Neil Cicierega’s latest madness is a lovely reminder of a bygone age… of, like, six years ago.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Right now, the singular word “bells” is the absolute funniest thing in the world to me. Dead seriously, if you say that word to me all by itself, I will be suppressing anything between a giant smirk or a full-on hysterical laughing fit in response. I am genuinely concerned that I may be unable, for the rest of my life, to take LCD Soundsystem’s “Us V. Them” seriously ever again because there’s a bit at the end of the first verse where James Murphy cues the bells with a solitary “bells” and I’m going to just end up thinking of Neil Cicierega instead.
“Why?” you will be wondering. Well, it’s all to do with the eleventh track on Cicierega’s new comedy mashup album, Mouth Sounds, called “Aammoorree.” On it, Cicierega does his usual comedic chopping and nonsensical lyric rearranging for Dean Martin’s iconic rendition of “Amore,” flipping the order of the most remembered lyric – “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!” – and abruptly cutting from “when you’ve had too much wine” back to “that’s amore!” in order make Martin sound like a faceplanting alcoholic in the midst of a drunken stupor. The comedic timing on these cuts is perfection, by the way; turning the song’s original waltz into a stumbling trainwreck even before Cicierega starts warping the audio into a nightmarish Don Bluth-ian mess. And at the end of each stanza, there is that single solitary abrupt “bells;” always out of rhythm, always flatter than the music surrounding it, always catching me off-guard in the stupidest way possible. The fact that the increasingly pitch-shifted stretched-out bells come in straight afterwards is just a complete bonus, I’m too hung up in laughing fits over the “bells” to notice half the time.
God, remember when the Internet was fun? I turn 26 this week and I remember a time when the Internet was a wild west of a place, but in like a fun non-murdery way! There was an innocence and purity to the early days of YouTube where your most popular videos were either wonderfully simple, inspired dumbness, or just the right amount thrilling naivety and experimentation to feel charming. Connecting with other people miles upon miles away was a joyous and exciting experience instead of something one actively dreads. Irony was being deployed in safe non-toxic amounts for fun meme-ification rather than being used to resuscitate, radicalise, and rebrand fascistic anti-progressive ideas in the mainstream. It was fun! Before the constant hatred, exhausting discourse, inescapable triggering shit, THE ALMIGHTY ALGORITHM, twats and hedge-fund media conglomerates going “how do we make money off of this?,” pivots to video… It was pretty great.
It, of course, never actually existed. Or, at least, never properly existed. Even if things are inarguably way, way, way fucking worse now, those early days of the Internet still saw their share of hateful garbage – let’s be frank: the seeds of our current online hellscape can be traced right back to the technology’s earliest days, the roots of consequence-free anonymity having their tendrils infect the more refined and structured ecosystem we all live on now. It’s nostalgia. The natural personal belief that, as one becomes more aware of the world being a complicated place as they get older, things were simpler and better back in the olden days. Read: you wish you were a kid again where the only things to worry about were if you’d get back from school in time for the new Spongebob episode (itself a highly privileged set of life circumstances not every child is privy to). Of course the Internet seemed better and purer and more innocent, then! It was new and exciting, and the opportunity to talk to people thousands of miles away or create a short work of some kind then upload it for everyone to see was cool and exhilarating instead of nightmare-inducing!
Neil Cicierega knows all about those days and that nostalgic sensation. He’s spent the Internet equivalent of several lifetimes on the web. Animutation, the absurdist random-ass early days of Flash animated web humour? He started that. Potter Puppet Pals, those joyful puppet parodies of Joanne’s world-conquering fantasy saga that became an early YouTube smash? He did that. “Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny?” Him too. Lemon Demon? Also him. BRODYQUEST? You guessed it. One really could argue that the foundation for a good decade of the way in which comedy works on the Internet can be traced back to Cicierega.
And then there are his mashups. Cicierega’s been doing mashups for most of his time online, but they’ve crystalised in the last half-decade with the Mouth series. In these pieces of genuine art, he smashes together a whole bunch of unlikely tastes that absolutely should not fit – Smash Mouth with Modest Mouse, B-52’s with the Psycho score, Hans Zimmer with Village People, The Lion King with sexual Marvin Gaye – into equal parts ‘unholy joke abominations that kinda bop’ and ‘unexpectedly great bops that are still kinda jokes.’ Or, when he’s not doing that, recutting single songs until they become ludicrously absurd slices of comedic genius – “Wonderwall” where the song is largely made up of just the first two syllables from each line pitch-shifted to match the rest, “Wild Wild West” re-envisioned with 1000% more latent homoeroticism for the film’s villain. Or, sometimes, both in one song!
The genius of this series is twofold. First being that the songs actually stand up as musical pieces even once the joke wears off, which is incredibly hard to do yet something that Cicierega has made a career out of. But also, it’s how the series plays on and recontextualises nostalgia through these mixes. The most prominent songs in the original trilogy, the ones that recur throughout in so many different forms, are “All Star,” “Smooth” and “One Week.” All songs from the turn of the century when then-kids like myself will have heard them drilled into our heads on radio, TV, films, etc., initially to the point of insufferable distraction but later in life gaining a sort of fondness due to that foundational memory, however ironic and even if that fondness isn’t quite offset by an initial revulsion whenever they start up. Cicierega’s mashups are aware of these effects, these deep base reactions they set off in their target audience, and utilise them for the purpose of expertly-timed semi-ironic comedy but also with a genuine love that is demonstrated in the craft and the joy that listening to them provides.
Mouth Dreams, then, ends up expanding that nostalgia just as much to the Internet Cicierega made his fame in rather than just childhood touchstones. Some of that is by content – god, I don’t want to spoil its brilliance, so let me just vaguely say that “Johnny” is maybe the greatest love letter that the pre-2010s Internet will ever receive – and a lot of that is just by the project’s mere existence. The kind of musical comedy/deconstruction that Cicierega traffics in hasn’t exactly gone extinct in the years since 2017’s Mouth Moods, what with the continued existence and evolutionary escalation of SoundClown, but it certainly feels like its day in the sun has receded significantly, supplanted by the shark-like forward momentum of newer forms of Internet comedy/memes and most of which end up exhaustingly politicised because my generation’s Cold War is apparently going to be the stupid Culture Wars.
And whilst the Internet has moved on, there’s something comfortingly simple in Cicierega’s throwback attitude to Mouth Dreams, marching to its own tune unmoved by the landscape shifts of the last three years. He’s still out here finding errant lines to cut up from their original place in a song, drop into the middle of completely different lines for humorous effect, then run that joke so far into the ground it comes back out the other side into being funny again – as he does with “Superkiller” and “Sleepin’.” He’s still slamming together samples that no decent human being should be slamming together for horrifyingly hilarious bops – “Spongerock,” “Fredhammer,” “Brithoven,” and especially “Ribs.” He’s even still working with some of the same samples as on prior albums, albeit using different permutations of them – “Closerflies” brings back Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” but this time uses the beat instead of the vocals.
It is, even with an added sense of thematic cohesion due to the nightmarish dreaming conceit, a self-contained low-stakes good time. Even if it technically stands as an Event Album on the Internet due to Cicierega’s status as an online OG from whom any new content marks a Big Deal, Mouth Dreams is mostly just a fun little piece of nonsense. It doesn’t want to represent anything, doesn’t want to blaze any trails, it doesn’t even really want to be dissected for additional secrets and gags in the same way his original trilogy could be. It’s just there and you either laugh at it or you don’t. And, God, did I need something like this. Something simple, something unpretentious, something disconnected from everything else right now.
The Discourse, in all its multifaceted forms across all aspects of culture and politics and life, is killing me. Ever since the plague broke out, it feels like everyone everywhere is angry all the time, somehow even more so than in the Before-Times. Some of that anger is good and vital, don’t get me wrong, but when the general online atmosphere is so torched and charged and there’s no escape from it – now that most days involve being locked in with no-one to see and nothing to do except Be Online from morning to evening – self-care begins to feel impossible and that exhausted, impotent, isolating weight presses down hard on you. Or, at least, that’s what it’s been like for me.
Which is why Mouth Dreams has felt like such a welcome balm in the face of everything. A throwback to a simpler time, one that plays into a listener’s nostalgia for both their childhood and a bygone Internet whilst perverting it in wholesomely nonsensical ways for great dumb laughs. I don’t have to overthink it. I don’t have to see fourteen circlejerking arguments by middle class White liberals over whether the artist behind it is truly working class or not and if that, consequently, means it’s “worthwhile art” or some other dumb shit nobody actually cares about. I don’t have to be slammed in the face with #IsCancelled parties, or right-wing hit-jobs, or even think about the criminal acts being performed by the people ineptly running my country. For one hour, I can just sit and laugh at the pure sweet dumbness that a] some deranged genius thought to mash together Edwin Starr with the Spice Girls whilst replacing all of the “wah” sounds with Waluigi and b] that the combination kinda legit slaps. Even if it arguably doesn’t hit the same consistently inventive heights as Cicierega’s prior three works, Mouth Dreams existing is, right now, enough for me.
Callie Petch *dial-up modem sounds*.