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What does it mean to be an Extremely Online musician in 2019?

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The recent tide in music culture might be characterised by the industry’s seismic shift towards being fully online.

From the radical, Marxist notion of artists seizing the means of production and crafting entire sonic worlds from their laptop to record labels’ frantic scramble to adapt to streaming. If that is the case, then 2019, the last gasp of this turbulent era, may prove to be a tipping point of sorts – the event horizon where music once encapsulating digital elements has become digitisation encapsulating musical elements. We have stepped through the black mirror-looking glass into the glorious computer world Kraftwerk first prophesied long ago. The sound of the internet is the defining sound of our times, and more artists than ever before seem to convey this borderless, boundary-less paean to the virtual through their work itself.

The thing is, you better not tell them that. 2019 has been littered with releases from artists who have an intangible ‘something’ in common, be it genre-contortions encroaching on obliteration, maniacally abrasive or impenetrable soundscapes, or a persona that is purposefully layered through the lens of the world online. A trait they have in common that is far more tangible is their marked distaste for being pinned down or labelled as such. “Internet-core”, a seemingly innocuous moniker tossed around by music journalists attempting to position these artists into a broader cultural narrative, is a downright slur.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than the reaction of JPEGMAFIA to a Pitchfork review of his track Beta Male Strategies, a fuzzy freakout that is among the highlights of his excellent third album All My Heroes Are Cornballs. The 30-year-old rapper from Brooklyn is among the most captivating artists working in hip-hop today, marrying blistering, insightful raps to jaw-droppingly experimental beats. And while the review in question acknowledges these accomplishments, it also dismisses his aesthetic as “extremely online – jokes for the deepest corners of Reddit.” Unsurprisingly, Peggy was less than thrilled, venting his frustration on Twitter at what such a criticism even means: “step into REALITY”, he wrote.

Indeed, what does that mean? What is ‘too online’ in 2019 and what is music that qualifies for this distinction? What music isn’t online and why is a hierarchy even in place? Is this just a lazy attempt to assign a genre to a movement that, in many ways, is post-genre? As JPEGMAFIA’s now-infamous Twitter thread demonstrates, the artists most likely to be categorised as such are the most likely to firmly distance themselves from it. With this in mind, we discussed whether this notion holds any merit with a selection of artists whose 2019 projects could not be more representative of the digital realm.

An inversion or homogenisation of genre tropes seems a natural outcome of music’s step into the ultra-accessible virtual world, and the number of musicians capitalising on this is unquantifiable. Even so, there is no one making music quite as obstinately genre-less as 100 gecs. The duo of Dylan Brady and Laura Les approach sounds the way the masters of Abstract Expressionism approached the canvas; a bricolage of influences that collate into a sum wholly greater than any of its parts. On this year’s debut album 1000 gecs, opening track 745 sticky manages to incorporate elements of trap, Italo disco, EDM, and PC Music-esque saccharine electronica within a pop structure lasting barely more than two minutes. That they released the album’s acapella vocals, instrumentals and production stems for free download a few months later accentuates the patchwork-quilt quality of their aesthetic.

“Music can travel the world without the internet, and it makes sense that it would only intensify its influence with it”
– King Tusk

“I don’t think about that when writing music at all,” Brady says regarding their extreme level of genre experimentation. “We just write what we want to hear,” adds Les. Both cite the internet as being crucial to their artistic practice (“We do love the internet,” says Les. “No one would hear our music without the internet… when I’m online that’s the real me,” says Brady), and with its radical potential to tear down the borders of sonic signifiers, they fail to see the future of genre as anything more than how “it’s cool for people to have words for things that they want to find.”

On a structural level, hip-hop may be the forerunner of this playfully style-hopping approach, and in 2019 rap-adjacent projects twisted the genre even further. Injury Reserve, a trio from Arizona whose sense of irreverence may be unmatched in any of their rising hip-hop peers, displayed a mastery of self-aware playfulness on their self-titled debut, best expressed on the track Rap Song Tutorial, a hilariously meta moment that guides the listener on a literal journey through the studio mechanics of its creation.

“They definitely come up but more as reference points than any specific goal,” says member Parker Corey on the group’s subversion of genre tropes. “People just need to see them more as adjectives that can help describe a song rather than an end all, be all classification of it.”

On the other hand, group member Ritchie With a T makes a case for the relevance of genre in the internet age. “It is extremely important to classify music in separate genres,” he says, “because genres are labels of history, heritage, culture, people, families, blood, sweat, death, time. To completely ignore genres, we dismiss the gatekeepers before us. I think there is a healthy way to be conscious and pay our respects to genres while also not allowing them to box people in.” But neither Ritchie nor Parker condone their approach as representative of any scene or trend. “The idea of being a placeholder artist or a part of some type of scene scares me,” says Ritchie. “In terms of our own work, I think the web is a big part of it, but the label ‘internet-core’ would be reductive at best,” adds Parker.

Regardless of their relationship to the virtual world, 2019’s crop of new artists innately understand the possibilities of the virtual, genre-free world and express it in their work to an unprecedented extent. As to why they reject an easy catch-all for this artistic approach or elude a diagnostic analysis, there is no simple answer. Perhaps it is rooted in the idea that labels and distinctions in music have become archaic, subsequently limiting the ability of these new hybridised creations to thrive. “We are looking forward to the future of music, where people will redefine the instruments that they play, and redefine sounds for new physical and virtual spaces,” says experimental production outfit King Tusk.

They also insightfully noted that “music can travel the world without the internet, and it makes sense that it would only intensify its influence with it… Music seems to fracture that way.” Ergo, music may be ‘the’ medium of the internet age; no other art form lends itself to such immediate virality or can be executed with such widespread accessibility. With that in mind, it’s all the more obvious that it’s the new generation, the youngest of today’s rising artists, that understand and practice this with the most clarity. And while it seems unlikely that this shift will eliminate genre entirely, there is something undeniably futuristic about a homogenised sound transcending our previously conceived notions of music.

Illustration: VOJD

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