Delicious noise: the rise of bubblegum bass
New music genres don’t just appear. The trajectories leading to the headline-grabbing notoriety of bubblegum bass and other recent musical phenomena are always logical and seamless. The much-discussed, love/hate new genres exist purely as a result of the fads that came before. Listen closely and you will notice that bubblegum bass sounds like everything and nothing you’ve heard. This circulatory self-reflexivity is present throughout pop music’s recent history and bubblegum bass falls in line with the recent cultural obsession with nostalgia and that which came before.
The past five years of dubstep is replicated in the liquid wobble of much of bubblegum bass’ currently miniscule output – the verses of the SOPHIE track “Hard” squeal and squirm like a lost Skrillex cut. Similarly, the so-called “ironic” pursuits of hypnagogic pop can be heard in QT’s overt references to pop culture’s trashiest tropes (K-Pop, J-Pop, jingle music, top 40, etc.). Bubblegum bass brilliantly juxtaposes hypnagogic pop’s forced messiness in favour of forced shininess (I can’t imagine PC Music releasing anything on cassette; however, it wouldn’t surprise me if their first release came with a free hologram). It’s also impossible to deny the influence of the entire “online underground” movement (vaporwave, seapunk, witch house, etc.). Bubblegum bass’ sparkly imagery combined with its commentary on capitalism is clearly representative of similar tropes spotted all throughout the filthy depths of online platforms such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and Tumblr.
“Don’t listen to this.”
Currently, however, bubblegum bass has achieved something neither vaporwave nor witch house could ever have envisioned, something that separates it from other recent fads: legitimate intrigue from those outside the digital and music community. SOPHIE and QT’s Boiler Room sets furthered the genre’s shock popularity that already threatens to bubble over into the mainstream. It is likely that the painfully catchy “Hey QT” has even celebrated mainstream radio airplay; whereas, even the tidiest vaporwave tunes seldom get played on underground radio, let alone anything universally culturally accepted.
Much mystique also already surrounds the genre; further enabling critics and musicologists to grapple with the movement and its ethos. Take, for example, QT’s claims that she is not a pop star but in fact, an entrepreneur utilising pop music to freely advertise her energy drink. Or, try and decipher GFOTY’s (anagram for “Girl Friend of the Year”) bedazzling Instagram account filled with selfies and quotes perfectly complimentary to the imagery of her music.
“It’s been especially stimulating thinking about what makes something real or unreal, synthetic or natural.”
– QT, FACT MAG interview.
Equal parts rebellion, irony, aesthetic and joy, the genre balances its ideologies so delicately, most struggle to grapple with what bubblegum bass may (or may not) be trying to say or do. In-depth analyses of PC Music and bubblegum bass have already surfaced on Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, FACT MAG and dozens of blogs — each writer competing to accurately contextualise the strange and divisive nature of the genre. Consensus on the legitimacy of bubblegum bass is yet to be reached and these virtual thinkpieces often manage to further confound and confuse the genre and its ideas.
When sourcing this music, SOPHIE is the most approachable and certainly the best place to start. Her (or his?) most recent single Lemonade/Hard is undoubtedly one of the most defined statements of 2014. “Hard” bounces with dizzying beats that run cacophonous rings around the listener before bursting into a sensationalist chorus dripping with K-pop and insincerity. Similarly, “Lemonade” is a slippery micro-monolith of repetition, high-energy and stimuli. The pairing of “Lemonade” and “Hard” marks the genre’s current peak, though there is certainly fascinating stuff going on elsewhere within the genre and its (one? two? fifty?) affiliates.
“Maybelline, Maybellicious / Topman, Topshop, Topgirl / Fake Prada, fake Lily, fake Zara.”
– Lipgloss Twins
Bubblegum bass kind of exists in a vacuous space where performance art and mass media threateningly coexist as unlikely bedfellows. To some, the intelligence of the genre – what the genre is actually saying – far outweighs any actual aesthetic appreciation of the music. Contrariwise, there would be those who admire the music of QT, SOPHIE and A.G. Cook purely for its high-octane, all-night party-vibes. As stated earlier, some of these songs wouldn’t raise suspicion if played in nightclubs or mainstream radio, though it could be argued these artists are mocking the very scene they are contributing to. The aesthetic and cognitive values of bubblegum bass are perhaps reminiscent of Andy Warhol and the pop art movement of the 1960s: re-appropriation, celebration/indignation of mass media and the dichotomy of consumerist/capitalist values share equal footing and it remains the burgeoning task of the audience and critic to decipher the art as they see fit.
On one account, the genre is begging to be taken seriously. The intricate musicality of SOPHIE’s output alone is enough to warrant listeners to pay legitimate attention. Occasional, violent bursts of noise distort much of the genre’s apparent shimmery cleanliness, temporarily removing the listener from the calculated pop-ness and reminding us of these artists’ dubstep pasts. Even QT’s somewhat failed Boiler Room appearance resembles performance art — purposefully painful to watch like a Marina Abramović piece. This supposed edginess – or punkness — of bubblegum bass and other online musical trends is the basis of Adam Harper’s brilliant piece for Resident Advisor wonderfully titled “The online underground: A new kind of punk?”:
“The online underground is not much like rock in London or New York in the '70s. But it can look rather like punk in three ways: the self-releasing revolution, the provocative aesthetics and the rise of a new generation.”
– Adam Harper
The comparisons between PC Music and punk have, unsurprisingly, been met with much chastisement. Harper’s bold accusations of technologically-limited “older fans” misunderstanding the music have garnered the least welcome response. Though I’m certainly not saying he is wrong, the so-called “online underground” is very much a young persons game – or at the very least, one for technologically and musically advanced and adventurous listeners – not unlike punk was back in the 1970s.
To be fair, however, art so deeply enriched in trickery, meanness and phoniness certainly has the ability to get loathsome quite quickly. Often exceeding 180bpm and aesthetically akin to too much silly string, bubblegum bass is not the kind of music you can just casually put on at any time of the day. Instead, it forcefully yanks the listener’s attention with its digitalised psychedelic palate, leaving you squirming and perplexed in its wake. It’s almost impossible to argue in favour of bubblegum bass without mentioning its cognitive possibilities – the idea of this music is arguably more important than the music itself.
“Aesthetic aims should be secondary to conceptual aims, otherwise you end up with music that is driven by stylistic references rather than its conceptual or musical ideas, or actual content – I’m speaking from experience here. The music or image – the same applies to both – should be built outwardly from the conceptual core to aesthetic appearance in order for the conceptual roots to be present and visible in the final product.”
– SOPHIE, Pitchfork interview.
Regardless, an interesting future is slowly unraveling for the genre and its (one, two, fifty?) players. Considering the genre is currently little more than a slew of singles and DJ Mixes (not a single full-length has been released, despite QT’s signing to XL and the prolific PC Music singles), it seems bubblegum bass is barely getting started. Can you even imagine the film clips? The live concerts? The full-length albums?
So, this new musical phenomena – if we dare call it that — is currently the intriguing art movement of 2014 and one we can excitedly watch shape and change over the coming years. Given its spiraling paradoxes, contradictions, insecurities and garish hipness, bubblegum bass is about as wonderful as it is annoying — and that in itself is enough to satisfy this inquisitive listener.