The Occult Inversion of Popular Culture by Witch House Artists

My favorite genres of music are coldwave, futurepop and witch house. Most people aren’t familiar with these genres. Coldwave was an early form of Goth music that emerged in the 80’s, when synthesizers became available to growing numbers of people. It was primarily popular back then in Belgium and France. In the late 00’s it experienced a revival that has mostly died out by now.

Coldwave had a critical relationship to modern technology. Whereas most musicians at the time incorporated the synthesizers into happy carefree danceable rhythms, coldwave sought to emphasize the alienating and synthetic sound that these synthesizers made possible. Although the lyrical themes were generally an extension of those typically seen in post-punk and Goth music, some artists also incorporated a critical perspective on modern technology in their alienating sound. A good example is the following song by Nine Circles.

Some modern artists part of the second wave have also used this musical medium to emphasize a message of alienation and coldness that fits the sound well. An example is Soma Sema’s “Artificial Heart”, where modern technology is suggested to impoverish a person’s emotional experiences:

Futurepop is a derivative of synthpop that was popular in the 00’s. You could think of it as what happened when Goths discovered synthesizers. Whereas Goth music traditionally revolves around romanticism and melancholic longing for the past, the futurepop genre essentially developed a form of romanticism and melancholic longing for images of the future we once had (retrofuturism). Lyrical themes are generally dark, but suggest a future of unlimited possibilities.

VNV Nation’s remix of Apoptygma Berzerk suggests the idea of artificial intelligence and a human being who fall in love with each other, because nobody knows the person as well as the AI that caters to his every need. There’s also a recurrent theme of mass death from plagues, in fact, the prospect of mass death is somewhat glorified. One of the most common symbols seen among the cybergoths is a biohazard symbol.

Witch House

My favorite genre of music however, is a very peculiar form of electronic music, thematically and aesthetically influenced by Goth music, but with musical techniques that are more reminiscent of Trap. That form of music, is Witch House, a form of music that reached its peak in popularity and innovation in the early 10’s. Generally speaking, music reviewers don’t take Witch House seriously, in fact, the term itself began as a joke that got stuck. However, Witch House continues to have significant influences on the popular culture from which it has freely borrowed.

Witch House is often mistakenly seen as a generic form of electronic music, a “microgenre” with some minor thematic derivations, up there with seapunk, simpsonwave and other jokes that emerged on Tumblr. It should be recognized however as a genre of music in its own right. The fact that it started out as intentionally obscurantist means that most people have never looked seriously into it. It swaps letters in the name of songs with numbers and ASCII symbols that make it difficult to find songs through Google. Its desire to remain underground is reminiscent of the effort Black Metal took to remain unapproachable for outsiders. Early black metal concerts featured musicians on stage throwing glass and animal body parts onto the crowd.

There are other aspects Black Metal and Witch House have in common. Both genres have themes that revolve around satanism, occultism and heathenism. What sets witch house apart from black metal and metal in general however, is a willingness to directly engage with popular culture, instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist. The average black metal musician will pretend when asked that he doesn’t have a clue who Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus might be. The artists most commonly sampled by Witch House musicians however, are mainstream artists like Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey and Evanescence.

This is one benefit that Witch House has over Black Metal. It misses the cringy pretentiousness that characterizes black metal. It’s the exact reason why most people tend to grow out of Black Metal once they graduate high school, because you don’t want to associate yourself with a bunch of ponytailed Scandinavians who take themselves and their viking LARPing seriously.

Witch House doesn’t make the grand claims that Black Metal makes. You won’t find Witch House artists claim that they are genuine satanists or occultists, or that Witch House is about “individualism”. You won’t find them burning churches or stabbing each other to death either. At the end of the day, everyone realizes that the music is merely there to have a good time.

But perhaps most importantly, in contrast to Metal’s insistence on pretending that the modern world doesn’t exist and that we happen to live in a Tolkienesque landscape of dwarfs, orcs, vikings and tribal warfare, Witch House engages in a continual critical dialogue with modern culture. Whatever popular music creates, Witch House inverts, or distorts, or exaggerates to the point where it becomes dark and unnerving. A skilled Witch House artists can take a Kesha song and shamelessly transform it into an anthem that glorifies death and decay. Consider the following example by Sidewalks and Skeletons:

What happens here is that Sidewalks and Skeletons takes exerpts from Kesha’s song that suggest a certain careless attitude towards life and cuts out the rest of the song. Violent Music produced a music video for the song that subtly references the inversion of Christian ideals, something that characterizes Witch House music. The video starts out with a cross laying on the floor, before demonstrating girls from a conservative Christian family who seek out promiscuous sex and drugs, eventually committing suicide. All of this is of course already intrinsic to Kesha’s song, but the original song emphasizes the joyful partying aspect, whereas this video emphasizes the inversion of traditional “family values” that Kesha sings about. The music video turns Kesha’s covert rebellion into an overt rebellion.

The most prominent and skilled Witch House artist is arguably BLVCK CEILING. Almost every BLVCK CEILING song is a remix of popular music. Themes that frequently recur throughout his music are drug use and occultism. Music video’s for BLVCK CEILING songs in particular often feature male protoganists with the role of an anti-hero of sorts, men who live on the margins of society.

BLVCK CEILING’s “don’t know her” has a music video  with scenes from “The place beyond the pines”, a movie about a man who starts robbing banks in an attempt to maintain a relationship with his child and ex-girlfriend. The music video for LAZERS features scenes from Nightcrawler, a movie about a man who makes a living selling video footage of violent crimes. This glorification of the “hustler” is perhaps another case where Witch House reveals its heavy borrowing from Hip Hip subculture.

Another important theme of Witch House music that needs to be mentioned is drug use. Witch House is explicit in its description of drug use in a manner that is rarely seen in the genres from which it derives inspiration. One of the most prominent early Witch House acts was White Ring, who are unfortunately forced to continue these days without the talented Kendra Malia who recently passed away. White Ring’s King has a music video that features excerpts from Wir Kindern von Bahnhof Zoo, a German movie about a heroin addicted teenage prostitute who lives in 1970’s era Berlin:

What needs to be noted here and will be immediately apparent to music theorists is White Ring’s use of stop-timed beats in this particular song. The beat dies and then it continues again. What that means in practice is that drum beats in this song occur in those moment when you would least expect them. This becomes a rhythm of its own, although it takes our brain longer to recognize it. This is one of those things that witch house does that is interesting but simply doesn’t have mainstream appeal: The average person enjoys a mindless simple four on the floor beat that doesn’t draw any attention to itself. The bizarre and experimental drum pattern in this song however contributes to generating the alienating atmosphere of complete dissociation. Wir Kindern von Bahnhof Zoo is popular in the Witch House community as source material for music videos, the music video for BLVCK CEILING’s Opium features excerpts from the movie too.

When it comes to drug use, Witch House doesn’t really deal with the casual recreational use of the occasional cannabis joint, as you might see in Reggae music or mainstream Hip Hop. As in everything it approaches, it is drawn to the dysfunctional and the extreme. The first witch house album ever produced was Salem’s “yes I smoke crack”. For Witch House, it’s all or nothing. Sidewalk and Skeleton’s white light samples the voice of a teenager describing a drug that triggers a near-death experience.

BLVCK CEILING’s setMefree does something similar. The original song by Charli XCX describes a girl who is suffering from toxic longing for someone with whom she had a relationship. The derivative song by BLVCK CEILING carries such intensity however that it makes Charli XCX sound more like a girl after an intense psychedelic experience, longing to escape from the endless chain of reincarnations to which human beings are condemmed. For quite some time after taking magic mushrooms, this was my favorite song.

Witch House leaks into popular culture

Just as Witch House embraces popular culture, its lasting legacy as underground occult electronic music makes Witch House too cool for popular culture to ignore. Popular culture always borrows from the fringes, every dominant cultural movement we ever had always started at the fringes. Consider for example, the sound of Crystal Castles. When Alice from Crystal Castles comes out on stage wearing a black robe, lights candles and begins singing Plague, what do you think you’re looking at? That’s witch house. Other artists who borrow the witch house style and introduce aspects to a broader public are Purity Ring and Grimes.

Perhaps most interestingly, Billie Eilish has liberally borrowed the Witch House sense of fashion, through her use of oversized dark colored clothing. Everything about Billie Eilish, from the liberal borrowing of hip hop fashion and rhythms, to the dazed look in her eyes, to the dark lyrical themes, to her oversized clothing, screams “witch house”. Compare the image above, to Witch House pioneers Salem:

The Meaning of Witch House

The reason Witch House behaves like a joke is not because the artists don’t take their art seriously, they devote most of their spare time to it. It’s because within a culture that takes the scientific materialist worldview for granted, you can not credibly embrace the occult without insinuating that it is all meant merely as a joke, you would not be seen as evil but as insane. If Witch House artists insisted that it is genuinely the music of 21st century witches who play distorted dance music as they sacrifice people to the devil, we would scoff at it, we would treat it like some sort of Insane Clown Posse for goths. But because it is occultism dressed up as satire, dressed up as occultism, it keeps us intrigued.

This is not a new phenomenon. Whether occult movements are serious in their claims has always been a bit of an unanswered question. In Victorian England for example, occult movements served as an opportunity for women to pursue promiscuous sex. If a man within such a witch cult were to insist that a woman behaved against the Victorian sexual double standard, it would be a form of mutually assured destruction, for it would unveil the man as violating society’s Christian religious code.

For something to be occult means for it to be hidden. What we call occultism today, would have simply been seen as heathenism before Christianity became culturally dominant. Occultism teaches heathen values through Christian themes. Thus the burden carried by the occultists is that their subculture can only exist as an inversion of the dominant culture. So it is with Witch House. Witch House is an occult inversion of the dominant culture that hides on obscure Youtube channels, concealed from Google’s search algorithms through ASCII symbols in the title. It can not exist in the absence of popular culture.

Because the Christian culture that occultists happen to invert is dying out, the Christian symbols themselves take little effort now to alienate and unnerve us. We’re not used to seeing nuns in our dominant culture any longer, the sight of a nun in a witch house video becomes sufficient now to make us feel uncomfortable. If anything, Witch House reveals a melancholic longing for a time when there were still values to rebel against. A lot of Witch House videos suggest the only thing left to rebel against is life itself, that an embrace of self-destruction is now the way forward.

When Witch House reveals its occult roots, it commonly does so in an almost over the top manner, as seen in the below video. It is as if to imply “this is what we want, but can’t have”. Ask yourself when watching this video: If the occult themes of Witch House are genuinely meant merely as some sort of joke, would you bother putting this much effort into it? It might have started out as a joke, but that is how occultism tends to be reborn: As a joke that starts to get out of hand. The prominent occultist John Michael Greer argues that there tends to be a moment during a student’s occult teachings when he panics because he discovers “fuck this shit actually works”. Most tend to quit at that point and never look back, afraid of losing their sanity.

 

The traditional image of the witch depends on a thriving Christian culture for her to exist in opposition to, so with the demise of Christianity, Witch House had to come up with an image of a modern witch of its own, a woman who exists in opposition to today’s dominant cultural values. It’s thus not Christianity itself that the modern witch inverts, it is the modern rational and secular approach to life itself.

An early example of Witch House’s effort to reinvent the modern witch is Gucci Hucci, a satirical description of a sexually sadistic binge-drinking teenage girl with a decadent love for expensive brands. Other artists in the genre have toyed with the imagery of a modern day witch too. Instead of getting good grades in school, the modern witch sells her body to buy heroin or commits suicide. The anti-Christian imagery, once explicit and abundant in previous counter-cultures like Black Metal, has now been reduced to the subtle image of a crucifix that lies discarded on the floor. Popular musicians like Miley Cyrus and Lana del Rey are turned into demonic Goddesses with blank eyes.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that Witch House eventually found its main stronghold in a nation that exists almost entirely in opposition to the modern West: I am talking of course about Russia. Russia lost its own cultural tradition during the revolution in favor of Marxism, then Marxism died with the fall of the wall and Russia went through a dark period until Vladimir Putin revitalized its economy.

Putin can’t credibly propose an alternative ideology to the Capitalist Realism that has taken hold of the Western world. Its people have no shared ideology or vision for the future, there are orthodox reactionaries, neoheathens and aging communists who have to find some common ground. Instead, the glue that holds Russia together is its opposition to  what it perceives as the absurdity and relativist meaninglessness of life in the modern West.

Russia is a modern secular capitalist nation, but in contrast to America, only begrudgingly so. What possible explanation could there otherwise be for the peculiar fact that Witch House today only continues to thrive in Russia? This only makes sense, if we interpret Witch House as music that inverts modern Western popular culture, just as the Russian state does with Western values.

Witch House should be recognized as the genre of music of the willful outsider, the music embraced by young people who choose to live on the margins of society in opposition to modern culture. This is not a new phenomenon of its own. Our generation grew up with Witch House, but before us there was Outlaw Country. There were forms of Country music too, that had an emphasis on stories about drug use, religious themes and the lives of men on the margins on society. Consider as an example, Townes van Zandt. The fascination with the Devil in Outlaw Country music only thinly conceals a form of love and admiration for him, correctly interpreting him as a “necessary evil” who brings life and passion into an otherwise rational and lifeless world, in a manner once described by William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Similarly, the Discordians embraced occultism while pretending to jokingly embrace occultism. It is here on these fringes, a dark place where witches and outlaws thrive, from where the lifeless and bland dominant culture is continually revitalized.

5 Comments

  1. You are selling black metal short by ignoring recent developments.

    Artists like Jute Gyte and Gnaw Their Tongues reshape black metal into an industrial genre shunning the Norwegian cliché’s. Or consider Oranssi Pazuzu which blends psychedelica with black metal. Even more accessible forms of black metal have moved on, like the blackgaze of Alcest or Deafheaven mixing black metal with the shoegaze of Slowdive.

  2. Hey Radagast, thanks for another great post. Speaking of Witch House, there’s a common practice to create fast-paced VHS-y montages set to пl3nk▲’s nightmare, where glitchy imagery of partying, drugs, pop culture, memes, world events, the occult, etc. attain a hauntological and melancholic quality, with naturally a layer of ironic detachment as well. I think you’ll appreciate these if you haven’t seen them already:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bNh9CItJrQ
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-C36jdWECw
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-NuyFPaBwM

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