On Internet Subcultures & PC Music (Part II): A Reappraisal

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Contact Info: I would love to hear from you if you have questions & comments or would like to draw upon & cite material from this post. My email address is e dot c dot k dot spencer at bham dot ac dot uk.


Towards the end of the previous post, I highlighted the way in which Whitney Phillips recuperates the concept of subculture despite all its flaws and baggage. Having surveyed and ruminated on the critiques of the term from the early-to-mid-2000s, Phillips (2015) decides to use it anyway in her study of androcentric shitposting and target trolling. Although she acknowledges that ‘culture’ is not a unified, singular entity, Phillips contends that 4chan and similar online phenomena are defined by a dialectical relationship with a holistic cultural ‘mainstream’ nonetheless. Her analysis portrays mainstream media and pop culture as the constitutive Other of deviant internet subcultures – a mainstream which comes to seem like the surface-level reservoir from which these quasi-subterranean, ‘underground’ trolling practices draw their resources and victims.

However, I want to suggest that we also need to think about a horizontal axis if we are to bring our present situation into focus and think about alternative ways in which the concept of subculture can be redeployed. Subcultural theory fell out of fashion in different political circumstances to those of today. Retrospectively, the early-to-mid-2000s looks like the era of peak neoliberal ‘Third Way’ politics, with the financial crash of 2008 the crest of the wave that eventually gave rise to left and right populisms – the Occupy movement, Brexit, Trump. It is in tandem with this that the so-called ‘online culture wars’ have risen – these being a key backdrop to the use of subcultural theory in internet studies (a literature which was considered in the previous post). Though necessarily reductive, it is possible to identify two main belligerents in the culture wars, which are fought both in plain sight (through mainstream news outlets, television programmes, Twitter feuds) and in less visible or relatively closed online spaces (subreddits, Discord servers, Facebook groups, and so on). On the one hand, we have a right-wing populist alliance that somehow holds together despite consisting of disparate forces with seemingly contrasting priorities. Key players include the alt-right (and ‘alt-light’ celebrities), the ‘trad wives’, ‘Proud Boys’, and ‘incel’ movements, as well as mythological collectives animated by conspiracy theories (such as QAnon). Traditionalism, nationalism, threatened (or toxic) masculinity, and racism (whether colour-blind or explicitly white supremacist) are themes that characterise this first belligerent, but it is also possible to identify a more straightforward and less extreme form of hostility that holds the alliance together through a common enemy. As Angela Nagle notes in her influential (though controversial) work on this scenario, the unifying thread here us “an anti-PC [politically correct] impulse and a common aesthetic sensibility” that has developed into an elaborate and recognisable “anti-PC cultural politics” (Nagle 2017: 21). On the other hand, then, we have a ‘PC’ belligerent that is broadly left-liberal and progressive rather than conservative. Nagle’s reading of this alliance is too cynical and dismissive, but she draws attention to the significant role Tumblr played in its development:

The main preoccupation of this new culture (the right named them SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] and snowflakes, let’s call it Tumblr-liberalism) was gender fluidity and providing a safe space to explore other concerns like mental ill-health, physical disability, race, cultural identity and ‘intersectionality’ – the now standard academic term for recognition of multiple varieties of intersecting marginalizations and oppressions. While the roots of this whole political sensibility may be found in academia and activist culture, its emergence into the mainstream that led to Hillary [Clinton] using terms like ‘check your privilege’ and ‘intersectionality’ was the culmination of years of online development on Tumblr, in fan cultures, on previous platforms like LiveJournal and on a mixture of social media.
(Nagle 2017: 62).

Interestingly, Nagle reflects that today’s culture wars take her back to “adolescent days of rival music subcultures, but now it’s with grown men and some more serious political stuff at stake” (Nagle 2017: 92). In the case study that follows, I consider an inverted version of this comparison. How do net-native musical constellations align themselves with one belligerent in the culture wars? From this perspective, the appleguil.de Discord server along with the wider PC Music and ‘hyperpop’ phenomena can be understood as subcultural in a more prosaic sense of the term – as a subsection of a larger cultural alliance that defines itself through a common cause and enemy. This tangible alignment between PC Music and the so-called ‘PC’ belligerent in the culture wars (to use its enemy’s term) is something that prompts a reconsideration of theoretical devices such as scene and genre (terms advocated by Will Straw and David Hesmondhalgh respectively). A key question emerges: does the case of appleguil.de give us cause to rethink the influential contributions of earlier popular music scholars who turned away from subcultural theory? Having entertained the possibility of this (updated) subcultural reading, I close by suggesting that it is better to use a term that is associated with present hostilities in order to account for the sociocultural and temporal dimensions of appleguil.de and PC Music.

Introducing appleguil.de  

Apple Guild (appleguil.de) is a Discord server that flourished from 27th August – 23rd September 2020 in the weeks prior to the release of Apple, the sophomore album by A. G. Cook, founder of the PC Music label. Discord is a fascinating social web platform that deserves a whole blog post of its own, but two aspects should be highlighted here by way of introduction. Firstly, if we consider the remediation of Discord via pre-pandemic YouTube uploads, it becomes apparent that the platform has often been associated with ‘degenerate’ users and content that are not so far removed from 4chan and male-orientated subreddits. These YouTube uploads portray distinctive Discord stereotypes: incels, overweight male moderators, various kinds of pornography and anime, edgy paedophilia jokes, simping, gaming lore, and so on. These representations of Discord also emphasise the significance of server rules and the high frequency of bans issued to users by moderators. From this first vantage point, it might seem that Discord’s general ‘script’ (cf. Akrich 1992) is defined by gamer culture vis-à-vis toxic masculinity (see, for instance, Massanari 2017). However, a second, media-centric assessment encourages us to acknowledge that Discord also played host to very different kinds of users during the early stages of the pandemic because its infrastructure was set up in such a way as to benefit from the mass migration online in March 2020 (musch like Zoom and Twitch). More specifically, Discord became a popular base for many music-orientated activities. This musical turn towards Discord may well have been due to its architecture, since the platform combines a thread structure (reminiscent of Reddit or Slack) with FTP (File Transfer Protocol), VoiP (Voice over internet Protocol), and integration with Twitch to facilitate livestreaming and instant reaction chatter.

Although Discord is a trending platform that is increasingly associated with the pandemic, the retro Welcome Page encountered prior to entering appleguil.de proper is also significant. The pixelated images and text simulate an earlier era of webpage aesthetics, and so on an initial impression it appears that (pre-)millennial nostalgia is a significant component of the server’s cultural imaginary. This is not necessarily a sentimental form of nostalgia or even authentic nostalgia, however, but rather a more ambivalent backwards glance that views the past as a mine of passé reverberations – reverberations that demand recalibration in the present for the sake of creative futurity (an idea I return to at the end of this post with reference to a revealing PC Music maxim). Upon entering the server proper, one encounters a list of appleguil.de’s various threads in a sidebar (see Figure 1 below). Among the text channels, we are privy to names that relate to specific tracks from A. G. Cook’s album (#oh-yeah; #the-darkness) as well as some that hearken back to The Beatles (#abbey-road; #mr-starrs-classroom) and possibly Jimi Hendrix (#appleville-watchtower), although it should be noted that this last channel encourages ‘watch-along’ participation during the livestreamed performance event called Appleville (12th September 2020). Whereas Appleville featured some household names and emerging artists associated with PC Music (100 gecs, Namasenda, Dorian Electra, Charli XCX, Hannah Diamond, Fraxiom, Planet 1999, A. G. Cook himself) and gave fans the option to purchase a ‘golden ticket’ for access to a virtual moshpit and ‘deluxe recordings’, appleguil.de also hosted a collaborative DIY livestream event called Battle of the Bands. Members of Apple Guild teamed up in order to produce cover versions (and music videos) of both classic records from yesteryear (such as Purple Rain by Prince)and PC Music anthems (such as It’s Okay to Cry by SOPHIE). The full stream (available here) comprises over four and a half hours of amateur content, and guild members were encouraged to vote for their favourite band using #bandstand-vote.

Figure 1: Screenshots of the Channels List in appleguil.de (retrieved 23.9.20)

Given the sheer variety of music hosted via appleguil.de (including that produced by both the more established Appleville artists as well as by the DIY Battle of the Bands entrants), is it even possible to find some ‘consensus in dissensus’ (to use one of Bourdieu’s phrases)? How exactly does the PC Music phenomenon hold together and how might we theorise its socio-aesthetic grounding? If we were to focus on the aesthetic end of this socio-aesthetic continuum, we might draw attention to the prolific use of extreme vocals in this music (especially autotuned vocals), though this is not to say that more conventional vocal takes or instrumental tracks do not feature prominently. We might also point towards a recognisable kind of stylistic hybridity coupled with contradictory production values (sugary, sparkly, shiny ‘pop production’ juxtaposed with distorted bass and fuzz from the world of punk, metal, European happy hardcore, and North American EDM such as brostep and trap). Yet the vague and convoluted character of the previous two sentences reveal that an attempt to define this musical phenomenon in primarily musical terms is fraught with difficulty. Before proceeding with a subcultural analysis of the case study, two other theoretical possibilities must first be entertained. 

Scene, Genre, or Subculture?

Could we conceive of appleguil.de and the wider PC Music and hyperpop phenomena as an online-offline music scene? After all, Will Straw’s classic definition of this term names a “cultural space in which a range of musical practices coexist, interacting with each other within a variety of processes of differentiation” (Straw 1991: 373, my emphasis). Moreover, the frenetic activity of appleguil.de and the wider PC Music milieu appears to fit nicely with a characteristic that Barry Shank associates with the term scene, something he sees as an “overproductive…community” (Shank 1994: 122). But as Hesmondhalgh (2005) notes, the term scene is awfully slippery and often unhelpful. He suggests that the use of ‘scene’ as a vernacular term by musical participants (the reflexive phrase ‘scene kids’ comes to mind) is a disadvantage for popular music scholars, and he highlights the different ways it has been used by Will Straw, Barry Shank, and others to refer to both very localised musics (such as Detroit techno and Chicago house, in the case of Straw) as well as truly global musical phenomena. In my own work on early UK dubstep, I use the term scene for the period 2001–2005, retaining Straw’s emphasis on “the sharing of resources” (Straw 2001: 255-256) while also striving to highlight the tumultuous and fleeting connotations of the word ‘scene’. UK dubstep 2001–2005 was defined by the ‘precious precariousness’ identified by Zygmunt Bauman (2000) in his book Liquid Modernity. To return to the case study at hand, while I do not think it would miss the mark to describe appleguil.de as one component within a distinctive field of creative practice, I do not see or hear this precious precariousness in this instance, nor do I see conventional geography or ‘glocal’ manifestations of this music as factors that define the phenomenon. To put it directly: Discord and other social media are too significant to downplay, as are web-based music journalism outlets and music streaming services. We need to think of the phenomenon as internet-mediated music with net-native traits.

In that case, why not turn towards genre theory? This was a solution proposed by Hesmondhalgh in 2005, but as I noted at the end of the previous post it is significant that genre theory has enjoyed a renaissance in award-winning work on internet-mediated musics (Born & Haworth 2018). It is also important to draw attention to Harper’s (2017) account of the PC Music phenomenon here, and especially his argument that ‘genre-less’ music is itself a genre. Critically, these authors (see also Brackett 2016; Haworth 2016) are in dialogue with Derrida’s ‘Law of Genre’ (Derrida & Ronell 1980), whereby all genres participate ‘promiscuously’ in several other genres and musical lineages and are thus regarded as being hybrid at root. Recently, Haddon (2020) has offered a complementary perspective on genre in her study of post-punk. This genre came into being though discourse – through the speech acts of influential voices (especially those writing in the music press), recurring words, names, and ideas. It is possible to see a similar process at work in the cultivation of hyperpop, a term that circulated online before ‘sticking’ once it became used for a Spotify playlist established in August 2019 by one of the streaming service’s employees (Lizzy Szabo). Although Spotify’s hyperpop playlist is often guest curated during ‘takeovers’ (by prominent artists such as 100 gecs, for instance), it is vital to hang on to Haddon’s emphasis on cultural intermediaries and discourse if we are to adequately theorise hyperpop as a genre. However, Haddon (2000) also discusses genre in terms of the function and production of identity (cf. Brackett 2005). From this perspective, the ‘post’ in post-punk means something more than after: Haddon suggests that it points towards symbolic capital, hipster credibility, and white masculinity. Similarly, it is imperative to consider how wider identity formations intersect with hyperpop (the ‘third plane’ of gender, race, class, and age in Born’s 2011 schema). But does genre theory provide us with sufficient tools for conducting such analysis? Or does it side-line such considerations in favour of aesthetic relationality, discourse analysis, and so on?

By raising these deliberately provocative questions, it is not my intention to completely refute genre theory. It has been and could still be usefully applied to the PC Music and hyperpop phenomena. Interestingly, when asked whether he “like(s) the name hyperpop?” during the appleguil.de Q&A session, A. G. Cook replied “I hyperdontmind” in the chat (retrieved 19.9.20 at 18.04). Similarly, although I ‘hyperdontmind’ genre theory, as it were, I would argue that the more significant aspects of this case study are more likely to come to light if we are to view it as subcultural – in various senses of the term. Firstly, appleguil.de and related online spaces can be viewed as being part of an internet subculture (as opposed to a purely musical subculture) in some of the ways discussed in the previous post. The #the-darkness thread features distinctive meme repertoires, while the server as a whole requires a great deal of literacy and insider knowledge on the part of the user. From the perspective of the ‘second life’ paradigm mentioned in Part I, it is possible to envisage a transformation of subjectivity upon becoming a member of Apple Guild. Relative (though not total) anonymity was ensured through pseudonymous usernames, and the Battle of the Bands event served to conjure new social connections and interest-based, internet-mediated relationships through both band group sign-ups and the chat function during the livestream itself.

Moreover, approaching the case study from the perspective of the Birmingham paradigm, it is possible to see the remarkable ‘digital DIY’ in appleguil.de as a retention of an earlier punk imperative. Such DIY practice was not limited to the Battle of the Bands event, but was also suffused throughout the #stereo-field channel, which was a place in which members posted their own music and footage of bedroom-based recordings (see Figure 2 below). #stereo-field uploads were by no means limited to original songs and track productions, however. Much of the shared audio content consisted of edits, covers, and remixes of staple PC Music tracks, often combining these anthems with well-known auditory memes. On 19.9.20, for instance, I retrieved an upload titled ‘hotelmotelxxoplex.mp3’. This is a mash-up of the heavily memed song Hotel Room Service by Pitbull (2009) and Xxoplex, one of the singles from A. G. Cook’s (2020) album; it can be heard below in Figure 3.

Figure 2: A screenshot of track sharing in #stereo-field

Figure 3: ‘hotelmotelxxoplex.mp3’

Finally, from the perspective of the dominant Chicago paradigm within internet subcultures scholarship, we might regard some of the creative practice facilitated by appleguil.de as deviant or as something that partially undermines the mainstream norms of the music industry at large. One of the most bewildering and interesting aspects of appleguil.de was the #ordermasters-chambers channel. Having somehow worked out how to obtain the correct strings of indecipherable letters (which may well have come from media share hyperlinks, but I myself could not solve the riddle), guild members presented the ‘ordermaster’ bot with these codes in order to be granted downloads of stems from various tracks on 7G (Cook’s debut album). Each ‘decoded’ stem had a clear file name, such as ‘SOMERS TAPE 117.4660 BPM_DRUMS 606 NO BUS.wav’. Although this peer-to-peer (p2p) stem sharing was by no means bringing the music industry’s monetization mechanisms and streaming monopolies to a standstill, it was nevertheless an attempt by Cook to foster communitarian creativity. It is also significant that SOPHIE was beginning to imagine ways of circumventing industry power structures and standard monetization mechanisms shortly before her death, as Cook reflects in his eulogy:

She was completely disenchanted with the conservative notion of ‘the album’, and was even more disillusioned with the limited potential of streaming. With a mix of self-aware hubris and total dedication, she sketched out this idea of an extremely generous platform that would give listeners all kinds of access to stems, fragments, and revisions of her music. She believed that technology was wasting everyone’s time by attempting to emulate vinyl and radio, and that this infinitely generous approach was a logical endpoint for what music was always trying to be. She asked for my opinion. “Do you think it’s possible?”. (in Cook 2021: online)

Notwithstanding the subcultural perspectives considered thus far, this ambivalent “mix” of (neoliberal) hubris and “total dedication” to communitarian solidarity and empowerment is a contradiction that defines SOPHIE’s work and the wider PC Music and hyperpop phenomena. Following the speculative path carved out by Adam Harper among others, it is just as possible to arrive at an accelerationist reading of hyperpop as it is to present a convincing subcultural reading, especially given its technophilic dimension. Despite SOPHIE’s frustration with or imminent critique of platform capitalism, it is significant that her track VYZEE was used in commercials for VOXI, a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) promising “endless social media data”, while LEMONADE was used in a McDonald’s advertisement to promote their range of McCafé lemonades. How on earth can we view this music as a subcultural site of resistance given its entanglements with corporate entities and lovemark branding (Manning 2010 after Roberts 2004), we might well ask? Although SOPHIE’s series of PRODUCT releases is characterised by a fascinating kind of subversive-yet-affirmative ambivalence that warrants a whole other paper, such questions would certainly appear to undermine a subcultural analysis.

However, there is no need to completely abandon a subcultural evaluation if we recalibrate the definition of the term in a way that both honours the original Birmingham paradigm while also capturing the divided character of the contemporary world as it is. Critically, we need to consider the more widely acknowledged aspect of SOPHIE’s legacy in order to start developing this updated subcultural theory. SOPHIE is best remembered for the coupling of timbral experimentation (virtuosic synthesis practice and sound design) with transgender empowerment (she was born as a working-class boy called Samuel Long in Glasgow before becoming Sophie Xeon, an LA-based hyperpop star). Although It’s Okay to Cry is widely regarded as a triumphant ‘coming out’ anthem in which we hear SOPHIE’s real voice, it should be noted that transgender themes and messaging can be found throughout her released and unreleased music. In Immaterial, a track that defuses the gendered materialism of Madonna’s hit record Material Girl, we are privy to a vision of “immaterial boys, immaterial girls” that are interchangeable and untethered to anatomy:

You could be me and I could be you
Always the same never the same
Day by day, life after life
Without my legs or my hair
Without my genes or my blood
With no name and with no type of story
Where do I live?
Tell me, where do I exist?

(from Immaterial by Samuel Long & Cecile Believe)

Even in the primarily instrumental track Whole New World / Pretend World, a nine-minute two-parter that brings SOPHIE’s album to its conclusion, it is possible to hear the sonification of self-acceptance and emancipation. As the lengthy transition begins (SOPHIE 2018: 3.50 ff.), and we are slowly transported into a transcendent space (to use Smalley’s 2007 term), one gets an impression of what it might be liketo exist in a world devoid of gender. Perhaps the most explicit indicator of the socio-political streak in SOPHIE’s music is the fact that some of her tracks are copyrighted by Trans Nation Music, and one of her unreleased tracks is based on the titular vocal hook TRANSNATION. Lastly, in reply to the sceptics and swarms of internet trolls who have criticised SOPHIE for merely appropriating femininity for the sake of allure, publicity within a patriarchal industry, and career advancement, it is useful to highlight SOPHIE’s own words from a 2018 interview:

There’s a huge amount of work to be done socially and culturally. The gap between where we are now and where I imagine we could be – and the places that our imaginations can take us – are so far away from what we’re presented with a lot of the time. So I can’t get too excited about anything happening now – I’m excited about what should be happening in the future – well hopefully will happen. (SOPHIE, in Arte TRACKS 2018: 6.18 ff., emphases transcribed).

Another obvious counterreply might be that SOPHIE is more concerned here and elsewhere with the transformation of pop music as we know it through autonomous creativity and the power of synthesis. It is true that at other points in this interview, SOPHIE appears to be more interested in pushing timbral boundaries (through “sounds which cartoonise and exaggerate naturally occurring or organic sounds and phenomena, and materials that don’t exist at the moment”) than with identity politics. She even airs her disappointment with the rapturous reception of It’s Okay to Cry and speaks of using her body in an artistic way in the music video rather than trying to make a clear statement. However, if we consider the bigger picture by cross-referencing SOPHIE’s work with the lyrics, production features, and discourse of related artists as well as with testimonial comments authored by fans online, then the bonds between the PC Music and hyperpop phenomena and LGBTQ+ empowerment become unbreakable and impossible to ignore.

Perhaps the most prominent voice to articulate this bond belongs to Fraxiom, a 21-year-old artist from Massachusetts. In a NOISEY feature published one month on from the final appleguil.de events, Fraxiom explicitly refers to queerness as being at the heart of hyperpop: 

For me, personally, pitching up my vocals was helping me explore myself…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. (Fraxiom, in Enis 2020).

Turning to Fraxiom’s music, one encounters lyrical provocations that strengthen LGBTQ+ solidarity by identifying and singling out common enemies. Unlike in SOPHIE’s oeuvre, autotuned and pitched-up vocals are weaponised by Fraxiom in order to amplify deliberately hurtful lyrics that resemble what Bishop (2012) terms flame trolling and what I term target trolling (Spencer 2020). Consider, for instance, the track cishets (i don’t want it at all), which features the chorus lyrics “I don’t fuck with cishets [cisgender heterosexuals] / I look so good in fishnets / I never really wanted to but might still make your bitch wet”. Similarly, in fly with ü, Fraxiom takes aim at the Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling (who received widespread criticism following transphobic tweets in June 2020): “J. K. Rowling I’ll find you and say hello like Adele / Make that bitch ring her LifeAlert just like your grandma fell”. A more generalised alienation from older generations comes to the fore in burnout through a play on the well-known ‘are ya winning, son?’ meme. In this case, we experience a perverse combination of chuckle-inducing kudos trolling (through the joshing meme reference) and palpable despair on the part of Fraxiom, who utters the middle line here in an overwrought voice that is bereft of its previous digital sheen: “(Ugh) Are ya winning, son?/ No dad, I’m fucking trans / (Get out, close the door behind you)”.

Furthermore, if we consider the way that appleguil.de livestreams and other PC Music events have been curated and promoted by Cook, the label can be seen to foster an intersectional alliance between LGBTQ+ folk and people of colour. While it is true that people of colour are underrepresented on the PC Music rostrum (with some notable exceptions including Namasenda), it is significant that all proceeds from Appleville Golden Ticket purchases were donated to the Black Cultural Archives as well as the transgender children’s charity Mermaids. Similarly, earlier on in the summer of 2020 and shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Cook decided to release an EP titled Airhorn under his DJ Lifeline alias, with all bandcamp download monies going to the Movement 4 Black Lives (M4BL). As with many of the other examples surveyed in this blog post, it is possible to sense history repeating itself here despite the net-native character of the case study as a whole. How different, really, are these initiatives from the Rock Against Racism movement that existed in the late 1970s and early 1980s? And how different, really, are Fraxiom’s trolling strategies and from those of Johnny Rotten? Should we privilege continuity in a subcultural analysis or rather emphasise distinctions, in other words?

From a panoramic vantage point, the most significant connecting thread (or parallel) might well be generational politics rather than intersectionality. Just as the baby boomers expressed alienation from their repressed, war-wearied parents by becoming rockers, mods, and make-believe middle-class suburban hippies (in the case of my own father, now laid low by dementia due to too many drugs), today’s millennials and ‘Generation Z’ hyperpop participants are alienated from their yuppie, upwardly-mobile-yet-socially-conservative parents who swallowed Reaganomics and Thatcherism whole at the same time as they brought the environment to its knees and drove property prices through the roof. The absurd humour and surreal shitposting in which millennials and Gen Z netizens partake is both hilarious and horrifying, since this web-based creativity is symptomatic of the profound hopelessness and nihilistic demeanour shared by those currently in their late teens, twenties, and thirties. The sarcastic nihilism of the social web is something I have become even more aware of recently while supervising two undergraduate dissertations (on classical music shitposting groups and auditory memes on TikTok, respectively). It is also captured especially pithily at the beginning of the first verse in fly with ü, whereupon Fraxiom muses “I don’t know if I wanna die / Hyperpop playlist Spotify”, a rhyming couplet that somehow conveys both the despair and post-ironic coping mechanism at the heart of the younger generation’s collective psyche. One of the most striking findings encountered while researching this case study is a lengthy comment on the YouTube upload of SOPHIE’s It’s Okay to Cry in which we are privy to an older web user empathising with hyperpop and its discontents:

I am a 71 year old man who came across this song after looking up some of the names mentioned in a print article about something labeled ¨hyperpop¨ by the writer. I first heard this poignant and heartfelt call from a place of great loneliness, and then read that she died just last week. I am blown away. I am also reminded again of lessons I was starting to learn when, as a high school teacher, I sponsored several clubs that no other teacher wanted to lead, such as Sci-Fi, Animé, Gay/Straight Alliance. Those lessons are that there are so many people who do not fit the few standard molds, that many people hold a world of incredible treasure and hurt just behind those cautious eyes, that most of us cannot begin to imagine the lives of the many people who do not or cannot conform to the roles or identities we assign them. I also think that these musicians are reacting very realistically to the broken world they find themselves in. I deeply regret being a part of the generation that helped bring this on. (retrieved from SOPHIE 2017 on 1.5.21).

It is also possible to draw a partial distinction between PC Music as millennial and post-ironic (A. G. Cook and Danny L Harle are now in their thirties, as was SOPHIE before she passed away earlier this year) and hyperpop as a more militant Gen Z phenomenon (Fraxiom is not even the youngest transgender hyperpop artist; that would be quinn, who was fifteen for most of 2020). Yet the essential point remains: the generational politics at the heart of the case study is simply not compatible with Hesmondhalgh’s critique of ‘youth culture’ and valorisation of genre. This alone is enough to encourage a resurrection of the Birmingham paradigm.

On the other hand, it must be stressed that it is unwise to give historical parallels and CCCS spectacles free rein, as it were. Some key distinctions and qualifications must now be made. Whereas conventional subcultural theory sees resistance operating ‘vertically’ between a mainstream and an underground (literally a sub-culture), what I have proposed through this case study is that the PC Music and hyperpop phenomena participate in today’s culture wars. The intersectional alliance between LGBTQ+ folk and people of colour discussed above is something that positions hyperpop and PC Music on the side of the left-liberal, progressive, or (to use its enemy’s term) ‘PC’ belligerent within the culture wars. From this perspective, Fraxiom’s performance during the Appleville livestream can be understood as subcultural in the sense that they represent an internet-mediated musical subsection of one cultural belligerent in the culture wars. A nagging issue remains, however. To return to the concern raised by Whitney Phillips, the problem is the term itself. It is simply not possible for me to use subculture in this distinct, updated way (to name a subsection of one cultural belligerent in a two-way conflict) without readers becoming confused due to the earlier semantic baggage. Although there are valid reasons for using the same term in a different way to analyse the case study, it is unwise to persist due to this unpractical level of nuance. For this reason, I will now close by offering a more appropriate term to use in conjunction with the case study at hand, one woven with some new theoretical threads.

Closing Remarks: On appleguil.de as an Echo Chamber

When Hall, Hebdige, and others wrote about post-war musical subcultures, what they were really analysing were various meme repertoires, some of which were being used to troll the establishment and straightlaced normies. Today, when internet scholars write about ‘internet subcultures’, what they are really analysing are echo chambers. These echo chambers are characterised by ‘hivemind’ intersubjectivity, a consistent and thoroughly policed political stance (falling on one side of the battleline in the culture wars), and socio-aesthetic imitation that necessitates media literacy on the part of the user. It is productive to understand appleguil.de as an echo chamber for these reasons, though I would like to draw out and develop another connotation of this trending social web term. Apple Guild is also an echo chamber in the temporal sense of the term: it is a self-contained online space that is suffused with historical reverb and delay effects from earlier moments in popular music. One of the server’s ‘Golden Age’ events took the form of a conversation between A. G. Cook and the mysterious ‘Mr Starr’ (umru) on the topic of ‘Classic Rock 1969–1971’. Cook’s strategic reflexivity during this discussion was fascinating and revealing in equal measure. He positioned Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart (1969) and Hot Rats by Frank Zappa (1969) as direct forebears of 1000 gecs by 100 gecs (2019). Similarly, ‘Mr Starr’ was at pains to stress that the anti-musical musical aesthetics from back then is being echoed in today’s hyperpop. Was this a deliberate bid to educate the youngest members of the guild? Was it an attempt to suture an earlier countercultural moment with the contemporary situation made audible in #stereo-field uploads?

Further research is needed in order to sufficiently address the temporal dimension of the PC Music and hyperpop echo chamber. The next phase of this project will consider how the past is mined and transformed by this echo chamber in order to sound out pop music’s future and political possibility. Speculatively, whereas it is possible to hear echoes of historical indebtedness and a sort of aesthetic apathy or even despondency in the music of Danny L Harle and A. G. Cook, it could be argued that SOPHIE’s championing of synthesis enables us to listen in genuinely new ways and imagine that there could indeed be a future that warrants hope in the present. I will consider Danny L Harle’s Harlecore album (is it nothing other than a happy hardcore pastiche or is it more than the sum of its parts/past?) and several tracks from Cook’s 7G (including 2021, which contains the vocal sample “Everything you do / it’s been done, done, done before”). I will then turn towards SOPHIE’s released and unreleased music (including Europe for the Summer, in which she sings that “History is alive and it’s ours to define [or is she saying “defy”? Or “defile”?]”) and close by considering an aphorism coined by SOPHIE’s partner and taken up by Cook: “phoenix that shit”. Having resurrected and recalibrated subcultural theory in this pair of blog posts, it is now necessary to investigate how PC Music artists “phoenix” established musical topics and the ways that these materials are received and perceived by online listeners. 


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