Highsnobiety

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In 2018, artist Joshua Citarella produced a collage of medicinal herbs, berries, and fruiting mushroom bodies with the title All the Wellness Products Americans Love to Buy are Sold on Both InfoWars and Goop. Four years, one pandemic, multiple wars, and a planet-wide inflation crisis later, he’s dressed in a lab coat activating freeze-dried stroganoff live on Twitch with assistance from gender-fluid pop star Dorian Electra – a person he seemed destined to meet.

The food arrived in a black bucket, marketed as a three-month supply of zero-MSG, Made in USA “emergency food” from alt-right media darling Alex Jones’ InfoWars e-shop. As per Citarella’s borrowed title, these easy-prep foods could just as easily have been sold as a locally-sourced, nutritionally balanced hamper for a weekend of self-care. Well, almost.

“There was milk in everything,” Electra says the next morning when the three of us dial in to talk on Zoom. “Even in the orange juice – there was milk in there, too.”

In the 2010s, the “research-based artist” became a much-memed aesthetic niche for creativity in the Internet age. It meant producing work rich in theory and history, more likely to wind up as a PDF, pamphlet or resource-rich website than a collectible object, produced without commercial gallery or institutional support. And yet the research-based pop star is a somewhat rarer bird.

At the start of their career – before breakout album Flamboyant (2019) or the pandemic-period earworm-jukebox My Agenda (2020) – Electra earned their keep making essayist music videos for Refinery29 and others. They covered subjects ranging from economics to high heels to anatomy. It’s an approach they kept with them as they aged into scalable pop.

“I didn’t go to art school and I didn’t go to film school,” Electra tells me. “I studied philosophy and the history of science. I always wanted to use art and music to make complex ideas accessible and multi-layered – so like, you can enjoy the music, or you can delve deeper.”

This drive to render politics and philosophy inside the gloss and glamor of pop can also be seen in Citarella’s video series When Guys Turn 20, which debuted on the edutainment streaming platform dis this January. Like most artists of his generation, Citarella’s career trajectory was nudged off course by the arrival of the feed and image-based social Internet – platforms that foreclosed and reshaped previous art world models. I ask if he feels any gratitude towards them for the way things turned out.

“I think we’re living in the worst period of cultural production in probably the history of recorded culture,” he says. I laugh nervously. “If you look at interviews with artists who lived in New York in the 1970s, they worked, generally speaking, about half the time, could pay rent in two different places and afford materials to make unsellable experimental video work. Now everyone is deeply in debt and works every waking moment of every day.”

As a result of his practice researching political subcultures online, Citarella is so upstream he’s practically in the mountains, a Nietzschean zone where identities form and disband. It’s a place that attracts young men and women searching for a cause – which is one reason a mutual friend introduced him to Electra. They recall their destructive infatuation with libertarian politics as a teenager in Texas. “I was brainwashed, essentially,” Electra says.

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety

During the past year, Electra and Citarella have combined forces for a multi-pronged collaboration that has included podcasts, live streams, lyrics, memes, art, and mutual support. “I became so inspired by Josh’s work,” Electra says, “Watching the stream every Monday and getting inspired to do research and reading on my own. I was like, ‘I would love for you to come out to this old Victorian house in the middle of New Jersey and help me make an album.’”

Electra’s first writing camp took place in Las Vegas. Another, which included creative director Weston Allen and Faris Badwan from The Horrors, took place in London this summer. “In Vegas, I was like, next time we do this, I wish I could have a lawyer here, just to check if what we’re doing is legal. I also want to have a historian and a mathematician. Why not? Just to be lavish.”

To this wishlist they added an artist – one whose knowledge of Internet culture, conspiracy lore, and political ideologies was extremely au courant, and who had a pre-existing fixation with pop.

“I think my peer group of artists,” says Citarella, “All of whom came up in the Tumblr era, knew that we were essentially contributing to the mood board for someone else. We took seriously the idea of making very influential images and putting together concepts that would later ripple out and have an influence on mass culture.”

Citarella’s role at the New Jersey camp was as a sort of consultant, in some ways mirroring his own cultural think tank active on Discord, Patreon, podcasts, and Twitch (from which he was briefly banned for “adult nudity” after screening a film by one of my heroes – the late art critic John Berger). “In some cases I was writing lyrics – but for me it was more an opportunity to look inside the kitchen of how pop music is made and to see how ideas I’d be workshopping in the niche contexts of art world or institutional formats could be utilized and turned into pop culture.”

Over time, Electra has become the perfect conduit to inject brevity into the dopamine-spiked landscape of extremely online, extremely ideological thought. “I’m obsessed with the idea that anything can be glamorous if you portray it in the right way,” they say. “Another thing that’s cool with music in particular is how you can create a character who is a little bit detached from yourself.”

My Agenda offers a roll-call of platform-era masculinities – from incels and edgelords to neckbeards and “barbie boys.” It’s a subject Citarella has been experimenting with in a more intimate way, chewing gum for a firmer jawline (which works), sampling dubious “T-maxxing” supplements, and posting selfies at the gym or swallowing raw eggs (a step too far for Electra, whose attempt to share this ritual on the live stream was not a success.)

Transforming one’s body, by whatever means, represents a means of self-determination in a world that remains depressingly fixed – yet the contours of identity can often appear firmer than even the leanest abs.

“In the conversations I have with, often, very right-wing young men, they’re willing to talk to me because I’m interested in A, B, and C – which is managing your nutrition, having a high-testosterone diet, and exercising,” Citarella says. “But I’m also interested in socialism. And usually the people who are interested in those first three are not interested in the economic organization of society. My thought was always that if you had a few very visible left-wing influencers who were able to engage in these hyper-masculine topics, this would be tremendously influential in shaping political ideation in those spaces.”

Where Citarella merges Gramsci and gains, Electra, a self-described “green-haired, non-binary, TikTok-looking-ass motherfucker,” uses their outward appearance to address performative inclusivity and the lack of material commitment to gay, queer, and trans people from brands, governments, and corporations. “As a team, we cover a lot of ground,” they say. “It’s really interesting to see the overlaps.” The hope for both of them is that empathy can emerge.

“I feel like the Internet is voyeurism,” Electra continues. “You’re just looking at people’s ideologies and hot takes and oversharing, and we deaden ourselves to it and ultimately lose empathy,” they say. The first song on My Agenda, “F The World,” interrogates the mind of Vista Cruise murderer Elliot Rodger – not that you’d necessarily realize by looking at the terrifyingly uncanny music video. In doing this, they join left-wing YouTuber Contrapoints by taking a second look, as she did contrasting the trans experience with the excoriating self-inventory of incels.

“It’s no wonder there’s so many memes about coming to a fork in the road,” Electra says, “It’s like either you become a white supremacist or a trans girl. Ultimately I want to inject a little empathy back into some of that, and for young queer people to resonate with that song because they recognize that feeling of not belonging.”

As living standards for the middle class continue to decline, this downwardly mobile yet educated milieu will continue clinging to the symbolic realm that represents its only sphere of control. Yet those symbols too are beginning to lose their power.

“We are exiting the neoliberal period,” Citarella says, “There’s an opportunity for state intervention and competent organizations in society that will dramatically reshape the way that people understand the world they’re living in. Seeing other people, especially young people, radically change their way of receiving the world has allowed me to envision new possibilities.”

For Electra, they also find hope in their audience, where “People are receptive to the world I’m trying to build and the kind of pop star that I want to be, where influence isn’t just about cutting your hair differently but really changing the way that someone views the world.”

Gourmet chef or not, Alex Jones played a vital role in catalyzing the friendship between the pair, long before dinnertime. “The first stream we ever did together was about chemicals in the water turning frogs gay,” Electra says. “I think that one really sums up a lot of what we’re talking about, where Josh can be a role model to some of these right-wing kids in search of political guidance literally because of the way he looks. And with my fan base, being someone who is so visibly queer, I can actually say that there are many harmful endocrine-disrupting pollutants and toxic chemicals in our food, our water, our products – it’s not just a conspiracy theory.”

As a duo, Electra and Citarella invalidate the compass, the horseshoe, and the spectrum, nudging their fans to interrogate emaciated definitions that force divisions where alliances could exist. While producing endless media themselves, they ask their audiences to look beyond media consumption to something more important – solidarity across difference. Because the fact is, whether you call yourself an Anti-Civ Anarcho-Communist or a Jokerfied E-Girl doesn’t really matter. The fact is you still live on the same planet and you probably eat the same food.

Head here to get a copy of the new issue of Highsnobiety Magazine.

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