few years has energized the online scene of young pop tinkerers that underscores is a part of. Gecs “made us all realize that all of these sounds that we would push out because we figured it would hurt our chances of making a living—people want to hear it,” Karpf said. “People want to hear stuff that is distorted. They want to hear stuff that is funny.”
The result of those epiphanies is music that is nonbinary both in form and in content. (“You see straight people do hyperpop, and it’s like, Yo, what’s going on?” Karpf said with a laugh). Underscores’ incredible “Girls and Boys” seems to darkly flip the perspective of a whole lineage of voyeuristic songs about sexual minorities—think Blur’s “Girls & Boys” or The Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” (“Why do I get in bed with people who could kill me?” goes one line). Other tracks dissect fame worship with the implication that for some kids—not just queer kids, but also kids of color (Karpf’s mom is Filipino, and their dad is white)—the hunger for role models is not frivolous at all. “Tongue in Cheek” pays tribute to an unnamed celebrity whom Karpf said they had based their “whole personality off of” when they were younger; on Discord, underscores’ fans have tried to guess who that celebrity was.
Queer emo dubstep might sound like a parody of what the new wave of the future might be, and heavily referential songs about imitating other people might seem to support arguments that our culture is stuck in place. But then again, Kurt Cobain idolized John Lennon, Beyoncé took inspiration from Tina Turner, and Skrillex obsessed over Aphex Twin. Innovation has always occurred through the creative deployment of familiar ingredients, the embrace of emerging technology, and the expression of previously suppressed viewpoints. Though the entertainment business may well be restructuring to prize established brands at the expense of the upstarts, communities are still being formed around new artists all the time.
Underscores played their first-ever headlining show last month, at a small club in Brooklyn. The crowd featured young folks in cat ears and see-through backpacks who moshed and sang along to every word of a slender catalog of songs. At one point during the sold-out concert, Karpf broke into a cover of No Doubt’s “Hella Good,” a pulsating, still-futuristic-seeming 2001 hit I hadn’t actively thought about in years. The rush of nostalgia in me crashed up against the thrill of being disoriented in the present. Karpf had told me that they one day want to tour with a band of instrumentalists, but for most of that night they were the only person onstage, jumping around and singing to a backing track. The emptiness around them felt like a precious thing, unexplored space.