IN MY EARS #22: Bottled Pop: The Slick Fizz of PC Music
Selected track: A.G. Cook - “Beautiful”
Two years ago, ahead of a Beijing appearance by PC Music’s then-biggest act QT, I described the London-based collective as "a British netlabel peddling hyper-overproduced uptempo pop masquerading as avant-kitsch experimental laptop music.” I think that holds up, but I don’t really consider it a masquerade any more. PC Music is sly and slick, and their output (both audio and visual) draws freely from the realms of pop and advertising, but it’s also honest and fun. While I don’t think it’s “the future of pop”, in the words of a widely circulated Guardian review, I do think PC Music is an important tributary of pop present, and we’ll get an earful of where they’re at today when label founder A.G. Cook and one of PC Music's current biggest names, Danny L Harle, visit Beijing to perform at Douban Music’s Wetware festival.
Danny L Harle
In the same 2015 article, I also wrote: "PC Music touches some kind of nerve among the emerging generation of kids raised on internet cultural ambiguity,” and that observation holds up better. Something about PC Music sounds undeniably young and new, and they immediately created a niche within a music industry that’s perpetually hungry for both youth and novelty. My first introduction to the label's sound universe came after being blown away by “Lemonade”, a 2014 single by PC Music affiliate Sophie. “Lemonade” was a critical smash, making year-end Top 10 lists in the Washington Post, electronic music site Resident Advisor, and Complex magazine. By July of the next year it was in a McDonald’s commercial.
Another track produced by Sophie (and A.G. Cook) in 2014 would be the one that made PC Music an instant household name among club DJ hype-seekers and internet music nerds alike: “Hey QT”. This one single set the blueprint for PC Music’s vibe over the next few years: super clean, super high, fusing the aesthetics of pop music, pop art and advertising into something that — at least back in 2014 — one either loved or hated, but couldn’t avoid hearing.
Of course, pop, art and ads have never really been separate since Warhol, but PC Music seemed to give the whole thing a 21st-century rethink, with a strange focus on post-rave-culture beverage consumerism (QT is actually a conceptual energy drink) and a high-gloss embrace of digital perfection as a sonic ideal. The early stream of releases on PC Music, by QT and other early signers like GFOTY and Hannah Diamond, touched on something special in the post-‘90s generation's cyber-addled brain that transcends language or culture in any geographical sense, a fact made clear by the huge crowd of young Chinese club kids who queued up to see QT in Beijing in late 2015. Their sound also drags ‘80s babies like me along for the ride, with its obsessive archaeological rediscovery and appropriation of ‘90s pop, radio rap and R&B.
At its harsher edges, PC Music’s vibe co-exists with, if rarely references, the grim futurism of Grime. It breaks past the artificial edges of the hardcore continuum, softening the dour expressions of early ‘00s UK club music into something more silly and playful, less sinisterly concerned with the erosion of humanity (for that, see Kode9). The weirder and more jagged ends of the PC Music sound world are explored in some re/mixes by the 26-year-old Cook, who seems invested in pushing his label beyond the impressive avant/pop/chart-smasher hat trick it’s scored to date, and into less sure territory.
PC Music’s balance between fake-ad glitter and harsher, rougher grit can be heard in the contrast between two of their more recent signees: Danny L Harle and Felicita. The former, a classically trained musician, takes some elements of the PC Music sound bank (which I always call “high-pitched squiggles” in my mind, even though that doesn’t make sense) and tempers them into product pushed for mass consumption. The title track from his latest album, Super Natural, for example, features Carly Rae Jepsen of “Call Me Maybe” fame on vocals, comes with a music video framed as an advertisement for a company called HUGE Property Corp, and plays constantly at my gym.
Danny L Harle 's Twitter
Felicita, while still fitting squarely on the PC Music family tree, coils around its dark and damp roots. The artist himself comes from an experimental music background, and previously lived in China, connecting at one point with Yan Jun’s old Waterland Kwanyin scene. I actually booked him a few years ago at XP, before his style moved in the direction of the PC Music sound stream. He’s only played China once since then, at (where else) The Shelter. His recent PC Music release, A New Family, is high-pitched and pastel at points, but also bathed in shadow, pulling rogue influences like black metal and surrealist word games alongside the more established aspects of the otherwise purely sunny (too bright, really) PC Music canon.
Anyway — none of that necessarily gives you any clue as to what PC Music sounds like. If you’re interested, the best way to find out is firsthand, when A.G. Cook and Danny L Harle perform at Douban’s Wetware festival, May 18-21 at Tango.
PC Music: http://pcmusic.info
QT - “Hey QT”: https://music.douban.com/subject/26386972/
A.G. Cook - “Superstar”: https://music.douban.com/subject/26838922/
Danny L Harle - “Super Natural”: https://music.douban.com/subject/26854485/
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.