Noisy, Ugly, and Addictive

Paul Spella

This article was published online on February 14, 2021.

In music and on roller coasters, speediness makes for the fun kind of scariness. When young punk rockers raised on the Ramones began to play their own music in the early 1980s, the rat-a-tat rumble of “Blitzkrieg Bop” accelerated into something called the blast beat: an all-out rhythmic carpet-bombing over which vocalists would groan about Satan, Ronald Reagan, and the resemblance between the two. This development pushed rock and roll’s intrinsic logic—through dissonance, truth; in disaffection, pride—and invigorated new genres such as hardcore, grindcore, and death metal. In a 2016 book, the critic Ben Ratliff argued that blast beats also reflected a new technological landscape: “They were like the sound of a defective or damaged compact disc in one of the early players, a bodiless slice of digital information on jammed repeat.”

Today, no drum kit is required for musicians to glitch and twitch with terrifying intensity. Open up any audio-editing software, pull a few sliders in one direction, put the resulting ugliness on loop, and there you have it: a headbangable hell-scream into eternity. Such sounds are everywhere online these days. On TikTok, I recently came across a series of videos in which teens compared how their parents wanted them to dress with how they actually wanted to dress. As preppy sweaters gave way to nose rings and black fishnets, the music flipped from a saccharine sing-along to a harsh digital pounding. The latter sound was like a car alarm outfitted with a subwoofer—but for some reason, it beckoned to be played louder, rather than to be shut off.

Recommended Reading

These TikToks deployed a remix of music by Dylan Brady and Laura Les of the band 100 Gecs, which has helped pioneer this era’s emerging misfit aesthetic. On the surface, the duo’s 2019 debut album, 1000 Gecs, is a prankish, postmodern collage of Skrillex, Mariah Carey, Blink‑182, Nelly, Linkin Park, Kenny Loggins, eurodance, and ska. What glues together such clashing influences isn’t just a sense of musicality—though Brady and Les are excellent songwriters—but a fascination with amusicality. The vocals are manipulated to achieve the whininess of SpongeBob SquarePants. The grooves fracture and reroute habitually. The harmonic textures evoke train cars on rusted tracks. Confrontational and bizarre, this sound brings in almost 2 million listeners a month on Spotify.

Though 100 Gecs’ music rejects classification and formulas, a fungal burst of artists with like-minded approaches has erupted in the past few years, and Spotify has started using a new genre label: hyperpop. Signature songs include XIX’s “Kismet,” which places screams and rapping amid casino-floor bleeping, and Slayyyter’s “BFF,” which sounds like Kesha performing inside an air duct. As with any new taxonomy, the definition of hyperpop is blurry and contested; one meme cheekily suggests more precise terms such as glitchcore, ketapop (for the disorienting raver drug ketamine), and trans ragewave (because many of the creators are pissed and aren’t cis). The word hyperpop does nail the way that the music swirls together and speeds up Top 40 tricks of present and past: a Janet Jackson drum slam here, a Depeche Mode synth squeal there, the overblown pep of novelty jingles throughout. But the term doesn’t quite convey the genre’s zest for punk’s brattiness, hip-hop’s boastfulness, and metal’s noise.

As hyperpop has become a trending topic to argue over, people have at least agreed that the sound reflects its era. Here is music suited to TikTok’s DIY hijinks, Twitch’s video-game violence, and the all-you-can-listen-to, boundary-free possibilities of music streaming. You couldn’t invent a more zeitgeist-baiting brew. But whenever a new chaotic youth aesthetic has arisen in musical history, it’s been a reaction against, not just a reaction to, its times. Hardcore’s blast beats, gangsta rap’s provocations, and grunge’s moans all used extremity to question mainstream values such as respectability, conformity, and consumerism. The irony is that the rebellion now marches under the seemingly tame mantle of pop.

Isn’t pop hyper already? Trends come and go, but across the decades pop has remained broad and brash, prizing emotional exaggeration, relentless energy, and ridiculous, self-parodying personas. The rise of electronic production—which allows creators to bend the human voice and make utterly unnatural sounds—has only given pop a more deranged, artificial feel in the 21st century. Even as brooding hip-hop music began regularly outperforming peppy sing-alongs on the Billboard Hot 100 in the past decade, certain values have stuck around. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” for example, ruled the charts last year precisely because of the hyperbolic scale of its boasts and bass.

But in the public consciousness, the term pop has long connoted market-driven insipidness, which has left space for styles such as rock and rap to sell themselves as inherently alternative. While pop is compromising, false, and cheerful, the theory goes, alternative artists are complex, authentic, and emotionally dynamic. Of course, anti-pop values have often had mass appeal—especially after the early ’90s. That’s when grunge went big and then fractured into a thousand Coachella acts, and when Nielsen SoundScan came along to reveal the popularity of hip-hop. The actual listening experience for many people, however, never fully lined up with insider-versus-outsider dichotomies marketed by the music industry. For a certain kind of person—say, a queer kid in the early 2000s who spent time on Britney Spears message boards while being bullied by guys who listened to Staind—enjoying pop could be a transgressive move.

The story of 2010s music is in part the story of such transgressions coming to light. When Spotify arrived in the U.S. in 2011, the buoyant sounds of Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and Carly Rae Jepsen reigned. Soon, the new playlist culture—catering to café backgrounds and the intimacy of headphones—began rewarding the chill dance vibes of the Chainsmokers and the hypnotic raps of Drake. This led to two oddball online movements that fed into hyperpop. One was the “SoundCloud rap” scene of teens mixing hip-hop with nu metal and emo, those oft-mocked remnants of the alt-rock boom. The other movement saw Jepsen-style bubblegum become hipster fare. By the mid-2010s, Pitchfork had endorsed the satirical pseudo-superstars of the U.K. electronic label PC Music, which peddled deadpan hooks, frantic beats, and knowingly vapid lyrics. Addictive dance tracks by one critical darling, Sophie, used pneumatic whooshes and crinkling sounds to portray pop as a physical product: “Shake shake shake it up and make it fizz,” went one robotically sung refrain.

That meta-pop wave almost seemed to mock human emotional expression altogether. But its main aim was to decouple pop’s head-rush aesthetics from any commercial expectations, thereby opening space for wilder fun. Hyperpop often uses that space—and the fusions of SoundCloud rap—to supercharge alienation. As a teen, Laura Les aspired to write hits for the boy band One Direction, even as she burrowed into obscure punk, hip-hop, and dance scenes online. When she first encountered the work of PC Music, her “depression lapsed for a minute,” and it felt like “rays of god beams [were] shining down from the clouds,” she recently told Pitchfork. For 100 Gecs’ breakout hit, “Money Machine,” she recorded a hilarious burst of trash talk after a day of working at a dead-end service job and finding herself in fights with men. “I had been watching a lot of King of the Hill, and I constructed in my head a sort of Hank Hill asshole character to just absolutely break down,” she told the podcast Song Exploder. “I was just kind of getting into that sort of mindset of these people that I’d grown up with, these people in St. Louis talking about their big trucks.”

The straight white normie: That’s a hyperpop bogeyman as potent as the yuppie was for hardcore punk, or as the senator’s son was for the Woodstock crowd. A notable number of hyperpop artists, including Les, are transgender. Many others are gender-fluid or gay. Plenty embrace the notion that their music’s mix of sparkle, aggression, and confoundingly distorted vocals reflects a queer sensibility. Last year, the gender-fluid Texas singer Dorian Electra put out a concept album in which they, taking inspiration from drag, campily inhabited the viewpoint of incels and alt-right trolls. Between patches of fratty-sounding rapping, “Mos Thoser,” by the band Food House, salutes God as trans and calls upon the listener to “make some new behaviors that straight people will infringe on.” That song’s top YouTube comment as of this writing: “I swear this song literally just cured my gender dysphoria.”

Of course, for the growing audience that this music attracts, the disaffection embedded within it can speak to all sorts of grievances. Hyperpop thrives on so-called alt TikTok, the social-media sphere fueled by goth types turned off by the coiffed choreography of straight TikTok; scrolling through alt TikTok is a lot like hanging out in the corners of a high-school cafeteria where the burners and art kids congregate. Many hyperpop songs come off like tech-addled teen comedies: “We broke up on PictoChat, crying on my DS,” goes the chorus of Cmten and Glitch Gum’s “Never Met!” (Yes, those terms sent me Googling.) Other tracks double down on the bristling introspection and score-settling of emo rap. The buzzy 15-year-old Osquinn makes highly melodic diary entries asking questions like “Why am I so ignorant? Why am I so toxic?” Rico Nasty, a rapper who often works with 100 Gecs, specializes in motivational rudeness: “If you wanna rage / Let it out / Bitches throwin’ shade / Punch ’em in they mouth!”

Hyperpop is young and flickering; any day now, it might morph, die out, or go supernova. If it has a celebrity figurehead, she is the U.K. singer Charli XCX, who sang on or co-wrote a number of Hot 100 smashes in the mid-2010s. Her own solo work—some of which was made in collaboration with the PC Music crowd and 100 Gecs’ Dylan Brady—has gotten gnarlier and more cybernetic over the past few years as she has preached about ignoring genre categories altogether. While mass audiences haven’t been thrilled by such explorations, her obsessive fan base has been. Early in last year’s coronavirus lockdown, she wrote parts of her thrashing but vulnerable new album, How I’m Feeling Now, while letting her followers watch—and give input—via Zoom and Instagram Live. It was a fitting stunt for a sound born of the internet’s ability to connect socially stranded people. “I’m online and I’m feeling so glamorous,” Charli sings on one song. “In real life, could the club even handle us?” The shock-wave noises engulfing her mechanized voice imply an answer: At most clubs, this music wouldn’t belong. That’s the point.