‘Thom Yorke made a doomerwave version of his own f***ing song!’

What on earth is doomerwave? And what does the Radiohead singer releasing a slowed-down version of ‘Creep’ have to do with it? Michael Hann investigates a musical trend from the depths of the internet, and the doom-obsessed generation that spawned it

Tuesday 20 July 2021 06:30
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<p>Slowed down, extra reverb and crackling vinyl: Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in concert in 1996</p>

Slowed down, extra reverb and crackling vinyl: Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in concert in 1996

Last Tuesday, Thom Yorke granted legitimacy to a genre of music that exists only in the shadows of the internet. He did so by posting a version of an old acoustic recording of Radiohead’s “Creep”, performed on US radio in 1993, then released on My Iron Lung EP in 1994, and now reconfigured.

Naturally, Thom Yorke posting a new version of “Creep” was news. And all the news outlets had the same thing to say about it: it was “slowed down”. Well, yes, it was: slowed down until it lasted more than nine minutes, Yorke’s voice plastered in reverb, the sound muddied and layered with howls of electronics. But not one of the music titles noticed what Yorke had really done. It took a YouTube commenter called Yawbyss to do that: “I can’t believe Thom made a doomerwave version of his own f***ing song.”

Doomerwave, more or less, is taking big hits of previous generations – especially Nineties and Noughties alt-rock – and doing what Yorke did to “Creep”, but with lower fidelity. Slow the song down, add reverb and synths and, often, the sound of crackling vinyl. And then make the whole thing sound as though it is a 10th generation cassette dub, the sound degraded with each step further from the source. There’s a big audience for it, too. The doomerwave version of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, by YouTuber JustMyFavStrangeMusic, has more than 3.3 million views.

The music titles perhaps didn’t notice Yorke had put out a doomerwave track because doomerwave was not a genre invented by musicians, or by journalists. Its name and its style came from below, from music fans making music for their own pleasure (though pleasure might be overstating it, given doomerwave’s name and background). Yorke would doubtless have been well aware of what he was doing, though, because those fans had already made Radiohead a big doomerwave act.

The internet has been generating genres for a decade or so now, beginning with vapourwave, the first genre to be born, live and die entirely online. Like doomerwave, vapourwave took old music and slowed it down – though in this case it was smooth 1980s music – soft jazz and smooth jams. It had its own aesthetic: nostalgic but colourful, all pastels, blending old commercial imagery with early web design. It was knowing and pleasing music – you could listen to vapourwave in the background without wondering when the world was going to end – but at its heart was a melancholy emptiness. It was music built, quite purposely, on the emptiness of the consumer experience, which it both celebrated and mourned. You can trace a line from doomerwave back to vapourwave, notably in the centrality of slowing pre-existing music right down (a technique itself borrowed from Houston hip-hop DJs a generation earlier, known as “chopped and screwed”, a style that reflected the popularity of cough syrup as a tranquiliser). The early vapourwave track “Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing” by Macintosh Plus was based around Diana Ross’s “It’s Your Move”, hugely slowed, for example.

Vapourwave gave birth to more internet genres. There was simpsonswave, a further step away from any notion of authenticity and into absurdity – it was no more than the setting of vapourwave tracks to clips from The Simpsons. In the middle of the last decade came 80s remix, a genre whose name, thankfully, requires little unpacking: it was YouTubers taking contemporary hits and making them sound as though they were made in the 1980s, with period-specific production effects. And that brings us to doomerwave, because that doomerwave smash remix of “Somebody That I Used to Know” is based not on Gotye’s original, but the Eighties remix by the YouTuber Tronicbox. This is the music of ever decreasing circles.

Musically, doomerwave isn’t a million miles away from vapourwave. Emotionally and aesthetically, it’s a descent into the abyss. Its key visual signifier is the “Wojak” or “Feels Guy” meme – a primitive line-drawn cartoon of a man’s face, looking a little like a very bad artist’s impression of early cave dwellers. The doomer version of Wojak has him in a black beanie and hoodie, a cigarette curling smoke from his mouth, sometimes with bags under his eyes and his face stubbled. Doomer Wojak looks as though he no longer cares; doomerwave is meant to be the sound of no longer caring, of seeing only bleakness in the world.

Doomer Wojak – precisely aged at 23 – first appeared a little before doomerwave. The image was posted on the internet forum 4chan on 16 September 2018, accompanied by a list of defining characteristics: “Alcoholism … Ashamed to speak with family … No hope of career advancement … Hasn’t made a friend since 2012.” Doomers began to appear not just on 4chan but Reddit, and wherever men (and then women, for doomer girl became a thing, too) gathered online. And now it wasn’t just their crappy careers they were upset about; it was the seemingly imminent end of the world.

All doomers lacked was a soundtrack. In February 2019, the YouTuber blazeaster posted the animation of A Day in the Life of a Doomer, accompanied in part by a slowed down version of The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, but the breakthrough – doomerwave’s “Anarchy in the UK”, its “Walk This Way” – was the version of “Somebody That I Used to Know” posted in July 2019. Since then, name a beloved old record and someone somewhere has done a doomerwave version of it, from Pixies to Hall and Oates. The original doesn’t even have to be that doomy, though it helps.

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All this is confused by the fact that Russia and eastern Europe have their own kind of doomer music. In fact, JustMyFavStrangeMusic’s first uploads weren’t of old alt-rock hits but of Russian doomer tracks (their Instagram account is a small number of photos of gloomy apartment blocks, presumably in eastern Europe). This doomer music isn’t necessarily slow at all, though it is distinctly backwards looking and shares some aesthetic qualities: it’s synth-rock, clearly derived from the early Eighties, and it has its own internet stars, notably the Belarussian band Molchat Doma, whose song Sudno became a TikTok hit last year. One TikTokker, Leon Verdinsky, used it to soundtrack his video of life in Russia, which has had 7.5 million views. And the song itself? Well, its chorus offers the unimpeachably doomer mantra (in translation): “Life is hard and uncomfortable / But it’s comfortable to die.”

Doomerwave is where a bunch of cultural strands come together. There’s the nostalgia that has been part of rock culture for a quarter of a century, exaggerated and accelerated by the internet into what the critic Simon Reynolds identified in his 2011 book of the same name as retromania – a voracious consumption and regurgitation of the past at the expense of the present. Retromania was published just as vapourwave was coalescing, and Reynolds noted how the internet was feeding the obsession with not just the past, but a very recent past, which has been central to internet-seeded music genres over the past decade.

Into that is thrown a worldview shaped by the notion that apocalypse is not a science fiction scenario. Doomer and doomerwave aren’t just nostalgic. Doomers don’t just believe things were better when The Smiths recorded “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, or Radiohead recorded The Bends. They can see swathes of the world had not been set on fire by climate change; sea creatures were not being cooked alive in the ocean off British Columbia; the world had not been swept by a pandemic. A leaked IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report last month observed: “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.” Even Morrissey didn’t have to worry about that. Doomers can rightly point out that “cheer up, might never happen” really doesn’t apply here. And nor can they even buy themselves comfort while the world disintegrates: doomers are part of the generation that doesn’t even have economic security (the rhyme with boomers is not coincidental).

Suddenly, Thom Yorke seizing on this genre of music doesn’t just seem like an internet joke. After all, two years ago he noted that climate change was giving people anxiety. He understood doomers from the beginning. The surprise is that he took so long to go doomerwave.

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