Making PC Music Palatable
by Alex Greenwood
If house music – familiar, consistent, and sometimes a little dry – is the Royal Shakespeare Company, PC Music is your local pantomime: often more fun, far more colourful, and more likely to give you a headache. Though the name ‘PC Music’ officially refers to the UK-based label, the lines between label, audiovisual art collective and legitimate subgenre of dance music have become considerably blurred as a result of their unique content, cryptic online personas and cult following. The musical offerings of this enterprise are far from homogenous, but they can be said to share in a number of major influences, drawing from the high-pitched vocal range of happy hardcore, the upbeat synths of trance and Eurodance, the bombastic kickdrums of hardstyle and the glossy, digital sounds of K-Pop and J-Pop. The end product is off-the-wall synths, pitched feminine vocals and surreal lyrics with a bizarre fixation on consumer culture.
Generally speaking, electronic music is very sparing when it comes to providing a take-home message for its listeners. This is not the case for PC Music which consistently, and sometimes confusingly, purports itself as a reaction to advertising and consumerism in the digital age. This is achieved through hyperactive pop tracks (which are often made free to download) filled with semi-satirical lyrics that range from more subtle brand references, to samples from existing adverts, to fully-fledged promotions of fake corporations. The most transparent of example of this sentiment is the video for the garish, but intensely catchy track Hey QT, which starts like any other pop video, before transforming into an ad campaign for their product ‘DrinkQT’ which ‘looks fizzy, tastes bouncy [and] feels QT’. It is a strange caricature of energy drink advertising, where both the product and the person advertising it are fictitious: the artist, QT, was created by members of the collective for the sole purpose of promoting this drink. This is clearly an attempt to skewer corporations for bland and formulaic marketing and perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to the prevalence of product placement in pop music. The levels of irony PC Music choose to engage in aren’t always so clear however, given the existence of collaborations with large companies like Red Bull – though this is not particularly extraordinary, since Red Bull seemingly collaborates with almost everyone for some reason.
Since its inception in 2014 by founder A.G. Cook, the style has been repeatedly decried as divisive, with some critics dismissing entirely it as obnoxious or even artless, which is not hugely surprising given the maximalist nature of the sound and the potentially polarising message it often conveys. But regardless of how grating it can sometimes be, it would be hard to deny that PC Music’s combination of cute and manic is seriously danceable and unparalleled in its flamboyance. It is theatrical and plastic and full of oddball foley effects, and it’s so strong in its convictions that it’s almost impossible not to have an extreme reaction one way or another.
The true strengths of PC Music lie in its genuine love for pop, which shines through despite tracks occasionally crossing the line of parody, as well as its impressive versatility: even within the very limited parameters of this micro-genre there are wild fluctuations in terms of style. PC Music can seemingly draw on or attach itself to any number of styles, as heard in the hardcore punk guitars of G(irl) F(riend) O(f) T(he) Y(ear)’s short, punchy track Lemsip, Maxo’s Honeybell which samples Wu-Tang Clan and the many crossovers into the world of electro pop that have given the label a considerable leg-up.
PC Music is far from new to the scene, with the group first coming together to perform at the South by South West Festival in 2014, causing heads to turn and fuelling an initial surge in popularity. The timing of this emergence led some to point to PC Music as a successor of sorts to vaporwave and the other similar micro-genres which proliferated around that time – a claim that is not unfounded, given the shared aesthetic of digital pastels, unclear levels of irony and significant pop influence. But where vaporwave is filled with pitched-down vocals and easygoing melodies, PC Music takes the vocals sky-high and hits you with synths so fast and jarring that your head will spin. The label has also gained significantly more traction than trends like vaporwave ever did. This is, I believe, a result of their ability to shift and morph their sound with apparent ease: specifically, producing a natural and dynamic combination with more middle-of-the-road electro pop. Once the cohort were no longer in vogue (in 2015), it could have been reasonably predicted that they would simply retreat into a small corner of the internet and fade into obscurity. But instead, in 2016, they started to break through into the mainstream via a number of collaborations with some of the biggest names in pop. As of today, the label has produced tracks with artists like MØ, Clairo and Charli XCX who has taken on label founder A.G. Cook as both a producer and creative director, describing their joint releases as ‘next level pop music’.
During its first couple of years in operation, the collective received accusations of having a diversity problem and while I would maintain that the issue has not been entirely remedied, certain positive steps that have been made. For instance, the commitment of members like Danny L Harle and A.G. Cook to work with a tremendous array of artists over the last couple of years has been thoroughly commendable. Their ongoing work with Sophie Xeon has been some of the most important; though the Glaswegian producer, who stylises her name as SOPHIE, is not technically a member of PC Music, she is certainly of the same ilk and has become closely affiliated following a number of successful joint projects such as Hey QT and Charli XCX’s After the Afterparty. However, SOPHIE’s true ascension from producer to popstar began with last year’s single It’s Okay to Cry, which gave the world its first glimpse of the enigmatic artist following a recent gender transition. Since she (and It’s Okay to Cry) came out, she has built up a fervently supportive fan base and become something of an inspirational figure in the LGBTQ+ community. She has also become perhaps the most prolific producer associated with the label, interweaving her artificial and kinetic style of instrumentation with vocals from the likes of Let’s Eat Grandma, Cashmere Cat and even Vince Staples. 2018 has been her most successful year so far, culminating in a recent announcement of an upcoming collaboration with Lady Gaga and a well-deserved Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album for her debut LP, Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides.
The last month has been a momentous time, not just for SOPHIE, but for the whole of the PC Music roster, with Danny L Harle becoming a father and GFOTY deciding to amicably split from the group to focus on an independent project. Polly Louisa-Salmon, the musician behind the intentionally coarse and tacky character of GFOTY, is responsible for some of the wackier tracks from the PC Music catalogue, including a heavily processed cover of Blink 182’s All the Small Things, as well as some of the most quintessential, (micro-)genre-defining tracks. Don’t Wanna / Let’s Do It off 2017’s GFOTYBUCKS is perhaps the clearest summation of the goals of PC Music, capturing the confusion and juxtaposition with a jagged synth through-line and a refrain of pitched and chopped vocals that is constantly changing its mind back and forth from ‘I don’t wanna do it’ to ‘Let’s do it!’. To complete the package, the song includes some presumably satirical references to the world of advertising, giving a shout-out to Pepsi and praising its apparent slimming qualities.
With the loss of GFOTY and the general trend towards more mainstream pop endeavors with more experienced vocalists, the landscape of PC Music is not what it once was. While some of the aggression, strange irony and consumerist focus has dwindled in favour of a tamer product with more conventional lyrics, this change is not all-encompassing and has, in my mind, only elevated their work. Many of the recent releases have been less purposefully esoteric, and more palatable to new-comers as a result, while retaining many of the fun quirks. This allows for a gentler introduction to PC Music and could really help people come in more prepared for the insanity of releases like Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides which contains some of the most extreme PC Music to date.
At this point, I’d like to demonstrate the immense variety in this underappreciated style of music and to present a few different options for testing the water, for people with varying levels of interest in intense dance music. PC Music often put out their music in the form of very short mixes, lasting only around 10-30 minutes each and this seems practical given the relentlessly high level of energy. So, in the traditional fashion, I have put together 3 mini-mixes that are between 20 and 40 minutes in length and showcase some of the best tracks the label and its affiliates have to offer. They are split into three levels to try and somewhat account for individual taste (you can choose how nutty you want things to get), as I really think there is something in this music for everyone.
Listen if you like – electro pop, Ariana Grande, techno
This first mix kicks off with something of a plunge into the deep end with an interesting rendition of Aphex Twin’s groundbreaking track Windowlicker and a couple of SOPHIE’s most dizzyingly intense pieces of production, before mellowing out and flowing into a mix of some of the tamer electro pop tracks these artists have to offer. These are interspersed with some of my favourite pop cuts from the last year or so, including Ariana Grande, Kero Kero Bonito and Clairo. To counterbalance the consistently pitched-up vocals, I also chose to interweave between PC Music tracks using some of the techno ventures produced by Kero Kero Bonito’s Gus Lobban under the moniker of Kane West.
Stand out track – Whole New World/Pretend World by SOPHIE
Listen if you like – bassline, hardcore, hip-hop
The second mix increases the tempo and switches out the techno/pop padding in favour of bassline and a recently released jungle roller from Chase & Status. Unlike the first instalment, this mix begins with a deceptively easygoing track before really ramping up the craziness with the likes of DJ Warlord’s Droom which is almost overwhelmingly manic and demonstrates the strong happy hardcore influence that permeates through these tracks.
Stand out track – Taker (Easyfun Remix) by K.I.D.
Listen if you like – Off-the-wall synths, pitched feminine vocals and surreal lyrics with a bizarre fixation on consumer culture
This final mix is pure PC. Well almost anyway, a couple of miscellaneous tracks were needed to help stitch it together, but overall this is a mix of only the most hyper-energetic and eccentric tunes I could find from this group of artists, with ALL of the bells and whistles. Enjoy!
Stand out track – Heaven (A.G. Cook Remix) by DJ DJ Booth
Stay PC everyone!
Words by Alex Greenwood