In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane Over the Meme with Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel’s ambiguous 1988 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, suffered a memeified atrocity. But the tides of public opinion rise and fall, and memes come and go.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Neutral Milk Hotel
10 February 1988

The meme shares with the trickster many attributes: the ability to exonerate the guilty and implicate the free, to profane the sacred while hallowing the lowly, and to cut through complex issues and calcified defenses with a Trojan horse simplicity. Therefore, its relationship to art, much like our own, is complicated. To even begin to comment on the meme, one must first be able to speak of art. This is in itself a high order. To fail to recognize the aesthetic attributes of a revered work is to risk philistinism, while to sing too loudly the praise of overrated or simply bad art is to risk the labels of basic, mid-brow, and plebeian. To begin to approach the art object in the way the work calls for, one must adopt what the late anthropologist Alfred Gell called methodological philistinism.

The concept is a sort of play on sociologist and theologian Peter Berger’s methodological atheism, a principle necessary to analyzing religious ideas in which the anthropologist must set aside their own convictions, or lack of them, and adopt the assumption that none of the religious aspects at hand are literally true. Modernity, Gell goes on to argue, has adopted art as its religion, calling “aesthetics…a branch of moral discourse which depends on the acceptance of the initial articles of faith”. Methodological philistinism requires an approach of stout indifference towards the aesthetic value of works of art “because to admit this kind of value is equivalent to admitting, so to speak, that religion is true.”

The meme need not worry itself over such neurotic considerations. To the trickster, philistinism, religion, and art are but words. For this writer, however, the artwork in question is a holy relic, and once the ball gets rolling, I may well dip into the ravings of the devout. For now I am a dependable anthropologist, and, in what might as well amount to an act of internet archaeology, I have dug deep into the accelerated timespan in which the life of memes take place to stand over the pit and look upon Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, “a surrealist text loosely based on the life, suffering and reincarnation of Anne Frank, with guest appearances from a pair of Siamese twins menaced by the cold and carnivores, a two-headed boy bobbing in a jar, anthropomorphic vegetables and a variety of immature erotic horrors”, or as leadman, Jeff Mangum puts it, hidden in the liner notes, “i mean what i sing although the theme of endless endless on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them that i see as eternal.”

That may not sound like the makings of a hit, but In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has garnered for itself a more-than-legendary status. Kim Cooper devotes an entire chapter in her 2005 33 1/3 book on the album to a song-by-song description, although she fully admits such is not in the vein of what she set out to do. While her descriptive texts remain accurate and reliable write-ups, real heads will know they fail to compare to producer Robert Schneider’s one-off about how the opener “has the feeling in it of the woods behind Jeff’s house in Ruston.” In so saying, he harkens back to an age when metaphor was medicine, and through this, connects with the legions of fans who consider In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as something not-quite-of-this-earth. 

Gell observed that “it is often the case that art objects are regarded as transcending the technical schemes of their creators…as when the art object is considered to arrive, not from the activities of the individual[s] physically responsible for it, but from the divine inspiration or ancestral spirit with which [they are] filled.”

Before it became the gravitational sink of a whole legion of memelords, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea existed in this quasi-sacred space. In a 2016 article for Daily Dot, Luke Winkie nailed the attitude towards the album when he called it an indie rock classic, but “not in the Slanted & Enchanted or Bee Thousand sense: Those are both records made by human beings who exist in an actual, human world. Aeroplane’s reputation left the mortal plane a long time ago.” That is how it felt when I first came across the album nearly a decade after its release. An iTunes algorithm recommended Neutral Milk Hotel after I purchased an album by the Decemberists with a Christmas gift card. I had enough money left over to buy a couple more songs, so I decided to roll the dice on the title track and “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1”, which is the first song to which Bruce Springsteen’s famous remark about Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” kicking open the doors to his mind could be aptly applied in my life. 

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea came to me like a secret, and in no time, I had torrented every available scrap of music with the name Neutral Milk Hotel or Jeff Mangum that the internet had to offer. As Winkie wrote, I was of the generation who found Neutral Milk Hotel online and was “in a moment of youthful vulnerability…swept up by that genuinely powerful music.” There were few enough others in my small-town Texas high school who were privy to it that we celebrated our shared appreciation like some form of esoteric knowledge, passing around the disjointed stories of the Elephant 6 collective from which the album sprang as if they were holy texts. Most of this came from Cooper, who strung together the ur-text on the album in that slim volume for the 33 ⅓ series. She toes the line Gell hints at when he calls the artist “half-technician and half-mystagogue”, giving the album its legendary due, but focusing more on the environment it came from, as well as the oft-overlooked technical aspects of recorded music.

Cooper’s 100-page text remained the only book devoted to the subject for nearly two decades. Her stories of the Elephant 6 collective remain highly romantic, sounding like the uncompromised ideal of every artistically inclined youth’s dream future. In 2022, Adam Clair’s Endless Endless: a lo-fi history of the elephant 6 mystery was finally released after years of work. He interviews Cooper, who describes her book as less a story about an album than “a story about an environment and a set of relationships that are very special and something a lot of us can aspire to. It’s hard to have that environment, especially with the economic anxiety that Americans suffer now…You can’t hear about these relationships and what came out of it without thinking, Wow, I wish everyone could have this.”

Clair’s significantly fatter volume fleshes out the essential story Cooper laid bare, defining the collective as so:

“Elephant 6 Recording Company formally began as a record label in the early nineties and rapidly bloomed into something more nebulous and impactful. By the end of the decade, it had become so expansive that ‘Elephant 6’ described not a group of bands or even a particular sound. Elephant 6 had become a movement…Drawing from psychedelic influences but also esoteric experimental composers and recordings of antiquity from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, as well as their favorite jazz, folk, and punk iconoclasts…[and] pursuing their art with an aggressively DIY philosophy.”

Clair and Cooper paint idyllic visions of cheap rent, rows of artists’ hovels in Athens, Julian Koster’s fairytale grandmother’s house in New York City where the members of Neutral Milk Hotel lived in the afterglow of 1996’s On Avery Island, and while they were beginning to piece together the material that would become In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Talented and supportive friends creating, sharing, and promoting one another’s ambitions, coming together for potluck dinners, a pool of musicians bleeding into every project in the collective. Of this time and these people, Koster is quoted: “We were part of each other’s imagination.” Schneider’s recording philosophy perfectly aligned with this atmosphere. He set out to not just “capture the spirit of people in the room…[but] to create a room, a fantastic kind of dream room that resembles a real room, but that’s populated with much more interesting furniture.” 

For this devotee, in the throes of youth, that spirit was surely captured, and each spin of the album could project it as a carnival outside of town, the remnants of which might be found by the townsfolk in a muggy, overgrown field in the swamps of Georgia. A crumbled but intact poster depicting a carnival barker decrying the names Jeff Mangum, Scott Spillane, Julian Koster, and Jeremy Barnes in a turn-of-the-century aesthetic. That poster, some trampled grass, and the quickly fading memories would be all that remained of the fever dream night. Meanwhile, the carnival members would be laughing together overhead in some synthetic flying machine passing over the horizon.

This apparent realization of the dream vision that is making art with your friends and doing it successfully plays no small part in the romanticism young people apply to certain movements, such as the Beats or the Lost Generation, all of which project such mythical tulpas out of their all-too-human participants. Elephant 6 came with the added bonus that it had originated from such humble-sounding towns in Georgia and Louisiana (Ruston, Louisianna, and Athens, Georgia, both taking on timbres as legendary as the Grecian city-state and El Dorado), and in the not-too-distant past, making it seem possible that it could spark to life anywhere, say in similarly humble origins in Texas.

Then there is the coup d’état, of course: the sudden disappearance of Jeff Mangum. After playing the 40 Watt Club in Atlanta, Georgia, on the final day of 1998, Mangum disappeared from public view. The preceding tours had been great successes. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was not only critically acclaimed but far outselling its predicted quota, and the band was already becoming a thing of legend. But then, without warning, without explanation, the frontman stepped away. 

“‘Is it art?’ is premised on a false binary. Regardless of intent or skill or authorship, absolutely anything can be viewed through an artistic lens. How does it make me feel? What does it make clearer, and what does it obfuscate? How does it change the way I see the world around me? We can look at anything through this lens, be it an album or the decision not to make one,” Clair writes in his introduction. And that decision of Mangum’s to step away, to not make another album, might prove his most remembered work of art, for it acted backward through time to supercharge all the albums he had made (as well as the ghosts of half-finished work he never intended to reach the public).

It seems doubtful that was his intended purpose, however. Despite all the endless hypothesizing, he probably disappeared in an attempt to remain a human being rather than be projected onto that cursed mantle of celebrity. If so, he failed at that spectacularly. In no time, he was labeled the JD Salinger of Indie Rock. His possible whereabouts became an obsession. Fans chased his ghost across the map. Any blip he might have made on the radar, the world turned its eye.

All this clamor seems an absurd thing to be centered around a rather experimentally inclined indie rocker from Ruston, LA. Clair tries to make some sense of it. He points to the negative space, the sort of hauntological slip between the music and the myth of the music. He compares it to the negative space present on copied mixtapes, a piece of technology vital not only to Elephant 6 but to home recording in general. It allowed basically anyone to record their music from home, but also to share it, copying and recopying their home recordings as well as the music they liked and could never before so easily share. 

Gell referred to art as the technology of enchantment, writing that “the technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology…It is the way an art object is construed as having come into the world which is the source of the power such objects have over us—their becoming rather than their being.” Both Clair and Cooper’s accounts focus keenly on the DIY tape-recording culture that the members of Elephant 6 came out of. Clair points out that copying music leads to a loss in fidelity. In its place, there grows a clicking, squeaking, and hissing fuzziness, sometimes lovingly referred to as the warmness of cassette tapes. This effect has become such a profound influence that these “artifacts of the medium itself have become aesthetic affectations on even purely digital works.”

In the metaphorical case of the empty space around Neutral Milk Hotel, created not only by their “impossibly abstract lyrics, unfamiliar instrumentation, and other bits of psychedelic mystique”, but also, imaginally, around the band itself, it allowed listeners to fill that space with themselves, so that they became the very cassette warmth, tying listeners in highly intimate ways to the band.

To have this experience and then to move on to college and be introduced to a greater pool of people who had the same, or a very similar, experience was initially exciting. As it became apparent that my incredibly personal and meaningful relationship was shared by literally millions, it became somewhat reminiscent of the betrayal felt by the Theodore Twombly character in Spike Jonez’ 2013 film, Her, “as though the intimacy of my connection to the songs were so intense there should’ve been no way in for anyone else.” An immature reaction, to be sure, but no less real for that reason.

This, felt en masse, must have contributed to the memefication of In the Airplane Over the Sea, which began on /mu/, the 4chan music board, but proliferated to the point that Anthony Fantano, the internet’s busiest music nerd, posted a video in 2011 entitled Music or Meme? In this, he neglects to review the album despite loving it personally, citing the “subtly intentional comedy” implied in its growing commentary online, and ultimately asks, “am I reviewing music or am I reviewing a meme?…Is this album still music or has the internet essentially turned it into a meme?”

While there have always been earthly manifestations of the trickster, from the court jester to the shaman, to the clown, the meme represents something altogether different. It is at once the unbound spirit of the people, freed by anonymity, but at the same time a conformist hivemind, required to play to the crowd in order to gain traction. Memes, in relation to art, seem to interact with an idealized form, the one we hold in our heads as a complete package, not what exists in the world. Just as it is impossible to see the totality of a cube at once, we must fill in several unseen sides imaginally; a book cannot be read in one glance, or a piece of music listened to in a gasp, but they can exist this way in our heads, a sort of imaginal zipfile, a single entity.

It might seem weird to ask, but where is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? Is it in some master tape or present in each vinyl on Urban Outfitters’ shelf? Is it in the mp3 file, a ghost in the machine, or out in The Cloud? Is it in us, the listeners, or only something within Jeff, Julian, Scott, and Jeremy that they loan out temporarily? What is it, exactly, that memes are interacting with?

What Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, makes clear is that the value of a work of art has always resided in its aura, its uniqueness, which was at the time of writing already under fire by technology’s growing ability to reproduce anything. Art was increasingly being “designed for reproducibility.” Benjamin cites film and photography, but recorded music also fits the bill. With so much of art today so easily reproducible, either the aura is more malleable than Benjamin perceived, or its value lies elsewhere.

He goes on to write that “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual…instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.” As author Michael S. Judge points out in his analysis of the essay, Benjamin didn’t mean it in any narrow sense, rather “for Benjamin, ‘political’ was as layered a word as ‘surreal’ was for the Surrealists…the ‘political’, in the conventional sense of laws and elections, is only the causal shadow of true politics, which are the way we conceive of and enact our own reality, and these conceptions are driven by forces much more chthonic and feral than rational calculation.” 

Reproduction did not destroy art’s value but only further proved that what is valuable in art is something of a shapeshifter. Art seems to have appeared like Stanley Kubrick’s monolith some 40,000 years ago when it exploded into being, and it has refused to leave ever since – it has become an innate property of humankind. Philosopher J.F. Martel writes in his book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, “We do not know why we make art, and yet we cannot subtract it from our self-image as a species without losing the thing that makes us what we are.” 

Art is older than civilization. It has adapted itself along the way, turning different aspects of itself to the light depending on time and place, but, all along, little manifestations of Kubrick’s black box have been loaded into each work of art, imbuing them with its strange power. This black box forms a node in the mind of an artwork’s devotees, a mirror image or landing place, and this is the imaginal whole that for so many, in the case of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was swapped out, Indiana Jones-style, for the idol, a memeified atrocity, or so it felt for a time.

The drum-headed swimmer from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea‘s cover, reskinned and holding a shotgun, was the image that welcomed users to 4chan’s music board, where if you were to “venture further, you’[d] find a lot of chaotic, barely-parsable jokes. In surveying /mu/’s sprawl, you’ll find hundreds of the album cover Photoshops, uber-literal lyric adaptations, an ongoing debate if the album’s surrealist cover illustration features a drum or a potato, etc.” The album truly became the ultimate hipster touchstone when Neutral Milk Hotel was cited by Parks and Recreaction’s character April Ludgate as her favorite band, that line turning what had once been sacred into basically an X that equaled band-associated-with-hip-young-people-who-is-nonetheless-well -enough-known-for-this-joke-to-land-for-a-general-audience-tuned-into-prime-time-television. 

Such self-inflicted feelings of betrayal created an ideal environment for the meme frenzy, which turned the album into a joke for so many. A fear lies at the heart of the readiness of this betrayal: What if art is true? What if art is what we believed it to be when we were young and not only something meant for entertainment, mood-stabilizing, or beautifying spaces? If so, “the artist…needs enough courage to stay true to the work at hand. Even greater courage is required of those to whom the finished work is given, for their interests will always recommend dismissing the vision for fear of its implications.” Neutral Milk Hotel fans, by and large, lacked that courage. Winkle calls the memeification “a celebration of those early, magical feelings of discovery,” but really it was a cynical rejection of them.

Luckily for us, as Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application it gives to us a part of its secret inner light.” So, while the trickster meme never settles: It builds up just as it breaks down; it refuses to take the sacred seriously or to besmirch the profane, neither does art, which may, in fact, be an even larger trickster. It has carried on ceaselessly for 40,000 years, each act of creation recreating Creation, so that the world with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in it is different from the world before its storied recording and certainly different than the parallel worlds where Jeff Mangum never chased Robert Schneider around that Ruston playground with a plastic Wiffle Ball bat. 

That art might save us seems doubtful, in some ways akin to the old joke: why not make the whole plane out of the black box? At the same time, worrying about saving art is a bit like scrambling to save the one thing on the doomed plane that is already indestructible. The black box is eternal; no matter what use it is put to, it will outlast. It cannot be swapped out for a stone. When the trickster bandit finally stops to admire his bounty, it will disappear like cotton candy from the raccoon’s wet hands; the treasure has never left its altar. 

In the end, all that can be said of the black box is that it is a dwelling, a room inserted in the world that the world must grow to accommodate. It is protected by its framing, imbued with the power of its creation, and so it stands. The tides of public opinion may rise and fall, and memes come and go, but they attack only the exterior. The room remains, as do those who dwell within. The aeroplane will continue to make its scheduled flight, back and forth across the sea, picking up whatever passengers are brave enough to board. 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations: Walter Benjamin. Schocken. 2007.

Clair, Adam. Endless Endless: A Lo-Fi History of the Elephant 6 Mystery. Hachette. 2022.

Clark, Taylor. “Jeff Mangum, the Salinger of Indie Rock”. Slate Magazine. 26 February 2008.

Cooper, Kim. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Bloomsbury. 2019.

Fantano, Anthony, director. “Music or Meme?” Youtube. 30 December 2011. Accessed 30 March 2023. 

Gell, Alfred. “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology.” The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams. Routledge. 2020.

Judge, Michael S. “The Eikonosphere or, the Work of Mechanical Reproduction in the Age of Terrorism”. Medium.

Mangum, Jeff. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel Liner Notes. Merge Records. 1998. 

Martel, J. F. Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action. North Atlantic Books. 2015.

Rice, David. “You Ruined Neutral Milk Hotel: Nostalgia, Millennials and the Return of Jeff Mangum”. Salon. 1 March 2014.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr. “Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1970”. Nobel Prize. 1970.

Winkie, Luke. “There Will Never Be a More Hipster Meme than Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane over the Sea’.” The Daily Dot. 27 May 2016.