All photos by Erez Avissar
PC Music sits in a very weird place in today's pop culture landscape. Right now, the UK label is about as trendy as anything could be—and both loved and hated for that exact reason. During the collective's less than two year lifespan, it's grown from Internet phenomenon to something approximating an actual movement. A flashy label showcase at SXSW and the release of its first compilation album has only added to the buzz, as New York Times reporters join the ranks of music bloggers trying to figure out what this distinctly dystopian pop music is all about.
On Friday, PC Music unveiled its next act: the launch of a fake reality TV network called Pop Cube. The sold-out event was part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival in New York, and this sponsorship let the small label pull off an elaborate showcase that smaller budgets wouldn't have allowed—including the use of a multi-story arts center in Brooklyn, and high-budget promotional trailers that perfectly capture their zaniness (watch this one, where GFOTY endorses "bloffee"—that is, blowjobs and coffee).
But this strategic partnershipalso threw a monkey wrench into PC Music's conceptual core—or at least, added a new layer of tension that hasn't previously existed in its oeuvre. A lot of PC Music's songs are rife with cheesy pop hooks that make you feel like someone's hitting your dopamine receptors with a sledgehammer. The label's half-earnest, half-ironic embrace of tackiness and vapidity has earned it title: "Jeff Koons of the pop world." Naysayers criticize the cloying superficiality, but underneath these glossy pop songs is a winking commentary on mass consumerism and late capitalism.
That's what makes PC Music so subversive: the fact that they throw the consumerist system in which we are all implicit in—and all implicitly fucked by—back in our faces. One of the label's stars, QT, even has a persona based on promoting a completely fictional energy drink. Her act revolves around mimicking the look and language of corporate branding, but all of it ultimately leads to a dead end—you can't actually buy anything.
Similarly, when GFOTY told a bemused Guardian reporter that her music's subliminal message is "bang me and give me your money," you know that she's sending up reigning queens like Beyoncé and Britney, as well as the decades of commercial pop that preceded them.
During their SXSW showcase, one of the visuals during label founder A.G. Cook's set included a Beats Music logo, for no apparent reason. My colleague Kyle Kramer described the moment as "a perfectly satisfying, funny nod to a week in which pretty much every other show was completely draped in logos of their corporate sponsors."
But Friday's event was different. Now that PC Music is sponsored by Red Bull, where does that joke start and end? Can the label's self-aware trolling of mass culture still work when it comes hand-in-hand with real commercialism? How do we buy into their commentary on celebrity culture when a corporation is using their newfound fame to sell us energy drinks?
At least the label seemed to be extremely aware of this tension, and responded to it in a characteristic way: simultaneously appropriating from and poking fun at their corporate overlords.
The night began with PC Music's artists spilling out of a white limo and onto a red carpet, where they were greeted by fake paparazzi asking them questions like, "Do you drink Red Bull?" In front of a growing crowd of guests, QT DJed from within a Red Bull tank. Later, her energy drink was stored in the same kinds of mini-refrigerators that held Red Bull cans. (From afar, it was difficult to discern between the two.) Even A.G. Cook showed up in a shirt emblazoned with Red Bull's logo.
The rest of the event unfolded as each of the label's biggest acts delivered 30-minute sets to varying degrees of success. Everyone lost their shit when Danny L Harle brought a string trio and harpsichord player on stage, drawing connections between classical scores and rave chords. SOPHIE's closing set, during which he dropped three Charli XCX tracks, also whipped everyone up to a sugary high.
Thanks to her outsized personality, GFOTY was a standout, parading around on stage in a two-piece stuffed with fake $100 bills. Her on-stage commentary channeled the acerbic rich-girl humor of Nicole Richie circa The Simple Life. She repeatedly pronounced, "GFOTY is sick! I can't believe I'm at a GFOTY show!" When a blow-up palm tree floated above the crowd, she screamed, "Take the palm tree away from me, it's disgusting!"But the crowd's energy level noticeably dipped during Hannah Diamond and QT's performances; even the virtuosic A.G. Cook had a tough time getting the sceney crowd to dance.
Ultimately, the most interesting thing that happened at Pop Cube had nothing to do with corporate commentary. During Dux Content (AG Cook + Danny L Harle)'s set, one of the label's newest acts, Thy Slaughter, suddenly appeared behind a glass wall, joined by Blood Orange's Dev Hynes.
Best part of PC Music Pop Cube pic.twitter.com/6QJr1g1Xqz
— Trolland Barthes (@MichelleLhooq) May 11, 2015
In a display of rock star bravado, the stringy-haired lead singer took big swigs of whiskey in between screaming into a mic. But the crowd pressed up against the glass couldn't hear a note of their music—the speakers were pumping out Dux Content's disco muzak instead. The effect was slightly confusing, pretty entertaining, and totally hilarious—PC Music at their best. It was also punk as fuck.
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.