PC Music, the London-based musical collective and record label, has been described by some as cartoonish. If that’s the case, it’s closer to the strange Adult Swim shows you watch when stoned and lonely than the Saturday cartoons of childhoods past. Founded only two years ago, PC Music has quickly risen to become one of the most talked-about niches of electronic music, combining J-Pop, EDM, and experimental beats to create a singular sound that’s as thought provoking as it is catchy. While PC Music has connections to high profile electronic musicians Oneohtrix Point Never and Rustie, its official projects are Danny L Harle, Lipgloss Twins, Hannah Diamond, GFOTY, Thy Slaughter, Lil Data, easyFun, Dux Content, and Spinee, with producer A. G. Cook as the label’s founder and aesthetic leader.
A. G. Cook hand-picks all the artists released on the label to fit a specific aesthetic, but the downside to this is that PC Music tracks sometimes sound like they were all made by one person. easyFun sounds like FGOTY, who sounds like Thy Slaughter, etc. But once you get past this cognitive roadblock and think of PC Music as the work of one musical hive-mind, it becomes easier to appreciate their unique, intellectually rich voice.
PC Music asks questions other pop artists are too afraid to address. GFOTY’s “Dont Wanna / Let’s Do It,” which sounds like a trap song played on a broken music box, places a staple category of the pop repertoire in an unfamiliar sonic context. It problematizes our definition of genre and prompts us to rethink how we categorize musical material. Is a trap song still a trap song without a bass? Is it still a trap song if it sounds vaguely like a commercial for baby food?
Other PC Music artists like Hannah Diamond subtly address deeper cultural issues. In Diamond’s “Pink and Blue,” she sings to a potential partner “hey, why don’t you hit me up?” in a voice that’s unsettlingly childlike. In a culture where record labels simultaneously sexualize and infantilize pop stars to increase sales (see Ariana Grande or early Justin Bieber), Diamond’s baby-talk vocals and sugary production push this disturbing phenomenon to a self-conscious extreme.
Even the label's painfully ordinary logo (an upside-down quarter note next to a squiggly line) feels unplaceably off — too ordinary, too artificial. Think Twin Peaks, except instead of exploring the superficial perfection of suburbia, PC Music explores the superficial perfection of a glossy hit song. In fact, the cheesy synthesizers present on most their tracks, with their distinctive 80’s timbres, are reminiscent of the score to Lynch’s peculiar, masterful show. In both cases, something sick and ugly lurks beneath the veneer of happiness. If PC Music is "bubble-gum pop,” it’s not a flavor I’d feel comfortable chewing.
PC Music is obsessed with this allure of the surface in relation to what’s underneath, the shimmer of a screen concealing the sinister underpinnings within. Cook’s song “Beautiful" stretches the pop idiom until it rips at the seams, repeating the chorus so many times it becomes comical. If Cook is not so cynical as to make fun of the idea of a hook, he’s certainly demonstrating to listeners an acute awareness of its essential role in the pop vernacular. He commits musical taboo, revealing and mocking the pop formula, violating the facade of pop as pure expression re-presenting it as the calculated product of a hungry record label. Cook has created something that is so superficially “beautiful” with its lush, shimmery production that it actually ends up sounding subtly perverse.
Is this reading too much into an innocent effort to make pretty dance music? I don’t think so. Listen to Cook’s remix of How to Dress Well’s “Repeat Pleasure,” where during the whole first minute, he pitch-bends Tom Krell’s vocals to high heaven, morphing his voice into a twitching electronic soup. Krell’s unaltered vocals finally enter with the emotive refrain “If you want it once, you’ll want it more baby,” supported by Cook’s trademark fuzzy synth pads, but by the end of the song, Cook's background harmonies have soured. Different inversions of a harsh C# major 7th chord juxtapose Krell’s simple scalar melody against a more unstable harmonic world. Cook doesn’t even have the chords follow Krell’s melodramatic vocal line, instead sitting on the caustic harmonies to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. This is not the work of someone with innocent intentions. But is he poking fun at Krell’s pop melodrama? It’s unclear. If anything, Cook’s unnerving harmonization of Krell’s voice makes the song all the more moving. Whatever the motive, his remix defamiliarizes our conception of pop, pulling the rug out from underneath our comfortable understanding of the banger.
Regardless of its thought-provoking trickery, the material coming out of the PC Music scene is bona-fide EDM, so when it comes down to it, the songs are unalloyed fun. With PC Music, you can certainly plop yourself in a chair, listen to it, and think hard about pop as an art form if the mood strikes you. Most members of the collective would probably be glad you did. But they’d also probably want you to grind to it in a sweaty club at four in the morning, ecstatically shit-faced, imminently hung-over. In the end, that’s what makes their music worth it. That’s how they blur the line between brainy self-awareness and a sincere love of great pop music. At its very core, PC Music’s philosophy seems to be the following: analyze at your own risk, embrace to your own pleasure.