A Rational Conversation: Is PC Music Pop Or Is It 'Pop'?
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
PC Music out of London has become one of the most divisive new labels in dance music. Though a thoroughly underground label — one that doesn't even really charge for its releases, it just throws them up for free download on its SoundCloud page — it is invested in the poppiest pop of modern history. The songs are packed with ultra bright sounds and winkingly saccharine lyrics that make them infectious but almost inhuman. There's a sense of detached maximalism to them.
PC Music artists' influences include current radio dominators, polished American R&B from the 1990s, trance, K-pop and J-pop, as well as club cheese of indeterminate European origin. But all these references don't necessarily come together easily in their off-kilter songs. They sometimes feel like a Tumblr page filled with so many reblogs and customizations that they've been rendered incomprehensible. But maybe that's the point.
It is also an incredibly secretive label that often seems to be purposefully obscuring the facts and whose artists rarely give interviews. Still, the audience and recognition for acts including A.G. Cook (PC Music's founder), Hannah Diamond, Kane West and GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year) continues to grow. The label is also affiliated with SOPHIE, a producer who has put out two successful singles on the Numbers label, but nothing so far (at least under the SOPHIE name) on PC Music. SOPHIE recently teamed with A.G. Cook for a project called QT, which will be put out on the British mega-indie XL Records.
With a project as high-minded and confusing as PC Music, are we really getting good music, or are we just getting a lot of ideas? Eric Ducker discussed whether the sounds of PC Music can be appreciated even if you don't know the context with Alex Frank, the Deputy Culture Editor at VOGUE.com.
What are the concrete facts you know about PC Music?
Like most of the world, very little. It's kind of an inscrutable universe. I know it's a label and, dare I say, a subculture that's going on in London at the moment
Does that make you want to learn more about it or do you like that it's inscrutable?
I suppose I'm used to mystery in electronic music. But I guess in the case of PC Music, the secrecy sometimes feels so intentional and directional that it almost makes me want to explore why they're so interested in confusing us.
Do you think they're hiding something, or is it just a game?
My sense is that it's just a game, a game we're all so good at playing now. Messing around with identity on the Internet is fun! And then when they started getting attention from being mysterious, maybe it just made them want to do it even more.
Right. When considering what they could potentially be hiding, I don't think they are older people adopting the mannerisms/tactics of 1990s kids and I don't think they are established artists trying new pseudonyms. The only thing I think of that they might be trying to obscure is that there may be less involvement from actual women then they seem to be presenting and that a lot the female voices they use are created through computer processing.
That certainly seems true. SOPHIE is a dude. QT's voice is probably a dude, too
If there are not as many women involved as it seems, is that troublesome?
Maybe, especially because so much of the aesthetic is sort of an electronically camp take on "girliness" and cuteness. But I'm also of the school that instead of vilifying, I'd be more interested in exploring just why a bunch of young adult males would want to put on internet drag for the sake of some songs.
So, why do you think they would? They're probably not going to give the answer.
There's so many answers to that question, one of which is just the simple answer that so much of the pop music that is ultimately the most important, at least since Madonna, is made by women. So if you're doing a campy take on pop, maybe that's the natural place to start. My question is: Does that make them drag queens?
I don't know. Maybe they see a voice as just an instrument that can be manipulated to achieve they sound they want. Positive K pitch-shifted his voice on his biggest hit, "I Gotta Man," so it sounded like he was rapping back and forth with a woman, then used actual women for the videos and performances. I wouldn't consider him a drag queen. Then there's stuff like C&C Music Factory where they would use one woman's voice for recordings and they have another woman lip sync in videos. That's a manipulation, too.
Totally. I wonder if the entire point of PC Music is that there is no vocalist at all. Girl, boy, robot — maybe the pitch shift is just meant to highlight how there's no need for a human at all. They're drawing attention to the artificiality, which seems to be their entire raison d'être. Porter Robinson used a computer speaking software for some of the tracks on his new album, and seemed really proud of that. Ultimately that's a direction I'd love to see explored even more in music, just stripping away any notion of "the human" seems like an interesting project.
Let's backtrack here. Do you like the stuff on PC Music as music, or is it just an interesting project?
Ha, that question really seems to be at the heart of what PC Music is all about, and I don't know if the music and the idea of the project are easily separable. But just the pure music streaming through my iPhone headphones as I walk down the street? Yes, I like it. Not all of it, of course, but a fair amount of it is enjoyable to me. It definitely is a stretch, musically, but I don't know if it's as much of one as people are making it out to be. I mean haven't we been here before, to some extent, with Unicorn Kid and chiptune?
Do you find the PC Music a progression of that? Are they just doing the same idea in just a different way or is the conversation moving?
The conversation is moving, partly because PC Music is such a pastiche of so many things that came before it — not just Unicorn Kid and chiptune, but Ryan Trecartin movies, Grimes, Ariana Grande — in a way that's totally contemporary. PC Music is new in what references from the past it puts together and how it frames that collage.
Hypothetically, let's say you grew up in a family of strict rockists who dictated everything you listened to and you never heard any of the Europop, J-pop, K-pop, 1990s American pop R&B or anything else that PC Music references, but you still had the capacity for objective and critical listening. If you were given a playlist that mixed up PC Music's influences with PC Music's own recordings, do you think you'd like or appreciate the PC Music stuff as much as the originals?
The answer to that is probably no. Like, is Frankenstein more beautiful then the people's whose body parts were assembled to create him? No. Ace of Base is more palatably enjoyable than PC Music. Mariah Carey is more palatably enjoyable than PC Music. Even Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a little easier on the ears. But that doesn't make PC Music bad, just difficult.
But that's the question with all music now, right? Can the content be appreciated without the context? I'm sure there are people who can do that, but the culture of music is what interests me the most.
Well, what interests you about the culture of PC Music?
Unlike most pop music I like, it doesn't make me want to dance or sing along, but I like listening to some of it because it's like listening to a bunch of funny jokes.
Yes! I asked my friend Julianne Escobedo Shepherd if PC Music is like "Weird Al" Yankovic for hipsters — the idea that it's an inside joke that we can all be in on, but that's still catchy and fun to listen to. She said that the precise difference is that Weird Al isn't cynical and that PC Music is cynical.
Cynical in what sense?
Cynical in the sense that PC Music's manipulation is possibly just too manipulated. It's like trend forecasting to an almost scary degree. As in: If you combine these X, Y and Z nostalgia points that the internet cares about so much, you're going to have a hit. It's like seeing what's culturally trending, combining them all together and of course that'll hit big.
So as a listener are you supposed to laugh at their approach or the fact you're responding to it?
You're supposed to be proud of yourself for being in on the joke, on knowing the references. That's the wink-wink. PC Music is almost a double-wink. It's having the ironic edge of the wink, but taking it one step further and letting us know that you even know that being IRONIC is lame. I hate to say it's post-ironic — because I hate when people say post-racial or post-gay or WHATEVER — but that's what this is, right? It's incorporated the laugh track right into the beat.
I'm also incredibly interested in what PC Music's relationship to the larger music industry is, in the sense that it feels like the antidote to the post-Disclosure house music that is now everywhere. PC Music is like the anti-Kiesza.
Whereas Disclosure is hoping to revive electronic music's history of soulfulness, and in doing so has brought house music back to a gigantic audience, PC Music is kind of saying that electronic music is still an insider's club. If Disclosure is now played at every wedding party in New York City, PC Music is saying, "No, this music is for weirdos."
They're saying dance music should be insider?
Yes, I think so. Sure, it embraces pop as like an aesthetic tool, but this is difficult music. This is not likely to get DJed at a Meatpacking District club, it's just not.
Did you go see SOPHIE at MoMA PS 1's Warm Up a couple weekends ago?
I did not, and it's funny that he played on the same day as Skrillex, another person who divided the world into two camps — one who said he's ruining music, one who said he's great.
From what I read, it sounds like SOPHIE was aggressively un-fun, while Skrillex took an opposite, very crowd-pleasing approach
Which is super interesting, and makes me wonder, is PC Music the second coming of Salem?
Salem was met with similar confusion. They were sort of extreme amalgamation of what was happening in music that was aggressively cynical and un-fun.
Most people's complaint with Salem was that in the end, underneath all the layers, was nothing substantitive. Did you feel that way?
Well, I hope I don't sound like a cheesy dime store Oscar Wilde, but I don't know how much I care if there is something substantive underneath. I like surfaces, sometimes. I don't think music always has to have more than a nice surface. The layers can be the best part.
Let's talk about QT, the new project from PC Music head A.G. Cook and SOPHIE. Only one song is out, but I guess the concept is that QT is combination singer and energy drink. It seems like it's a riff on Hatsune Miku, Japan's virtual pop star. The project is coming out on XL Records, and they have that Adele money now, so I'm curious if those resources are going to take Cook and SOPHIE's ideas to crazy levels or if it will ruin them, because the PC Music stuff has been purposefully so low budget.
I hope this doesn't come back to haunt me, but I think there's no fear that QT and SOPHIE will ever be crushingly-famous, no matter what label they are on. They would have to seriously temper their sound if that were ever to happen. But maybe they will? My dream would be to have Miley Cyrus collaborate with PC Music. I know they're working with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu on something, but I think if they could bridge their sound to Miley or Katy Perry they might have something.
But I will say one thing: I wonder if the kind of incessant peppiness that is at the heart of PC Music is already on its way out. Their labelmate on XL, FKA Twigs, is transgressive, like them, but in a totally different way. She does music so seductively, slowly, and something about her moodiness feels right at the moment. That's what so funny about PC Music, everyone is labeling them as so forward thinking, but actually, they're making commentary on the past five years or so of peppy Dr. Luke pop, J-Pop, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus. I wonder if people are kind of sick of peppy pop music and are ready for something a little darker. There's only so much cuteness that one culture can take, right? Ariana Grande might be proving me wrong though by having a No. 1 album this summer.
Maybe they're so on trend they're actually behind trend. Which ultimately is avant-garde, right?
Yes, being behind trend is the new being on trend. I hate myself for saying that, but maybe it's true. Look, there's space in the world of electronic music for both Twigs and PC Music. Twigs reads as almost insanely authentic in a classic sense, and that's really worked for her. Authenticity still works. Songwriting and feeling and emotion and sexiness still works. It still moves people. PC Music is a different thing and there's space in the world for different things. But in its calculation, in its manipulation, in its almost soullessness, [PC Music has] hit upon something incredibly intellectual. But I wonder if people even want their music to be intellectual.
People may not want their pop music to be intellectual, but they do want it to be emotional.
Yeah, I think they do. And maybe that's because we're still caught in the 20th century. We're still wedded to old ideas about what music is supposed to be and we're not ready for PC Music, in a way. Maybe PC Music is helping push us forward, to start to get comfortable with uncanny sounds. It's uncanny pop. It's pushing us towards inhuman music.
This summer people were all in a stink about discovering that track of Britney Spears singing without Auto-Tune, and I just thought, "Who cares? The song is great!" (By the way, I think Britney Spears is the original cyborg pop star, and perhaps PC Music's most important influence, but that's another story.) But I also understand why people were mad. We're still human enough that we want our songs to feel real, whatever "real" means. It's a feeling, you know it when you hear it. Or you think you know it when you hear it.