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Scratching the Surface: Pop, Prejudice and PC Music

In his latest Scratching the Surface column, Scott Wilson examines the extreme reaction to the pop-referencing sounds of SOPHIE and PC Music.

SOPHIE and PC Music’s sickly-sweet take on pop and club music has become impossible to avoid over the past month. I’m not going to introduce it any further – Joe Moynihan’s excellent primer at FACT does a better job than I could, but what interests me more than the conceptual angle of their music is the fevered reaction to it. Angus Finlayson has suggested that PC Music is “journo catnip, a post-ironic sugar-rush primed to catch the ear of a bored critic well into hour three of the inbox promo trawl”. When you write about music day in day out, it’s hard not to become fatigued, and I can’t deny that PC Music has become a source of endless fascination for me and others on the basis of its difference. Indeed, the fact I’m even writing about it in this column probably qualifies Finlayson’s suggestion, but the reaction to it from some quarters has proved so ugly it’s actually started to divide previously formed critical loyalties, my own included.

I recently spoke to Local Action boss Tom Lea about his label, and during the course of our discussion he mentioned what he felt was “a prejudice against pop music in underground dance circles.” At the time he was talking about specifically about Cassie, but his comments could be equally applied to SOPHIE and PC Music, who have received the kind of bilious response from the dance music community usually reserved for the latest Skrillex production. You only have to take a look at the comments that have been brewing on Resident Advisor regarding SOPHIE and PC Music head A.G. Cook’s QT project over the past few days to get an idea of just how much people actively despise their music.

If you believe the rhetoric around SOPHIE and PC Music then they are “divisive”. This term has been used so many times over the past few weeks it almost rivals use of the word “uncompromising” in relation to techno as the most overused journalistic cliché of the year. In truth, there’s no reason why PC Music should be any more divisive than L.I.E.S., PAN, Blackest Ever Black, Diagonal or any other manner of labels with a strong aesthetic. What should be a simple question of taste seems to have become a turf war; most of the comments praising “Hey QT” or even just calling for balance on Resident Advisor have been downvoted to the point that they’re no longer immediately visible.

The sound of PC Music and SOPHIE doesn’t strike me as anything without precedent. It can be seen as the latest phase in what Simon Reynolds called digital maximalism, the logical progression of the soft-synth music of the Ableton and FL Studio generation, encompassing everything from Ed Banger’s overblown electro house, Rustie’s complex trance bangers, Hudson Mohawke’s gooey hip hop, Skrillex’s grotesque take on dubstep and even James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never’s abstract digital worlds. These have all had their detractors, but the response to SOPHIE and PC Music has been even more extreme, and on a basic level it seems to be down to the fact that this time it’s pop tropes being accelerated by 500 per cent; tempos are increased, vocals are routinely chipmunked and the synths all glisten like the lipgloss of its roster of stars who could easily be proof we’ve finally reached the uncanny valley.

It’s not difficult to understand why this response has been so extreme. In her Popping Off column at The Fader earlier this month, Aimee Cliff put PC Music within the context of an artistic movement called metamodernism, of which a key idea is “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt.” Coined by British artist Luke Turner, and fronted, bizarrely, by Shia LaBeouf, metamodernism seems to me to be something of a knowing joke, albeit one that also takes itself quite seriously. “Hey QT”, sung by a made-up pop star who poses with a fictional Red Bull-baiting “Energy Elixir” is equally as parodic, but comes contained within a world created with what feels like the utmost sincerity. Take PC Music artist Spinee’s “Save Me” for example, a garish cover of Evanescence’s 2003 track “Bring Me To Life” that feels to me to be simply a genuinely nostalgic take on something that a lot of people actually loved 10 years ago, hard as that is to believe now.

However, like metamodernism, the work of SOPHIE and PC Music seems to have all the tell-tale signs of a carefully constructed art school joke, perhaps explaining why Scuba has resorted to using the tired example of Nathan Barley as a critique of PC Music. I’m not entirely convinced PC Music isn’t an art school joke, but I’m not ashamed to admit I love “Hey QT” regardless. Musically it stands in opposition to what “good” electronic music should be; it has the production values of a fidget house banger from 2007 paired with the kind of vocals that make Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” look like a piece of classical opera, but I like it for the same reason I enjoy Cadbury’s Marvellous Creations Jelly Popping Candy bar. Just as that piece of confectionary sits at the bottom of the ladder below the locally-sourced organic produce we’re told will enrich our bodies and our minds, “Hey QT” is somewhere down with The Blackout Crew, Crazy Frog, Steve Aoki throwing cake and “Gangnam Style” on the relative scale of intellectual acceptability. It’s a flood of sensations that aren’t meant to go together. They both make me feel elated and physically sick all at the same time, but I can’t deny I’m quite addicted to them.

I also think “Hey QT” is a deceptively clever track. The lyrics of PC Music tracks play with the idea of mainstream pop’s own obsession with surface, but twist that shallowness into something more sinister. “I feel your hands on my body/Every time you think of me,” the fictional QT sings, in a lyric that creates an exquisitely surreal and disturbing image in which mind and body become entwined on an obtrusively psychic level. The duo behind “Hey QT” clearly love and understand pop, but they’re equally happy to make it quite oblique.

This sharpness is reflected in the production itself. Another argument levelled at SOPHIE and PC Music is their supposed relation to the sound of corporate EDM. It’s hard to deny this; currently “Hey QT” is an exclusive at the SFX Entertainment-owned Beatport store, which I think speaks volumes about the kind of audience XL Recordings are chasing with this track. However, this viewpoint doesn’t give credit to what’s going on beneath the surface. “A lot more so I think about physics and materials,” SOPHIE explained in an interview with Billboard earlier this month. “LEMONADE” is made out of bubbling, fizzing, popping and “HARD” is made from metal and latex — they are sort of sculptures in this way.” SOPHIE’s music may be aurally offensive to a lot of ears, but the way in which “LEMONADE” ascends and pops plays with club music in a much more innovative way than most would give him credit for. Unfortunately most will hear the sounds of trance presets and simply turn their ears off.

It’s this structural weirdness that seems to have led to a lot of misconceptions about the music of SOPHIE and PC Music and its function. In his most recent Hyperspecific column at The Quietus, Rory Gibb discussed the proliferation of “homeless” club music, suggesting that SOPHIE and PC Music could be placed in this category, but he felt their relationship to club music as a whole was “ambivalent” in comparison to artists like Lee Gamble, Total Freedom and the Janus collective. It’s something I’d have to disagree with. On a dance floor, “LEMONADE” takes on an energy that mirrors contemporary hip hop production, something I witnessed as the PC Music family took over London club night Eternal last month. I may have been greeted with what sounded like happy hardcore as I descended onto the dance floor, but the crowd were certainly going for it at the time, as they were to the subsequent mix of hip hop, R&B, dodgy electro house and weird MIDI covers of known classics such as Burial’s “Archangel” in a way you don’t see often enough in London clubs these days.

As PC Music’s recent crew mix for DISown Radio shows, each member of the label’s family is more of a character than an artist. It’s likely that A.G. Cook is responsible for the production behind a fair number of these characters, but each one feels like a fully-formed character. As I danced to Kane West’s set at Eternal that night, I found myself wondering whether they were the selections of the person behind the decks, or the selections of the character of Kane West. While we usually go to see DJs with a certain amount of expectation on the basis of podcasts they’ve done or interviews they’ve given, the lack of concrete information on what exactly PC Music is or how it functions turns their members into works of fiction, and their sets that night felt oddly like performances. Much like the DISown mix – which feels more like a radio play than a podcast – the whole evening asked you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, and to participate in the idea that happy hardcore might actually not be that bad.

The world of SOPHIE and PC Music isn’t without its problems. Aside from the fact that the conceptual angle can feel a little laboured, their treatment of gender is inherently problematic. While the inner monologues of GFOTY and Hannah Diamond could be seen as a critique on the messages some pop places on young women, taken at face value they equally reinforce negative gender stereotypes. “I’m waiting for you to make up your mind/If you take me for a ride, do you think I’ll be your girlfriend?” Diamond sings on “Pink and Blue”, a far cry from the relative female empowerment of a mainstream pop track like Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. As GFOTY’s emoticon-heavy interview with Noisey showed recently, it’s difficult to be sure of the sincerity of the PC Music roster, and therefore hard to know exactly which side of the ideological line its version of pop stands on. Furthermore, unlike the racially diverse world of mainstream pop music, the cast of PC Music is entirely white, which doesn’t do much for the notion their roster is comprised of privileged white art school graduates engaging in a conceptual joke.

At some point, probably quite soon, PC Music will run its course, I’m almost certain of that – its throwaway nature is embraced in the fact that the PC Music label itself doesn’t actually sell any of its releases, but lets them exist as SoundCloud embeds and free downloads. But the one thing that I have gained from listening to PC Music and seeing some of their members playing in a club is the realisation that I probably just haven’t been having much fun at clubs recently When I was 16 I used to dive head first into mosh pits to feel the pure physicality of being thrown from one side of the crowd to the other. Nowadays, I find myself all too often standing at the back of a club listening to gruelling sets of colourless 4/4 techno questioning whether I’m actually enjoying what I’m hearing.

It’s for this reason why the mixes and music of artists like Lorenzo Senni, Aïsha Devi, Ital, Aurora Halal, Powell, Mood Hut and the Janus and Boxed crews have held such interest for me this year. They may be fundamentally quite different, but they know the importance of fun, and I think SOPHIE and PC Music are about much the same thing. However, unlike the other artists mentioned, PC Music asks you to buy into to their fictional world, and if there’s one thing people seem to hate more than dancing, it’s audience participation – unless of course it’s behind the wall of anonymity a website’s comments section provides.

On reflection, there’s not much difference between the posturing of A.G. Cook and SOPHIE and the personas presented by some members of the comments thread at Resident Advisor. The difference is, A.G. Cook and SOPHIE are having fun doing it. If it’s a choice between misplaced rage and making life a little more enjoyable, I’m happy to put my prejudices to one side.

Scott Wilson