Pop

How Hyperpop Became a Force Capable of Reaching and Rearranging the Mainstream

100 Gecs
Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Laura Les and Dylan Brady of 100 Gecs perform at The Anthem in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 25, 2019.

Musical niches and subcultures, it’s been argued, operate outside of dominant culture while remaining engaged in a continual act of negotiation and renegotiation with the mainstream. No matter how anti-establishment their intentions are, subcultures always seem to arrive at the same fate: The commodification and aestheticization of their resistance by the very central structures they seek to resist. What is there left to do, then, other than to embrace that fate? 

Canonized by a team of Spotify editors, including Lizzy Szabo in the summer of 2019, ‘Hyperpop’ was a term taken from Szabo’s data science colleague Glenn McDonald, in an attempt to contextualize the growing traction surrounding an internet infected duo named 100 gecs, and the scene of like minded musicians who seemed to be forming around them. Artists operating under the Hyperpop rubric -- from established stars like Charli XCX to Gen Z newcomers like osquinn and ericdoa -- have concurrently played a hand in boosting it from a niche internet scene to a viral talking point, having received unexpected cosigns from the likes of YouTuber pewpiedie and and EDM superproducer Skrillex. Practitioners seek to accelerate and exaggerate pop music to the point of abrasion and absurdity. And while no formal genre conventions truly exist across its spectrum -- much like Spotify's playlist, Hyperpop is scene-led rather than genre-led -- a prototypical song will usually sound like the meeting point between experimental sound design and EDM influenced pop from the 2010s. 

Unlike punk, emo, grunge, psychobilly, this niche that’s been called "Hyperpop" for at least the past year and a half is keen to reach the mainstream, albeit through experimental means. “It’s always been our ambition to take Hyperpop to the mainstream,” says umru, one of Hyperpop’s du jour producers, who’s worked with Charli XCX, Dorian Electra, Slayyyter, among many others in the scene. As an underlying rule, the genre’s practitioners “take the more traditional ideas of mainstream pop music, then deconstruct or intensify its more identifiable elements,” Rebecca Black, a recent Hyperpop convert, tells Billboard.

Hyperpop is a structurally reactive phenomenon. It seeks to find new entry points into the mainstream, with the ambition to simultaneously drain experimental music of its elitism and exclusivism, while making mainstream music more challenging and boundary-pushing. The sheer clamor and conjecture that’s followed Hyperpop -- all the YouTube explainer videos, thinkpieces, and Reddit music nerds that have made ruckus over a new sound they’ve yet to find the words for -- may have proven that there’s a market for this new strain of extreme pop music.

Indeed, The Atlantic projected that “Hyperpop could become the countercultural sound of the 2020s”; Dazed called it “the sound for a post-pandemic world”; Dummy named it “the future of music.” And while these predictions might sound overblown, with the eponymous playlist achieving some of Spotify’s most consistent save rates -- and tracks within the genre reaching upwards of 100 million streams -- Hyperpop’s statistical success is beginning to match the enormity of those claims, as the scene is bridging the gap between the popular and the experimental. 

Still, the question remains: what exactly is Hyperpop? A cursory Google search reveals the earliest entry for ‘Hyperpop’ to be from 1988, in an article on the Scottish dream pop band Cocteau Twins. While most historians situate its origin within the 2010s SoundCloud beat scene, the real fun of Hyperpop, at least for now, lies in the fact that it provides a reflexive and interpretive exercise in aesthetic categorization. In other words, most individuals who come into contact with the quasi-genre will have their own ideas of where its origin lies, what its inspirations are, and what songs of yore -- anything from The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” to The Fast Food Rockers’ 2003 smash “Fast Food Song” -- we may be able to classify as "Hyperpop."

Ultimately that dynamic benefits the platforms that are dependent and benefitted by user-generated content (UGC) -- a rising phenomenon which blurs the lines between production and consumption, artist and fan. “People want to share their taste -- they want to say, this is what I think, these are the tracks that I cosign, these are the ones I’ve found,” says Szabo. User-generated content (anything created by fans and users online, including everything from the ‘Blinding Lights’ TikTok dance to user reviews on Metacritic) has been forecast to rake in around $6 billion for the music industry over the next three years, according to a report published by MIDiA last October, and Hyperpop happens to be one of its most agile facilitators. 

RCA Records’ Vice President Dan Chertoff credits the lockdown for the rise of user-generated content and Hyperpop, both of which have been bolstered exponentially by TikTok. “User-generated content has become very important,”  says Chertoff. “Over the pandemic, TikTok in particular has become such a huge marketing force for new music -- and I think specifically because of that, Hyperpop has grown tremendously.”

The reason why Hyperpop inspires so much user-generated content, Chertoff believes, is down to its polarizing nature. “That’s a good thing for people wanting to make UGC that sticks out. Hyperpop is exaggerated pop music, it’s experimental, it’s very distinct and I think that fits nicely into people wanting to make unique videos.” If artists are looking to break into the mainstream today, user-generated content is providing an increasingly reliable model for making it. “More and more, we are seeing a conversion from user-generated content to audio streaming,” says Chertoff.

Earlier this year, Chertoff signed his first Hyperpop artist, the 17 year-old Canadian artist and producer ElyOtto, whose song ‘SugarCrash’ has soundtracked well over five million TikTok clips, becoming one of the most popular tracks in the app’s history. The track has also scored almost 140,000,000 Spotify streams, giving Chertoff all the data he needed to back his belief in ElyOtto’s songwriting savvy and ability to write a hit. 

Hyperpop’s appeal to the mainstream also lies in its flexibility. Following its arrival via the Spotify playlist, and its ascendance to cultural flashpoint status, the term has functioned as a “centralizing idea around which an entire movement built momentum,” product designer John Palmer wrote in his essay on Hyperpop and scissor labels last year. A cannabalizer of online music scenes, Hyperpop grows and its boundaries dissolve the more musicians are brought into its fold, in turn expanding its audience and pushing it towards the center.

The boundarylessness of Hyperpop is a stance that tends to be shared by many of its practitioners, who are generally anti-rhetorical and anti-territorial. With good-natured irony, they’ll often laugh off any attempts made to theorize it or to define it (“it’s just not something we think about,” says umru.) Perhaps more so than any musical genre or scene in operation today, Hyperpop’s necessary dependence and relationship with surveillist, data-capturing platforms like Spotify is a playful one. “I don’t know if I wanna die/ Hyperpop playlist Spotify,” fraxiom, one of the scene’s key players sings on “fly with ü”. 

The irony here is that Hyperpop has been codified by the very structures it mocks, and its playful embrace of these structures has, so far, only emboldened them. “I think becoming a meme in some ways has been a success for us because it makes it fun -- it makes it engaged beyond a list of songs,” says Szabo. 

Still, many Hyperpop artists and practitioners remain anonymous, often choosing to derail surveillance efforts by setting up multiple online accounts. But Szabo and the Spotify team are usually able to find them and promote them on their playlist, a testament to the power and impact of Spotify’s data extraction and surveillance. “It’s been interesting to see something that still feels so niche breaking out,” says Szabo. “And I think because we put a label on it, it’s allowed people to discover it on Spotify.”

Indeed, those who wish to be rediscovered would be wise to align themselves with the Hyperpop label, since those within the scene appear content to recontextualize songs of yore within this new framework. fraxiom’s “fly with ü”, after all, is essentially a revisitation of a bygone hit from the ‘00s by the Italo dance artist Gigi D’Agostino. It can also be read as a sonic archive and appreciation of internet kitsch and detritus, the hilariously ephemeral; obsolete memes are repurposed into Hyperpop lyrics and iconography -- making it an ideal entry point for someone like Rebecca Black, who, in 2011, was unfairly maligned for making “the worst song of all time”. “Friday,” a song about a schoolgirl who just couldn’t wait for the weekend, inspired one of the greatest onslaughts of memes the internet’s ever seen. With its tinny, over-tuned vocals and baseless and berserk jouissance, all courtesy of pop saboteurs Ark Music Factory, ‘Friday’ could be considered the ultimate proto-Hyperpop anthem. “Everyone in the scene loves Rebecca Black,” says umru. 

Just as well, Hyperpop provided a supportive and encouraging community for Black, who had felt isolated from the industry for much of her career post-Friday. With the scene’s association with queerness (many of its artists identify as such), Black, who was freshly “out,” felt emboldened to find “freedom on her own terms,” she tells Billboard, which directly translated into the music she was making. The result of which can be heard most crudely on the Hyperpop remix of “Friday”, which was released this year to commemorate the song’s ten-year anniversary, and features production by Brady, as well as appearances by Dorian Electra and Big Freedia.

Hyperpop could well be providing a pathway back into the mainstream for other effervescent acts of the early 2010s, much like the crunkcore duo 3OH!3, who also appeared on the “Friday” remix. Nathaniel Motte (one half of the ‘Don’t Trust Me’ duo, which also includes Sean Foreman) had worked with Black on her turning-point track “Saboteur,” before the duo began work on their own comeback in late 2020. For this, they too enlisted 100 Gecs on last November’s track "Lonely Machine." The groups shared a mutual friend and collaborator in the eccentric songwriter Benny Blanco, who relayed to Motte and Foreman that 100 Gecs had considered them a huge influence. “We tend to keep our heads down and work on the next thing,” says Motte. “But occasionally we can see that we’ve influenced music in some small way, and the general zeitgeist 0f the people we’ve reached over the years.”

Generally, A&Rs and industry insiders have been keeping their paws on the Hyperpop trend, keen to align their artists with a sound and scene that’s gaining immense traction. Rico Nasty, one of today’s finest up-and-coming rappers, teamed up with 100 Gecs last year for “Ringtone,” the highlight on their remix album. “We literally met through my A&R,” Nasty tells Billboard. “It made sense to me because it was the first time I heard someone’s music that made me feel the way my music did. There’s something about their stuff that just has no rules.”

If there’s an artist who’s primed above any other to convert Hyperpop’s subcultural capital into mainstream visibility and success it’s the 15 year-old, North Carolina based Ash Gutierrez AKA glaive. After immersing himself in the Soundcloud community, glaive uploaded his first song onto the platform in April, 2020. Upon discovering it in June, Awad took glaive under his wing—telling the New York Times that fall that “This kid is the best songwriter I’ve ever heard in my life.” Shortly after, glaive signed to Interscope, who have since billed him the bedroom-dweller who’s “writing pop’s future.” 

While yet to reach the charts, glaive has amassed almost nine million Spotify streams on his 2020 single ‘astrid’, as well as cosign from fellow Interscope signee Lana Del Rey. Having also worked alongside Travis Barker, glaive has also become one of an emerging number of Hyperpop artists who are aligning themselves with mainstream acts, including 100 Gecs-- who released a remix of Linkin Park classic "One Step Closer," and had their first entry on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart last year when Fall Out Boy hopped on the remix for their track "Hand Crushed By a Mallet." 

Nevertheless, Gutierrez is insistent that he is representing himself rather than a whole genre or movement. “I think there is too much variety to say that Hyperpop as a genre could go mainstream,” he says. Even umru, who has greater hopes for the genre's crossover potential, is a little skeptical that big business’ recent interest will amount to much. “People in the industry are always looking for anything that gains quick traction,” says umru, with a slight hint of boredom. “Hyperpop isn’t unique in that way.”

But regardless of the potential commercial impact, as a once-niche online scene and the mainstream are beginning to intermingle -- the center and the periphery influencing one another -- Hyperpop is opening artists on both sides up to experimentation and convivial lawlessness. “I think that’s the best part about everything that’s going on,” says Awad. “It’s just making it fun to be creative again.”