Chipmusic is in an identity crisis.
For what it’s worth, this will be simultaneously a review of Anamanguchi’s new full length Endless Fantasy and a look into what they mean to chipmusic as a whole. Maybe I’ll even answer the “what is chipmusic” question (said no one ever). First, I need to set this post up by providing a little context, so:
Here’s the thing: chipmusic is in an identity crisis because we don’t quite know what to do with the various definitions we’ve established for ourselves. Anders Carlsson (Goto80) does a pretty good job of outlining the definitions (http://chipflip.wordpress.com/chipmusic/), but in the end, we’re no closer to establishing what it is about chipmusic that separates us from other forms, media, and aesthetics. If we use the “medium” approach, then we’re too inclusive (literally anything with a soundchip can make chipmusic). If we use the “form” approach, then we’re still too inclusive (why bother using hardware when we have emulators, etc). Part of the problem is one of context: there aren’t very many reference points for chipmusic other than “old videogames” in our collective conscious. It used to be that chipmusic was referencing old tracker music made by the demoscene, or various other forms of music made on old/vintage hardware/software, but once we got to the old videogames association, that seemed to stick much better than any of the previous definitions we had come up with in the past. In order to understand why this videogames association has come to define what chipmusic is, we need to take a look at videogames themselves.
I’m going to start off with a little quiz. Notice how often I’ve used the word “games” in this article. I’m going to say zero (not counting the one in quotes) and the reason is essential to understanding why the association between old videogames and chipmusic exists. Games, as a form, are dictated by sets of rules interacting with each other. That’s easy enough to understand, right? But videogames are a different beast, because the prefix video- implies a certain context that we can’t really shake. You can call videogames games, but at a certain point the comparison starts getting a little hazy; Tetris is pretty easily seen as a game. Pong is a game. Spacewar is a game. But once we start inserting any kind of narrative elements (Spacewar already has some) into our videogames, it doesn’t seem to convey exactly what the experience is by calling it a “game.” Journey, for example, is both a videogame and a game. But to me, it is so much more a videogame than it is a game, and that’s because of the diegetic elements inserted by the developers. And here’s the thing: computers (remember the video- prefix?) make it REALLY easy for developers to give assets “meaning” outside the explicit area of game rules.
The tale gets more complex when you consider the idea of multimedia that computers make so easy. I consider the “on-a-computer-ness” of a videogame to be essential to the definition, because it really encapsulates what makes videogames as a form so much more dense than games as a form. Because computers can present users with every media at the same time, videogames have ended up being multimedia barrages of information to players. There’s just so MUCH of it. Not to mention that it’s interactive (how could I forget?). And when we start thinking about specific videogame assets, we can’t help but recall other parts of games too, like the mechanics, and the art, and the music (I’m tying it back together here, sorry).
CHIPMUSIC AND VIDEOGAMES AND DEFINITIONS
So I’m going to try and bring it back: the videogames association with chipmusic has stuck around because of interactivity and multimedia. Interacting with any medium will always give a person a much more robust memory than non-interaction; or rather, the level of interaction dictates how many senses are joined in the reception of information — if we see a piece, it’s one thing, but to see and hear a piece is much more intense, etc. Videogames encompass almost all the senses (we’ll get the smelling in there soon don’t worry), and because of this, it’s almost impossible to really convey what it was like to actually play a specific videogame, because how are you going to recreate all of the channels of information being processed, much less being processed simultaneously?
That’s not to say that we haven’t tried. We can write about having played a videogame, or we can make a movie featuring the characters in the videogame. We can even play the music that we heard in the game! This is where chipmusic comes in — by using the actual hardware that we play videogames on, we eliminate one of the obstacles in front of that recollection. We don’t even need to hear the specific music coming out of the device; the device itself playing tones that sound like they would belong in a(n) (old) video game is enough to bring up these experiences because they were such all-encompassing experiences! Chipmusic (to the collective mainstream out there) is just another window into the nostalgia-driven desire for recreating the experience of playing an old videogame.
The most interesting thing about chipmusic to me has always been this association. For most people, it’s not so much the music itself as it is the experience of listening to raw, unprocessed soundwaves coming out of an NES/Gameboy/Amiga/etc. For better or worse, chipmusic will have this association for a while. Music in general has always been an associative medium for me — play a Linkin Park song made pre-Meteora and I’ll be able to tell you some story about how I was riding home in a car from my piano teacher’s house looking out the window into the sunset. (You could probably do that with many nu-metal songs made back then, actually.) I think a lot of it is because music is a time-based form, and I listened to a lot of music during periods of time where I literally didn’t have anything better to do than stare out a window — passing time, so to speak. To a lot of people, chipmusic does the same thing, but instead of stories of staring out car windows, those people will tell you about finally beating the last robot master in -INSERT MEGA MAN GAME-, or swimming up and down that coastline to get infinite rare candies so that you could get your Zapados to level 99 for no reason. But because it’s original music composed on old videogame hardware, it doesn’t reference specific videogames; rather, it references videogames. In this regard, one can think of chipmusic as an aesthetic (it’s not as limiting as you think, don’t worry) that reimagines what it’s like to have these experiences playing videogames. Note that I didn’t say it reimagines what it was to actually play the videogames — it’s what it’s like to have these experiences and reminisce upon them.
ANAMANAGUCHI – ENDLESS FANTASY (FINALLY)
What Anamanaguchi does in Endless Fantasy is distill this aesthetic into a 22-track, 76-minute-long opera.
I’ve had kind of a problem with most writing about what chipmusic is. A lot of it can be attributed to the fact that none of the writers ever take the time to explore deeper beyond the surface level of videogame association. At this point, we all understand what chipmusic is, but we’ve always had a problem with what chipmusic is (aesthetically speaking). Anamanaguchi seems to answer that question pretty well throughout Endless Fantasy. A common complaint regarding the album is that it’s too long for the sonic palette that they present. I may not be the best person to provide an objective statement regarding album length (hint: I fucking LOVE long albums), but I think that Endless Fantasy‘s length is precisely why I enjoy listening to it so much. It’s not so much about “listening to music” in the traditional sense as it is about immersing yourself in it, exploring every musical nook and cranny, and coming back up for air every once in a while. While you’re down there, you’ll probably be forced to confront your memories regarding videogames/nerd culture/being a KID, damnit, and your enjoyment of the album will depend on how this confrontation goes.
The songs themselves seem perfectly suited to this immersion; only a couple of them have lyrics, and the lyrics are almost meaningless out of context. In context, they’re exclamations of rebellion, declarations of optimism that don’t really matter outside of the album (but who cares because we’re living right fucking NOW, and that’s all that matters). The rest of the album is content to provide you with incredibly dense, rich soundscapes that don’t ask much of you other than your existence while each song plays. This participation is what really grabs me when listening — so much music is inherently selfish, as it’s just artists talking about themselves and their own experiences (which isn’t a bad thing, obviously). Endless Fantasy, through its lack of lyrics, isn’t about Anamanaguchi — it’s about you and what you feel when existing in each soundscape (read: song). It’s an album almost perfectly designed to daydream to.
As overwhelming as Endless Fantasy can sometimes be, a look at the song titles reveals that the subject matter is much less complex than the music itself, and that fits the themes of the album really well — it’s an Endless Fantasy! You wouldn’t be fantasizing about the human condition in an age of post-information, you’d be fantasizing about space. Explosions. Prom nights. Anamanaguchi, on Endless Fantasy, has written perhaps the best song I’ve ever heard that deals with snow, which is a specific example that really pinpoints what Anamanaguchi is good at doing — creating a space for you to think about your own experiences with a specific idea. Snow is the kind of thing that everyone has memories about that are almost too nuanced to explain to anyone else — the only thing we can do is talk about our experiences re: snow, which is again what talking about videogames is like.
It made a lot of sense to me when I heard that Anamanaguchi were doing the soundtrack to the Scott Pilgrim game. In some regards, Scott Pilgrim has aims similar to what I described chipmusic as — it’s not a recollection of being a nerd, but rather a reimagining of what being a nerd is like. Throughout the graphic novels (and subsequent movie), there were all sorts of random visual references and nods to videogames and anime, almost as if each specific reference was but a part of an overall aesthetic that Scott saw only in his mind. Often, I feel like that’s how a lot of people experience their lives; things make SO MUCH SENSE in your head and you want to tell everyone about them SO BADLY but when you try to, you get a raised eyebrow and a change of subject. The reason I enjoyed that franchise is the same reason I enjoy listening to Endless Fantasy; for all the posturing nerd culture sees, and for all supposed unity that we feel under the banner of -INSERT FRANCHISE HERE-, no one else will really get what it’s like to enjoy the things I do. That’s ok. In fact, it’s better than ok — it’s pretty damn great.