Obsessive, anxious, insecure, verging on depressive collapse. These feelings creep in while listening to Blac Kolor’s marvelous and haunting “Everything is in My Control,” from their 2013 EP Range. These are familiar feelings for me; I’ve long experienced waves of anxiety and depression, and a general sense of worthlessness and hopelessness that’s centered on myself more than the world at large (though I’m plenty hopeless about that these days as well, but that’s a post for another time). So, first hearing “Everything Is In My Control” sent familiar currents through my mind and body. Before the track was finished, I knew Blac Kolor was a band for me, which is, of course, an exciting feeling.
Songs and listeners can sometimes find each other at just the right time, forming a bond beyond any authorial intent, becoming instead something deeply personal between listener and song. This happen when I first heard “Everything is in My Control” and my life at the time was slipping into a rather intense depressive stupor as my own perfectionist complex took over and incapacitated me. What a time that was. Things are better now, but that was the state of things when I found this song.
The mechanistic precision and propulsion of “Everything is in My Control” underscores the title, where everything really is in the artist’s control, even as it simultaneously exposes how the accompanying stress and anxiety of achieving and maintaining that precision begins to take its toll on the person in question. The low end beat keeps us firmly grounded and established. It’s a controlling presence, even a comforting and stabilizing presence. Accompanying this is a low end drone, which offers an equally consistent element, where the pitch changes are slight and predictable. We like this in our pop songs and in our lives. Nothing too complicated, nothing that could throw off that personal sense of security and confidence.
While we like our art to be conflict-based, with linear narratives and plots filled with excitement and fantasy, most of the time we don’t want our actual lives to be that way. Instead we crave normalcy, whatever that might entail. If we do crave adventure, it still must occur on our terms–the obsessive quest for alleged authenticity through experiences saturates our Instagram-driven lives, where everything is carefully composed and curated to present our lives as endlessly unique and bursting with authentic Meaning; enlightenment and transcendence achieved through precise composition. And, no, the unflattering pictures don’t really push back too much on this, as we’ve a long history of deliberately making ourselves look silly to mask our insecurity.
Another difference between art and life is that the stories we like to read or watch are linear. For art, this is what we prefer, because it conveys solid direction and focus, which we crave. Hence why the pop song structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus is so enticing. It’s predictable, offering a ready-made template we can follow, with changes familiar and easy to anticipate. Free-form music, abstract music, sound collages and scrambled structures make us uncomfortable because there’s nothing to hold on to. Our lives, however, aren’t particularly linear, nor do we want them to be. Because linear narratives are frequently about conflict–something happening to pass through. Hence why unexpected challenges disorient us, slowing down time, and often heightening memory and experience. Which often makes us uncomfortable. We hate going through these experiences, but often we like telling the story later, which we tell through linear narrative. For our regular, average lives, we prefer circular narratives, where the day is largely predictable and comfortable, devoid of conflict and tension. Stasis. It’s a much safer world that way. But it’s also an absurdist world, without change or escape. If there’s something new, it’s something delightful and relatively minor. Yet life is unpredictable, even chaotic at times, and it’s during those times that our desire to regain control, (re)establish our comfort zones and boundaries, becomes even more pronounced, even frantic, though we’d rather not describe it that way.
Rather than admit things are out of control, we often, like the voice of the song, continue to insist that “everything is in my control,” even if that is hardly true, either to us or others. If we tell ourselves that enough, then it’ll just be, right? That this is the only lyric in the song suggests how reduced our position becomes when things begin to unravel; we can only focus on one thing, and we’ll insist that singular aspect of our lives is reality, with the added repetition of “everything” heightening even further how massive our desire has become. We don’t need just the immediate problem resolved, but every aspect of our lives. The hyperbole here reflects our own inarticulate forms of expression and understanding. Identifying the primary problem isn’t good enough, nor is our pain isolated to one aspect of our lives. Instead everything starts to bleed together, with problems piling up on one another like various layers of electronic minutiae, adding disorienting density. The layers within the song that become more difficult to follow parallels how the different strands of our life become harder to identify, leaving us to clumsily claim that everything is out of balance, everything hurts, and nothing seems right. This is rarely true, but in the moment it can certainly feel that way.
What I’m particularly fond of here are the various electronic strands rising in pitch and slicing across the track’s atmosphere. I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to consider these bits in relation to the shrieking strings in Bernard Hermann’s film score to Hitchcock’s Psycho. It isn’t a precise intertextual reference, but the function is similar: injecting the track with rising anxiety and stress. These sounds scratch and rise in pitch the way our own stress levels slowly (or sometimes not so slowly) rise as we become less sure of ourselves. Here is the cost of demanding perfect all-encompassing control of our situation. Like stress-fractures to our psyche, these thin, fragile details undercut the solid stability of those mechanistic beats.
And yet, these electronic slices never leap out at us as Hermann’s strings do. Often the sound is processed and distorted, then mixed and blended across the musical landscape–fading in and out. This too adds a disconcerting layer to how anxiety passes through us. It creeps in, pushes up, then fades into the background. It warps and distorts, yet we try controlling and manipulating it. For many of us, an anxiety attack, or even a panic attack, is something we fight against rather than ride out. To shift and move with the emotional chaos is to relinquish control, acknowledging that our brain and body are going to do what they want regardless of what our conscious may want or think is best. Paradoxically, surrendering control in those moments of chaos actually allows us to pass through those moments more successfully. There’s a certain dissonant, chaotic, abstracted and layered harmony still at work there. So a densely layered dark electro track, while formally and stylistically very different from, say, a death metal track–which often also meanders through riffs, breaks, and a lack of familiar verse and chorus structure–demands obsessive precision, even while seeming a bit out of control or hard to track and process. What appears chaotic, is far from it, but instead presents incredible discipline. Panic and anxiety attacks often ask for a different kind of discipline than the common definition. Ordered chaos. Embracing disorder and creating harmony through unpredictability. Hardly pleasant, but far from the futile attempts to prevent an attack that won’t be stopped.
All of this merging together undercuts the entire surface message of the title. Control to this level isn’t control at all. There’s no confidence here, only fear. By the end the circularity, droning consistency and metronomic beat, rather than empowerment and comfort, all has become oppressive anxiety. Circular lifestyles of familiarity become static nightmares, where there’s nothing interesting or new to be found. Our desire for safety through predictability renders life boring and without substance–just bare walls painted beige.
This is what happened to me for a time. Most people with depression or obsessive personalities that I know have experiences like this. Sometimes it lasts quite a while. Sometimes they work through it relatively quickly. Finding a balance between chaos and control is an elusive endeavor. Aristotle’s notion of finding a mean between extremes is a commendable aspiration, but often a draining one, requiring daily persistence. The challenge is not letting your quest for a mean between extremes to become its own extreme. If we obsess over not being obsessed, then where are we?
Blac Kolor might be thinking of entirely different things when they created this song. But my personal challenges when I found the song heavily shaped how I read it, and I still find a lot of substance to those initial observations. I’m further reminded of KMFDM claiming they like electronic instruments because they “don’t make mistakes.” Trent Reznor’s work on Nine Inch Nails’ album The Fragile explores some of this same territory of obsession and demands for perfection becoming their own corrupting force, rendering the entire apparatus of our lives fractured and broken. He uses the perceived perfection within electronic instruments as a foundation, and then proceeds across the album to destroy that perfection through studio manipulation–the studio space as instrument to be corrupted. Blac Kolor, while offering a cleaner, more straight-forward style than NIN’s The Fragile, explores some of that same territory, carving its own path through the stranger, darker regions of our lives. For my part, “Everything is in My Control,” and the entire Range EP, offers a unique perspective on those more subterranean and disconcerting corners of our personalities.
It’s a further part of the paradox–and one of the wonderfully elusive aspects of art–that a song I interpret as addressing obsessive personalities, stress and depression, where it plays out the very issues it addresses, becomes remarkably helpful in diffusing some of those issues within myself–some cathartic experience where embracing and living through the emotions pressing in offers purging relief, a kind of emotional and psychological bloodletting. I’m able to relinquish some of my own need for control and allow the unexpected to have more room in my life. The desire for a robotic, mechanistic life is countered, or perhaps complemented, by a humanistic component of unpredictability.
Things are good right now. Though they may not be tomorrow (I can already sense a new anxiety wave building). And that’s fine with me.
*An earlier version of this short essay can be read on Twisted Stars, Faulty Map–a tumblr account I rarely operate anymore.