Just Let Go and Enjoy PC Music, OK?
Stop worrying about the grand art project commentary and consider that PC Music is what a rave looks like in 2015.
GFOTY / Photos by Brittany Sowacke
In 2015, there's basically nothing more valuable than your attention. This is true on the internet, where there's so much information floating around that, even with every piece of entertainment that's ever existed at your fingertips, you can be overwhelmed into boredom by the surplus of choice. It is also true of an event like South By Southwest, which is essentially an opportunity for thousands upon thousands of people to descend on the city of Austin and all yell at each other simultaneously. The forms of that yelling vary, from actual people walking down the street yelling to the showcases where artists perform a sort of metaphorical yelling, clamoring to do literally anything that someone will remember. If there's anything that runs the risk of falling flat in the attention economy, it's electronic music, where pretty much all you're getting in any situation is a person standing behind a laptop. Our level of interest varies depending on who is standing behind said laptop—maybe it's Skrillex, and we lose our shit because we have seen pictures of Skrillex and also because he has a budget for more lasers than some of his less established peers. Maybe it's some dude playing the exact same set, and nobody cares because it's still just a dude standing behind a laptop.
The corollary to this is pop music, where, as the template has increasingly shifted toward a singer performing over glossy electronic or hip-hop production, the spectacle onstage tends to outweigh the spectacle of musicianship. If you go to a Beyoncé show, the only visible person making music is Beyoncé herself, singing, but the show is more elaborate and entertaining than any display of instrumental virtuosity could possibly be. There's no reason, from a musical standpoint, why a Beyoncé concert and an electronic show should be that different if both basically boil down to music being played out of a laptop somewhere. We're used to, at this point, dissociating our pop stars as avatars from the music coming out of the speakers. One of the most popular pop acts in the world is a Japanese hologram, simply because the idea of a figure tied to the music is more important than the actual figure. PC Music, the poppy, experimental, and divisive British dance music collective, are interested in playing with this tension, and last night, in the SXSW showcase that doubled as their grandest arrival on US shores yet, they did so in a way that got my attention.
From what I gather by way of our British counterparts, PC Music's appeal in the UK is highly contentious, and there's a high degree of curiosity as to how it will translate to US audiences. But UK dance music of all types—garage, drum 'n' bass, nerd dubstep—has always been a relatively underground phenomenon here, where we prefer the grandiose statements of Dutch house and US electro that sounds like a bunch of people throwing fax machines at each other. As it is, only the coolest fringes of the US music world—among the attendees at last night's show were SXSW's top buzz act Shamir and Ryan Hemsworth—are interested in PC Music, and they are fucking amped about it.
Without the burden of history that comes with decades of raving and the snobs that come with that, American audiences have the freedom to giddily embrace the over-the-top weirdness of PC Music with the pure, unironic joy it deserves. And make no mistake, those slippery sounds—the massive crashes of jarring basslines and bleeps of Skype conversations and flutter of bubbly, hyperfeminine vocals—translate to pure joy. Dancing to A.G. Cook as he plays his How To Dress Well remix that never quite drops, or, better yet, as he plays the fucking piano to lead into a thunderous, dance-y spaz-out, is what it means to rave in 2015. The pleasure was unmediated—although probably not entirely unmedicated. At one point, getting water, I had a conversation with the most excited person I've met all week. He told me, in a Molly-fueled burst of enthusiasm, about the earlier part of the night: “One guy was so weird that nobody knew what to do!”
Here's what I did when I saw GFOTY, which was probably the best thing I've seen all week: I fucking lost my mind. I loved it. I was ecstatic. The gist of GFOTY (which stands for Girlfriend of the Year) is that it is kind of a semi-ironic riff on club culture, with earth-shatteringly huge blasts of bass and enthusiastically vapid vocals about going out laid over it all. Onstage, that translated to a girl in a pink sweatsuit bouncing around like she was dancing in her bedroom with two extremely tightly choreographed backup dancers accompanying her and force-feeding her colorful beverages. Between songs and during them, she'd break from singing along to say things like “this DJ is sick!” and “oh my god it's fucking ridiculous!” and “can you buy me a cab?!” For all that it's clearly supposed to be a commentary about stupid people going out, it was also earnest: The DJ really was sick! I really felt like that girl! I was the girlfriend of the year, dancing and having a great fucking time! More importantly, it was an electronic show disguised as a pop show: The music was the same as if someone had been standing behind a laptop, but instead we got a dance-y spectacle with a face we could assign to it. As much as PC Music is a deconstruction of and riff on pop, it's also a not totally unimaginable future for it. There wasn't a huge difference between watching GFOTY and watching, earlier in the night at another show, Miley Cyrus bounce around onstage with Mike Will Made-It and rap along to Rae Sremmurd songs.
The vibe was slightly different but no less engaging for Hannah Diamond and QT, who are the two pop star characters of PC Music and who each perform essentially as avatars enacting the ideas of their music. Hannah Diamond spent the first half of her set flipping her ponytail and the second half basically mugging, eyes wide, for the crowd, offering statements like “I'm so excited to be here” in a vapid voice over her headset mic. QT's entire set was the song “Hey QT,” introduced with her acting out a “business” call (“ I'm actually at a business meeting right now, if I could call you back maybe in 20 that would be great”) and punctuated with extremely vivid facial expressions and tightly choreographed arm movements. The fictional premise of QT is that she is the face of an energy drink company, and, as the words “drink QT” played, she punctuated them with an exaggerated wink. At the end of the set, she handed out the cans of QT that were stacked onstage.
One of the obvious qualms you could have about PC Music is that it all feels grossly insincere, like a grand joke that may or may not be at the expense of the audience. Maybe we were being made fun of, but it was also really fun. Maybe we were supposed to recognize the pure vapidity of pop idols and then look deep within ourselves and question what makes us human for enjoying pop music, but it was also kind of fun to dance at an electronic show that had a human avatar onstage making us dance. Maybe we were supposed to have the same experience thinking about brands of energy drinks that use music to sell to us or whatever. But look: Post-modernism has been around for 50 years. We're aware of the information overload created by constant marketing. Milli Vanilli lost a Grammy for lip-syncing 25 years ago. We're aware of the vapidity of pop star culture. This is not the most pressing commentary in the world. Like most worthwhile art, PC Music is exciting in the way it engages us emotionally rather than in the way it presents its grand statements of purpose. And it works on that level, with the rest being best appreciated as a QT-like wink. For a period during A.G. Cook's ecstatic set, a Beats Music logo flashed on the screens around the venue. It was a perfectly satisfying, funny nod to a week in which pretty much every other show was completely draped in logos of their corporate sponsors. It would have been obnoxious if not for one major detail: Everyone was losing their minds dancing, and it was too fun to really think critically.
For all the hand-wringing about what everything means and what brands are all about and what the point of SXSW even is, there was something very refreshing about a performance that took all of that in mocking stride and concluded, essentially, that the answer was to dance more. That made me pay attention. As my new friend Nick Lachey had told me the day before, being cool is “thinking outside the box. Doing things differently but not trying so hard.” PC Music, I think, is pretty cool.
QT, photo by the author
Kyle Kramer thinks this DJ is sick! Follow him on Twitter.