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On Nostalgia, Narcissism and Skylar Spence’s ‘Prom King’

| Tuesday, September 22, 2015

OnNostalgia_WebERIN RICE | The Observer

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then are nostalgic homages a form of epochal narcissism? On “Prom King,” the closest thing American producer Ryan DeRobertis has known to a proper debut album, he answers this question with a rotund “yes.” Granted, DeRobertis, who formerly worked under the lawsuit-inducing moniker Saint Pepsi, has had a long history creating flamboyant house music out of fragments of dated disco and pre-millennial R&B grooves, particularly in what is arguably his cult masterpiece, “Hit Vibes,” an ingeniously arranged collage of sound in which these nostalgic sounds intersect with a sort of self-indulgent ecstasy by way of melancholy: an attitude that intersected tangentially with that of vaporwave (a micro-genre that took this nostalgia for a dystopian ride) and substantially outlined the ever-dynamic genre’s new direction.

It should not come as a surprise, then, how excited I was listening to this new album by DeRobertis, who in the meantime rechristened himself Skylar Spence. But even before the first listen, I admit I was already feeling a bit cautious: Why the new alias? At face value, it may seem an unimportant detail, if anything an improvement over his previous, clearly parodic name. But one has to recognize that, for that very reason, the name “Saint Pepsi” worked as a sort of metonymy for the themes of his music: It was simultaneously nostalgic and satirical, an endearing joke cracked over an entire generation of which he himself is a member. Just the name for an outsider artist. But now, as Skylar Spence, signing himself to a record label and starting to play live shows, he emerges from his neon-lit cocoon of cultural commentary, dashing forth into a spotlight that shines too bright, to the point of being blinding.

This is how “Prom King” feels. This time around, his music sounds entranced by the glossiness of early millennial pop, but it forgets itself in the process and, instead of producing an homage, embraces the aesthetic so entirely that it results in an album that genuinely feels like it is a decade-old already; it’s the kind of album one listens to while cringing, being cruelly reminded of those embarrassing, awkward middle-school years. And in the strangest way, “Can’t You See” does sound like the ill-fated follow up to “Fireflies,” as if the final attempt of Owl City to stay relevant in a new decade. But there is another reason why “Can’t You See” is arguably the most important song on this album (though, in my opinion, the worst): It is a literal admission of the narcissism that seems to pervade the entire work. Lines like, “I’m in love with my own reflection,” and “In the heat of the moment / I felt that I could kiss myself,” would in any other context sound parodic, in the way that over-romantic lines like, “Baby, baby / It’s you that I need,” sounded comically shallow when slowed-down ad absurdum on “Hit Vibes.” But in the context of “Prom King,” these confessions of narcissism sound frighteningly honest.

To precisely express how this album fits into the discography of DeRobertis, an analogy to the fine arts might be of help. When Marcel Duchamp created the sculpture “Fountain” (read: flipped a Parisian urinal on its side and called it art) he humorously challenged the entire conceptual framework through which art was considered in his time. “Hit Vibes” was DeRobertis’ “Fountain.” “Prom King,” on the other hand, is as remarkable a piece of art as is the actual urinal that sits in your residence hall bathroom: not particularly ugly, not particularly special, useful but entirely unessential. Ultimately, and unfortunately for the Skylar Spence project, not noteworthy in any particular way.

2/5 Shamrocks

If you like: Chvrches, RAC, The Knocks

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