New Media’s Impact on Music and Youth Culture — PC MUSIC
The digital age has changed how we perceive and listen to music in many ways, from the most obvious — the creation of electronic music software, to more subtle, like the influence of online culture. It is worth mentioning that pretty much all music now is more or less digitally enhanced, which of course makes it possible to manipulate the sound to the extreme. The Internet had a profound impact on the music market in itself, and the way music is promoted and sold. It’s not only streaming services like Spotify or Deezer, which disrupted the process of listening to music, but the rise of social media marketing, which in turn forces artists to waive their rights to privacy. If you make music, you must be present on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — the “big three” of social media — and become a product. Artist’s presence and lifestyle has more importance than their music. No other business sector has been changed so profoundly by new media as the music and entertainment industry has.
One of the most distinctive qualities the “new popular music” has is the auto-tune effect. It’s a way to modify vocals tracks to be perfectly tuned even if they were originally off-key. After it’s creation in 1997, it’s been “abused” to create eerie, robotic sounding vocals. One of the prime examples of use of auto-tune for artistic purposes would be Cher’s “Believe”, released in 1998. Greg Milner said in 2009: “While working with Cher on the song Believe in 1998, producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling discovered that if they set auto-tune on its most aggressive setting, so that it corrected the pitch at the exact moment it received the signal, the result was an unsettlingly robotic tone”. Auto-tune lets music producers change the pitch completely, too, which helps create innocent-sounding female vocals, style made famous by Britney Spears and other pop stars of the early 2000s.
The trends in music from almost twenty years ago still have an impact on what’s happening today. There was a certain freshness of sound and general excitement surrounding electronic music when it was all new and everyone (amateurs and professionals alike) were discovering how to make music using your PC.
I’m particularly interested in PC Music, a record label and art collective from London, which grew to fame in 2013, and how they put their own spin on early 2000s. It’s been described as “avant-pop” and “revolutionary”, but also as often criticized. They take inspiration from the boy- and girl-band aesthetic from the late 1990s and early 2000s, and music-wise they seem to be a mix of Eurohouse, happy hardcore, Japanese pop and pre-financial crisis western pop. At first listen, it seems almost like they’re mocking pop, taking it to extreme — vocals are pitched to the point when they don’t sound human anymore and the gender doesn’t matter. Everything, in fact, is extreme — samples resembling bubblegum being popped, soda can opening, pouring liquid, rubber elastic snapping — paired with fast BPM tempo and contrasting slow vocals, well thought-out drums and bass line with what sounds like a thousand audio effects overlaid. The genre is sometimes called “bubblegum bass” or “hyper-pop”, and both are quite an accurate way of explaining what it is.
The artists have been almost completely anonymous for a long time. The PC Music pioneer, who releases their tracks under a pseudonym SOPHIE, has hired a bodyguard to pretend he’s the DJ on their first live DJ set, while SOPHIE themselves were dressed as a bodyguard, standing nearby and making sure the set is going well. When interviewed on the radio via phone call, they had their voice pitched up enough to make them sound like a child. Combined with strange aesthetics their album covers had — various 3d generated objects, looking like they’ve been made from bright-coloured plastic — and how elusive the whole experience has been, they got a lot of press coverage, which in turn helped friends from PC Music. The label has been founded by A.G. Cook, a music producer from London, who studied at Goldsmith’s, where he met Danny L. Harle — a son of a famous jazz saxophonist, studying classical music. They both started making music together, and the result was an array of unsettling hyper-pop songs — something you’d might expecting people to listen to in Huxley’s “A New Brave World”. They soon paired with Hannah Diamond, an extremely talented singer and photographer, who makes her every song an audiovisual experience. Drawing inspiration from the fashion and general aesthetics of over-Photoshopped promotional pictures from the early 2000s, she creates all her images and edits them until she looks like a perfect human-robot hybrid, with a blank stare and clean, poreless skin.
PC Music artists make sure to change the game in every way possible. One of their most popular songs, “Hey QT” by QT (an artist who released only one song) came not only with promotional pictures and a music video, but with a dedicated website and an actual QT soft drink, which was sold as merch. Recently released PC Music merchandise included t-shirts — very tame for the label — but also temporary tattoos and a custom-made dog-shaped plastic backpack. SOPHIE, a PC Music affiliate, released high platform shoes as their official merchandise. This has confused music journalists greatly — is it all a joke? With commercial success of Danny L. Harle’s “Broken Flowers”, and of course — with SOPHIE producing for artists such as Diplo or Rihanna, it is an important question. Soon after, Danny L. Harle released a song with Carly Rae Jepsen, and the whole collective helped Charli XCX with her newest album (and her mixtape, too). It’s still a mystery how seriously PC Music artists take their art — is it all a mockery, or is it genuine? And does it really matter, if the process and the product are both enjoyable?
A.G. Cook mentioned he’s interested in the concept of taking people who normally don’t record music and treating them like a big label artist — a good example would be GFOTY, probably the weirdest (and coolest) thing to ever come out of PC Music, who, similarly to the rest, creates a whole experience to go with the music. For example, one of her music videos have an entire website built around the theme, and she’s also released a mobile app that doesn’t really have any functionalities — except being a joke (probably).
Pitchfork summed up PC Music with this short paragraph: “That aesthetic can be summed up as a grab bag of metallic pings, rubbery zoings, helium-soaked Chipmunk vocals, trance stabs, airhorns, hardstyle kick drums, happy hardcore, Eskibeat, K-pop, J-Pop, vocaloid, 8-bit, black MIDI, 808s and Heartbreak, the Windows 95 startup chime, and a healthy dose of James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual for good measure”.
PC Music is a voice of generation. It often references to consumerism — GFOTY talks about money and spending money in her music and interviews, and she’s known for her love for Starbucks, which is a model McDonaldized chain business. Lipgloss Twins reference to various cosmetics and clothing brands. The label’s music videos often are edited so they’d look like they’re sponsored, mocking product placement marketing.
The theme in their lyrics, but also in the way the vocals are edited and shifted, is naivety. Doesn’t matter if it’s SOPHIE, GFOTY, Danny L. Harle or Hannah Diamond — the lyrics of their songs are about young love, being heartbroken and trusting too much. It’s seen by some as a cunning social commentary — in a world that’s increasingly hostile to young people, being in touch with the purest of feelings can’t be bad, right?
Some time ago, many journalists desperately looked for whatever comes after the hipster. Fashion trends are fashion trends — music trends are music trends — but there’s no subculture to go with it. Yes, it’s true, young people attend raves more often, take their inspiration from the 1990s, make zines, create feminist art, put make up on no matter what their gender is, wear tracksuits and listen to happy hardcore, but there’s no name for it. On the other hand, everyone seems way more innocent and childlike than the previous generation, or event the bearded and tattooed indie rockers of late 2000s. Therefore, a term “cutester” has been conceived by Vice (it, of course, didn’t stick), an umbrella term for all young people who buy their clothes in thrift stores, like cartoons, eat cereal for dinner and listen to PC Music.
Social networking has had a negative impact on subcultures in general — the need to belong is fulfilled by the number of followers and likes on your Instagram page, so the reality doesn’t matter that much anymore — but isn’t it a very interesting concept?
The “hipster” subculture has been an indication of what was to come — a subculture nobody really wanted to belong to, that had negative connotations from the very beginning and was mostly used to describe gentrifiers, who moved around and ruined a neighbourhood after neighbourhood, preparing the ground for investors and bankers to move in.
We live in a world where PC Music fits in perfectly — there’s no politics or easy to spot social commentary, everything is ironic, nothing is real or serious. The vocals are robotic or pitched, no instruments were used in making the music and the only theme it really goes with is post-capitalism. Maybe the goal was to make people realize what kind of a world we’re living in, but there’s also a huge chance there was no goal whatsoever — and with the secretiveness of the collective we will probably never find out.
http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~jmueller/its/conf/torino99/abs/e_deFontenay.html [Impact of the Internet/New Media on the Music Recording Industry, Eric De Fontanay]
https://theorganicagency.com/blog/effect-digital-social-media-music-industry/ [THE EFFECT OF DIGITAL & SOCIAL MEDIA ON THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, Darren Gallagher]
https://priceonomics.com/the-inventor-of-auto-tune/ [The Mathematical Genius of Auto-Tune, Zachary Crockett]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PC_Music [PC Music, Wikipedia]
http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/485-pc-musics-twisted-electronic-pop-a-users-manual/ [PC Music’s Twisted Electronic Pop, Philip Sherburne]
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/may/02/pc-music-dance-music-collective [PC Music: The Future of Pop or Contemptuous Parody?, Sam Wolfson]
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/nov/17/pc-music-volume-2-review-hannah-diamond-ag-cook [Various: PC Music Volume 2 review — the smartest gang in British pop, Rachel Aroesti]
http://www.spin.com/2016/11/review-pc-music-struggles-with-identity-and-grows-up-on-new-comp/ [Review: PC Music Struggles With Identity and Grows Up on New Comp, Rich Juzwiak]