This article is partially in response to ‘Post-Internet music and the rise of Hyperpop’ by Nelson Crossley, published in Honi Soit on 27 March 2022.
What’s in a genre? Viewed holistically, genre can go beyond just a collection of sonic traits that songs can be defined by – it can be an intimate term that ties together a community, a time period, a geographical location, and a situated context. It can be a call to action for artists, as in the case of punk, or it can encapsulate socio-political ideas broader than a genre’s aesthetic signifiers. As DJ Sprinkles reflects in the introduction to her seminal 2008 album Midtown 120 Blues: “House is not universal / House is hyper-specific: East Jersey, Lower East Side, West Village, Brooklyn.”
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time, genre is an abused and occasionally ideological concept that can be used to discriminate, in the case of the Grammys’ infamous Urban category, or employed with such level of abstraction that its contextual grounding becomes erased. Music journalists and reviewers generally struggle to discuss new releases outside of categorising them with arcane phrases like ‘trap-flavoured hi-hats’ and the occasional proto- / post- prefix. An over-reliance on such terms can convey the general feeling of a piece of music but struggles to communicate any of the finer details. Often, reading a Pitchfork review reminds us of just how far language has to go before it can properly communicate how things sound using words.
Despite these observations, the rise of ‘hyperpop’ as one of the hottest new buzzwords in music discourse still stands out as a confusing anomaly. It’s not that it’s any less vague than other nebulous terms so commonly and incorrectly thrown around; it’s that it never had any kind of stable meaning to begin with. The origin of the term in-proper can be traced back to 2016, with the founding of the independent Bandcamp netlabel HYPERPOP, which put out high energy dance tracks filled with frenetic breakbeats. Yet, the contemporary usage of ‘hyperpop’ has very little to do with this label at all, and has been applied to a wide range of music as diversely contradictory as Tommy Cash and Caterina Barbieri. The cross-section between just these two artists is so narrow that the issue becomes patently clear: I guess they both use… synthesisers of some kind?
But even beyond this lack of basic definitional clarity, hyperpop is a term that seems to balloon in sheer etymological obscurity with every passing day. Unlike any other genre before it, which with some degree of research can probably be given temporal and geographical boundaries, music fans have been retrospectively and anachronistically categorising music as hyperpop when artists never had any intention to be labelled as such. The simple question ‘Where does hyperpop begin?’ is almost impossible to answer and results in a vicious spiral: if 100 gecs first springs to mind, then surely the answer is the founding of PC Music in 2013. But if the answer is PC Music, then what about music like Eurodance that sounds virtually identical to the label’s earliest works? It’s not uncommon these days to find ‘insightful’ think pieces which label Nicki Minaj, Caramell or even Crazy Frog as the OG hyperpopper. None of these answers make the term’s origins any clearer.
An easy way of explaining away this frustrating impreciseness is to defer to the digital schizophrenia of the post-internet age. After all, with so many artists in the space bearing such self-referential cyberspace aesthetics, it is easy to conclude that the creatives themselves are exploring the boundaries of the term ‘hyperpop’, and finding out that it contains almost everything. However, as a producer who has been labelled as hyperpop for the better part of two years, I can say with confidence that the growing fervour surrounding the genre has been anything but organic. And like most of the unhappy things in the music industry these days, Spotify is to blame.
A brief look at Google Trends shows us that the first incline in search popularity for the term ‘hyperpop’ occurred in August 2019, aligning perfectly with the advent of the tastefully under-capitalised Spotify playlist of the same name. Though Spotify editor Lizzy Szabo claims it was created in direct response to the viral fame of 100 gecs, and a desire to spotlight artists who pushed the boundaries of pop production to its extremes, the playlist quickly iterated to include tracks from questionably relevant artists like J Dilla and Kate Bush. Over time, and perhaps most egregiously with the Bladee & Mechatok edition of the playlist in December 2020, Spotify has vacuumed into its all-devouring maw artists as distant from their original vision as J-pop idol group Perfume and rapper Lil Uzi Vert. It’s no surprise then that around the same time ‘hyperpop’ began to catch on, artists who fell under Spotify’s umbrella began publicly expressing their contempt for the term. Even Charli XCX, whom Spotify would like to sell you as a pioneer of the genre, stated in an interview with QQ Music that she ‘hates that word’. Yet, despite backlash from the very artists that gave Spotify’s playlist its meteoric success, what possible reason do they have to continue diluting what the genre stands for? The answer is so simple, it may as well be axiomatic: it makes them a shitload of money.
Hyperpop is perhaps the first example in history of a genre whose branding has been controlled, from start to finish, by a corporation. Though genres have undergone commercialisation in the past – look no further than house, trance or any of the other big styles of electronic music from the early 2000s – hyperpop was and continues to be a corporate construct that has little relevance to the actual community of artists that populate Spotify’s playlist. The fact that hyperpop is about everything and nothing is a huge benefit to Spotify’s engagement rates: it allows them to maintain marketing hype surrounding the genre indefinitely, even as the tracks they playlist move increasingly further away from 100 gecs in sound. All this whilst expending few resources into A&R to actually understand the newest online trends. In doing so, Spotify homogenises many of the deeply political ideas embedded in so-called ‘hyperpop’ music, which are more often than not rooted in the queer and PoC experience, as manifested through the quirky world of ‘internet culture’.
Ultimately, whilst the hype surrounding hyperpop has been a massive boon to established industry players, it has hurt independent artists the most. Specifically, those who want to develop and define their own musical subculture. Though Crossley’s original article ends on a positive note – that music fans now have more intimate access to artists’ lives and personalities – which I agree with, hyperpop is anything but the paradigm case of this phenomenon. As Louisiana-based producer d0llywood1, a forerunner in the emerging ‘digicore’ scene, states in a 2021 Vice profile, “[hyperpop is] a title that really does not apply to us… none of us make straight up ‘pop’ music at all.” Yet, a quick glance at the latest iteration of Spotify’s hyperpop playlist shows us that many artists like d0llywood1 who have outright rejected the label in favour of their own descriptions still have a prominent position: osquinn, dltzk, Diana Starshine, angelus, midwxst – the list goes on. The message that Spotify is sending is clear: it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in, what sort of community you’re trying to foster, or even what your music sounds like. It’s all hyperpop from here.
Hyperpop, and other corporate attempts at birthing a genre through top-down branding exercises, are likely to become a more common phenomenon going into the future. In fact, it’s already happening, as apparent in the term ‘glitchcore’ taking on a life of its own beyond Apple Music’s original playlist and in wider music discourse. As independent publishing platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud continue to prosper, especially through their recent revenue-waiving efforts, I can only hope that one day it is us as artists, not the marketing teams of streaming services, that have the final say on how we identify and categorise ourselves.