A year ago, the American electronica labels Allergy Season and Discwoman teamed up to curate a techno compilation called Physically Sick, which was released to commemorate the Trump inauguration and whose proceeds were donated to the ACLU, Callen-Lorde, the National Immigration Law Center, and Planned Parenthood.
Several hours long, 42 tracks in all, contributed by artists from all over technoland, the album is a varied listen, ranging across subgenres from minimalist starkness to densely packed crunch. In case anyone missed the message, the press release spells everything out: “Well, we just got back from the doctor and yes, we’re sick. There is a fetid smell, the pollen of hatred and bigotry, wafting through the air and our allergies are acting up. While there’s no known cure, we’ve come up with something to treat the symptom, a healthy dose of electronic protest music, a middle finger from the underground to the future powers-that-be.”
Fans have presumably absorbed the details and shape of Physically Sick after a year; I’m still getting lost in its byways. Partially it’s the album’s heft: any sequence of techno tracks lengthy enough to test the ordinary human attention span encourages, by design, mindless sensual immersion rather than close scrutiny. Partially it’s the deceptive simplicity of the minimalist style shared by many of the contributing artists, in which an initial impression of plainness, spareness, and repetition gives way to weirder textural treats that catch the ear by surprise. Moreover, the album neatly reveals the intersection of musical and political realms in ways worth pondering as another horrific year rumbles over the horizon.
The commonly expressed notion before the inauguration, that Trump would herald an outpouring of fabulously angry protest music, was a deluded fantasy — musicians thrive when the culture thrives and retreat into bubbles when the culture nosedives, as demonstrated by the general lameness of the national indie-rock scene under George W. (to choose a random example).
So when very little explicit protest music was released in 2017, a bevy of well-meaning left-liberal critics screamed. Clearly, it was a bad year for music, a year of escapism and mediocrity; it was all too personal or too vague or too business-as-usual — just insult Trump already! Call him orange, etc. , Writing in the Village Voice about the 44th or 45th Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, Robert Christgau bemoaned that among the top finishers, “I have trouble descrying any political satire whatsoever,” while expressing a longing for what Amanda Palmer calls “amazing satirical political art” — a common sentiment among fans and critics that music in 2017 had somehow disappointed us politically, that artists owed us more.
Regarding the limpness of 2017’s explicit protest music, I agree; we deserve better than Father John Misty acting snotty about human folly, as if he didn’t suffer from the human folly of singing like James Taylor. What rankles is the equation of literalness with political value in music. Counterarguments that all art is political are a good start; for next steps consider the appropriately wide range of reactions to the outside world that art can enable and convey, not to mention the social benefits of keeping aesthetic receptors engaged and analytic facilities alert.
Whether functioning as respite, inspiration, distraction, or candy, art carries political utility simply by tapping the social value of pleasure. So does overt protest, but I see no reason to prioritize one specific mode over all others, especially given the dangers of treating the president like a horrible aberration rather than decades of Republican policy given human form. I want music that illuminates how the political realm saturates all other categories of life.
It’s a trick Physically Sick achieves beautifully. Context, framing, and charitable donations aside, the music itself simulates a punctured bubble. Usually, the sonic worlds conjured by techno are self-contained, as rubbery synthesizers and drum machines bounce up and down into an eternity of looped repetition. Many tracks on Physically Sick fit this description, while others are more reflectively atmospheric. Several more incorporate garbled bits of dialogue that make oblique reference to the nightmare reality lurking outside the electronically sealed sphere.
The gurgly voice in Tito Fuego & Alexis Blair Penney’s “All My Love to the Planet,” sounding as if underwater, repeats “Send all my love to the planet.” A looped mutter that sounds awfully like “CapitaliZAM” in Kirk the Flirt’s “Back2Biz” moans incoherently as the skittery house piano hops around. There’s even an occasional exercise in songform, with coherent lyrics and everything, like James K.’s “My Sorrow is Luminous,” in which echoey, electronically treated guitar plucking accompanies a smoky, mournful voice that returns, over and over, to a stark refrain: “Repeat again how fucking bad I feel.”
Physically Sick can’t be absorbed all at once or even listened to in one sitting. Play it in light rotation over a week or two and let the tracks sink in. “The city is haunted by the spectre of capitalism,” murmurs a dazed voice on AceMo’s “Land Scanner (Spectre),” barely audible above the shiny, repetitive synth loop and the drums rocketing off each other every which way, clanging and scraping and unraveling, with stray bits of wire peeling off from the harsh electronic surface. FBI Warning’s “Dead by 3” is a 13-minute monster groove, slowly building up the relentless clicking percussion, liquid keyboards, textured bass buzz, and a sequencer effect that resembles an automaton simultaneously gargling and exhaling — eventually introducing a distorted voice intoning “Let there be light” as if in muted religious rapture. Meanwhile, Jayda G’s “Sestra’s Cry” explodes in a cacophony of chanting gospel voices, ringing forth clearly and powerfully; toward the middle the voices are cut up and spliced into smaller, flimsier pieces, as if to demonstrate the fragility of human expression, but by the end they’ve all gathered back together again.
Together, the aggregate reflective surface that Physically Sick stretches into is a mechanical delight. But a techno album whose immersive sonic universe keeps flickering, as if undone by beams of light streaming in from the outside world, by definition messes with its own formal limitations. The album’s dancefloor catharsis, with swaying hooks and booming beats, is imbued with an awareness of its own function, or range of functions — to ease, to purge, to sound good as if our lives depended on it — and the contextualization lends the catharsis an urgency that feels valuable. Ominous moments coexist with bursts of joy.
Sprightly, sour, agile and efficient, Physically Sick ends on a moderately hopeful note: over glittery synthesizer and chugging drums, Octo Octa’s “Only Tears” bubbles over with sighing, moaning vocal snippets in a major key, a blast of breathy, wordless awe. It’s an appropriate conclusion, as listeners may need some reassurance as they leave the borders of the album and return to the painful real world. Physically Sick’s press release presents the music accurately, as an antidote to pain. It’s a great protest album.