Photos courtesy Maria Jose Govea/Red Bull Content Pool
PC Music and Sophie have announced their supposed foray into mass media with the launch of the Pop Cube network backed by Red Bull. The conceit is intriguing, but not particularly innovative. The Bay Area record label Thizz Entertainment’s Treal TV series hosted by Mac Dre is a comparable precursor, a multimedia endeavor amplified by distribution on the Internet during the early aughts. If Friday’s Pop Cube launch party at BRIC House in Brooklyn for the Red Bull Music Academy Festival offered an immersive preview of PC Music and Sophie’s latest media scheme, then it is worth tuning out, revealing the shortcomings of their conceptual undertaking.
Critics remain perplexed as to what PC Music and Sophie are trying to achieve. Are they “trolling EDM,” “turning the macho culture of dance and house music on its head,” “post-Internet art,” or “pure contemptuous parody?” As the speculation mounts, the PC Music catalog has become more robust, encompassing videos and an energy drink concept, which lack the precision of the label’s early audio and visual releases. Although, Diamond Wright images do not always stand up to the rigor of artists and investigators like Archival Aesthetics and Tabor Robak. (Thizz Entertainment comes to mind once more, considering that the affiliated rap group The Team introduced the Hyphy Juice energy drink in 2005 as the Bay Area movement gained notoriety.)
One can trace PC Music’s stylistic origins to the ubiquity of the “Soar” in pop music from 2011, a trope Daniel Barrow first identified in an essay on The Quietus and describes as, “that surge from a dynamically static mid-tempo 4/4 verse to a ramped-up major-key chorus, topped, in the case of female singers, with fountaining melisma.” Music writer and theorist Mark Fisher commends the prescient essay, reflecting on the deleterious effects of “mainstream culture’s hedonism” in his latest book, titled Ghosts of My Life. “Pop has always delivered sugar-sweet pleasure, of course, but, Barrow argues, there’s a tyrannical desperation about this new steroid-driven pop. It doesn’t seduce; it tyrannizes,” he writes.
In some ways, the Pop Cube event was an exercise in pop tyranny, specifically the first two hours when the artists enacted a shallow critique of Internet-mediated celebrity culture. Outside BRIC House, fans awaited the arrival of PC Music artists and Sophie for an hour behind a metal barricade before being permitted to enter the venue. The performers were lying in wait in a stretch SUV limo parked around the corner, getting ready to stage a paparazzi circus on the red carpet. When they finally arrived, most guests could only make out a flutter of camera flashes. After exiting the limo first, Hayden Dunham, the Brooklyn-based artist who performs as the face of the QT project, climbed atop a Red Bull party truck and began to feign a DJ set. Parked next to the barricades, the truck resembled a military-grade armored vehicle, the type recently transferred to local police forces and deployed at protests around the United States. In this light, waiting below the looming party truck recalled the kettles and corrals used to herd and detain Occupy activists and demonstrators protesting tuition hikes in the UK (see the Precarious Workers Brigade).
Waiting to enter a party is not the same predicament as being held indefinitely by police for hours on end. If anything, the comparison indicates PC Music’s success at exaggerating the oppressive structure and seductive aura of corporate branding. Dunham’s performance and the other PC Music personas heavily rely on “ironic detachment” to achieve their efficacy, a term Rory Rowan uses to characterize the normative strategy of Normcore in e-flux journal #58. But what are the implications of ironic detachment, particularly if your audience is seeking to dance, not to demystify high capitalism?
Things took a turn for the worst as guests began filing into BRIC House, obliging photographers by posing on the red carpet in front a branded step and repeat. Once inside, PC Music rep Finn Mactaggart acted as director and agent, shuffling fans into a small photography set at the bottom of the terraced atrium so they could take selfies with QT, Hannah Diamond and GFOTY. The photo frenzy was not so different from the adulation bestowed upon Jesse Ben Woozy, who performed as Sophie during the producer’s Boiler Room set last August. Jazper Abellera elaborates in an Noisey op-ed, “After the set, members of the crowd approached Woozy under the assumption that he was, indeed, Sophie. Watching them unload accolades over an imposter revealed the brilliance of the ruse: what the audience had just experienced was no different than most events where famous DJs of monolithic proportion play pre-recorded sets for fans who pay to see them.” The keyword here is ruse, the tactic that informs a kind of Tom Green performance art, where ironic detachment evades an audience of their subjectivity to the performance itself, only to be recorded and repurposed at their expense.
Tom Green performance art can enticingly repackage corporate branding and celebrity culture, but it is only cogent for those watching the audience succumb to the performance, in effect, laughing at the gag. More often than not, it verges on the “accidental neoconservatism” that Rowan ascribes at times to K-Hole’s “Youth Mode.” Whether the appearance release forms actually mean the Pope Cube event will be broadcast, if footage did surface, it would lack the critical depth and obtuseness of an artist-driven social experiment like Alli Coates and Signe Pierce’s recent film “American Reflexxx,” where Pierce ends up bearing the butt of the “joke” by enduring physical abuse, not the bystanders we see on screen. Ultimately, the problems that arose at the Pop Cube launch are not the fault of conceptualism in music, but rather the shoddiness of the execution. By the time the performances had started in the BRIC House main theater, people were not discouraged by the event’s protracted start. The concert was underway and that is what fans had come to see.