Remember Evanescence? You know, the nu-metal band of the early aughts with groaning guitars and overwrought goth-girl vocals, who in some circles became as easy a stand-in for the concept of “bad music” as Nickelback or The Eagles. I hadn't thought of them or their hit "Bring Me to Life" in years—though someone did mention the band on HBO's Looking a few weeks back, to which a character replied, "I don't think the kids are listening to them these days."
But last Thursday night at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, the kids were listening to Evanescence again. Or certain kids, to a certain version of Evanescence. The crowd for the PC Music showcase at Empire Garage wore the most eccentric outfits I'd seen at the fest—cartoon-print pajamas, a mustached guy in a slitted dress over bike shorts, a safety helmet getting passed from person to person for some reason. They'd already been dancing ecstatically to a set by the electronic artist Spinee, whose music sounds a bit like one long remix of the Mortal Kombat theme, when out peaked the words of Evanescence's Amy Lee, sped up and pitch-shifted up to near-dog-whistle registers: "Wake me up inside!"
The crowd cheered. I cracked up. Here we were at this festival devoted to supposedly the hippest things in music, at this night devoted to one of the most blogged-about music collectives of the past year, where just about the least-cool song on earth had been turned into a touchstone.
I shouldn't have been that surprised. PC Music, the London dance-music label hosting the show, is all about transgressions against good taste and undermining the self-seriousness of so much mainstream music. The sound is dense, cartoonish, sugary, annoying, and unfailingly catchy; references include clip art, advertising slogans, and ring-tones; when there are vocals, they often sound robotic, like the product of pre-Siri text-to-talk software, or else jabbering and vapid. Hating it is easy, but if you like it, you really like it: A Soundcloud commenter wrote “best piece of music(?) i've ever heard" under one gonzo remix by an affiliate, and there are times, listening to the label’s stuff and grinning uncontrollably, when I feel the same.
The South by Southwest showcase was the group’s first American appearance, and the hype around it stemmed in part from a sense of mystery. It hasn’t been totally clear who among the names on the label's Soundcloud page are real people and who are the fictional creations of label founder A.G. Cook and his affiliates. Even after the showcase, it’s hazy: The three singers-not-DJs on the bill, GFOTY (“Girlfriend of the Year”), Hannah Diamond, and QT, all wore pasted-on smiles, danced as if they were in aerobics videos, and lip-synced unconvincingly to backing tracks. Whether they’re songmakers or just actors hired for a gig remains unclear, but that’s probably part of the joke—how are these fake-seeming singers with songs of unknown provenance different from the ones topping the charts?
Indeed, a lot of PC Music’s shtick is about gorging on everything that makes popular music popular—false textures, outsized personas, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition. One musician, easyFun (you're going to want to look at the website), is named after a Jeff Koons exhibit, whose work is a handy analogue for what PC Music is trying to do. Another perfect metaphor for the label's M.O. comes when the producer Kane West projects his name in comic-sans font behind him: the mainstream rendered with typos and lovable tackiness.
The music, often made with the noises you'd get from a freeware composing program in 1998, sometimes feels like a nostalgia trip for the days of "Better Off Alone" or a straight rip-off of trance music, J-Pop, and chiptune. Other times, it's the gnarliest sound experiment this side of Aphex Twin. But many of the grooves and hooks are undeniable—and listening to it, you realize just how unnecessary the big-budget production currently defining popular dance music might be, and how ridiculous the mist-machine drama and pained soul singing of the average zillion-selling Avicii record really is.
Could music like this replace those Avicii songs? The SXSW showcase certainly demonstrated that PC Music is more than high-concept blog bait. People were truly going nuts on the dance floor, and as Vice’s Kyle Kramer wrote in his review of the show, spazzing out to high-pitched, post-modern sound collages might just be “what it means to rave in 2015.” A.G. Cook has done an official remix for Charli XCX and Rita Ora; label friend Sophie produced a song on Madonna's new album; and at the point where EDM bro-gods like Calvin Harris are taking themselves so seriously that they've signed underwear-modeling deals, backlash to current trends seems inevitable. If PC Music ends up influencing the wider world, it'll be a case of enemy of the cool becoming cool—and that's a story music history has told plenty of times before.