PRINT May 2004


Game Boy music

IF PUNK ROCK DIED when the first kid said, “Punk’s not dead!” then reports of the genre’s vitality would appear to be greatly exaggerated. Everyone from pop star Avril Lavigne to Nike CEO Phil Knight has recently avowed the living influence of punk on their respective cultural output. So many and sudden are allusions to the genre that detecting punk’s revivified presence has become the early twenty-first century’s answer to Elvis sightings: It’s the presence of absence that we’re really seeing. All the sneakers and twice-told tales and teen lip-synchstresses are mere memento mori, reminding us how brief punk’s moment was, how gone forever it really is.

Not one to linger in the past, Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren has settled (for now) in Paris’s haut bourgeois Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Impeccably dressed, his youth magically preserved like the Countess Bathory’s (does he, too, bathe in virgin’s blood?), McLaren takes a seat at the Café de Flore and outlines for me his recent travels around the globe, from Zurich to the Parisian working-class suburb Ivry-sur-Seine to the future/past whiplash culture of Beijing to Mexico City in quest of his latest quarry: pop music composed with the Nintendo corporation’s Game Boy unit. “It’s lo-fi, low-bit. It doesn’t play chords, and the timing is not in sync, so every song, every per formance, is new,” Malcolm explains over tea, protesting against what he calls the “sameness” of digitally produced, Pro Tools–dependent, multitrack, “high-bit” music.

Malcolm McLaren? Game Boy music? You raise an eyebrow, but consider another post-Pistols McLaren production: the still-influential 1982 concept album Duck Rock. While much of the credit (as usual) is due another—in this case, producer Trevor Horn—McLaren mixed then-nascent East Coast hiphop, radio-DJ prattle, scratching, Zulu, Brazilian and Caribbean music with layers of classical strings, percolating New Wave synthesizer, the double-Dutch rhymes of Harlem schoolgirls, and Appalachian hillbilly songs. Eminem’s recent sampling of the album’s best-known song, “Buffalo Gals,” was much remarked, but Duck Rock has been sampled by countless artists over the years. In Cut ’n’ mix, his 1987 book on Caribbean club culture, critic Dick Hebdige credits McLaren’s Duck Rock with nothing less than waging “war on people’s prejudices about modern music.” DJ culture, genre busting, proto “mashups” . . . Check that date again: 1982.

While lo-bit’s roots can be traced from Lev Termen, the Russian physicist who in 1919 invented the eerie-sounding theremin, to the invention of Robert Moog’s first synthesizer in 1954, most agree that Johan Kotlinski (aka Role Model) is the movement’s Prometheus. In 2000 the Swedish DJ created a custom Game Boy cartridge that turns the device’s internal synthesizer into a musical workstation. He manufactured the cartridges in a small run in Japan and made them available to would-be composers for seventy dollars on the Web. Kotlinski called his invention Little Sound DJ (LSDJ). The same year, German art student Oliver Wittchow designed another custom cartridge, which he called Nanoloop. “I got Nanoloop in 2000,” says Game Boy musician Chris Burke, who performs as Glomag. “A little later I found out about LSDJ, which started around the same time, and I bought one of those as well. I love the direct nature of writing and performing on the Game Boy—I can write music on the subway.” The nomadic life of McLaren and the Game Boy musicians and the mercurial nature of their music and thus far primarily Web-based distribution techniques make for a nascent subcultural current that is (perhaps deliberately) difficult to pin down. But the use of this inexpensive, discarded digital technology (the first Game Boy programmers found their secondhand machines in Paris’s puces) is no doubt meant to challenge that primary symbol of baby-boomer rebellion—the guitar.

Perhaps it is fitting that a generation with “baby” in their designation would find the process of maturation rough, but Gen Xers like me can testify to the horror of owning many of the same records as our parents. For years we experienced the frustration of not having come up with anything sufficiently hostile or annoying to distinguish ourselves from the generation that preceded us—until the computer. The loudest rock ’n’ roll elicited not a murmur in the household of my preteen years, but the sound of Pac-Man absolutely drove the folks mad. For decades the art world was unperturbed by all manner of scatology and profanity, but the appearance of digital art got middle-aged critics harrumphing. And if punk rock delivered the first blow to the record industry, it is software engineers in their twenties creating primitive digital production tools and file-sharing technology on their basement computers who are poised to deliver the coup de grâce.

Game Boy musicians, with their emphasis on sharing, openness, and global connectedness, are perhaps strongest on ethic, but the aesthetics are catching up. Their tracks can be lullaby sweet and vaguely spooky, like Bubblyfish’s pretty, uncanny “Translucent”; or elegant, folkie creations like those of Chicago-based Mark DeNardo, a classically trained violinist and fan of John Cage; while others are throbbing and—to my hoary ears at the rump end of the eighteen-to-thirty-five demographic—suitably new and jarring enough to stir up some sort of cultural ruckus. “We’ve made Kraftwerk’s phrase ‘I’m the operator of my pocket calculator’ more apt than ever,” says Glomag’s Burke. “Using whatever tools are available, running your electricity in from a pole out on the sidewalk. It’s DIY,” says old soldier McLaren. “It’s punk,” he adds, before heading back out to the Boulevard Saint-Germain. And I suppose he should know.

Theresa Duncan is a Los Angeles–based writer and filmmaker.