Rocco Bunko does not exist in the real world—not really. For the past year, he's appeared as a screen name on Discord, a voice on SoundCloud, and a face on Instagram. As far as his audience is concerned, Rocco exists online, like so many other artists who have weathered the pandemic from their home studios. His time is spent behind screens—often used as distractions from reality, but how does one escape reality when the virtual world becomes your dominant mode of existence?
Rocco's latest EP, "Screens," explores his tumultuous relationship with technology, and despite its autobiographical nature, the EP's theme is anything but isolating. The 4-song EP was born from a folder containing 16 tracks—some fully orhcestrated and others mere ideas that never made it. The songs that did make the final cut are diverse, moving from pure-pop digicored existentialism to acoustic indie introspection. The permeating theme of technological dependence, however, unites these varied genres in an EP that sounds just like how a day in the pandemic feels.
"Screens" opens with "blowinupmyphone!," a peppy track that signals the promise of a productive day cut short by a stream of notifications. While Rocco struggles for control of his attention span at the hands of social media, his phone won't stop blowing up until he threatens to (literally) blow up the phone himself. This hyperbolic reaction might seem outrageous, even sacrilegious considering how so much of one's life is played out from behind a screen, but Rocco's had enough. "I just want control / if I'm long gone I don't wanna know / too much time spent staring at my phone," Rocco sings before imploring his audience, his friends, and his addictive connection to society to power down. But Rocco's pleading for silence is only met with the aggressively digitized vocal stylings of Shyburial, the EP's only feature, sent to disrupt Rocco's moment of clarity.
Shy plays a caricature of social media's elite, bragging about Louis Vitton and smoking exotic; she pops up in the middle of Rocco's crisis like an influencer sent to remind him that life is actually pretty good online, and that he should stay for a while. But there is a lack of humanity in Shy's message that is amplified by her computerized vocals. "My movements sway / you would think that I'm robotic," Shy sings before glitching hypnotically on the beat. If Rocco represents humanity's desire to disconnect, then Shy represents technology's programming that succeeds only through the stranglehold of connectivity. And so Rocco is trapped, unable to escape even into his own song.
In follow-up track, "song 9," Rocco hatches a plan to "just run" from his addictions, but admits that it's easier said than done. "Every day I wake up / 'cause that's what I'm supposed to do / just need a distraction / I can't go without it," Rocco sings, invoking the familiar image of waking up, rolling over, and checking one's phone through bleary eyes. He has been conditioned, like so many others, to disengage from reality the moment he wakes up, and despite this phenomenon being widespread, there is an underlying feeling that such an existence is inhuman. So when Rocco sings, "Just run / I don't wanna be here anymore," the listener is not only enticed by the hook's melody, but by the empathetic message of escaping one's means of escapism.
"song 9" bleeds into "i am who i have been looking for," an "instrumental" track that actually features a contemplative moment from Rocco, played in reverse. Here Rocco admits to losing himself only to realize that he is who he's been looking for this whole time. It's an uplifting message, albeit inaccessible without the means of reversing the audio. The song plays out as if the listener is running alongside Rocco, slowly being buried under layers of electronic production and ominous backwards vocals, dissonant against the major key. There is a feeling of transformation, but the lack of vocal clarity and the slow fade away leaves the listener feeling unsatisfied by the song's end. How can the EP end on such an ambiguous and untranslated note? And the answer is: it can't.
"screens," the titular track, closes the EP in a way that is both sonically unexpected and thematically satisfying. In an EP filled with electronic over-production, "screens'" barebones arrangement is a breath of fresh air. Rocco's vocals, supported only by the strumming of an acoustic guitar, feel human. It's as if he has finally disconnected from the screens he's tried so hard to turn away from, but this kind of moment can't last forever. Rocco sings, "I know it'll take time / so what should I do now?" and what better way to fill the time than checking your phone and being transported back to track 1?
"The EP is just a look into my life at the time," Rocco says, citing how the pandemic encouraged his unhealthy obsession with technology. But Rocco didn't approach "Screens" from the perspective of a preacher; he's just a regular guy, like his audience and his peers, who spends a little too much time online. It's a simple and accessible concept that unravelled naturally within the confines of tech-dependent 2020. And anyone struck with the harsh reality of their Screen Time report can attest to these struggles. But while accessibility is one of "Screens’" strong suits, Rocco believes that the EP was only made possible by focusing inwards, rather than out.
Rocco says that he struggled with his musical identity over the years, citing that the pressure from a fanbase, no matter how big or small, can "change the way you are." Having moved through several musical phases, from synth-driven pop to guitar-driven indie and back again, Rocco found that he was "starting to create for other people, and at some point just said, 'Fuck that. I'm going to make it for myself.'"
"I was just out of it. I hadn't been writing for a while, I hadn't been recording for a while," Rocco says, "I spent a long time not happy with the way my music was sounding 'cause I was worried about what other people thought.”
By letting go of these self-imposed restrictions, Rocco needed to look no further than the screen in front of him in order to create a diverse EP with a genuine sense of self. Though “Screens” may not have cured Rocco of his technological ailments, it acts as a reminder of the cyclical nature of escapism in modern society. It is a commentary on the negative effects of the internet’s allure, but at the same time, just like Rocco Bunko, this EP does not exist in the real world—not really. It only exists behind a screen. So get streaming.