Boards of Canada‘s breakthrough LP, Music Has the Right to Children, is ahead of and behind the times. It predates and predicts many of the most prominent and insightful trends of 21st-century electronic music while simultaneously sounding like something that’s been disinterred from the dirt and then left to melt in the sun. It’s both nostalgic and futuristic, whimsical and unsettling. It captures a particular moment of genuine optimism and innocence, offering a tragically brief glimpse of the dream of a kinder, gentler future in an album that is unlikely to be replicated.
Electronic music wasn’t known for being nostalgic in the late 20th century. At that stage, rockets were at full blast, hurtling electronic music towards the future. The dance music of the final years of the 1990s offered a fascinating, essential glimpse into the collective unconscious as we prepared to launch into a new millennium. Indeed, a wide variety of underground dance music of the time was an exercise in excess, embracing and reveling in the information overload, amping up the speed and intensity in styles like IDM, breakcore, jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, and various flavors of intense techno like gabba and hardcore in Europe. Alternative rockers 4 Non Blondes may’ve given us the slogan for the 1990s in the ubiquitous alternative radio staple “What’s Up?” with the title of their lone album – Bigger, Better, Faster, More.
However, despite sharing many ingredients with their contemporaries – a tendency toward sturdy downtempo breakbeats, hypnotic lock groove samples, and obscure disembodied vocals cresting above the fray, Board of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children is one of the first signs of a culture pumping the breaks, perhaps subconsciously sensing the chaos and confusion waiting around the corner.
Music Has the Right to Children was not without precedent, though. Artists like Aphex Twin and Mouse on Mars were already splicing childlike ice cream truck tones to evoke a similar sense of twisted innocence. Both Mouse on Mars and Richard D. James emphasized the hyperactive, attention-addled attitude of breakcore, flicking through samples like a sugared-up kid on Saturday morning. Board of Canada’s Sandison brothers leaned into the wide-eyed amniotic nursery vibes with tracks like “The Colour of the Fire” and “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” sounding like some cosmic music box mobile, anticipating the all-pastel-everything aesthetic of the late 2010s and the permanent retreat into childhood by a couple of decades.
There is darkness just below the surface of Music Has the Right to Children, although it’s more strange than terrifying. The chopped-and-slurred spoken intro to “The Color of the Fire” brings to mind the surreal, vaguely sinister tone of early children’s television shows Barney or Teletubbies, evoking what theorist Bob Fischer describes as “childhood disquiet”. On his website, The Haunted Generation, Fischer uses the term to describe the strange mixture of thrill and dread that define the collective nostalgia of a particular era of British youth, whose formative experiences watching early Dr. Who and Threads on the BBC would inform what would come to be known as Hauntology, of whom Boards of Canada are considered a formative influence.
On Hauntology and Hypnagogia
In his influential work on the 21st-century obsession with nostalgia, Retromania: Pop Music’s Addiction to Its Own Past, music journalist and cultural theorist Simon Reynolds talks about Boards of Canada and their influence on Hauntology, a theory and loose conglomeration of styles and artistic movements dealing with the past in some way. “Boards of Canada also pioneered the hauntological approach to creating old-timey and elegiac atmospheres through the use of sound treatments suggestive of decay and wear-and-tear,” he writes, “Our cultural memories are shaped not just by the production qualities of an era (black and white, mono, certain kinds of drum sound or recording ambience, etc. ) but by subtle properties of the recording media themselves (photographic or film stock that screams seventies or eighties, for instance). These properties include the medium’s specific rate of decay.”
The term Hauntology comes from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, a philosophical play on words referencing the spirit of communism still hanging over Europe despite the fall of the Berlin Wall. Derrida argued the spirit of communism still exists and is still relevant, invoking the image of the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the idea that “time is out of joint”.
Describing the basic tenet of Hauntology as an artistic movement and aesthetic, Andrew Gallix of The Guardian summarizes, “At its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces, and TV series like Life on Mars.” As a philosophy, it manages to incorporate the faux-Polaroid Hipstamatic filters of early Instagram, the flower crowns of late 2000s/early 2010s indie festival culture, the endless thirst for reboots remakes, and sequels to existing intellectual properties that’s defined so much of the 21st century so far and the compelling forgeries of art seemingly from another age. Music Has the Right to Children is one of the finest examples of the latter while carrying critiques of the former in its DNA.
The first wave of musical hauntologists largely referred to a wyrd, spooky era of British culture from roughly the early 1960s to the late 1970s – Bob Fischer’s “haunted generation”. Boards of Canada expand that palette beyond eerie Quatermass black-and-white and Hammer technicolor to include a funky 1970s patina with just a taste of 1980s neon radness.
Quoting Reynolds, “BoC’s artificially faded and discoloured textures stir up the kinds of feelings you get from watching old home movies that are speckled with blotches of colour, or from leafing through a family photo album full of snapshots that are turning an autumnal yellow. It’s like you’re witnessing the fading of your own memories.”
This fraying, faded, fragmented quality is part of what makes Music Has the Right to Children so singular and also so unlikely to be recreated except as a stylized choice, especially as time goes on. It’s decidedly an analog album – intentionally so. Boards of Canada even incorporate analog indeterminacy into the recording process itself, re-recording audio onto malfunctioning tape recorders and embracing detuned analog synths. It reflects and recreates the hazy, indistinct nature of memory rather than the cutting clarity of digital archives.
This makes Music Has the Right to Children an important antecedent to the Hypnagogic Pop of the late 2000s/early 2010s, as well. Its murky, burned-and-melted-around-the-edges, sometimes distant quality delivers the sensation of 1980s synth, disco, new age, and new wave heard through a childhood bedroom wall of artists like James Ferraro or Oneohtrix Point Never. Several decades into the panopticon of ever-present recording devices, these sorts of lost, distant, hazy memories that can barely be recalled will become increasingly scarce.
Towards the conclusion of his short reflection on nostalgia in the 21st century, On Nostalgia, essayist David Berry observes, “At a glance, this infinite personal archive might seem like something of an existential threat to nostalgia. Facts about our lives are now verifiable with an ease that goes well beyond rooting through old photo albums; if we’re able not just to think fondly on past experiences but to call up a reasonable simulacrum, it might leave us more suspicious of the nostalgic impulse, or perhaps even short-circuit the nostalgia process entirely, leaving us with just the picture of memories, not the warm and fuzzy feelings of them.”
Berry goes on to speculate about some of the potential issues arising from having permanent access to our memories. He wonders about the healthfulness of ruminating on your own past and experiences endlessly. Artists are already beginning to use the power of augmented reality to recreate formative experiences, like the immersive VR experience from New York artist Sarah Rothberg, Memory Place: My House, which recreates her childhood home through old home footage.
Rothberg was surprised to experience a sense of uncanny unease when walking through the simulacrum. At first, she couldn’t tell what was bothering her. She eventually realized what was off – a particular floorboard had been loose in her childhood home, which she hadn’t even remembered until it was gone.
Memory Place: My House represents both the perils and the potentials of our current obsession with nostalgia and the past, so beautifully, eerily evoked by Boards of Canada and Music Has the Right to Children. Just imagine the potential of immersive, HD recreations of the past – our own and others. Could you resist a chance to explore the Titanic? To walk around the set of Citizen Kane? Think how such technology could be used to enhance empathy and understanding. Our fascination with the past could just as easily be utopian as dystopian.
Are we doomed to recreate what’s come before, though? Have all the horizons been crossed? If so, is that a bad thing? Humanity’s drive for endless exploration has certainly been the root of so many atrocities, after all.
This is also one of the main arguments against algorithms and large language models – they are incapable of creativity, novelty, or imagination by their very nature. They’re designed to keep giving us more of the same, removing as much risk and uncertainty as possible at the expense of surprise, shock, delight, and confusion.
Must we resign ourselves to sorting through the rubble of the past in a postmodern haze? With no hope of the future, must we retreat into an endless childhood?
Music Has the Right to Children doesn’t pretend to have the answers. Instead, it raises the question in all its beautiful, confusing complexity and contradictions – much like the past itself. Now, 25 years later, the album sounds even more pertinent and prescient than when it was released. It reminds us that there are still plenty of photo albums to be poured over, plenty of bizarro 1970s sci-fi movies worthy of our obsession. It also reminds us that there will always be creative, imaginative, innovative, moving, and genuinely bizarre music in every era and every genre.
Berry, David. On Nostalgia. Coach House Books. July 2020.
Fischer, Bob. (2022, November 7). Musty books: “The weathermonger” by Peter Dickinson (1968). The Haunted Generation. Retrieved 10 April 2023.
Gallix, Andrew. “Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation”. The Guardian. 17 June 2011.
Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. Faber and Faber. May 2012.
Rowen, Ben. “Nostalgia on Demand“. The Atlantic. 16 May 2017.