Chasing Queer Freedom With Oneohtrix Point Never

Daniel Lopatin’s music echoes puberty's violence and the space between genders

Puberty is violent. It explodes bodies from the inside. There’s no way to prepare for the way it all actually feels, and nothing can erase the scars of its humiliation. Though precipitated by biology — by hormones that fluctuate over time — puberty is primarily a social transition, an entry into a world informed by adult gender.

On his latest album as Oneohtrix Point Never, electronic producer Daniel Lopatin dissects the bizarre trauma of puberty. The insert to physical copies of Garden of Delete includes a photo of Lopatin in his teens, awkward, gangly, squinting at the camera on a blindingly sunny day. The album’s digital liner notes, a network of websites about a fictional band called Kaoss Edge, follow a teenage alien named Ezra. Ezra is puberty personified; he behaves awkwardly around people he wants to befriend, he’s sexually frustrated, and his skin is compromised by uncontrollable acne.

Compared to the muted, academic work in the rest of OPN’s catalogue, Garden of Delete feels volcanic and wild. Corroded vocals scream and whimper between clashes of abrasive noise. There are guitar solos, the kind you’d hear in a Guitar Center full of teenage boys trying out cheap Stratocasters. The music flows thick with insecurity, anger, and fear; it’s as though there were a terrified boy stuck somewhere in the middle of it, crying out to be understood — his pleas registering as distorted, garbled screams.

Last month when I saw OPN at the Pitchfork Music Festival, I was surrounded by a throng of teenage fans. They are high and restless, joking that Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler is going to show up to sing “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” instead of Lopatin. They start a rumor that FKA twigs brought out a live snake for her headlining set. One of them tries to convince me that Lopatin is his dad.

Finally, half an hour late, he takes the stage and begins performing. Computer-generated imagery is projected and flashes like a corrupted website on either side of the stage. Vaguely biological 3-D shapes morph into walls of text; like the music, it’s disorienting, as if we’re all scrolling through someone’s Geocities after taking one too many hits on our older brother's bong.

By the second song, a mosh pit breaks out, which seems like a wild turn for an artist who until 2015 could safely be filed under “Ambient." But these songs are huge, thrashing events soundtracking the audience’s movement. “I Bite Through It” reproduces viscerality with thick meshes of analog synthesizers, heavy-metal drums, and decontextualized snippets of human speech, while “Sticky Drama” sees Lopatin screaming through a net of eerie vocal effects. The pit is fevered and intermittent but enthusiastic; we crash into each other whenever Lopatin fires up the beats, sweating and flailing and strangely at home.

Before long, I’m soaked in the sweat of about two dozen dudes. I feel slimy and raw and transcendent, following the logics of my body and the music, dancing in the space where they combine.

Maybe the hardest part of puberty (and I had the kind with the cramps and the blood and the catcalling) is how sharply the internal self divides from the external. Whatever you knew yourself to be as a kid is gone, shattered in a storm of new desires, new appearances, new edges of violence. I wanted to be a million contradictory things at 12 — pretty, liked, confident, self-sufficient, loving, uncaring, cool — and I had no way of becoming any of them. I had to wait inside my body while it changed, while my thighs grew thicker against my will and my face glazed over with oil. Every day the mirror held some new monster.

As someone whose identity does not align neatly with either “man” or “woman," I often feel stuck in a perpetual puberty. Puberty is a kind of liminality, a “neitherness” — you’re neither a child nor an adult, neither helpless nor empowered. Maybe you start to have sexual feelings that you’re discouraged from acting on or even expressing. Maybe you feel trapped in a slow limbo.

Even now, what I feel myself to be, the impulses and desires and histories that make up whatever we call a “self,” rarely translates to how I’m perceived. I have curves and a certain kind of facial structure, so most people call me “she.” People assume I have femininity when I don’t feel feminine; my body becomes a locus of contradiction and dysphoria.

From Wendy Carlos to Frankie Knuckles, electronic music’s queer roots run deep, and in recent years young artists have used the genre to explore paradoxical feelings of gender variance. Arca’s slippery, form-defying music illuminates the way the body can both reinforce and defy gendered ideals, while Burial’s 2013 EP Rival Dealer samples a speech by trans filmmaker Lana Wachowski in between imagining free and joyful utopias.

Oneohtrix Point Never’s music doesn’t center queerness in the same way, but it does intermingle with trans anxiety. The corrosions of voice and form on Garden of Delete mimic the way trans people contradict idealized genders; in the cis gaze, a trans woman’s voice is too deep to be feminine, a trans man’s height is inadequate, a nonbinary person reaches too far in either direction to be legible. Trans presentation disrupts cis categorization, glitching the hegemonic process of sorting everyone into one of two discrete categories on sight.

Hidden in the Kaoss Edge website (itself corroded and chaotic, full of broken images and strange fonts and bad links) is a piece of erotic fiction describing an encounter between Ezra the alien and Flow, Kaoss Edge’s lead singer. “After losing contact with his planet, Ezra wasn’t sure quite what to do,” it reads. “He had been assigned into this body, and although still had his own retracted alien parts hidden under his clothes, he unknowingly inherited hormones that sparked feelings in his body he had never even fathomed.”

Ezra and Flow have sex, eventually. Ezra’s described as having six phallic sexual organs, while Flow, who’s human and only referred to using male pronouns, has a vagina. Both represent corruptions of the gendered forms they’re supposed to embody; both find each other despite them.

In the pit, loving this music that other people love, I can forget the specifics of the body I’m in. I can smash my body into other bodies, lost in the ecstasy of motion and sound and friendly aggression. I can dissolve into this roaring, fucked-up music, a blur in a heap of blurs swirling around each other, spraying sweat. I can feel like I’ve always wanted to feel — free.