Hyperpop artists fraxiom, glaive and p4rkr VICE UK
Photo: p4rkrFraxiomGlaive

This is Hyperpop: A Genre Tag for Genre-less Music

The 2010s landscape of emo rap and forward-thinking pop has given birth to a new generation of artists who are young, queer and fiercely protective.
October 27, 2020, 9:30am

Back in July, Charli XCX tweeted the question: “what is hyperpop?” It reminded me of that scene toward the end of Fight Club when Edward Norton is frantically travelling from city to city to ask if Tyler Durden had been there, pathetically unaware of his story’s impending plot twist (I won’t spoil it). A few minutes after her glib inquiry about the burgeoning pop descriptor, she rejected the label entirely, tweeting: “I do not identify with music genres.” That brief exchange is as good a definition as any for the sound and ethos of hyperpop: a genre tag for distinctly genre-less music.

The term “hyperpop” first originated in the trenches of SoundCloud’s nightcore scene (a style of pitch-shifted pop remix that’s often paired with Anime cover art), but Charli is the queen of hyperpop’s current form. Her 2017 mixtape Pop 2 featured then-underground singers like Dorian Electra and Caroline Polachek, outré production from A.G. Cook, Sophie and umru, and a titular mission to give pop – sonically, spiritually, aesthetically – a facelift for the modern age. Many of those collaborators were spawning from PC Music, who defined forward-thinking pop in the mid-2010s through a blend of exuberant melodies and eccentric electronic production.

The PC Music sound is an undeniable influence on hyperpop, but the style also pulls heavily from rap of the cloud, emo and lo-fi trap variety, as well as flamboyant electronic genres like trance, dubstep and chiptune. Sonic fusionists like 100 gecs, glitchy rappers like David Shawty, and animated electronic producers like Gupi have all been described as hyperpop. Each of those artists are already making unclassifiable combinations of genres, so outside of a collective allegiance to gaudy auto-tune, hyperpop’s identity is less rooted in musical genetics than it is a shared ethos of transcending genre altogether, while still operating within the context of pop.

It’s fitting, then, that a playlist would be the single most important mechanic for a style of music that often sounds like an entire party mix being played at once.

In August 2019, the official Spotify “hyperpop” playlist launched with 100 gecs on its cover, and it’s currently the primary engine for promoting, popularising and codifying hyperpop writ large. It boasts a little over 120k subscribers, which is significantly less than comparable playlists like Bedroom Pop (648k subs) and the purposely vague “idk.” (326k subs), but according to its main editor, Lizzy Szabo, the playlist has one of the highest save-rates (the number of songs people save to their own libraries) on the entire platform.

More than just a place for fans to find new tunes, landing on the ‘hyperpop’ playlist is the premier way these artists are launching their careers, especially during a time when touring and most in-person collaboration is off the table. Twenty-one-year-old singer and producer Fraxiom, a current fixture in hyperpop and its related playlist, semi-jokingly refers to Szabo as “the fate maker” and “literally god”.

Szabo, 30, emphasises that although she’s probably the one who’s most involved, managing ‘hyperpop’ is a team effort among her colleagues. She says the impetus of the playlist came from the unexpected rise of 100 gecs’ 2019 debut 1000 gecs. After testing some of its multifaceted songs on a handful of pre-existing playlists, Szabo and her co-workers realised that it deserved its own category.

“We thought, let’s take this opportunity to start something new,” she tells me. “We did some research and saw there were some terms being thrown around to classify this type of music, and we ended up landing on ‘hyperpop’ because we felt it was the most all-encompassing.”

The playlist’s traffic climbed steadily throughout the next 11 months, but it hit a major turning point when 100 gecs did their week-long “takeover” in July of this year. In addition to adding tracks from their 1000 gecs remix record, the duo of Laura Les and Dylan Brady added dozens of underground artists that had never been playlisted on Spotify before. One of those acts was the 15-year-old trans artist p4rkr (aka osquinn), who then took over the cover of the list the following week and is now one of its staples.

Unlike the colourful electronic music of 100 gecs and the experimental pop of Charli XCX, the style of hyperpop that p4rkr and her contemporaries, like SEBii and saturn, are making is heavily influenced by mid-2010s Soundcloud rap – specifically emo-rap experimentalists like Bladee, ecco2k and Yung Lean, as well as more mainstream artists like Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert. Hyperpop up-and-comers like d0llywood1, blackwinterwells and Kid Trash fixate on blown-out 808’s, playful energy and surrealist auto-tune, resulting in a mishmash of rap, pop and EDM. Although PC Music laid the groundwork for its melodic exuberance and cartoonish production, hyperpop likely gets its most surreal and rambunctious qualities from the last half-decade of hip-hop.

“On a PC Music song you would have a repetitive chorus for four minutes, and then on a hyperpop song you would tell a billionaire to die cause it would be funny,” Fraxiom explains. “The songs are shorter, the energy is rowdier, younger. PC Music for the kids, I think.”

Naturally, the lyrical content also feels youthful: a sprawling blend of emotional earnesty and self-referential irony that’s distinct to this era of the internet. In the same playlist you might hear p4rkr poignantly cooing her desire for close friends and loving parents, 15-year-old rising star glaive admitting suicidal ideation with a nasal groan, and Gupi and Fraxiom cracking bars about smoking weed off the ground and pissing on Zedd.

Other blossoming acts in the scene have monikers that are similarly rooted in the plunderphonic ethos of nightcore: Alice Gas is a likely play on Alice Glass (a proto-hyperpop musician, if you will) and Aaron Cartier is a screen-name style misspelling of the 2000’s child-rapper. Some artists have taken the meta-ness one step further. Sammy33 sardonically shouted out “glitchcore” (a term that’s sometimes used interchangeably with hyperpop) in a delirious banger, and Fraxiom translated the genre’s binary of emo-ness and insider humour on a recent stand-out: “I don’t know if I wanna die / Hyperpop playlist, Spotify”.

Fraxiom and Glaive both feel relatively indifferent to the word hyperpop (Fraxiom would rather call their songs “music” or “pop”, while glaive prefers “alternate pop”), but Glaive emphasises the raw emotionality of the lyrics as one of the genre’s most salient traits – a far cry from the winking parody that many early PC Music tracks were imbued with.

“There’s a lot of sad songs, there’s a lot of uptempo songs, but none of them are super happy,” he says. “I feel like it centres around a more mediocre topic and the sound is what makes it super crazy.”

Another central aspect of hyperpop is its association with the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout our conversation, Fraxiom, who identifies as non-binary, repeatedly states that “queerness and hyperpop are inseparable.”

“For me, personally, pitching up my vocals was helping me explore myself,” they say. “And also, most of the artists leading the scene and pioneering the scene are trans, queer, etc. I do think hyperpop and queerness are inseparable because most of these sounds wouldn’t exist without Sophie, Laura Les, That Kid, Dorian Electra, me, I guess.”

Given that the playlist is ruled and beloved by young, underground artists – many of whom are queer, trans, or POC – who operate within a tight-knit internet community, they naturally have a sense of protectiveness about what they’ve built. If this wasn’t obvious before, it came to a head last month when A.G. Cook (who Szabo fittingly refers to as “the godfather” of hyperpop) did his own takeover of the playlist and innocently decided to add a bunch of artists – ranging from Iggy Azalea and Madonna to Vince Staples and Kate Bush – who don’t resemble the intangible, nebulous, you-know-it-when-you-hear-it sensibilities of hyperpop in 2020. Cook was quickly lambasted on Twitter, and within a few hours tweeted a statement defending his choices before issuing a revised version of the playlist that included more underground acts.

“It’s not my job to define this genre or this space,” Szabo says, in reference to the day-to-day curation and the artist takeovers. “In no way are we trying to say, ‘this is it, this is hyperpop.’ We just want to shine a light on this music that’s exciting.”

If nothing else, the backlash was a glaring indication of just how seriously people take hyperpop, which is something Szabo has realised throughout her time researching and listening to hundreds of hours of it.

“Hyperpop is a parody of pop. It almost pokes fun and pushes the bounds of that kind of quirky, traditional, radio popstar sound – but I think as time has gone by and you have a lot of younger creators experimenting within this sound, it naturally, just like any genre, is evolving,” she says. “I think now you have a lot of creators who take it very seriously. This is not a parody, this is who they are, this is their sound. I think hyperpop is a genre that’s also a community – of artists, and of listeners.”

@eli_enis