One Song: M83’s Midnight City [by Shawn Charles Baker]

Read the work of Terence and Dennis McKenna, and you will soon become familiar with the concept “Timewave Zero.” Timewave Zero is an unexpected archetypal epiphany, a result of the McKenna brothers encountering something that did not fit into the paradigm of our consensual reality and thus drove them to rigorous and unconventional research. While investigating medicinal plants in the Lower Amazon Basin, the brothers discovered what they theorized was an extra-dimensional being that resided in the jungle vine species Banisteriopsis caapi. Using information decoded from this experience, the McKennas devised a graph of the first order of difference between each of the 64 hexagrams in the King Wen sequence of the ancient Chinese divinatory system known as the I Ching. Contained within the mathematical graphing of these degrees of change, they then found a correlation between our own concept of time and the ancient Mayan calendar. This was the humble beginning of the “2012 phenomenon” that New Age pop metaphysics bastardized decades later in movies, marketing and an endless parade of books, though the McKennas’ work was a completely different animal altogether from the concept embraced by pop culture. Despite any perceived shortcomings, the Timewave Zero research remains an uncanny example of the ancient hermetic axiom, “As above, so below,” a simpler way of saying that the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm. Science and philosophy have in many ways shown that the rules that govern the heavens can also be found to govern our world, our bodies and our creations. This explains why I’ve taken to referencing the McKennas’ work and the I Ching when seeking answers to quandaries in the world around me.

On Aug. 16, 2011, when the track “Midnight City” appeared on M83’s website, it ushered in one such McKennian mental paradigm shift for me. Moved to tears by the song, I found myself suddenly re-examining long-buried aspects of my own psyche—memories and perceptions, appreciations and connections I’d hidden away in the lowest depths of my consciousness. “Midnight City” served as the denouement to a process that the band started within me two years previously as I fell increasingly under the spell of their 2008 love letter to the 1980s, Saturdays = Youth.

Born in ‘76, the lush and often overly dramatic, futuristic naiveté that identified the music of the 1980s was the context in which I learned to love music. It was the neon-haze of ‘80s radio that fostered my love of music, before the same attributes became dated by advancements in cultural sophistication, recording procedure and, most especially, synthesizer technology. As I moved into young adulthood, the – ahem -alternative music boom of the early 1990s suddenly made most of that music from the ‘80s seem grotesque to me. Then, almost 20 years later, M83 brought those outdated sounds back so that they coalesced with other hybrid strains into a new melting pot, the gap between these events forming a kind of natural window through which these identifiably ‘80s elements seemed inexplicably fresh again. Concurrently, it was displacing the music that made the 1990s such a powerful watershed era, making that era, in turn, seem as dated as Hall and Oates and The Alan Parsons Project once had. While I love the production work Butch Vig did on many of those seminal ‘90s records, it now sounds increasingly as though the music of that era is playing on a small stereo at the other end of an abysmally long hallway. Will this always be the case? No. But then the question is why, and how exactly is this possible?

It has long been repeated that everything moves in cycles. This is another case of the “As above, so below” credo. Cycles are circles, and circles, as we know from the Golden Ratio, can be found in many of the building blocks of our world. But how does this apply to music? We can look to the digital paradigm, the 1/0, on/off, in/out operating system and trace concordances that apply to these pop culture iterations. And yet, how do we use this? And whether we seek to understand or predict this, perhaps the more important question is, does it matter?

If we have already established that much in the realm of human experience is interrelated, then does it not also hold that to discover a pattern in the cycles of our culture’s musical experiences might possibly lead to a connection in other areas? The works of Quantum theorists Erwin Schrodinger and Peter J. Carroll suggest that our perception of the world influences our reality, and what is music but the artist’s perception of the world around them? When “Midnight City” hit the radio, I began to read reports that the lyric “The City is my Church” had started popping up on the graffiti-laden walls of a nearby city, and I felt as though the fact that science had been searching for a unifying theory of everything since the late 1800s was being directly referenced in some way. Many nights since, I have sat staring at my copy of the I Ching, tracing the patterns of the hexagrams contained therein. As a soundtrack to this study I often play “Midnight City” on a loop. Emanating out from that loop, I always feel the waves of reality fluctuate. I have, for now, accepted that humans do not yet possess the hardware with which to discern how or why those fluctuations affect the world.

But at least I can enjoy the song.

Shawn Charles Baker is a writer, filmmaker, and musician living in Southern California.

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