It was a sunny Wednesday morning in February, and 43-year-old Ariel Rosenberg, better known to the world as Ariel Pink, had an empty schedule. The former indie rock icon had descended into a state of professional living death, a condition that looked as irreversible to him as actual death. His career was now a list of accomplishments that didn’t matter anymore. He drew no encouragement from his 800,000 monthly Spotify listeners, or the 20,000 listens—now up to a healthy 120,000—for a recent single he had done nothing to promote and that the music press had ignored. His fortunes were disconnected from his run of four consecutive albums that had received Pitchfork’s coveted Best New Music distinction, all of which had cracked the Billboard 200. He was shunned and unwanted despite past collaborations with pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Azealia Banks, which were only footnotes in a vast catalog spanning a quarter-century, an output whose sound and sensibility had gone from that of an unknown teenager tinkering with an eight-track tape recorder to the defining rock ethos of the 2010s, simultaneously unsettled and propulsive, meaning and meaninglessness suspended inside layers of kitsch and haze and nostalgia. It was like none of it had ever happened.
“I definitely feel older than most people, I suppose,” he said as he stared into the morning sunlight from his living room in Los Feliz, his back to the beanbag chair, disco light, and electric cradle. Rosenberg talks in halting murmurs and in clear, paragraphlike spurts. He has a slight, even boyish frame, and his eyes possess a sharp, vulpine quality, giving off the possibility of being wired to a mind that’s only glancingly similar to yours. His hair was reaching toward shoulder-length but wasn’t shaggy—with no shows or video shoots on the horizon it had returned to its natural dirty blond. “It already feels like it’s a has-been sorta thing, like I had my moment,” he continued. “I’m an artist, you know,” Rosenberg told me in a later interview. “My consideration is not the customer. I don’t really care about the customer.”
Rosenberg’s career collapsed when he attended the January 6, 2021, rally at the White House, an event which he has been at pains to explain is distinct from the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol several hours later. Amid a media fury, Mexican Summer, his label and owner of most of his discography, announced they had dropped him. An appearance to plead his case on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, along with harassment allegations from an ex-girlfriend, sealed Rosenberg’s ostracism. He can no longer tour, for fear that venues will be boycotted and that promoters will refuse to work with him. Longtime friends and collaborators vanished. Ill-wishers have photographed Rosenberg and his wife, Lyndsie Earle, in their neighborhood and posted their stalker images on social media. Earle says her husband has received “hundreds of death threats” since January of 2021. Just going out in public carries potential consequences. “I’ll go somewhere and people tweet about it immediately,” Rosenberg told me.
Rosenberg’s personality, like his music, doesn’t entirely fit together, although perhaps no one’s does under close enough scrutiny. “The thing is,” one acquaintance of Rosenberg’s told me in the spring of 2021, long before I knew I’d be writing about him, “Ariel Pink dropped acid every day for like, 10 years. He was probably on acid when he went on Tucker.” Maybe that explained his jumpiness, along with his crazed look of existential-level torment, that made the interview such colossally awkward and compelling television. But Joe Kennedy, Rosenberg’s former guitarist, assures me that an Ariel Pink whose brain is constantly being fed mind-altering drugs is “just in people’s imaginations.” No drug of any kind ever came up over my hours of speaking with him, not even weed. In conversation, he veered between otherworldliness and cold rationality, like someone who had asserted a logic and control over himself that made sense only on its own terms, and possibly only to him.
“I know he’s just fucking with people sometimes,” says Earle. “Sometimes! And sometimes he’s serious. Sometimes he is serious but doesn’t mean exactly what he’s saying. That’s one of the more complicated things about him.”
From one angle, such fluidity springs from open-mindedness, sometimes even depth. But this is not the angle much of American culture takes right now. What’s left of the culture, and especially what’s left of a corporatized and conformist alternative cultural industry, now defaults to party-line intolerance when it encounters things it can’t integrate.
Cancellation, the most important recent artistic movement native to the United States, is the enforcement of a sweeping new values system whose power has nothing to do with how many people buy into it, and certainly not with the quality of the choices it makes. Rather, it is an action-oriented aesthetic that joins the perceived self-interest of upper-level management to the higher idealism of the artists and institutions at the bottom of the multibillion-dollar American cultural ecosystem. At every stage of the culture industry, from artists to the entertainment executives they despise, and from moguls and ownership to the rank-and-file labor they exploit, everyone reached the simultaneous conclusion that America’s moral, political, and intellectual space had become unacceptably or even dangerously permissive. Cancellation came from the pressures of the moment, from an earnest sense of social responsibility, and from a dark and eternal human need to control and exclude from which artists are not immune. The arts were deemed to be infested with racists, misogynists, transphobes, and other enemies of progress whose work or behavior felt suspiciously off in the fevered, life-or-death struggle that Donald Trump, white supremacy, the patriarchy, the coronavirus, TERFdom, rape culture, and the impending climate apocalypse had all unleashed. A culling was overdue.
At the receiving end were the Ariel Pinks of the world, who never cared if they fit in even before the cancellation craze, and proved incapable of protecting themselves once it came for them. Rosenberg’s career is the story of how indie rock purged monsters that the culture had wrongly tolerated—or perhaps it’s the story of how even the most supposedly open sectors of the American creative scene abruptly slammed shut, losing any remaining patience for the complexities and cognitive dissonances that form the bulk of human existence. Both are really the same story, of how American culture got so stupid and so boring so quickly.
Did it matter, I asked Rosenberg as we smoked cigarettes out on the stoop, that his music had been so good—was the quality of his art any consolation now that so much of his life and career had fallen apart? Of course it wasn’t. “I’m being erased from history,” he calmly stated, as if reporting the temperature. “And it’s not gonna take much time.”
Los Feliz is a postcard sent from a much better world, at least for an East Coast visitor: Palm trees of Suessian proportions tower over neat little villas clinging to the zig-zag hills. “This is the East Side,” Rosenberg said. “The West Side is even more of a parody.” Rosenberg likened present-day LA to “a police state.” “The whole American experiment is done as far as I’m concerned,” the musician said as we walked through the streets.
Rosenberg grew up in Pico-Robertson, one of the centers of west LA Jewish life. His father is a gastroenterologist from Mexico. Rosenberg describes his mother as a “Deep South Baptist.” The couple divorced when Rosenberg was young; he says he “never saw them get along.” Rosenberg attended Temple Emmanuel Community Day School until he was 12, a nonreligious Jewish school “run by people into the kibbutz idea.”
Rosenberg appeared on Tucker Carlson in a conspicuous Magen David necklace, and his time at a liberal day school belonging to a shrinking strain of American Judaism proved formative to his self-understanding. “The message wasn’t worshiping God,” he said of his early education. “The gist of it was: Be different. You’re special because you’re different. Embrace your difference, your specialness. Embrace that everyone might be against you. You’ll use it to your advantage.” Rosenberg also appreciated Judaism’s emphasis on human fallibility. “We worship the story of us failing God over and over again,” he said. “We read it every year. We communicate the story of how we fucked up in God’s eyes.”
Rosenberg said he showed no special musical talent in childhood. But he had a musical imagination, even before he started playing the bass, the first instrument he taught himself. He would rummage through the bargain bin at record stores, and pick out albums he’d never heard of according to “a broad assessment of what the music would be, based on the limited facts in front of you.”
He spent most of his college years at CalArts, where he roomed with the future musician John Maus, and also met Tim Koh, who became Rosenberg’s bassist. (Rosenberg told me he dropped out just short of graduating and never finished his degree.) The education most applicable to Rosenberg’s future came through his high school job at the long-defunct record store Second Time Around, where he would plunder crates of unwanted vinyl, “sifting through trash, becoming a hoarder of sorts … I was ready to do that the rest of my life.” I asked him to name an artist he’d discovered during this early phase of creative life. He replied with someone I’d never heard of: Tod Dockstader, a pioneering yet now largely unknown ambient electronic composer of the 1970s and ’80s who had made a living writing transitional music for network television and crafting the soundscape of Tom and Jerry cartoons.
As Rosenberg tells it, he discovered his creative mission when he was still in his late teens, one based on a desire to disappear into the discarded music of record store bins. In other interviews, Rosenberg has mentioned being bullied as a child—maybe he savored the freedom and safety that disappearance could offer. “I wanted to be a forgotten person. I made music that was forgotten by design,” he told me. Liberated from the judgment of present or future generations, he could build his own realities and his own aesthetic without any embarrassment or help. “I wanted to not be subjected to standards of good and bad,” he told me. “I wanted to do something exceptional, with its own metrics of how it’s supposed to be processed or consumed.”
The oldest recording of Rosenberg’s I could find on the internet is an 85-minute tape made in 1996. It has a Dockstader-like quality, with droning overdubs interrupted by flashes of melody and song structure. Between 1998 and 2003, Rosenberg made hours of low-fidelity recordings that he’d produced alone, playing guitar, consumer-grade synthesizers, and bass onto heavily overdubbed cassette tapes. This cache of songs, which formed the great majority of his released material up until 2010 and included music he reworked for later recordings deep into the next decade, ranged from dark bubblegum pop to nine-minute, one-man progressive rock symphonies, to psychedelic freakouts that are even harder to categorize, the music’s almost assaultive strangeness hanging in fearful symmetry with its creator’s songwriting gifts. Almost nothing followed a typical verse-chorus-verse structure. His work was full of interpolations, abruptly dropped melodies, genre parodies, and sharp turns, riven by long canyons of atonality and excess.
Rosenberg’s work baffled even the most weathered experimentalists. Kurt Heasley, frontman for the beloved art rock band Lilys, first met Rosenberg in Philadelphia in 2000. What struck Heasley most was Rosenberg’s ability to record in his bedroom at a studio level of sonic fullness without losing “the familiarity and comfort of eight-track cassette recording.” Heasley had tried to recreate the “monitoring environment” Rosenberg had made for himself in California, using roughly the equipment Rosenberg himself had used. He couldn’t do it.
Jason Falkner, an accomplished songwriter and guitarist and future Ariel Pink collaborator, first saw Rosenberg play a nearly empty room in Los Angeles in 2001—at that point, Ariel Pink stood on stage alone, singing over backing tracks. Falkner was blown away. “There’s a whole cauldron of stuff going on in that early music that is just unique and strange and scary and beautiful at the same time. It just had all of these kinds of contradictions.” No one in the LA of the early 2000s was making anything like it. “He was definitely on an island,” Falker recalled. “Ariel kind of created a scene here that didn’t exist.”
Rosenberg’s art traced a journey that is impossible now, in a time when music is digitally compressed to the point of vandalism, and spreads through algorithms rather than live performance, physical objects, or word of mouth. In 2003, Rosenberg gave CD copies of his albums to a member of the band Animal Collective after a performance at the Echo in LA. Three months later, the Baltimore powerhouse ran out of music to listen to during a long drive and popped one of the discs into their tour van’s stereo. Within a matter of months, The Doldrums became the first non-Animal Collective-related release on Paw Tracks, the band’s new record label. Worn Copy, another early Ariel Pink cassette, got an official release from the label the following year.
In Melbourne, Australia, a respected local music authority and record store employee suggested Shags Chamberlain check out two vinyl records: An album by Le Orme, a 1970s Italian prog rock group, and Worn Copy, which Chamberlain assumed was also the work of an entire band of Italians. The record became an obsession, especially around other musicians. “I was like, you have to check out this new Italian prog. It’s fucking crazy. It’s got everything I like about music. It’s crazy catchy, it lures you in but you can never grab it. It’s dreamy, it’s impactful, it fucking rocks. This is the shit. And of course I realized it’s like, a weird American guy making music on a four-track or an eight-track in his bedroom.”
Chamberlain gave the album to a musician friend. She had an idea: They’d form a label to issue the album in Australia, invite Ariel Pink to the country for a tour, and then play in his backing band. The shows happened, and Chamberlain would later join Rosenberg’s lineup. But the now LA-based Aussie’s first serious contact with Ariel Pink was as puzzling as Heasley’s and Falkner’s had been. “I initially thought that I’d be playing keyboards,” Chamberlain said of the Worn Copy touring band-in-progress. “But no one was able to play the bass because the basslines are sort of like this one continual part. It’s this nonlinear thing—it’s not like there’s a bassline that repeats every four bars. It’s a performance that goes through the whole album. And not only is it difficult to comprehend and play, it’s difficult to hear it.”
“I had these little melodies in my head. It’s not rocket science. It’s not a crazy formula,” Rosenberg explained between kisses on his 6-month-old daughter’s forehead. “I do what I do intuitively.”
“In my mind it’s a totally different beast than it is for the rest of the world,” he said of his music. “It’s a wishy-washy machine organ-pump sound that’s out in the stratosphere. There’s no instrument that can make it. It’s this undulating, organic machinelike thing. I’m trying to achieve that sound.” The music erupts into the liminal inner vacuum between being and nonbeing all at once. “When I hear it in my head I hear the whole thing: the arrangement, the production. I have to keep it in my head exactly as I hear it.”
I did not automatically trust that what Rosenberg was telling me about his songwriting methods was all that strictly true. But it was: “What goes on in his head and the things he’s able to hear are very complex and harmonically rich,” Joe Kennedy confirmed. When Rosenberg had a full band, Chamberlain explained, he would teach the songs by humming each part for each individual musician. “All the melodies were in there, even all the parts. He has the countermelodies and the beat and the rhythm and the full production.”
“I absolutely believe that he is capable of thinking in four-part chorale harmonization,” Heasley told me. “He can think what the bass voice is doing. And he can play it, that’s the thing.”
Whatever Rosenberg might say about his urge to make forgotten music, an artist working from sounds that only he can hear and communicate risks becoming an egomaniac. There are enough points of collaboration in Ariel Pink’s discography that it’s clear this wasn’t a problem, at least not musically—Chamberlain recalls Rosenberg traveling to Australia in the early 2010s to record with the Avalanches, the legendarily mysterious turntable composers; when I asked him about those sessions, Rosenberg couldn’t recall what music they’d made or whether any of it became public. Perhaps Rosenberg’s methods made it easier to work with other artists. “He’s the kind of person where if he has a good idea he’ll give you his good idea because he knows he’ll have 10 good ideas that day,” says Alex Lee Moyer, a filmmaker and longtime friend of Rosenberg’s.
At the same time, Rosenberg only ever followed his own internal guidance, a principle with an uneven record of success when applied to contexts beyond music. He is “a world-class contrarian,” says Kennedy, an “antagonist,” adds Chamberlain.
“He accepts he is only going to be him. Playing with that is his agent provocateur role,” Heasley further explained. He spoke to me by phone from Yogaville, a retreat in rural Virginia where he has occasionally lived and worked. Meditation is a needed psychic respite from Heasley’s more than 30 years as a cultishly followed psychedelic rock adventurer. The man behind Lilys, more than just about anyone, would know whether there’s any balance to be had in a life like Ariel Rosenberg’s. “He’s gonna listen to the teacher within and say, I’m gonna do the exact opposite. I don’t even know if it makes him happy anymore,” he said of Rosenberg. “I don’t know if it makes me happy anymore,” Heasley added, laughing.
Rosenberg and I wound through sunny Los Feliz. For about an hour, it proved difficult to keep Rosenberg focused on anything other than the collapsing state of his music career, of America, and of humankind in general. The post-January 6 freeze-out had been more complete than nearly anyone realized, he explained as we stalked the empty LA sidewalks. It wasn’t just that he was unwelcome wherever he went. His friends had left him, including some close ones.
Take John Maus, for instance. Maus, who roomed with Rosenberg at CalArts, is an even more idiosyncratic figure than Rosenberg. One of the most astonishing live performers of his generation of indie artists and something of a recluse, he holds a philosophy Ph.D. and spent years building his own analog synthesizers for his 2017 album Screen Memories, only to later declare that their impact was often unhearable even to him. Maus and Rosenberg traveled to the January 6 White House rally together, standing at the fringes of the crowd. Rosenberg thinks that Maus—who, unlike Rosenberg, disavowed any support for Trump in the days after January 6—now lives in fear of his career being destroyed over his perceived political beliefs.
But Maus had tested the waters of uncanceling Rosenberg. Rosenberg says that Maus invited him to work as the sound engineer for his headlining set at Substance, a three-day festival held at the Belasco in LA in November of 2021. “I told John immediately: I appreciate the invite but I’m not sure that I’m even allowed in the building, man.”
Rosenberg was broadly correct. “We noticed Ariel Pink is on the John Maus guest list for Substance,” read a message that Restless Nites, one of the festival’s promoters, sent to Maus. “We’re fans of John Maus of course, but adding Ariel to the mix will only raise complaints and concerns. The potential optics of Ariel being at Substance is too triggering for people and something we feel could affect the perception of Substance overall. We need to protect Substance as well as the audience and performers, and the Ariel situation feels like a can of worms we don’t want to open. We basically would like Ariel off the guest like and not [to] attend Substance.” The message was careful not to categorically bar Rosenberg from coming, and also to give no specific explanation as to why Rosenberg could be considered threatening. Maus explained to Rosenberg that as much as he’d like to cancel his set out of principle, he still needed the money. “I said, I’ll pay you the money,” Rosenberg recalled. “I know they’re not paying you that much.” The two haven’t spoken since. (Christopher Tipton, a U.K.-based promoter who helped manage Maus’ Substance appearance, confirmed much of Rosenberg’s account by email: “If I remember correctly the festival did object, but didn’t outright ban Ariel’s attendance,” he wrote. Tipton added that Rosenberg working sound had been “mooted but not confirmed.” When reached by phone, Maus told me he “had to check with Ariel” before talking to me. Maus couldn’t be reached after that, and Rosenberg told me he never called. Repeated emails to Restless Nites, and to three of their top executives, were not returned.)
“Artists are slaves,” Rosenberg said later in the afternoon. “They’re stupid. They think they have their own agency but they’re very naive. They’re perfect vectors for influencing people, and they’re very influenceable.”
Humanists cling to the hopeful illusion that art is inherently redemptive—any ordeal can be made worthwhile so long as art results from it. Artists themselves tend to know better. They aren’t moved by the things we think should move them. Love, God, light, nature, tradition, community, justice, wisdom, and truth are only sometimes the causal bedrock of books, films, and music, but frequently it’s resentment, paranoia, failure, narcissism, discomfort, appetite, boredom, and compulsion that better explain their existence. Artists often look into themselves, and look out at the world, and see things very differently than we imagine they do.
As we wandered his neighborhood, Rosenberg strayed into conspiracy theory. The pandemic was, more likely than not, an intentional means of experimenting on the human race through vaccination—perhaps Bill Gates was involved. Big tech and big business and mainstream politicians had allied to destroy what was left of the country. Rosenberg mentioned something called Agenda 21, which I decided I wouldn’t Google. How seriously should I take any of this? I wondered. I settled on “not very”: This was a crankish rant, assuming he believed any of it. (In a later interview, Rosenberg told me he got vaccinated in the summer of 2021, before traveling to Hawaii.) And crankism is common enough, even and maybe especially among artists, that a life without exposure to it is probably a sign of prejudice rather than virtue.
At last we got back to the apartment, and I all but demanded Rosenberg explain what art can do to make life in the hell-world he imagines us to be living in any better. “Nothing,” he replied. “In fact, people should protest by not making art. I think to make art in this day and age is irresponsible.” A thin smile emerged, as if he relished trying out this extreme argument. Did he mean it moments later, when he said that artistic creation wasn’t a sublime unity of internal or external forces, but something more like a purge? “I’m trying to get it out of my system so that I don’t have to do it anymore,” he said of his music. “I’m trying to exorcise it so that I can move on to some other hobby.”
The closest analog to Ariel Rosenberg, and maybe the person who best explains his defamiliarizing churn of motives, is his friend and occasional collaborator, R. Stevie Moore. Moore, the Nashville-born son of Elvis Presley’s former bassist, has self-released an estimated 500 records since the late 1960s, using his own recording equipment and playing nearly every instrument.
Rosenberg first encountered Moore’s work in 1999 during a hunt for Cure bootlegs. He found a copy of Everything You Wanted To Know About R Stevie Moore But Were Afraid to Ask, a compilation of highlights from the 1970s, when Moore sounds as if he’d discovered post-punk entirely on his own, in between detours into deranged rockabilly, virtuosic heavy blues, and songs that were too slapdash to be entirely serious, but too good to merely be jokes. On the cover, Moore’s eyes blaze through a pair of heavy glasses and his mouth is open to maximum width. “It looked like a Thomas Dolby kind of thing. Who is this mad scientist? It can’t be real,” Rosenberg recalled thinking. And then he thought: “I totally identify with this guy.”
Rosenberg mailed Moore a copy of The Doldrums. The two became correspondents, and then friends—Rosenberg was one of Moore’s biggest advocates, insisting he was a wrongfully overlooked, low-fi trailblazer. Rosenberg and Moore recorded an album together in 2013, titled Ku Klux Glam. It is a work of crackling spontaneity, and the record, I suggested to Moore, where Rosenberg seemed like he was having the most fun. “Others have said that,” Moore agreed. “But that’s all tongue-in-cheek because a lot of his gloominess is a put-on. Maybe—we just don’t know! He’s a good actor as well as a musician and composer.” Although, Moore added: “Sometimes you act without even realizing it.”
For a certain generation of music fans, the image of a post-millennial psychedelic freak is epitomized by Anton Newcombe in the cult classic “Dig!,” a 2004 documentary in which the Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman comes across as a megalomaniac wannabe cult leader at war with the music industry. But the free-spirited pop savants of the 21st century were the spiritual children of R Stevie Moore, working alone with whatever instruments or computer programs they had, uploading their creations onto MySpace or Soundcloud or Bandcamp, or maybe just hoarding them in caches of unreleased WAV files or cassette tapes. From Chief Keef to Bradford Cox, the creative rebels of the era were often instructable figures in their non-musical lives, artists whose selves were contained somewhere deep within their work and possibly nowhere else. This obscurity explains why enigmatic pop musicians from the cultural fringes connected in an age when the twin forces of social polarization and social media were beginning to sap much of the spontaneity out of American culture. Artists who seemed to come from nowhere—who were deep in conversation with their own manias or their own genius—were the only ones who still sounded fresh and interesting.
In December of 2019, Moore announced on his website that he was retiring. He would be releasing no more music, playing no more shows, and giving no more interviews. He made an exception to speak with me about Rosenberg. Moore said they shared an urge to create, without the fear of a record label—or of anyone—saying no to them. “That was part of the fun,” Moore said of his own oceanic output. “No one could stop me.” This was the trait that had brought Moore and Rosenberg together: They operated with a thrilling lack of guardrails and little sense of self-interest. “I never have held anything against Ariel for being there, or doing that,” Moore said of the January 6th White House rally. “It’s like, what the fuck was he thinking? But that doesn’t surprise me about Ariel. We’ve always loved each other because we’re both such reckless fools.”
It now makes sense that, after a five-year break from songwriting and nothing but negative reviews from Pitchfork, Ariel Pink would finally ascend to indie rock’s highest levels of popularity in 2010. The indie infrastructure was mostly still intact: Streaming hadn’t gutted artist pay; cops and yuppies hadn’t destroyed the New York DIY scene. The Goldenvoice-AEG-LiveNation cartel that controls big- and even medium-ticket American live music was years in the future. But the encroachments of the coming world were already obvious. The Williamsburg waterfront had begun its transformation from America’s underground rock hub into a horrific living version of The Sims. By 2015, Death by Audio, the Williamsburg scene’s beer-soaked mainstage, would be demolished to make way for Vice’s headquarters, not long before Disney invested $400 million in the once-subversive alternative media leader.
In the previous era, the Strokes had been the emblematic cool kid rock band, classicist Manhattan preppies promising a return to a better age. Today, the ideal rockstar is someone like Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, a harmless critical darling who went to music school and who doesn’t threaten anything or anyone. The early 2010s belonged to artists like Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Beach House, and Ariel Pink, genius-freaks who emerged from basements and bedrooms and Ford Transit vans from places like Baltimore and the Atlanta suburbs to warn us about how internet clout wars had drained the world of beauty and wonder, in the case of “My Girls,” Animal Collective’s 2009 hit, or about how millennials were treading water in an ever more meaningless world, in the case of “Nothing Ever Happened,” Deerhunter’s early masterpiece.
Ariel Pink’s breakthrough was a five-minute song called “Round and Round,” the fifth track on Before Today, his first record on 4AD. Pitchfork named it the best song of 2010, ahead of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” The progression from soft disco to an ecstatic sing-along chorus, held together through high-arcing guitars and the dadaist ring of an antique telephone, sounded like it came from beyond a world that the young consumers of indie rock were already beginning to distrust. Like a lot of Rosenberg’s best songs, “Round and Round” contains a disquiet that somehow moves both with and against the music, a melancholy hidden in the synths and guitar reverb and whispered lyrics. “I was like wow, he totally did it,” Joe Kennedy, Rosenberg’s longtime guitar player, recalled of his first time hearing “Round and Round.” “He figured it out.”
Before Today is a strange record, with re-workings of earlier numbers and multiple cover songs, including one of an Ethiopian jazz instrumental. “From the inside it almost doesn’t seem like a full album worth of material,” Kennedy said. The record’s self-assured looseness was part of what made it special. Rosenberg remembers the recording process as a chaos of musicians and producers quitting or getting fired. He expressed a stunning lack of fondness towards his most celebrated record. “I won,” Rosenberg said of his battle with his critical detractors at Pitchfork, when asked to reflect on what’s still his best-known release. “And they gave me a 9.0.”
In retrospect, 2010 was the tail-end of the height of the final era in which American indie rock still really mattered. According to the Puritan hindsight of the present day, it was a time when the wrong things were valued and the wrong people rewarded, many of them allegedly horrible men, agents of abuse and patriarchy whose awfulness was embedded in their very music. This increasingly common line betrays a revealing need to establish the present-day’s superiority over an era when the art, the parties, the drugs, and the creative environment were all much better than they are now. A misfit record like Before Today could still crack the 160s of the Billboard chart, helped along by music critics whose analysis wasn’t hamstrung by questions of social virtue. Pitchfork once called “Round and Round” “one of indiedom’s most unifying and memorable songs in 2010.” Today, no one talks about “indiedom.” Conde Nast owns Pitchfork.
“I’ve been canceled before,” Rosenberg told Tucker Carlson. “I’ve been canceled many times. I know how that whole thing works.” Most musicians of the internet era live behind a thick protective layer of handlers and media professionals. Not Ariel Pink. “There was no ‘call Ariel’s manager and he’ll set it up for you,” Kennedy said. “You were calling him directly.” Anyone who got ahold of Rosenberg would be richly rewarded: When a YouTuber asked Rosenberg if he had any advice for his young fans, he instructed them to “turn gay.”“I’ll be the biggest asshole, the biggest troll,” he told Pitchfork in 2014. “I love the Westboro Baptist Church, because I love being able to remind people that this is a country where you can say, ‘You’re going to go to hell,’ and you won’t go to jail. People hate that.”
“He goes into an interview and because of his contrarian nature it’s almost painful for him to give the canned answer you’d expect somebody to give,” Kennedy explained. “It has to be something that deconstructs the whole process.”
In September of 2013, Rosenberg appeared on Red Eye, the late-night Fox News show hosted by Greg Gutfeld, who is a fan of Rosenberg’s music. His apparent confusion at what he was doing on a late-night right-wing schmooze-fest alongside Dana Perino—possibly an act, though it’s hard to tell—gives the segment a hypnotic quality, as if footage of two entirely different talk shows had been spliced together.When he finally spoke up, Rosenberg asked whether the Southern Poverty Law Center classified “feminists” as a hate group, a jibe which did not show up in Pitchfork’s writeup of the appearance. Then he claimed, or maybe joked, that a “feminist” had recently maced him, which did make the Pitchfork writeup. “I did everything right,” he quipped to his co-panelists. “That was the most offensive thing to her.” (In 2014, Rosenberg told the YouTuber Alexi Wasser that he had in fact been maced by an unnamed woman he’d slept with when, the next morning, they had a sharply escalating verbal disagreement over who would pay the bill at a smoothie bar. As a Stereogum writeup sensibly notes, “It’s a crazy story and I’m not sure exactly what to believe.”) More controversies were still to come, of course.
Mature Themes, the 2012 follow-up to Before Today, proved that the earlier record hadn’t been a fluke, and that the bedroom pop savant could execute on the scale of traditional albums played by entire rock bands. Pom Pom, Rosenberg’s third and final record in his contract with 4AD, would be the most ambitious release of his career and as close to a confessional album as Rosenberg has ever made. “I died unknown,” begins “Dazed Inn Daydreams,” the set closer, and my personal choice for the greatest of all Ariel Pink songs. Then comes a chorus of dreadful enormity, a heavier variation on a tune Rosenberg had written over a decade earlier and the cry of someone gazing into their own obsolescence with exhileration and terror. “I used to pray, but now I scream—Lord help me, no more daydreams,” Rosenberg bellows in harmony with drummer Don Bolles and the French singer SoKo, with Jason Pierce of Spiritualized blasting thunderbolts of guitar. (The song’s Grant Singer-directed music video, in which the ’70s LA glam rocker Rick Wilder plays a future vision of a forgotten Ariel Pink, was a co-production of Urban Outfitters. The video disappeared off of the chain store’s YouTube channel sometime before mid-2021, according to both a Reddit thread and the WayBack Machine. Multiple calls and emails to Urban Outfitters’ public relations department went unreturned.)
From the vantage of 2022, an even more revealing song is “Sexual Athletics,” which opens with a sing-song of obnoxious carnal boasts before the track slows and we discover the pathos beneath the speaker’s appetites: “All I wanted was a girlfriend, all my life” Rosenberg whimpers. “Put Your Number in My Phone” pulsates with dark sexual desperation, held within one of the best pure pop melodies of Rosenberg’s career. “Black Ballerina,” about a comically doomed strip-club visit, would be an act of self-cancellation if it were released today.
Male songwriters have always interrogated their own complexes toward women, even at the risk of revealing themselves to be pigs—Blood on the Tracks hasn’t dimmed in status, while perhaps the best record of 2021, Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me if You Get Lost, is a concept album about obsessively trying to sleep with a best friend’s girlfriend. But codes of public behavior were rapidly changing, at least for rock musicians, as Rosenberg soon discovered.
4AD arranged a media day in the run-up to Pom Pom’s release, in which journalists were given 15-minute blocks with Rosenberg. The very first interview was with an Australian outlet. He began talking about being recruited to help with Madonna’s upcoming album. “They need something edgy. They need songwriting. She can’t just have her Avicii, her producers or whatever, come up with a new techno jam for her to gyrate to and pretend that she’s 20 years old. They actually need songs. I’m partly responsible for that return-to-values thing,” Rosenberg said, in full Ariel Pink mode.
Madonna’s music publisher had in fact invited him to an early “songwriting camp” for her upcoming record, a rudimentary stage of the modern album production process in which scores of possible authors are gathered to develop material that the pop star might eventually record—pop albums now being industrial-scale operations, the work of hundreds of people. Rosenberg was giving the Australians a punched-up version of what he’d actually been told.
But the comments, which could be twisted into a male dismissal of Madonna as a brainless sex object, were an irresistable grandstanding opportunity. “Ariel Pink’s delusional misogyny is emblematic of the kind of bullshit [every] woman in this industry faces daily,” tweeted the electronic musician Grimes, from a level of fame far beyond Rosenberg’s. In return, Rosenberg called her “stupid and retarded.” The British magazine NME’s review of Pom Pom serves as a final, indecisive word on the dustup, calling Ariel Pink “a genius, a freak, a trailblazer, a creep; maybe a misogynist, or maybe just misunderstood.”
Humanists cling to the hopeful illusion that art is inherently redemptive—any ordeal can be made worthwhile so long as art results from it. Artists themselves tend to know better. They aren’t moved by the things we think should move them.
But back then the incipient moralism of the 2010s still felt both harmless and necessary, and it didn’t have the ability to end anyone’s career. In late 2014, Pitchfork published an “op-ed” by the rock musician Alana McArdle, titled “Ariel Pink’s Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” “While he brings himself a lot of headline-grabbing attention, he’s actually bringing a spotlight to the very real and pervasive racism and misogyny that is deeply embedded in indie rock to the surface,” she wrote “All that needs to happen now is that we all recognize this.” McCardle would have to wait a few years for the culture to catch up with her. At the time the article was published, Rosenberg still had one more Pitchfork Best New Music ahead of him.
His contract with 4AD satisfied, Rosenberg switched labels, signing a one-record deal, with an option for a second record, with Brooklyn-based Mexican Summer. The label occupies an important middle tier of the indie economy—they produce artists that go on to bigger deals at more established outfits, but they also attract better-known names who want the kind of focus and attention that only a smaller shop can provide.
Mexican Summer had another advantage for signees. Though the label frequently laid off staff, mostly paid in the $35,000-$40,000 a year range, its co-owner is Andres Santo Domingo, the New York-raised scion of Colombian beer magnates. Despite being worth some $1.6 billion, Santo Domingo isn’t a total absentee at Mexican Summer. “He was a really interesting guy,” one former employee recalled to me. “Nobody knew him. He would come to the office once a week and yell on the phone in Spanish for 20 minutes and leave.” (For what it’s worth, Santo Domingo was the co-chair of a Conservation International gala honoring Joe Biden in 2018, and his wife donated to Biden’s presidential campaign.)
There was excitement at Mexican Summer when it landed Rosenberg. The label offered to buy, and then rerelease, most of Rosenberg’s back-catalog, aside from the three records 4AD owned. The Doldrums, Worn Copy, and others would be remastered and reissued, with fancy vinyl and new liner notes. For about $10,000 a record, Rosenberg sold his licenses to some of the work he cared the most about.
Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, the only record of new material Rosenberg released with Mexican Summer, is named after an LA musician and Frank Zappa affiliate who nearly achieved stardom in the 1960s before drifting into alcoholism and petty criminality, affecting an absence from the public eye so total he was widely presumed to be dead. After learning that one of his albums from the ’60s had been reissued without his permission, Jameson resurfaced, and built a late-in-life following as an autobiographical blogger and YouTuber who raged against the unfairness of the music industry. It is perhaps overly psychologizing to speculate that Rosenberg sees Jameson as a possible alternate version of himself. Less speculatively, the record is another of Rosenberg’s explorations of whether art, or really anything, can still be meaningful even if it proves temporary and forgotten—its title track evokes the unnerving clash of possibility and existential dread someone might experience while driving down Sunset Boulevard in the late afternoon.
As with Pom Pom, the album’s rollout was marred by a characteristically strange blowup. During the recording, Rosenberg had been in a relationship with Charlotte Ercoli, a much younger woman who had directed one of his music videos and contributed backup vocals on the album—it is Ercoli’s voice joining Rosenberg’s in the chorus to “Feels Like Heaven,” a sinister slow-dance and album highlight. The tour to promote Bobby Jameson began with four nights at The Chapel in San Francisco in October of 2017, with John Maus as the opener.
“Maus was getting a lot of hype at the time,” Kennedy recalled. “Ariel and John have this very intense kind of friendship where they’re best friends, but there’s some kind of element of competition between them … they get into these super theoretical kinds of discussions that turn into arguments. It was always kind of tense when John was around. And those four days were kind of like the peak of it.” Rosenberg had been drinking heavily the night before that first show. His vocal cords were shot, and he had to go on after Maus, who is difficult or even impossible to match as a live performer.
Ercoli, who often appeared with Rosenberg’s touring band, joined him onstage for the San Francisco shows. Early in that first concert, Rosenberg seemed to be trying to push Ercoli into the crowd. Then he appeared to pin her to the stage, kissing her in a way that more than one eyewitness found to be aggressive. A few people standing near the front walked out in apparent disgust. The rest of the audience found the incident to be an unremarkable and possibly premeditated element of the larger performance. It didn’t become any kind of controversy until the music press discovered a Reddit post from a scandalized audience member, which Pitchfork didn’t pick up until four days later.
Rosenberg apologized for what he presented as a consensual stage antic that went too far: “My behavior onstage was gross and I can’t defend it,” he tweeted. “Wow,” Ercoli tweeted at the time. “Turns out a girl can’t have fun with her boyfriend on stage without being victimized by feminists. Could not be more bummed.”
The tour went on, as if the San Francisco crowd had witnessed nothing more than an extreme version of what they’d come to see anyway. But this had always been the problem with Ariel Pink, in the minds of his detractors: He had constantly been allowed to hide his alleged piggishness behind his artistic persona, without ever suffering any consequences. Should the consequences have included the total destruction of his career? If that’s what some people wanted, they wouldn’t have to wait long.
Rosenberg told me his motives for attending the January 6, 2021, rally at the White House were simple: “I was there for the last opportunity to see the best fuckin president ever.”
It’s possible aspects of Rosenberg’s individual politics mesh with that of the former president. It’s also possible Rosenberg grew into a greater political awareness as the Trump era devolved, and as more and more aspects of American life became battlefields in an unending, all-inclusive civic crackup. None of the friends or collaborators I talked to remember Rosenberg showing any real interest in conservative politics, or any other kind of politics, before the Trump presidency. Rosenberg told me he had only voted for president twice: Once for Ralph Nader in 2000, and then again for Trump in 2020. Kennedy was on tour in Europe with Rosenberg during election night in 2012, and says his bandleader didn’t seem to care or even know about it.
Alex Lee Moyer, the filmmaker and longtime friend who met up with Rosenberg and Maus on January 6, speculated to me that he was part of a segment of admirers “who kind of see Trump as an artist.” This is the most narratively satisfying explanation for Rosenberg’s loyalty to the ex-president, as it motions towards the uneasily close kinship between art and political hucksterism. The real explanation, in Moyer’s view, is less poetic. “He just really supports Trump,” she says. “And not in an edgy way. More in like a boomer kind of way. He really looked at it like Trump is the president and he was honored to see the president speak.”
Rosenberg traveled to Washington with John Maus, and says he covered the costs of their Airbnb while Maus paid for the plane tickets. Moyer, who was in the capital to film the scheduled Stop the Steal rally outside the White House as part of a documentary about the conspiracist broadcaster Alex Jones, was under the impression Maus was tagging along with Rosenberg. “I think John just wanted to do some freak tourism,” Moyer said. The president began speaking at noon, kicking off an hourlong rant in which he promised never to concede the election and urged further protest, with the aim of stopping Vice President Mike Pence from certifying the electoral vote count at the Capitol later that day. Rosenberg then decided it was time for a nap—but not before Moyer took a picture of Rosenberg and Maus in her hotel room at the W, a block over from the White House, and posted it to Instagram.
Crowds of violent demonstrators gathered at the Capitol later in the afternoon. Maus accompanied Moyer to the Capitol, joining her as she filmed—Moyer posted a short video of the musician pointing toward crowds of Trump dead-enders who might be worth documenting. There was never any evidence Rosenberg was anywhere other than the W Hotel during the Capitol attack. But by the end of the day, the music press had used Moyer’s Instagram picture to craft a narrative connecting the alleged face of male toxicity in indie rock to an event already being likened to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. On the night of January 6, Moyer was surprised to be fielding questions from Pitchfork about Rosenberg’s alleged presence at the Capitol riot. “He’s sort of a grumpy old man,” Moyer noted. “If you’ve met Ariel once, you can tell he’s not really a storm-the-Capitol kind of guy.”
The next morning, Rosenberg received panicked text messages from Mexican Summer label chief Keith Abrahamsson. “There’s this thread from Keith that’s just going like ‘dude, thanks for telling us. Like, Jesus fuck, I’m pissed man. You should’ve let us know.’” Rosenberg thought Abrahamsson was angry about his presence at the White House rally, which tens of thousands of other people had attended. He didn’t think he owed his record label any explanation for his decision to attend a political event at which the president of the United States had spoken. Rosenberg had tweeted to confirm he had attended the rally to support Trump. (Maus, in contrast, reacted to the growing furor by tweeting a link to a 1937 papal encyclical condemning Naziism.) “At this point I hadn’t read any articles or anything like that, so I didn’t know exactly what [Abrahamsson] was referring to,” Rosenberg claimed.
The “articles” were early reports that Rosenberg had been at the Capitol, based solely on Moyer’s Instagram photo placing him in Washington. “Surprise, Surprise, Ariel Pink and John Maus Attended Trump’s Capitol Rally,” a January 7 blog post on New York magazine’s website still reads, despite that claim being false. “Yesterday, right-wing extremists broke into the U.S. Capitol Building and stormed the Senate floor in a shameful and violent attempt to stop the official certification of Joe Biden’s election win. Hours later, images surfaced showing that musicians Ariel Pink and John Maus were in attendance,” Vice reported, with Rosenberg’s denial buried later in the article. Pitchfork’s post quickly clarifies that Rosenberg was not at the Capitol. Spin, however, made it sound like Maus and Rosenberg had practically led the riot. “One thing you probably didn’t expect to see as democracy in the United States was under siege were two musicians from the 2010s taking part in the rioting during the violent insurrection January 6 on Capitol Hill,” the music magazine reported. “Yet, there were indie rockers Ariel Pink and John Maus, front and center on the scene.”
On January 8, Abrahamsson texted that the outrage hadn’t died down and the label would be dropping Rosenberg, without saying what that meant for the Ariel Pink records for which Mexican Summer still held licenses. “I said that’s fine man, that’s the way it goes, I understand. Just give me the music back and we’ll be fine. And then he’s like, well that’s ours to choose, Ariel,” Rosenberg recalls. “I‘m like, what? Wait, I don’t understand this. You want to say you’re not working with me anymore, why would you wanna keep my catalog?” Abrahamsson repeated that the records belonged to the label. Rosenberg threatened to sue. “And that’s the last time we texted.” (I reached Abrahamsson by phone in mid-April. He gave me a blanket “no comment,” and said he did not want to hear any of what I planned on asking him. Then he instructed me never to call again.)
On January 8, Mexican Summer issued a now-deleted tweet, announcing: “Due to recent events, Mexican Summer and its staff have decided to end our working relationship with Ariel Rosenberg AKA Ariel Pink moving forward.” This wasn’t entirely true, since the label still owned the masters on the majority of Rosenberg’s discography, including his most recent release. The tweet pointedly avoided saying which “events” led to Rosenberg being dropped.
“Literally overnight everybody disappeared,” Rosenberg recalled. The musician received just a single serious offer of help—from Greg Gutfeld, the Fox host and longtime fan. “I knew he was being canceled over nothing,” Gutfeld recalled. “These losers embraced a modern McCarthyism.” Rosenberg said Gutfeld helped connect him to Harmeet Dhillon, a California lawyer and Republican power player, whose staff compiled a chart of media that had misreported Rosenberg’s presence at the Capitol, free of charge—they found over a dozen articles, from publications including the LA Times and USA Today, that linked Rosenberg to the violence on January 6. Gutfeld also connected Rosenberg to Tucker Carlson.
People around Rosenberg were split as to whether the Carlson interview was a good idea. Rosenberg believed he had no other choice. No one with any platform of any size was willing to hear him out—except for the person with the highest-rated show on cable television. In the interview, Rosenberg looked despondent as he explained that his career was over. He reaffirmed his support for Trump, but clarified that he accepted the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. Still, among the people whose minds he most needed to change, the interview solidified the impression that Rosenberg was an extremist whose politics were unthinkable in the modern-day indie rock scene.
I wanted a supporter of Ariel Pink’s exile to justify his career freeze-out. Several prominent music critics who had once written positively about Rosenberg’s work gave me a series of no-comments, a remarkable evasion in light of their job being to publicly comment on music. “I hate to see the guy get off on having his name in my mouth here and there,” one of them explained. Management for Weyes Blood, whose 2017 joint EP with Rosenberg had been removed from streaming after January 6, said she was too busy in the studio even to answer questions by email; the members of Animal Collective, whatever they thought about all this, also didn’t have time to talk.
The only reply for attribution came by email from Ramona Gonzalez, an LA musician who performs and records under the name Nite Jewel. In the late 2000s, Ariel Pink was the driving force of a burgeoning LA avant-pop scene. In a 2016 interview, Gonzalez cited him as one of her chief inspirations. “I appreciate Ariel’s iconoclastic behavior because it’s so different to everyone else’s bullshit positive attitude, which is just a way to make more money for themselves,” she said. But 2016 was a long time ago.
Gonzalez’s response to me is perhaps uncharitable, but it is at least a morally coherent explanation for Rosenberg’s post-January 6 treatment, one based in the unavoidable reality that art is created and consumed in this world, rather than in some idealized or better version of it. Here it is in full:
“His music, which defies the poptimism that is particularly prevalent in indie music nowadays, in many ways defies popularity. This is a natural outcome of a commitment to art. Nonetheless, it is hard for an artist to wane in relevance. Ariel has come up with all kinds of reasons to attribute a natural fading into the background of his musical project, and gone as far to self-sabotage and destroy his legacy entirely to soothe or avoid a graceful exit. Now Ariel will forever be known as ‘the indie rocker who went on Tucker Carlson.’ He has not only destroyed his musical legacy as a result of his vanity, but the legacy of our musical community and the artists that comprise it. Finally, I will always love Ariel’s music. I will never and have never supported Ariel’s politics. Unlike his music, his political ideology is as mainstream, vapid and idolatrous as it comes.”
On the day Rosenberg appeared on Carlson’s show, Pitchfork published an article about a judicial ruling denying Rosenberg a restraining order against Charlotte Ercoli, his former collaborator and ex-girlfriend. Rosenberg claimed that Ercoli had been spreading malicious rumors, including to Mexican Summer management and possibly to the media, falsely accusing him of various sexual improprieties. A Los Angeles County judge rejected the application on the grounds that discussion of potential sexual harassment committed by a public figure was constitutionally protected speech.
Pitchfork obtained Rosenberg’s request for the restraining order, along with Ercoli’s motion to strike, and the judge’s final ruling, documents which anyone with a credit or debit card can purchase on the Superior Court of Los Angeles County’s website (Rosenberg seemed unaware that most restraining order cases in California are not under an automatic seal). Ercoli’s filings asserted that the San Francisco incident had been an act of intentional assault, that her tweet addressing the controversy had been written under pressure from Rosenberg, that Rosenberg had “bullied [her] into [having] unprotected sex,” and that he had spread nude photographs of her without her consent. The Pitchfork story was a regurgitation of various court documents, buffered with some quotes from Rosenberg’s lawyer. The article did not quote Ercoli or Rosenberg, and mentioned no attempts to independently verify whether the claims in Ercoli’s filings were true.
According to both Rosenberg’s and Ercoli’s filings, Mexican Summer was aware of her allegations, which she communicated to Abrahamsson in a July 2020 letter. There is no evidence he ever acted on the letter. Rosenberg denied all of Ercoli’s allegations to me. Ercoli declined to comment for this article. Earle says she has firsthand experience of what domestic abusers are like, and insists that her husband isn’t one. “I worked really hard to escape the abuse cycle,” she told me. “That stuff is not to be made light of. I lost years of my life to it.”
“I can’t say whether Ariel was more or less misogynistic than other men in indie music,” Ramona Gonzalez wrote to me. “Ariel and I had a respectful, peer relationship. However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist just because I didn’t experience it.”
Some of the canceled have tried to bargain with the mob, issuing obsequious promises that they will “listen” and “do better.” Others have leaned into their unpersoning, making their pariah status part of their relaunched public image. Still others have created a subculture of the canceled. In March, Buzzfeed reported on a Peter Thiel-funded Manhattan film festival that served as a gathering for arts figures who had run afoul of the new orthodoxies. A rough cut of Moyer’s Alex Jones film screened as part of the event. An Ariel Pink song plays during the credits of the movie, but the quasi-redpilled arts community is not Rosenberg’s crowd. He has no crowd now—he hasn’t apologized or opted for a public heel turn or sought out others who the cultural-industrial complex now scorns. Instead, in the months after January 6, his goal was regaining control of his albums from Mexican Summer, something he succeeded in doing after nearly a year of hard negotiation between their lawyers (Mexican Summer still owns Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, and will begin paying royalties to Rosenberg once the album’s revenue surpasses its production costs).
A number of people I spoke with noted that Rosenberg had opportunities to squirm his way out of cancellation—he could have claimed he was in Washington not to support Trump but to assist Moyer, whose previous film Rosenberg had sound-tracked. He didn’t try to remake himself as a right-wing celebrity. “I could be situated to be useful in the right-wing cause,” Rosenberg mused. “The problem is I’m not big enough to matter.”
In early February of 2021, Lyndsie found out she was pregnant. The couple was married in Hawaii a few months later. Rosenberg estimates he spent $80,000 resolving his situation with Mexican Summer, costs only slightly defrayed by the maybe $15,000-$30,000 in royalties he says he still receives from 4AD in an average year. Few journalists called. Aside from the odd podcast appearance, the Carlson interview had been his final public word on his career implosion.
In March of 2021, Rosenberg received a phone call from Chloe Chaidez, a musician he had first met after a Charli XCX show in 2013, when Chaidez was in a band opening for the pop artist and recent Ariel Pink collaborator. In early 2021, Chaidez had founded a record label and was figuring out what to do with a group of Mexican American skaters she had met at the El Sereno skatepark and fashioned into a punk band called the Vampiros. “They’re Playboi Carti meets the Sex Pistols,” she said. It turned out the Vampiros were Ariel Pink fans and didn’t care he’d been at the White House on January 6. “That night I think I woke up in a drunken haze and was just like, I’ve gotta text Ariel. I’ve got his number.”
“I was happy somebody found me useful.” Rosenberg recalled. “I thought it was a prank.”
Chaidez, the Vampiros, and Rosenberg wrote and rehearsed an album’s worth of songs. “You could tell he was a little bit broken but also that he needed to unleash a lot of energy creatively,” Chaidez said of the recording process, which took place before the birth of his daughter. Rosenberg is unsure when the album will be released. He says he’s thinking about touring next year, even if he suspects it will be hard finding venues willing to book him that are of large enough size for the tour to be profitable. He estimates he’s spent about $15,000 of his own money making and releasing the record.
The Key of Joy is Disobedience is an oddity even in Rosenberg’s catalog—half of it is in Spanish, sung by members of the Vampiros. None of it, except for a heavily distorted “fuck Donald Trump” dropped at the tail end of one of the middle tracks, refers to his cancellation in any way. It isn’t a broadside against his critics, or a justification of his actions. One song, “Footsteps,” is a shoegaze pocket symphony, Chaidez singing in a clean and expertly isolated vocal track that the production rests gently above the instrumentals, with Rosenberg whispering from nowhere to join her on the chorus. It’s slow, patient, ethereal, possibly capturing the mindset of someone mellowed by oncoming parenthood. It is the product of an inner voice that somehow endured through everything.
Simon Halliday, who is the head of 4AD, and thus a figure of considerable authority in the indie rock world, thinks that fans and the broader music industry will be ready to welcome Rosenberg back one day. “I think he has an audience. His figures are solid and people are still checking him out. He’s still popular, in a way.”
Kurt Heasley has invited Rosenberg out to Yogaville in Virginia, but isn’t sure if he’ll ever show. R. Stevie Moore and Rosenberg remain in contact, although Moore says he’s “caught some flack” for keeping up the relationship. Moyer believes Rosenberg is at the mercy of forces that can’t really be predicted, and that no one person can control. “What happens with him and his career depends on what happens in this country in the next two years,” she says. “His destiny is a little bit tied to all of our destinies.”
Outside his apartment, Rosenberg told me he writes the lyrics last. “It’s sort of like a chore,” he explained as the shadows spread across Los Feliz and the sun disappeared behind the mountains. “I don’t want to do them. Whatever comes out first is what makes it to the tape.” This was narrowly true—former bandmates recalled Rosenberg jotting down lyrics over dinner during the recording of Pom Pom. It also felt impossible, and almost like a deception. The words of his songs are often too deliberate to matter that little to him, as Rosenberg himself sometimes hinted.
His daughter was inside, under the care of the couple’s babysitter. Lyndsie was off to class, for her final semester of art school. I had succeeded in prying Rosenberg away from his theorizing about Agenda 21 and the vaccine scourge. I told him I shared his feeling of technology stifling us, of the culture losing its fun and possibility, of the old music scene having been better, of things generally getting worse. He mentioned a song called “Artifact,” which he said he wrote in 2003, a jangling apocalyptic ballad that appears on Worn Copy. The lyrics ask if art can counteract time’s warping effect on memory, and wonder whether anything can hold transcendent value as the world sinks into an unrecognizably meaningless version of itself.
“I am the son of the future,” Rosenberg began reciting, his head in a crouch, looking at the pavement. “Twenty-five years from now, try recalling the Golden Age, when we heard these words for the first time. Please come back to the exact spot … Never forget the Golden Age.” He spoke faster and faster, in time with the rhythm of the words, as if he was remembering it all in the moment, surprised at how much of the song was returning to him at once. He batted his forefingers, like he was conducting himself.
“Neither teachers nor dads could see the world that they brought you to was bad. This is an artifact of that. This is an artifact, artifact of that—When the terrorists spread the plague through computer screens ...” “Oh, wow,” I exclaimed at the words “computer screens.” He didn’t stop. “... And they erase what was left of the West. Just a shopping mall.”
A smile crept across his face, at what might have been the closest thing to a performance of his music that he’d given to a stranger in months. “In 25 minutes. The world’s gonna crack. It’s all gonna crack. Remember this tune made you laugh. But these days a laugh’s merely an artifact.”
Rosenberg finally looked up at me. “I wasn’t saying anything prophetic,” he said. “I was stating the obvious.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.