All Jokes Aside: 100 gecs, Neil Cicierga, and the Art of Transcending the Gimmick
by Orlando Jones
An absurdist exercise in musical volatility, an album trilogy largely consisting of Smash Mouth mashups, and 'Old Town Road'. What do these things have in common? On paper they really shouldn’t work. And yet, somehow, they do. That wasn’t a punchline, but rather an observation indicative of a wider trend that has caught my attention. It’s related to the rising potential of the gimmick not only to disrupt the mainstream, but also to be utilised in the pursuit of something beyond mere schtick. Earlier this year, outsider pop duo 100 gecs released their outrageously eccentric debut album 1000 gecs, kicking up a real fuss amongst the usual suspects of online discourse, Pitchfork and The Needle Drop in particular. Two years earlier in 2017, internet humour elder statesman Neil Cicierega dropped Mouth Moods, the third and (hopefully not) final instalment in a remarkable mashup discography spanning back to 2014. These two have orchestrated sonic train wrecks of seismic proportions, both as catchy as they are unlistenable, and both utterly fascinating in their quirky mannerisms. There’s often a strong love-hate relationship between this music and its listener, and yet it amounts to so much more than a gimmick. Earnest engagement perhaps seems an inappropriate response to such heinous acts of aural shitposting, but the presence of devoted fanbases betrays the captivating allure of this music, as well as its capacity to elicit genuine emotional response.
1000 gecs wasn’t designed to make sense, and thus attempts to make heads or tails of it rapidly disintegrate. Discernible artistic cohesion seems to be the least of this album’s concerns – a brazen absence of stylistic consistency is amongst its most compelling features. For starters, let’s try assigning a genre. Alternative Emo-Trap? How about Electro Glitch-Hop? Anyone for some Deconstructed Bubblegum-Trance? Okay, well that’s just the first track. Unfortunately, trying to conjure up an applicable umbrella term for this mess doesn’t really work. Sure, the word ‘experimental’ works as a neat catch-all tag, but at the same time it barely covers it. If one were forced to find a common thread between these tracks it would be the overtly processed vocals, which tend to occupy a dreadful space between T-Pain, the Gummy Bear Song, and those awful Nightcore remixes people used to put on YouTube. Fleeting nods to Gabber, Chiptune, IDM, Jungle, and Ska (yes, as in Ska, as in Mighty Mighty Bosstones sorta Ska) complete this kaleidoscopic concoction. Each track offers a unique spin on numerous distinct genres at a time, albeit regurgitated in their most mangled, nightmarish forms. This is no smooth blend, but a deeply fractured and wilfully obtuse record. At times it feels like the result of a botched experiment, an attempt to pool together the most irritating noises a computer can possibly make. You’d be hard pressed to find any lyrical content with even a shred of nuance or meaning, hence I’m not ashamed to admit that I find it very difficult to take this thing seriously.
Myspace and its associated atrocities appear to hold a major role in the shaping of 1000 gecs. The album plays like an unceremonious 23-minute romp through the graveyard of online subcultures both mainstream and underground since Y2K. While the rest of us would prefer such events to remain firmly dead and buried, the duo instead partake in a twisted act of musical necromancy, parading our sins in a glitzy, hellish procession of reanimated corpses. Each time I listen to this comprehensive ‘Worst Of’ compilation, it manages to jog another memory that was best left unjogged, be it the autotuned yelps of Crunkcore, the emo-fringed theatrics of Scr(E)a(mo)-Pop, or the general neon-infused dirtbaggery that defined so much of 2000s counterculture. 'Gecgecgec', one of two much-appreciated interludes from the turmoil, seems to have been created by idly cycling through the world’s wackiest sample pack, a sort of millennial response to The Beatles’ 'Revolution 9'. In a way, it serves as a microcosmic summary of the album’s ethos: as the music wildly oscillates between MIDI-preset noodlings, grotesque brostep gurgles, and jagged drum machine convulsions, no semblance of trajectory is ever achieved. Each motif is discarded as swiftly as it was introduced. This overwrought, disposable approach to production bears an eerie resemblance to the loathsome excesses of landfill EDM. I don’t think you can ‘enjoy’ this music as much as you are made witness to it, wallowing in a mix of confusion, terror, and awe.
By this point the internet mashup carries with it a rich, convoluted history littered with copyright lawsuits and viral sensations. In 2011, a baby-faced bedroom DJ by the name of Madeon flaunted his blending capabilities in an ostentatious display of launchpad-bothering which subsequently catapulted him into electro superstardom. Recent years have borne witness to the horrors of ‘Biggie Smalls feat. Thomas the Tank Engine’ and ‘Lil Uzi Vaporwave’. Even today, minor internet celebrities such as DJ Cummerbund continue to make waves by churning out curious pairing after curious pairing to satiate a desire for the throwaway skits that our short attention spans require. However, these often feel hastily cobbled together for a cheap thrill, heavily relying on the initial novelty of the combination before promptly wearing thin. Cicierega on the other hand vastly outstrips such attempts, ensuring that hilarity persists. His tracks constantly evolve and morph in a manner betraying lovingly detailed craftsmanship. Indeed, while the brunt of the work is presumably taken on by Cicierega’s unhinged thought processes, he nonetheless displays the impressive audio-editing chops of someone with a more than adequate mastery of their software. Though individual tracks function perfectly well as standalone gut-punches, it is his firm command of the longer album format that brings his penchant for thematic flow and comic narrative to the fore, often cross-referencing tracks through recurring aural signposts both subtle and conspicuous.
However, it never feels like parody music for the sake of it, as it could so easily be. Instead, it feels like Neil purposefully challenges himself to identify the largest possible gaps between samples in terms of genre, tone, or time-period in order to bridge them with suitable aplomb. Cicierega takes your preconceptions of what constitutes harmonious synthesis and tears them to shreds, suspending the listener’s disbelief and pushing the art of the mashup far beyond the point of decorum. He’s just showing off really, and it’s great. Through his distinctive procedures, Cicierega articulates a unique mode of expression, the results of which serve artistic entities greater than the sum of their parts. And if that wasn’t pretentious enough, one could even argue that Cicierega’s work is testament to Marcel Duchamp’s belief that artistic value can lie in the selection and arrangement of existing materials as much as it does in the creation of original material, or indeed that the former is tantamount to the later. Likewise, the disorienting power of 1000 gecs lies not in its constituent parts as such, but more in how said influences are cobbled together, spliced into an eclectic patchwork of competing musical identities. Cicierega similarly specialises in consummating matrimonies most unholy. A favourite technique of both is a musical bait-and-switch, lulling you into a false sense of stylistic security before whipping the rug out from under your feet in a screeching U-turn. Cicierega often allows the turbulence to set in at the earliest possible stage ('Wallspin', for instance). In the case of 100 gecs, the descent into chaos will instead occur a little way into the track, allowing you to find your bearings before sending you into a tailspin (for reference, try 'xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx').
Both Cicierega and 100 gecs prey on a very specific form of nostalgia, that rueful guilty conscience which questions how we ever gave so many things a pass. These aren’t forgotten treasures or diamonds in the rough, but cherry-picked pieces of pop-chart detritus. They leech upon our unfortunate familiarity with this music like cultures vultures scavenging for the most rotten meat. A Cicierega mashup cannot rest on the laurels of its source materials, for they have long lost their currency as fresh or intriguing works (if they had any first place). As 'Back in Black' is squawked over the cutesy, dulcet piano from Vanessa Carlton’s 'A Thousand Miles', you find yourself confronted head-on with just how terrible a singer Brian Johnson really was. In a way, the least enjoyable tracks are the ones on which samples are manipulated beyond the point of immediate resemblance to the original, as half the fun lies in the recognition. For example, remember 'Banana Phone'? Well, that irritating ‘boop-be-doop-be-doop’ part from the intro has now been repurposed on Cicierega’s 'Shit', the erratic grand finale to Mouth Moods, vying with such esteemed company as the Spice Girls, Seal, and Gwen Stefani. As Fred Durst whines the chorus of Limp Bizkit’s 'My Way', the brassy synth hook from 'You Can Call Me Al' blares atop the 'Where is the Love?' bassline. These jumbled sound collages can turn into a strange game of musical Pictionary as you scramble to identify each successive sample before the next one is thrown into the melee.
Unfortunately, there’s a dirty word I can’t feasibly ignore any longer: Memes. Memes have become a vital part of how music is now circulated and consumed, unsurprising considering their increasing potency as markers of cultural capital in the age of social media. Virality – an off-kilter and sometimes heart-warmingly genuine means of subverting the status quo – seems almost integral to breakthrough success these days. 'Old Town Road' and its unlikely fusion of country with trap makes perfect sense as the upshot of such a scenario. Its record-breaking stint atop the Billboard Hot 100, in tandem with the initial uproar surrounding its generic classification, to me signals a key victory for the cause of the consciously incongruous. The ‘Official Movie’ recently attached to the track deals with themes of contrast and bewilderment, exploring the socio-cultural fissure between the traditionally juxtaposed monoliths of hip-hop and country. As the tinkering mastermind behind his own story of overnight success, Lil Nas X epitomises a climate in which the fickle gods of online clout can make, break, or even rejuvenate careers (looking at you, Billy Ray). Although it draws from a much narrower selection of styles than 100 gecs or Cicierega do, this allows 'Old Town Road' to hone in on the inherent conflict which defines its identity. While the gimmick reigns supreme, its power has also been harnessed in the creation of something altogether more ambitious.
Returning to my opening gambit, why even mention these two artists in the same breath? Back-to-back listens of their output wouldn’t prompt you to place them in the same category, musically or philosophically, but hear me out. You can just about squeeze either into a classifiable genre, and yet both provide far more to unpack than such designations might initially suggest. In terms of approach to source material, both toe the near-invisible line between hyperbolic satire and creative transformation, shamelessly bearing influences on their sleeves and yet entirely evading the possibility of being labelled derivative copycats. Neither artist brings anything new to the table with regards to core elements of style and composition, and yet through staunchly idiosyncratic means both achieve end products that are simultaneously unmistakeable and unforgettable. In the same way Cicierega and 100 gecs have given a new lease of life to cultural artefacts well past their sell-by date, Lil Nas X represents a breath of fresh air for two genres often criticised for growing stale and uninspired. Crucially, the Atlanta rapper has demonstrated the criminally underrated ability to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable and ultimately transcend the gimmick in a way that is, all jokes aside, pretty cool.
Words by Orlando Jones
Photos by Crack Magazine and Nick John