Brockhampton and the Digital Renaissance

We are in a digital renaissance, and Brockhampton is evidence.

Click here to watch video version of think piece.

Cover art by @inglorious_bobby

About a month and a half ago, I was trying to focus on a reading for my Mediterranean history class, and in a fit of procrastination, I saw that a new music video had been uploaded onto Brockhampton’s YouTube channel. It was the song Baby Boy, off the second installment of Ian Simpson a.k.a Kevin Abstract’s three-part album release for ARIZONA BABY.

Rapper, director and singer-songwriter Ian Simpson, a founding member and leader of Brockhampton, finished releasing ARIZONA BABY on April 25th, 2019 to primarily positive reviews.

Being an enterprising internet culture theorist, I decided to do what I typically do if I catch a viral video in the hours following its release; I comment. Intending to both pander to the video’s audience and sneak in my own cultural theory, I ended up with the following.

Enya and Drew in a Kevin Abstract music video solidifies Brockhampton as the most important art movement of the Digital Age.

This YouTube comment and its reception spurned the following think piece. While the comment is intentionally sensationalistic, I believe there is a lot of validity to it.

This is not the first time I have grappled with the idea of Brockhampton’s cultural significance. I have been a longtime follower of the group and watched them go from an underground collective with 4000 subscribers to Coachella headliners.

For those who do not know, Brockhampton is a self-proclaimed boyband that signed to the label RCA last year for 15-million dollars. Mainly known for their breakout 2017 summer when they released the Saturation Trilogy, Brockhampton has come to be recognized as one of the most impactful and up-and-coming musical groups of the past decade. Through addressing topics like sexuality, mental illness, and racism with genre and medium blending art, Brockhampton have made noticeable waves within popular culture.

Album art for Saturation I, II, and III. These albums are what first brought the collective mainstream success.

If you want more biographical context about the group, I recommend checking out these articles (1, 2, 3, 4), as this piece is mainly theory.

Given the collectives immense success, I’ve tried to capture the essence of what Brockhampton means to internet culture many times. For a while, I was calling them the ‘Beatles of our generation,’ and at one point they were ‘what Odd Future could have been¹.’ I even used some of their own attempts at describing themselves, such as the iconic line ‘best boyband since One Direction’ from their song BOOGIE.

It was not until I first saw the music video they filmed for Dominic Fike’s breakout hit 3 Nights, titled “This is Dominic Fike,” that I began to think Brockhampton was something more than a band.

Here is my underdeveloped attempt at articulating this idea via YouTube comment:

Essentially, the Dominic Fike video led me to this: Brockhampton is already considered to be more than just a musical group. They are referred to as an art collective because the term band is limiting. Since they encompass a large group of vocalists, designers, directors, producers, et cetera, they are clearly operating as a creative entity beyond the scope the typical band, but what if even the term collective is limiting? I believe Brockhampton is and is becoming something far more expansive and significant.

The main point I want to make here is that Brockhampton, while clearly being an art collective, also seems to represent something beyond this in greater popular culture. I postulate that they are the artistic embodiment of the DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit which underlies the digital renaissance².

Okay, so what is the digital renaissance? Well, I thought I coined the term to describe our current golden age of online content, when in reality, Joel Waldfogel, University of Minnesota’s Chair of Applied Economics, introduced the term last year in his book Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture. Regardless of citation, I’ll give my own definition, as it is quite similar and will serve as a central premise for my series of articles on this topic.

Check out Professor Waldfogel’s book for a more expansive exploration of the Digital Renaissance and its effect on creative industries throughout the world.

Professor Waldfogel and I posit that we are currently in a digital renaissance because the rate of content creation is exponentially increasing as the means to create said content become more accessible. Where there were once stringent barriers guarding access to editing software, recording devices, audiences, et cetera, there is now an open playing field for anyone with an internet-accessing device and free time. The digital renaissance goes hand in hand with the democratization of media.

Consequently, we see a flood of independent content creation that is upending the current television paradigm of media (and practically every existing creative industry [courtesy of Joel’s definition]), making our current situation one where everyone can be creator, consumer, or both (as most are).

With the rate of content creation increasing, the content people want to see becomes produced and viewed more often. This creates hierarchies of creators who reach increasingly large audiences, where the content that is desired by the majority typically rises to the top.

While many of these top creators arguably use exploitative tactics, there are also many who have risen primarily by means of talent, hard work, and optimal strategies of distribution. With the presence of these driven and skillful creators reaching heights of success, mostly on their own, I propound there is renewed energy for simply sitting down and figuring it out on your own. This is the DIY spirit I see permeating through Gen Z and young millennials, and I believe it is a direct result of the amount of high-level content being created around the world.

This is where Brockhampton comes in. Not only are they a collective that met through the internet fueled by a desire to create professional level content, they are creators that made it (using this colloquially) with practically no outside assistance. They are a recent DIY success story which proves one can make content that rivals the highest levels of the industry with no conventional training, education, or resources.

Naturally, their sheer artistic talent and continuously evolving success story has drawn innumerable creators to them over the past three years, forming intricate networks which usually exist within any creative industry (or group of humans). However, because Brockhampton exists in the digital age, the means of connection between creatives has been minimized to a DM. As a result, the legitimate DIY artists of this time period can easily communicate and build vast networks throughout the digital world.

Occasionally, we see these typically covert digital networks bleed into the light of day, showing that many of these influencers and content creators know and support one another. The music video for Baby Boy is a prime example of this. The beginning of the video features a heartfelt exchange between Enya Umanzor and Drew Phillips, two well-known comedic content creators/influencers.

Gaining initial fame from Vine, Enya and Drew are now pioneering a genre of ironic influencer content on Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube.

Ian’s inclusion of their exchange is likely to emphasize one of his album’s themes: empathy, but it is also significant as an intentional exposure of the digital networks that interact with and surround Brockhampton. While seemingly innocuous, the presence of these two influencers cements them as figures within a larger network and potential art movement.

Another indicator of Brockhampton’s increasing embrace of the DIY spirit is their interactions with Dominic Fike. The aforementioned “This is Dominic Fike” video and music video for Ian’s song Peach, which also features Fike, demonstrate a connection which was likely formed through these covert digital networks. This clear co-sign and support for the up-and-coming artist show Brockhampton acting beyond the means of a typical band and embracing the very ethos that initially brought their own collective together.

Because of Brockhampton’s success in transitioning from aspiring to successful creatives, they have become an archetypal success story for the Digital Renaissance, an embodiment of the DIY spirit realizing itself. By proxy, many creatives have been drawn to them and are continuously being drawn, as out of the many faking it until they make it, Brockhampton seems to be the real deal.

And beyond sitting as a symbol of the digital renaissance, Brockhampton is embracing the creative climate. They are featuring and helping those they deem worthwhile reach larger audiences. They are acknowledging their significance within this greater artistic movement and helping solidify it as such.

About a month ago, Ian Simpson streamed himself running on a treadmill outside of his childhood home in Corpus Christi, Texas for ten hours straight as an art piece and potential promotion for Brockhampton’s next project, dubbed #THE1999. At roughly 1 hour and 5 minutes into the stream, Ian corroborates a portion of my theory.

When a fan says, “Kevin, I really like how you treat Brockhampton as more than just a boyband, like by treating it as a media collective and showcasing new artists and stuff like that. Do you plan to do anything new like that?”

Ian responds, “Yes. You see the Dominic Fike video we did? Stuff like that.”

Wikipedia defines an art movement as “a tendency or style in art with a specific common philosophy or goal, followed by a group of artists during a restricted period of time, (usually a few months, years or decades)”. As per my initial comment, I am not trying to say that Brockhampton, as a collective, is an art movement but instead suggest that they are forerunners and figureheads of the DIY philosophy that characterizes the Digital Renaissance. If anything they are a prevalent face of an art movement.

Moving into the future, I theorize they will continue to embrace this role by doubling down on showcasing the network of creators that they believe generate worthwhile content in the Information Age.

In the same way that Monet’s Impression Sunrise embodied and served as the namesake for the Impressionist movement. I believe Brockhampton’s unique aesthetic and innovative art will act as a symbol of popular culture in the Digital Renaissance, making them the face of this wider art movement. I think this will happen soon, within the summer even.

To quote the end of Ian’s ten hour stream:

THE 1–9–9–9 IS HERE.

Footnotes:

1. This comment is not meant to disparage Odd Future at all. The reasoning behind it is mainly temporal. While clearly acting as an inspiration for Brockhampton, I think the cultural significance of Odd Future was limited by the amount of time they stayed together and overall time period of the groups existence. They will always be acknowledged as incredibly influential in the 2010’s DIY music scene, but I theorize Brockhampton will surpass the group in cultural influence, as Brockhampton exists in what I believe is the height of the Digital Renaissance.

2. The DIY spirit and general aesthetic are by no means isolated to the Digital Renaissance. In reality, the “do it yourself” ethos seems to be a integral part of many art movements (Punk for instance) and is typically fueled by technological shifts offering more creative agency to populations. There are cyclical lifespans of this DIY spirit, and we are currently amidst an iteration that predates Brockhampton but still has a lot of life in it (at least in my opinion).

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