What is hyperpop? Charli XCX, 100 gecs leading the way
In a throwaway tweet last August, British pop star Charli XCX, to the annoyed reluctance of her fans, declared hyperpop dead.
The genre, sometimes called future pop (mainly because it sounds technologically bonkers), originated on Soundcloud a decade ago through the London-based PC Music collective and producers AG Cook, Danny L Harle and the late Sophie (Sophie, the genre’s acclaimed avant-garde explorer, died in an accidental fall in January 2021, aged 34).
Typified by demented forays into Y2K-era bubblegum pop, ’90s Eurodance and happy hardcore via clanging metallic beats, chiptuned vocals, synth blurps and squiggles and frenzied distortion, Charli XCX, through her work with Cook and Sophie, became among the genre’s most prominent acolytes, stretching the sound further into mainstream circles with her releases Vroom Vroom (2016), Pop 2 (2017) and How I’m Feeling Now (2020).
If her newest album Crash deviates slightly from the forward-thinking experimentation of such classic work, it still bears its touches. The incredible track Lightning, for instance, feels like ’80s funk put through a hyperpop filter, with its chopped-up, modulated vocals and post-post-post-ironic Spanish guitar breakdown echoing PC Music’s playful pop subversion.
Considering the album earned the singer her first-ever ARIA number one in March, it also seems Charli’s declaration was premature. In Australia, at least, hyperpop is far from over. If anything, after years of DIYers making deranged bangers on their bedroom Abletons, it finally seems the genre’s on the verge of a mainstream moment.
Among those picking up hyperpop’s baton, or at least dipping their toes in its sugar-rush cordial, are none other than Sydney super-producer Flume. The Grammy winner’s upcoming album Palaces, due in late May, features multiple co-productions with PC Music’s Harle, including the new single Sirens with vocals from former Chairlift singer and PC Music satellite Caroline Polachek.
Apparently, Flume became close with Cook, Harle and Polachek while living in LA, and the collaboration was borne over weekly games of Magic the Gathering. And you thought EDM was wild? With its evocative synths and beats grinding like cogs struggling up a hill, the song feels like a Platonic blend of Flume’s and PC Music’s aesthetics.
Sydney’s Vivid in June will also feature a nod to hyperpop at Ninajirachi’s Dark Crystal gig. The Sydney producer, one of Australia’s earliest adopters of PC Music’s mantle, has curated a lineup featuring other core local proponents of the genre, including Donatachi, Lonelyspeck and Hearteyes. (Other local names famously tied to the genre include Banoffee and Kota Banks, who’d both worked with Sophie before her death.)
“There’s been people here making this music for years, but I feel now it’s getting proper recognition,” says Rosebud Leach from Cookii, which also features her real-life partner Lucian Blomkamp. The Melbourne duo just released their first mixtape as Cookii, the infectious Popstyle.
“It’s really cool to see that stuff coming up, because I feel that for a long time artists that were making this stuff here felt underappreciated,” she says. “Suddenly now it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s our time!’”
Blomkamp and Leach met in high school, in the eighth grade in 2008. After various collaborations they began Cookii in 2015, inspired by the harsh pop adventurousness of Sophie’s early releases, such as Bipp and Lemonade.
Popstyle’s appeal lies in its earnest evocation of PC Music’s experiments with nostalgia. In the same way that Cook and company played with the surface-y slickness of turn-of-the-millennium pop, tracks such as Moonlight, Babe and the sublime Party Girl channel the likes of Natalie Imbruglia, Blink-182 and Aqua with wide-eyed delight.
“The whole thing was based in writing as a character – Cookii was always just a character – so rather than writing from our own perspective we were writing like we were back in high school,” says Leach.
“Naturally then, it went back to that Y2K sound and what we were listening to at the time. I grew up surrounded by pop like Kylie, so to rebel in high school I decided I loved death metal. But in there was also a lot of Good Charlotte, Blink… Those pop punk references are very me,” laughs Leach.
Channelling the genre’s conceptual fascination with millennial pop’s faceless svengalis, manufactured boy band and girl group personalities and the era’s emergent online avatars, Cookii was originally anonymous, even going so far as to perform behind a screen on stage. The pair dropped the facade in February.
“From the beginning there was this clear sense that we’re not writing as ourselves, we’re writing as this character, so immediately we started conceptualising other ways to portray what Cookii would be,” says Blomkamp. “First it was just going to be a computer, then a sort of robot influencer thing like Miquela, but it all proved too difficult. Eventually, it didn’t make a heap of sense.”
Fellow Melbourne artist Daine might yet be hyperpop’s great hope in Australia. The 19-year-old, who is signed to Warner Music, comes Charli XCX-approved, with the pop trailblazer regularly vouching for her on social media. “She’s like a mentor and a guide to me,” says Daine, who just returned from a writing trip to LA where she checked in with the star. “I’ve learned a lot about work ethic and confidence from Charli.”
While her new debut mixtape Quantum Jumping consists of older songs she penned in her bedroom at 16 that adhere to Lil Peep-style emo-rap, her single Boys Wanna Txt, co-produced by Dylan Brady of US hyperpop maximalists 100 Gecs and released last April, highlights her pop bonafides.
“The mixtape is more of a nostalgia trip for me. These are old songs I’ve been waiting to put out for a long time and the pandemic put a spanner in the works or whatever,” she explains. “The stuff I’m writing now, and that I’ve been writing in LA, is definitely more of that future pop sound.
“I think the connecting factor with my music now is just autotune and vocal processing and 808 slides. As long as I have autotune and 808s, I can build the foundation of the song and it will sound like me.”
Daine, who also runs an e-festival named Nocturne to help nurture local indie artists working in the genre, believes hyperpop’s appeal is under-recognised in Australia. Does she think there’s potential for the sound to go mainstream here, for a local hyperpop artist to hit ARIA’s pop charts even?
“I think I’m going to be the one to get it there, but I think it’s going to take time,” she says. “’Cause Australians, they like pub culture, they love humble people, they love good classic rock music. Which is fine. I totally get why, like, Triple J leans into that surf-rock stuff. But I think people here love me a lot and they love my sound, and that it’s only a matter of time before it doesn’t seem weird.
“I think it’s hard though,” she continues, “because this music is innovative and it’s about bravado and about being a big, larger than life character, and I don’t think Australians culturally are super into that whole pop charisma and pop attitude thing. But we’ll get this pop star culture going, eventually.”
Future pop can be as abrasive as its title suggests (future pop: as in, people will get it someday, but maybe not yet). But a song like Comes and Goes from Daine’s Quantum Jumping, with its glitch-pop sound, could already be on the radio here.
“I feel a song like that is, like, less of an adjustment for Australians ’cause it’s just guitar and me being humble,” laughs Daine. “But take someone like [viral US rapper] Yeat – I don’t know that Australians could get behind someone like that ’cause he’s so obnoxious, talking about getting my money up, everyone’s jealous of me, everyone’s copying me. Australians don’t like that attitude. But I definitely have that attitude. And I will win people over.”
While she admits it’s frustrating releasing Quantum Jumping
at a point when she’s already so far removed from the sound, it does have its mission: doing the hard work of recruiting a rockist culture towards the challenging, beautiful pleasures of hyperpop.
“I do still think it’s a good segue to get people into the more poppy, catchy, dancey stuff. You have to have ears, you know?“
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