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Music and Visual Aesthetics

By Calvin Hafermann

The accessibility of the internet has done many things to the music industry.  Obviously, it has enabled piracy of music, and it has enabled constant streaming via sites like Spotify or Pandora.  It has also given artists both big and small, nearly unlimited freedom; anyone can publish anything and it can be shaped exactly to the creators will.  I’ve noticed a few artists over the years taking advantage of this and crafting projects that are more than just music.  The artists design the visual aesthetic or merchandise for the band or create characters and worlds that transcend the music.  Here are a couple of artists that I’ve found to be particularly active in creating an overarching concept beyond their music.

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One of the first artists I discovered who was creating a whole aesthetic instead of just music is designer/musician Seth Haley aka Com Truise.  Haley is hugely dedicated to 1980s futuristic/technology nostalgia as an aesthetic, and it shows in every facet of his work.  His music strips down 80s inspired synthwave to its most recognizable elements and revitalizes it with his own modern twists.  Think of modernized, more purposeful instrumentals from the soundtrack of a cheesy 80s movie and you’ll get the idea.  Haley’s dedication to his concept makes Com Truise very visually evocative.  He takes a similar route to his music, stripping 1980s designs and graphics down to their most recognizable elements; lots of bright primary colors, gradient overlays, futuristic text and geometric patterns. With Com Truise, Haley has taken a nostalgic aesthetic that is often considered cheesy and embarrassing and flipped it into a cohesive, dynamic environment. Check out the album In Decay here.

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On almost the opposite end of the spectrum from Com Truise is musician/artist Travis Miller, best known for his now defunct Lil Ugly Mane project.  Like Com Truise, Miller works using nostalgia much of the time, but for Southern rap rather than sleek 1980s synthwave.  Millers self designed album covers imitate the style of the famed Pen and Pixel graphics company while adding his own dark and freakish twists.  Musically, Miller takes the themes most emblematic of southern rap such as dark, twisted and often violent lyrics and warps and concentrates them almost to the point of parody.  Additionally, both Lil Ugly Mane and his producer Shawn Kemp are invented aliases of Miller.

It should be noted, however, that despite Millers investment in his work, he is still white and appropriates a culturally Southern African-American aesthetic in nearly all of his music.  Many of Millers influences used music to express real feelings and stories about violence, drugs and gang activity.  It is entirely possible that Miller has experienced some hard times, but overall his use of these themes trivializes them. Additionally, thanks to things like white privilege it is doubtful that he has experienced the sort of systematic oppression that created the lifestyles he raps about.  Millers use of anonymity with the Ugly Mane character can be brought into question as well.  Is Miller conscious that he is taking something culturally relevant and in some ways making a mockery of it?  Does he wish to hide his identity for fear of an audience backlash?  Personally, I feel very conflicted about his music.  He obviously has a vision and has created a unique and successful project, but his appropriation of culturally relevant aesthetics makes me reluctant to fully endorse what he’s doing.

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