By the time he finished college, Arcangel had found a major called Technology in Music and Related Arts, in which he studied electronic music, avant-garde composition, and theory, and honed an ability to pick apart musical structure with Pandora-like precision. The Whitney show includes a piece called Since U Been Gone, laying out a family tree leading to the sound and texture of Kelly Clarkson’s hit, beginning with Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” and moving through Joan Jett and the Bay City Rollers before arriving at Blink-182 and Avril Lavigne.
That’s an Arcangel hallmark: breaking down some ostensibly shallow cultural artifact relentlessly, digging in and creating a taxonomy of how it came to be. “It’s something I wish I could turn off, so I could just listen. I can’t hear a song without analyzing it from every possible angle.” It’s not just music, either. Near the entrance to his studio, Arcangel has laid out promising items on a table, creating a visual to-do list of sorts. “I walk by every day, so I don’t forget about them,” he says. “I say, ‘These are the ones that will definitely make it into a work.’ Then I just wait.” Currently on the table is a wastebasket filled with crushed, empty cans of Coke Zero—“of which Crystal Pepsi is a predecessor,” he reminds me—and an oversize Old Navy Techno Hoodie.
The Techno Hoodie is a blue zip-up sweatshirt with headphones wired into the drawstrings; the wearer plugs an iPod into the kangaroo pocket, and jams. Arcangel heard about the sweatshirt through a friend, discovered that Old Navy had discontinued it, and became hell-bent on finding one. (Inevitably, the search ended on eBay.) “I’d known that techno hoodies, with crap for your iPods and phones and stuff, have existed,” he says. “So then somebody tells me that Old Navy has one. And all of a sudden I’m very interested because it’s Old Navy—a store that had a little bit of a moment, but it’s culturally ambiguous right now. So we have an object loaded with two different interests of mine, combined. And I’m like, now we’re talking!”