Pop Will Eat Itself: On PC Music’s Twisted Art

PC Music has been a source of controversy since the Internet-based label's inception. Those conversations might help shine light on the way the Internet is changing the way we talk about art.

Oh, the Internet

Six years ago, Bill Wasik, a senior editor for Wired magazine and famous for his insights on the web and technology in general, published And Then There’s This, a book that coined the term “spreadable media” in order to better approach viral culture, which, for Wasik, is a way of tackling the web in its own terms. Culture that exists only inside streams, that is. Spread or die, he believes. Giant forces in media are now equal, in terms of ability to spread information, with the average, middle-class, consumerist person.

However revelatory in its own right at the time of publishing (2009 is not so distant, still), Wasik’s narrative and theory of spreadable media begin to show their age nowadays. The role portrayed by media and viral culture as a whole can only be a tiny part of the problem (or solution, depending on your technological optimism). Politics and narcissism play a bigger part in this process than we could have ever conceived initially. Still, one bit of such a way of understanding the web still resonates with us today: spread or die. And do it fast.

Enter music in 2015 and apply the above to the way we discuss art in the Internet. Everything has been ultra specified and there’s no “sea level” in which most people can communicate and reach some sort of agreement. Discussing music in recent years has felt like an anthropological exercise all in its own. You need to know who you’re writing for and who is reading your site, your words and everything else related to such enterprise. That is, the Internet does weird things to our collective memory. I wonder how that translates to pop music.

Make It Pop

If one, highly disputed concept of pop music is that it is the sum of everything surrounding society as a whole, then it becomes mandatory that pop music should, obligatorily, reflect society in all of its beauty and horror — simultaneously.

Enter PC Music, the label/collective, Internet-based conglomerate of Soundcloud artists founded by London-based electronic music producer/marketer A.G. Cook, that puts such discourse under a different spectrum. PC Music is, in essence, as A.G. Cook puts it, just a label. Yet, it comes with a very definite predetermined aesthetic: PC Music’s releases so far have always resembled the pre-bandwidth Internet era reframed as sugar-coated music that is supposed to soundtrack a Disney Channel show. Take, for instance, Hannah Diamond’s “Attachment”, a song that falls under a more traditional category, or GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year)’s “Bobby”.

Of course, that aesthetic of choice — should we even pick on it, stating one’s aesthetic is a “choice”? Unlikely — has had many people wondering the realness of the whole spectacle Cook’s label has been putting. Some simply see it as an ironic attempt to criticize the way marketing and advertising has dominated music and art in general — by way, it seems, by portraying pop and art amidst a symbiotic relationship.

Others see it simply as music and, by doing that, criticize it as it is — a vague attempt at reviving the ’90’s penchant for bubblegum pop, some argue. And those who see its social critique and appeal, well, they simply dismiss it as a vague think piece in music form.

However, I would argue that the true controversies lie elsewhere. PC Music is, ultimately, a label, yet it doesn’t seem to sign any artists. It’s more like a hub where artists seem to randomly upload songs to a certain, predetermined Soundcloud account. And that’s it. It’s also not a collective, as some tend to think. That’s because no one seems to hang out or share a common ideology or belief; they just exist together in the same digital context. That’s where the fun seems to reside for PC Music, the label (or other designation you would like to bestow on it) is an institution that exists solely for the context of the Internet, for the Internet and in the Internet. Its aesthetic is reminiscent of an AOL era of the web, its sounds evoke a nostalgic view towards the ’90s culture of rave. This is music and, more importantly, content, branded for the internet, released only to be consumed in a very definite context — a context which PC Music knows a lot about.

But PC Music is hardly solely about the music. Its appeal resides inside a very carefully crafted identity, and this is the moment in which the separation between pop and art and technology and marketing begins to crumble. PC Music, as an Internet entity, does not only sell music, but rather a form of consuming, seeing, and interacting with the web. It’s also a way of criticizing the Internet as a social platform at times (just look at the lyrics of Hannah Diamond’s “Attachment”, released last year), but most of the times it just seems like a scam.

The label’s output, then, purposefully blurs the line between advertising and pop music, sometimes narrowing it down until it becomes indistinguishable. Maybe that’s what has been so controversial about PC Music for most music critics and pop music enthusiasts: in the collective’s world of sugar-coated music and ironic product placement; it has become harder and harder to distinguish what’s truly real and what’s part of a social critique — maybe that has been the point all along.

Something needs to be said about advertising culture, though. PC Music and the crew involved in it are hardly only musicians. They seem like a cultural collective — a team of designers and brand orientators who aim at making the best presentation of the label to the unfamiliar listener. It’s treated like creativity — the creative process is described very passionately — yet it is, most of the time, a tactic of advertising. The difference is almost not felt.

Yet, that is how advertising is supposed to work. Lying and concealing, embedding a product or a lifestyle into the minds of people out there; that is an enviable goal. It is not supposed to be felt — it does not even want to be perceived as such — and therein lies the genius and perniciousness of it all.

PC Music as both the brand (that is, the ironic version of the “brand” in the twentieth century) and the label seems to master such ideal. The excessive retouching of the photos of their artists, the carefully constructed nature of the collective’s aesthetics — this level of concern gives away this idea. Still, it’s as if we are expected to worry and comment about this.

Digital vs Analog

Last year, PC Music released Hannah Diamond’s “Attachment”, a song about, among other things, love in the age of the Internet. The imagery is explicit: pictures on phones and how, for instance, love interests do not really go away at the age of Facebook. Much like our memories, certain types of data — that is, Internet data — are not really erased completely from hard drives and the cloud (even the NSA knows that, you like it or not). Which is to say that Hannah Diamond’s “Attachment” exemplifies PC Music’s penchant for putting out songs that are both traditional and stick to some well-known norms on the subject of songcraft — by releasing ballads, love songs — and still sound a lot like the zeitgeist — by putting out there music that is the sonic equivalent of think-pieces on the nature of the Internet.

“Attachment” shows that PC Music’s roster — and masthead — are well aware of the gap between our digital and analog selves and, therefore, are willing to exploit such a gap — even theorize it.

That’s due partially to the fact that the label is becoming more “professional” in the sense that it is sticking, as of recently, to some more industry-standard procedures. Earlier this year, the “collective” announced a partnership with Columbia Records, whose terms are still unclear to many.

That is, PC Music’s imaginary world of retouching, Photoshop and fabulation — marketing, in essence, as art — is entering reality. And the consequences are still unknown.

Partially unknown, I should add. SOPHIE, a PC Music associate (not officially signed to the label), half of QT, worked on “Bitch I’m Madonna”, a track culled from Madonna’s 2015 album, Rebel Heart. The track was co-produced by Diplo, and you can witness exactly when SOPHIE’s part ends and Diplo’s starts.

Another example is A.G. Cook’s remix of Charli XCX & Rita Ora’s “Doing It”, one of 2015’s finest pop singles which, in the hands of PC Music’s boss, becomes something else entirely, with synths blowing out of proportion and distorted vocals. PC Music’s main aesthetic — a dystopian take on ’90’s bubblegum pop and rave culture — seems to be everywhere, being ultimately inescapable.

But the finest example of their taking over is LIZ’s “When I Rule The World”. LIZ is not signed to PC Music, nor has ever worked for said label and released anything in it or for it. Still, it’s connected to its roots because “When I Rule The World” was co-produced by SOPHIE, whose fingerprint is to be found everywhere over the song. That is the sound of true power, as LIZ seems to testify during the song: being nowhere near and still have your presence sensed.

The Duality of Pop

But what is pop music anyway nowadays? That seems like a crucial question, and we haven’t been able to properly answer it so far. Since we’re talking about a conceptual turn in it — yes, PC Music might have the ability to change how we think about it, it might seem natural for us to question it. Then, what is pop?

A good way of defining it used to the classical “pop is what sells” definition, which has always seemed elegant, but hardly practical. Pop is not “what sells” anymore, mainly because music has become more and more worthless of our time and money. Pop culture has also been suffering from cultural relativism a few years from now, also.

A better way of defining pop music is by expressing what it is not. And by exploring what it is not — art, pop art, maybe art pop as Lady Gaga ridiculously once put it — we figure out the lines between pop and not-pop have been blurred.

Maybe we need more conceptual apparatus in order to tackle this. When Simon Reynolds’ Retromania hit the shelves a few years ago, reviews and general consensus ranged from positive assertions to alarmist readings on it. Indeed, Reynolds’ book got many things wrong — one of them being the misleading idea that progress is best showcased by music that reflects a given epoch — and a few things right. But when Reynolds got things right, he nailed it.

One of his best unexplored ideas was that the Internet meets to time — art is dissolved in the stream. That’s why chillwave, the music equivalent of nostalgia, existed in the first place.

Yet, the consequences of the timeless side of the Internet haven’t been tackled and, yet, we criticize retromania.

The consequences are what PC Music’s roster and marketing strategies are bringing to the table for us in 2015. When the Internet offers us no specific time stamp and unabashed access to music recorded and released during the entirety of the human existence, the results can be quite overwhelming. The curious mind has to learn how to deal with all the information.

So, this is a way of dealing with the dissolution of the old “pop, mainstream versus underground” dichotomy. It’s not the Internet has democratized it all — in fact, it transformed every discussion into a niche conversation. It’s that the Internet has been internalized into our very own existence. Pop culture lived up to the challenge.

The Future

My favorite PC Music release thus far is not exactly a single, nor said label’s compilation album released in May — see? Another side of professionalism. It’s their DISown Radio hour-long mix that showcases why the label might just be the best pop music factory in the world right now.

Which is to say that the whole spectacle is all about the music. The music, in this case, is all about context. The overall importance of PC Music lies, then, in what the controversies surrounding it might say about music discussions in 2015 and how music aficionados tackle them. Listening to a SOPHIE song, takes some sort of prismatic attention: Some could listen to it as the product of a very specific scene, others would love the disputes around it, and still others would grasp it as a natural evolution of sound design. This is music that intends to be polymorphic.

Still, it all boils down to the dissolution between pop and art — namely, non-pop. PC Music is only allowed to exist these days because those lines have been blurred — maybe extinguished — and because of the fact the most interesting, challenging music today is currently being made by a pop music factory that relies mostly on aesthetics, form and not exactly content, advertising and marketing. And this is something that makes me wonder, “How did we get here?”. But this is an entirely different discussion.

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