Coachella and the end of the internet
You can go to Bluesky or Coachella, but you can't stay here
It wasn’t clear, in the moments after Jai Paul’s debut performance at Coachella was scheduled to begin, whether the enigmatic Londoner was blowing the whole thing off. His stream was abruptly cancelled, rumors circulated that Paul was pulling the plug on his performance, time ticked by. Paul’s cold feet made sense on both a human and mythological level: the unimaginable weight of taking the stage for the first time of your career in front of a Coachella audience, the sensibility of Paul’s artistic arc ending in a hilarious catfish. But Paul took the stage—late enough to have to abbreviate his setlist, but on stage nonetheless. He performed, at long last, and at that time or thereabouts the internet as we know it ended.
Much of the best writing I’ve encountered on the internet recently has been about the internet. From Willy Staley, an excellent diagnosis of your brain on Twitter; Staley’s piece is sold as a eulogy, but you don’t write eulogies for zombies. From Sam Kriss, an excellent technopessimist argument that the internet is not only destined to devour itself, but already has. Merritt Tierce on how the internet makes you feel crazy as a way of making you feel inhuman. There are others. After a collective bout of delirium more commonly known as the 2010s in which it appeared that the internet could sustain itself as a site of cultural production capable of outpacing the hegemonic forces of the monoculture, it appears that people are realizing that the internet can only be used to quantify, analyze, and reproduce itself. The consensus seems to be that the internet, or what we know of it, is dying; what if it is only maturing into its inevitable form?
Not every internet music fan cares for Jai Paul, but every Jai Paul fan lives on the internet. Last week, the internet converged upon the Knockdown Center for Paul’s third-ever show; like the humble statisticians at ESPN tasked with investing every happening with a first-of-its-kind significance, this first New York show felt, at least in its coverage, like an attempt to rewrite the canon. It was the Paul show that got the press from the internet’s who’s who: Jon Caramanica, Jia Tolentino; write-ups in Rolling Stone, Defector, and madeintheurl.Watching the reviews roll in felt like history being rewritten in real time: this was the first Jai Paul show, because Jai Paul is the internet and the internet, to the extent that it happens anywhere, happens in New York.
But Paul’s first performance was, and always will have been, at Coachella. Superfans came out with a sort of piety that only years on a Reddit page can nurture, but their pilgrimage brought them to Coachella nonetheless. Coachella – the land of the NPC, the corporate, soulless event par excellence. Coachella, which Jeff Weiss expertly dissected as that unholy bacchanalia of influencers and content creators, the music festival having reached its final form as Instagram backdrop. The man whose legend was stoked by – who could not have existed without – the internet of the 2010s, which is the only internet we know, debuted nervously if not with great courage in front of the hedge fund manager you went to college with. The die-hard fans at the front of the pit went wild for Str8 Outta Mumbai, as they should have, but you wonder whether those at the back even registered it as they strategically rationed their Molly for the headliner come-up. It’s a matter of acoustics.
The internet learns from itself. In so doing, it accumulates everything that has ever been created and turns it into data. The profit motive, to the extent one actually exists and is not a pure speculative fantasy, depends on keeping your attention, building your dependence, and turning your thoughts into data. The algorithm does just that – it guides your attention to that which you were predestined to like, it learns from itself as it becomes an ever-optimized machine. Algorithmic culture exhausts itself by turning life, art, and human nature into an ever-recurring pattern.
Today, in a fairly fawning New York Times profile that more than anything else makes you wish Sarah Connor just shot the Cyberdyne scientist in his fucking head, the ‘godfather of A.I.’ expressed his fears about a world in which artificial intelligence runs riot. A.I., Dr. Geoffrey Hinton (after cashing out of his role at Google developing the technology) warns, threatens to become smarter than the minds that created it. Artificial intelligence, the fear goes, becomes unknowably horrifying once it can no longer be controlled. I wonder, looking at the internet now, whether some sort of inverse has not happened with the algorithms that currently govern the internet. By becoming so potent and totalizing, have algorithms written themselves out of usefulness? Human life is something far greater than the sum of the data it produces; by failing to divine this essential fact algorithms have made it such that life lived with the internet feels too inhuman to abide. Like the productive economy writ large, the algorithmic economy took root at a time when an abundance of raw material felt like a given. What happens when these systems run out of fuel? Can the algorithms produce that which sustains them?
For as long as I can remember, people addicted to Twitter have bothered anybody who would listen with the proclamation that they want to get off of Twitter. This hellsite, they call it, because everybody has learned how to speak in exactly the same way. As of last week, it appears that those most intent upon performatively leaving Twitter are doing so by attempting to recreate Twitter on the copycat site Bluesky. For a group of people whose identical politics include loathing tech billionaires (a loathing which, of course, is well-deserved), there is a great irony in this collective attempt to recreate Jack Dorsey’s Twitter as it was. The internet hasn’t been exhausted into meaningless homogeneity by its very design, they seem to believe. Bluesky is the place that time forgot – there is talk of discourse, people are owned, normal ones are had. Look closely enough and you can see people becoming corncobs. Every doomed politics believes it can return.
Frank Ocean’s Coachella set didn’t stream, either. The fans streamed it for him. Ocean’s set was chaotic, half-realized, seen as a disappointment. In its shitty quality on my laptop from my couch, it reminded me more than anything else of the experimental mode of online concert briefly attempted during COVID lockdowns, in retrospect the last gasp of genuine production that the internet as we know it had in it. Ocean played gripping reworks of staple songs, danced along to his even more popular ones, and handed it off to a DJ to take over. There were no ice skaters. In its wake, the conversation was not about Ocean’s performance, but its reaction. Analysis as meta-conversation, criticism not of the act in front of you but of what people expected from it. The internet was made to be about itself.
When Jai Paul released “BTSTU” in 2011, the internet did not yet run our lives. It was possible to live a life on the internet – Paul’s MySpace profile was proof enough – but one had the choice not to. The internet, then, offered the certain promise that you could step into a realm parallel but separate to the one you otherwise navigated, that you could build a world within it better than the stifling reality you currently occupied. This internet was a world that nurtured Frank Ocean into stardom, his Endless and Blonde a series of twin masterpieces dealing, among other things, with the task of expressing the unspeakable in a world that demands everything be spoken. His crowning achievements released in 2016, the year that everything seemed to fall apart and in which the internet was asked to bear the weight.
Jai Paul, the superstar that the internet promised, and Frank Ocean, the superstar that the internet created. Neither promoting new music, both performing in real life out of varyingly noble feelings of obligation. Paul’s performance was brave and impressive if not imperfect, celebrated – as it should have been – because of who the internet has made him to be. Ocean’s effort unorthodox and ambitious, if premature and half-assed, derided because of who the internet has made him to be. At Coachella, the altar of cringe, a pair of retrospectives for the 2010s, the great age of online. Coachella as a sort of two-way portal: where wayward influencers and cutouts go to render their lives consumable for the internet, where the last gasps of a genuinely productive online culture, once tasked with creating something sustainable and meaningful for itself, slip into the lived world. The people who created the culture that made the internet worth using offering themselves as sacrifices to the monoculture, daring in all of its ugliness to to suggest that the world does not revolve around you.
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