What Health Goth Actually Means
It was started in Portland by a bunch of musicians, and says more about our age of aesthetics than it does runway trends.
In his monthly column System Focus, The FADER's favorite underground music critic Adam Harper stares deep into the internet's gloom to unearth emerging musical forms.
How about this: these days there are no scenes or genres, only "aesthetics." A scene implies a physical community in physical architectures, and as such is a fatal slur against the URL everspace and its viral lungs. A genre implies limits, intentions, rules, fixity, and—as every itchy-fingered Facebook commenter knows—is a hateful thing. Nothing exists anyways, not really, only names, only hyperlinks, only patterns that work up to a point and then need an upgrade. Backspace your tearful emojis, hypocrites, it's always been that way; it's just more obvious now that code flows through our arteries rather than squeezes of blood and other smells. But it's not homogenous out there and never will be, the online underground and the cultures tapping its magma are built on a vector field that ripples and clumps together, each blob too quick and continuous for your Dad's rock collection. An aesthetic is not an object, it's a way of looking, a way of finding beauty and sifting experiences, originating with process and behaviour rather than product, or, indeed, a journalist with a butterfly net.
At the end of last year, "Health Goth" was suddenly coughed up in some weirdly well-known places. It started out life in 2013 as a Facebook group started by Portland-based underground pop duo Magic Fades, Mike Grabarek and Jeremy Scott, alongside artist Chris Cantino (who's behind a number of music videos, two with Magic Fades). The group posts images of hi-tech and exotically specialized sportswear with a sparse palette and other aspects of the so-called 'net art' visual style. Wyatt Schaffner, another Portland-based artist who makes vaporwave-related music under the name Soul Ipsum and collaborated with Magic Fades on Vancouver label 1080p's Zirconia Reign release, wrote about Health Goth for the website of AMDiscs: Futures Reserve Label, another key online-underground node (are you seeing how everything is connected?). Schaffner argued that Health Goth "relies on an anti-nostalgic dystopian present," providing "an ethos of mythologizing our technological present" and that "it may be hyper-masculine on the surface, betraying a distinctively sus interior of body-mechanized cyborgian humanity within... reimagining the present future by mocking self-awareness as a Humanist project of little efficacy."
Saying that Health Goth is gymming for goths is like saying that cyberpunk is Johnny Rotten doing spreadsheets on a Dell.
Within a year, these rather avant-garde beginnings had ended with Health Goth trumpeted as the new crazy trend by The Guardian, The New York Times, and even Marie Claire. The number of likes on the Health Goth Facebook page ballooned from a few thousand to over twenty thousand. In the intervening period, Health Goth was appropriated by some Chicago bro, Johnny Deathface, who spun it as the gym-rat lifestyle for goths and started selling comparatively naff clothes off the back of it. This further confused style tourists, most notably The New York Times, unwilling to see anything more than two pre-existing concepts sewn together. As the Facebook group curators put it in an interview, "Health Goth is not a lifestyle, it's an exercise in aesthetics. Any publication trying to tell you that Health Goth is about working out has simply taken the two words at face value and opted for a less challenging, and extremely boring alternative." It seems to me that saying that Health Goth is gymming for goths is like saying that cyberpunk is Johnny Rotten doing spreadsheets on a Dell.
Let's make something clear: in its original context of the Facebook group and the curators behind it, Health Goth is at a significant remove from music. Health Goth shouldn't be regarded as a musical genre, even if it was given its name by people operating in the online underground music community. What it is is an aesthetic, one that primarily concerns fashion. In fact, the Health Goth Facebook curators have distanced their project from music on more than one occasion, saying, in the aforementioned feature, "way more important than the music are the images," and, in another interview, "we've steered clear of associating a particular sound with Health Goth, because when you tie audio and visual stuff together it becomes more limited and homogenized."
Throughout, the Facebook group curators have described Health Goth really clearly and aptly, for example as "a collection of styles and mindsets that already exist—like street goth, various internet stuff, and clothing fetish videos that we've brought together on Facebook." The well-written Wikipedia article begins by describing Health Goth as "an aesthetic...revolved around biotechnology, monochrome sportswear, fetish culture, extreme cleanliness and rendered environments." "Aesthetic," a word that doesn't prioritize any one particular medium of art and even suggests them all together, is a much more suitable term than "trend" or "genre," and highly applicable to previous online-underground-led movements like vaporwave and sea punk for which imagery and multimedia is a hugely significant and probably defining factor.
In fact, the word "aesthetic" has started to adopt a strange life of its own in the online underground, often as a tag accruing to vaporwave or vaporwave-like music. The usage here seems to imply that visual dimension, but also the sense of drawing on a partly pre-conceived palette of signifiers, or even taking on a more conceptual, artificial or performative atmosphere. And that's odd because all music does all of that all of the time—there is no music that isn't about aesthetics, especially visuals, not even folk or righteous lo-fi garage rock, or any other music that supposedly comes out pure and spontaneous, straight from the authentic heart.
Which is precisely why we can think about Health Goth's fellow travelers in music, even if they are separable and multifarious. It's no accident that it was music-related people who started the project (and then wrote about it), and when asked, the Facebook group curators have listed some music that they like or feel is relevant: "labels like PAN and Liminal Sounds... L-Vis 1990," and they've posted tracks from artists including M.E.S.H., Drippin', DJ New Jersey Drone, Egyptrixx, and Total Freedom. "There is a dystopian club sound though associated with labels like Liminal Sounds, PAN, Her Records, etc. and artists like Drippin, DJ New Jersey Drone, Sudanim, M.E.S.H., and others," they say. But to me, Health Goth, even just as a set of fashion ideas, is part of a much broader trend spearheaded by the online underground (but certainly not reducible to 'net music'). I've been calling it "hi-tech," mostly only as a passing adjective, but at a talk I gave in Berlin last summer I discussed a hi-tech aesthetic made up of a number of different styles and communities including vaporwave, beats, pastiche, collage, club, cuteness, noise and rap, suggesting that together they form a contrasting reaction to the twee, lo-fi and retro-obsessed indie aesthetic. I think Health Goth is part of this wider interest in hi-tech worlds and signifiers, together with the dystopian accelerationism that so often accompanies it. I'd also add that hi-tech isn't 'ironic'—it is based around cultural distance, but it's exploratory and ambivalent rather than false or insincere.
The roots of hi-tech, and Health Goth in particular, go way back, but gained particular momentum around 2011. As the Facebook curators recognize, Health Goth is just as reflective of aesthetic trends that preceded it as it is constitutive of new ones. Surprisingly, none of the pieces I'd read on Health Goth mentioned the GHE20G0THIK club phenomenon pioneered by Venus X in NYC, which was a major force in associating pop and hip-hop with dark underground weirdness. Organized alongside Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver (who often performed), the parties provided an early context for Fade to Mind names like Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu, and were attended by a nascent Arca. New York's underground was in a feedback loop with DIS Magazine—surely another inspiration for Health Goth with its Apple-clean visuals and uncanny materialism—while HD Boyz and E+E were photographed wearing Health-Goth-like clothes. More prominent artists such as James Ferraro played a role too, particularly with his BEBETUNE$ and BODYGUARD mixtapes, which explored a cold, industrial, and anti-human world filled with brand names and energy drinks.
It's the harsher, stranger club sounds that are most often referenced by the Health Goth Facebook curators, and the aesthetic of sister labels Fade to Mind and Night Slugs make a pretty good parallel to Health Goth. Jam City's album Classical Curves landed in early 2012, and was the first instance of Night Slugs's much more angular and machinic sound, which was later taken up by L-Vis 1990 and Egyptrixx. Because of its high tempos and sparse textures, the style often seems to suggest hi-tech athleticism. The cover of Classical Curves featured a motorcycle in a marble atrium, and a motorcycle also featured prominently in Ferraro's performances as BODYGUARD—like early-twentieth-century futurism, the hi-tech fetish that finds expression in Health Goth seems to bridge the human and the technological as merely points on a single continuum of kinetic, dynamic machinery. And the new Night Slugs sound had a lot to do with the resurgence of the gay and black vogue house style, explored on Fade to Mind by MikeQ and by a number of artists on Ben Aqua's Texas-based #Feelings label, which saw early releases by Lotic and Rabit. In fact, maybe not enough attention has been paid to the queerness and queer erotics (alongside African American cultures of all kinds) from which Health Goth comes. One particularly striking image from the past year that can perhaps be linked to Health Goth—certainly because a relevant clothing label was involved—was this photograph taken by Sam Bayliss Ibram of gay rapper Le1f wearing a sports bra and face mask by Nasir Mazhar.
But it's not just some aesthetic resonance that might connect this constellation of musical styles to Health Goth, there are social and geographical links back to the Facebook group too, namely involving Portland, Oregon. Health Goth's curators have credited the party-goers at Portland's night Club Chemtrail with sartorial inspiration. The night has seen appearances from so many of the artists that the Health Goth Facebook page curators mentioned: Girl Unit and Helix from Night Slugs; Massacooramaan, Total Freedom and Kingdom from Fade to Mind; Sudanim and Miss Modular from Her Records; vogue artist Vjuan Allure; and, indeed, Magic Fades themselves. Club Chemtrail's Soundcloud has also released two fantastic collections of ringtones (here's one, the other's below) featuring artists such as Dubbel Dutch, Ynfynyt Scroll, Supraman, Poolboy92, Murlo, The-Drum, Rabit and many of the artists they've had perform. The night is run by Commune and SPF666, who have done some seriously body-sizzling remixes in the particular vogue-like club style pioneered by Fade to Mind and Night Slugs, with the latter providing the debut release of Club Chemtrail's Bandcamp label, Scorpion Cache.
Magic Fades's own work is not easy to confuse with this club style, however, and not even mainstream music journalists have confused their weird, subtly '90s-style pop with Health Goth. It is hi-tech and suffused with cybernetic strangeness, however, especially on their recent album for 1080p, Push Thru. Magic Fades have been making catchy, silvery hip-hop and R&B tunes since 2012's She Beat All The Haters, and their 2013 album Obsession, for streetwear label Mishka NYC, was a particular treat. Push Thru sees the group at their most unique and developed. It's an oddly mixed collection of parallel-universe hits that writhes with a fetishistic erotics that are both alluring and often, as Wyatt Schaffner put it in his Health Goth essay, "sus." One track in particular stands out, "Ecco" (below), which is gorgeously built upon the foundation of an especially emotional moment from the soundtrack of the '90s game Ecco the Dolphin (I remember because I was stuck on that level for weeks). Like the pop pastiche of Yen Tech, Gatekeeper and ADR, Magic Fades's pop is strikingly advanced in technique and technology, but makes for an ambivalent and provocative aesthetic experience. It's hyperreal—the group use mannequins, Sims and other artificially rendered human forms in their imagery—and hovers ambiguously somewhere between Utopia and Dystopia.
Last week a Push Thru remix album was released, and it paints a fantastic picture of the network of producers and sounds surrounding Magic Fades, much of them also coming from Portland. Commune from Club Chemtrail appears, as does DJ New Jersey Drone and Jeremiah Meece from long-time hi-tech architects The-Drum. Oregon artists Karmelloz and C Plus Plus (i.e. Dylan M. Howe, who used to be a i r s p o r t s) are also in there (I wrote about them a couple years back), and they've have both also recently released new albums that show them to be at the top of their game. Karmelloz's Silicon Forest, named after the nickname for the Pacific Northwest's hi-tech industry, confirms him as one of hi-tech's best ambient artists, whose subtle work balances heavenly sweetness with the nausea of future shock, and always puts me in mind of giant vats in which amoral artificial biospheres are roused and stirred. C Plus Plus's Cearà is a rich take on a clubbier sound, catching the light of grime, vogue, house, pop and transatlantic styles as it spins eerily in a space of apparently infinite connections. Most notably perhaps, the Push Thru remix album sees the return of Vektroid, one of the key players in the development of vaporwave between 2010 and 2013 as New Dreams Ltd. and Prismcorp Virtual Enterprises. Vektroid is from Portland and the Pacific Northwest of the USA originally, and her remix of "Ecco" is palpably weighty, shifting through a range of cyborg textures in its eight minutes until it feels more like crawling through a digital wormhole or watching a short film demonstrating some horrifying artificial transformation than hearing the usual shuffling of riffs.
If the Push Thru remix album and the lines extending from it suggest that the Portland area has its own version of the hi-tech aesthetic, it is one that's dreamlike and full of wonder in the very moment it becomes electrically sexy and disconcertingly transhuman. And if there has to be a musical echo of Health Goth, the closest thing to it might be somewhere in this particular socio-geographical network and its aesthetic vectors. Music and all the other kinds of aesthetic experience were not separable anyway. But that's not to say they can be lumped together forever—only connected, if the mesh feels right.
Lead photo credit: Ian Gavan / Getty Images