Few internet-spawned micro-movements have managed to tickle the dance community quite like PC Music. Headed by the British producer A.G. Cook and closely affiliated with SOPHIE, the label has claimed legions of doe-eyed acolytes with its twisted pop sensibilities. From VICE to Noisey to Pitchfork, music writers everywhere have picked apart the provocative—at times perplexing—conceptual current that undergirds the label's musical, visual, and performative oeuvre. However, what's missing is an examination of PC Music's connection to the world of contemporary art—specifically, the technology-obsessed, "post-Internet" avant-garde associated with cultural accelerationists like DIS Magazine, the Jogging, and MoMA PS1. (Incidentally, one of the first times we heard an A.G. Cook track on a dancefloor was at DIS' "DISown" party in New York.) Thus, we decided to trace the label's connections to the likes of Ryan Trecartin, Ryder Ripps, and Ed Atkins—artists who we believe are the visual contemporaries to A.G. Cook and his merry band of misfits.
More than one critic has drawn the line between the video artist Ryan Trecartin and the PC Music oeuvre. Compare this delightfully inane video by PC Music's Lipgloss Twins (a fictional duo that's a front for A.G. Cook's productions):with this clip from Trecartin's seminal video "I-Be-Area:"
The similarities are aplenty, starting with their mutual obsessions over advertising jargon, Valley Girl lingo, and tweaky, amphetamine-like pacing. But what seems most relevant—especially in light of recent criticism of PC Music's "feminine appropriation" in The Fader—is Trecartin and PC Music's shared approach to gender politics.
Trecartin's chaotic, kaleidoscopic videos often feature a cast of characters wearing an assortment of wigs, costumes, and garish makeup. These characters' genders are indeterminate; these aren't men dressing up as women, or vice versa, but ambivalent bodies trying on male and female signifiers before casting them off, literally, with a drop of a hat.
This constantly shifting morphology also applies to PC Music. Much ado has been made over SOPHIE's borderline-trolling Boiler Room show, where the producer slyly hired a trans woman to take his place behind the decks, prompting some to declare it a daring work of performance art while confusing the hell out of everyone else.
For a while, many people didn't know if SOPHIE was a man or woman, thanks to the camera-shy producer's tendency to use female models in his press shots.
Furthermore, many of the label's most iconic tracks, like "Hey QT," "Pink and Blue," and "Broken Flowers" embrace a sense of cutesy girlishness. High-pitched voices twirl around almost parodically silly lyrics like, "Give it to the girl! Give it to the girl! Give it to the cutest girl!"
Steph Kretowicz of The Fader criticized this appropriation of hyper-feminine aesthetics, arguing that when A.G. Cook and Sophie—both white, privileged men—hide behind fictional female characters, they're perpetuating an age-old practice: "colonizing the female body and using it as an instrument for projecting their own agenda."
But PC Music's gender play, like Trecartin's, isn't so cut and dry—there is no one-directional transformation from man to woman. In an interview with BUTT Magazine, Trecartin tapped into the idea of "post-drag" performance, saying, "The whole idea of cross-dressing is kind of a one-liner tradition that supports traditional gender roles. Instead, he continued, he's more interested flux and inconsistency, as well as "personal gender creation."
Similarly, Cook and his cohorts seem to delight in a sort of post-drag evasion. If you're feeling anxious because you're unable to distinguish the genders and interpersonal dynamics of its cast of characters, that's the point. By dwelling in a constantly shifting state of ambiguity, PC Music rejects the binarism of male/female gender constructs—while also blurring the line between real/virtual and self/other.
These two camps also overlap when it comes to their use (or mis-use) of high-gloss, high-definition aesthetics—both audio and visual. Throughout the 80s, 90s and early 00s, many bedroom producers, limited by budget and physical studio space, had to embrace that their recordings could never match the high-tech gloss of pop production. This is no longer the case. The tools for making incredibly shiny music—tracks that stand up against a No. 1 David Guetta single—are readily at the disposal of producers with rudimentary software and an Internet connection. The results: a teeming mass of SoundCloud sound-alikes making technically perfect but creatively derivative EDM.
For producers who tire of this homogenizing effect, one response has been to turn to distorted, low-fi aesthetics and calculated imperfection—sounds that recall a purer, less commodified moment in dance music history. Others have turned in the opposite direction, trying to beat the pop machine at its own game by exaggerating high-value aesthetics until they become fun house mirror reflections of themselves.
In an early interview with TANK Magazine, Cook explained the meaning behind PC Music's name. "[It] alludes to how the computer is a really crucial tool… for making amateur music that is also potentially very slick, where the difference between bedroom and professional studio production can be very ambiguous." For Cook, the increasing ubiquity of pop-caliber music production tools mean that major labels no longer have exclusive access to the sugar-sweet euphoria of high-definition music.
In the visual world, artists like Ed Atkins and Ryder Ripps have been grappling with HD aesthetics on their own terms. Ripps' now-defunct #HDBOYZ project, "the world's first boy band in high definition," especially recalls the perversion of pop gloss. In a 2012 fashion editorial in DIS, the five-piece band is pictured in 90s retrofuturistic streetwear that recalls something between FUBU, late-period rave gear, and early Lance Bass. Each photo is overlaid with touchscreen-style data read-outs, fluorescent light trails, shiny chrome-textured logos, and zoomed-in detail shots—all hallmarks of futurevisions past that didn't age well as the 2000s crept into the 2010s.
But where the #HDBOYZ project is a send-up of antiquated high-definition aesthetics—a reminder of how silly we were 20 years ago when we thought this is what the future would look like—the work of AG Cook and his contemporaries seems more optimistic about the democratic potential of increasingly accessible media technology. As of 2014, anyone can be a star.
Meanwhile, video artist and installationist Ed Atkins harnesses the power of high-gloss CGI and surround-sound audio to create scenes that are so hyper-real they become disturbing. Videos like "Us Dead Talk Love"—which depicts a dialogue between two animated cadavers—feature eerily realistic renderings of the human form. Floating heads offer monologues in exaggerated emotional states, husks of skin that inflate and deflate, and meticulously rendered strands of hair whose movement seems to conform too well with the laws of physics. These nightmarish renderings are the visual equivalent of AG Cook's super high-fidelity textures; so close, but just far enough off the mark that they reveal their own artifice.
PC Music also deals in a kind of violence, both in terms of what it does to pop music aesthetics, and the strange, disruptive effect it has on listeners. The best bits from the label's catalog don't let you sink into the groove. Instead, they suspend you in a state of ticklish discomfort wherein you're both listening, and listening to yourself listening—at once immersed in the warm waters of earnest emotion and hovering just above it, gazing down at your reflection in the surface.
Feelings get particularly mixed up in AG Cook's phantasmic remix of "Repeat Pleasure" by How to Dress Well, where a comically pitch-stretched, almost clownish introduction gives way to stretches of dead serious, crooning R&B beauty—dipping you in and out of the bath with disruptive moments of excess and silliness.
In the more subdued retro house homage "Broken Flowers," producer Danny L Harle winds trance arpeggios around B-grade tween pop lyrics ("tear drops feel like showers"), backed by campy chord progressions straight out of Dance Dance Revolution; it promises the fuzzy feeling of real, uninhibited joy while also sparking an acute awareness of how ridiculous you must look singing along to this track.
Like Atkins, whose animations are both disturbingly lifelike and unmistakably artificial, many of PC Music's most compelling moments demand that listeners exist in two minds at once. In the case of PC Music, the tension and the ambiguity that this double-think generates is what leaves so many listeners with a strange feeling in the pit of their stomach: do I love this? Do I hate it? Are they laughing with me or at me? Ultimately, the tension leaves you paralyzed—unable to decide whether to close the window immediately and make it stop, or wade deeper and deeper into the dark waters of your own private urges.
Max Pearl is glad that his expensive art history degree is finally coming in handy. He is a former editor at THUMP.
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor of THUMP and an expert at personal gender creation.