July 7, 2014
by John Gentile

Death Grips have broken up—that is, if their “break up” isn’t another zany scheme in their long line of hijinks. As you may know, without any previous sign of discord or calculation, the band posted a picture of a napkin on their Facebook page bearing writing that begins, “We are now at our best so Death Grips is over.”

It’s difficult not to view the news with a bit of skepticism. This is the same band who scheduled a 30-date tour then canceled it; intentionally leaked an album (2012’s No Love Deep Web) despite a contract with Epic to release it, which caused the major label to drop them; performed via Skype at SXSW in 2013;purposefully failed to show up at 2013’s Lollapalooza, thus allowing a dummy drum kit to get destroyed by an angry audience; released half of a new album, Niggas on the Moon, with every track “featuring” Bjork (where Bjork really only appears as heavily sampled, distorted, background ambiance); scheduled a tour around said album only to break up a month after its release, thus canceling all future tour dates.

To be sure, each of those wacky schemes garnered a lot of press for Death Grips. But notice that in almost every one of the articles that aren’t reviews, music is entirely secondary and often not mentioned at all. In fact, if you look at the number of “plays” on their newest album’s Soundcloud, the first song has an impressive 270,000 plays. The next song has half that. Each successive song drops in number of plays until they bottom out at about 55,000. That is to say, it seems people like the idea of Death Grips more than they like the music of Death Grips.

To be fair, it’s probably inaccurate to say that the band is all style and no substance. Just because music is challenging and that people don’t stick with it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. One on hand, Death Grips took perhaps the worst genre ever—rap-rock—and put a new façade on it. But on the other hand, they daringly overloaded their recording equipment and made abrasive, clashing, brutish music that appears to be as interested as studying sonic texture and breaking new ground as it is making good music.

For those who don’t buy into the “Death Grips is a daring group exploring new territory” angle, it’s tempting to say that all of their hijinks serve one purpose—to distract people from noticing that the actual music isn’t very good. From a critical standpoint, most Death Grips songs don’t seem to have too much work put into them, with the same five-second idea repeated over and over without progressing, creating a product that’s often beyond repetitive. They might have a few bangers, but there is also a lot of redundancy and just plain junk.

But to separate the band from their schemes and focus solely on the music probably isn’t fair. Just as it’s not fair to judge, say, a musical on just the music, it’s not fair to judge Death Grips solely as an aural experience. Their own breakup note sort of gives up the jig: “Death Grips was and always has been a conceptual art exhibition anchored by sound and vision. Above and beyond a ‘band.”’ That is to say, even Death Grips admits that they’re more of a performance art piece than a music group.

And frankly, by that standard, they’re one of the most effective performance art pieces of the last decade. Who else has caused such controversy, attention and debate on what is or is not a band, or even, what is or is not “art,” than Death Grips?

So then, with people taking notice, what is the value of Death Grips? The band know how to play with people’s expectations—everyone wants to hear your major label release? Self-release and get kicked off the label. Everyone wants to know what you’ll do at Lollapalooza? Don’t show up. From a professional standpoint, the latter is pretty shitty; from an artistic standpoint, perhaps not so much.

Though, what can be garnered from it? Like most art, Death Grips probably doesn’t have an exact message, and even the band members themselves probably couldn’t explain why they did everything that they did. Rather, Death Grips seem more like a reaction to something than a direct push. Right now, the musical landscape is bloated with far more bands than anyone can even hope to know. 99% of all bands sink without getting any attention whatsoever. In order to become “known,” talent just isn’t enough anymore (and maybe it was always that way). And, of the bands who do become known, many of them become so overhyped so quickly due to the fact that everyone wants “to be in the know,” that people get sick of them before they even release a proper album.

It’s hard to not read Death Grips as a reaction to that. In an age where bands rocket to massive notice and flicker out just as fast, Death Grips played with that by taking the attention away from the music, and instead, placing attention on the band itself. As bands like Savages or Iceage could probably tell us, having a “cool new sound” isn’t necessarily sustainable, and likewise, fans often pride themselves in knowing about a band just as much, if not more, than actually enjoying them. What Death Grips did was essentially and entirely tossed the music aside, as if to say, “Just pay attention to us! See what we’ll do next! This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”

The way that the band remained a focal point across so many music blogs (for four years!) while the “next big act of 2013” was as forgotten as Kajagoogoo shows that the subversion is exactly what the people wanted. And now, apparently, the experiment is over and the point has been proven. Hype and expectation is the new art medium. Really, it’s quite clever of the band to point that out and even more clever of them to actually make that expression a tangible, lasting thing.

Still, as people even now are arguing about whether Death Grips were a great band or just a gimmick, that piercing gaze of John Lydon seems to loom over it all. His askew eyes cutting into the audience, squatting on the front of Winterland’s stage, groaning in a dripping voice, “No fuuuuuunnn…” before marking his final words as a Sex Pistol, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Now, as it was then, the answer is, “Maybe…?”