The 21st century's obsession with cute unites the mainstream and the underground—but what's behind it?
SOPHIE—the dapper, strawberry-topped producer from London who makes avant-electronica for androids, dripping with the city’s garage and grime influences—is writing a track for J-pop superstar and kawaii weirdo Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. You might struggle to see the similarities between a Japanese megastar with YouTube views hitting well above the 65 million mark and the comparatively paltry 608k Soundcloud plays of SOPHIE’s biggest hit to date, “BIPP.” But listen to the music, and you’ll note they both generate that hyperactive sense of unstoppable, unnatural joy, somewhat akin to an ecstasy over-user feeling like their heart’s about to burst.
Take Kyary’s viral hit “PonPonPon,” with its throbbing, robotic pirouette across an arcade dance mat of trance keys and childlike vocals delivered by a 21-year-old who resembles After Effects Barbie Dakota Rose. In the video, Kyary amps up her Living Doll-style and cute-as-pie persona, pulling a marching band baton from her ear. Not a million sonic miles away, SOPHIE’s “BIPP” glides, bounds and recoils in and around a technicolour rush of camp plonks and clicks. I can make you feel better! an imitation schoolgirl squeals, while being tossed around a wind tunnel of pure energy, sweeping her audience into a vacuum of untempered, overpowering elation.
It’s probably that same unsettling spirit that led Kyary herself to pronounce her class of kawaii—Japanese for "cute"—as “poisonous,” in an interview alongside SOPHIE for Dazed in which the collaborators sifted through what was essentially trash to decide what can and can’t be considered ‘cute’ (aubergines are in but car tires are out, if you're wondering). “Kyary’s look and sound are so sweet they make you feel a little sick,” wrote The FADER’s Duncan Cooper in a recent interview with the J-pop star. Aptly identifying the "too much-ness" of this particular brand of delightful, he points to the dark core of a sound so perfectly pleasurable that it’s creepy. It’s as disturbing as Kyary’s hysterical schoolgirl fans (“Some start crying just talking with me,” she told Cooper), as seedy as the businessmen leering over this infantilized feminine idol (ojisan, or middle-aged men, make up a big part of her audience), and as weird as the fact that SOPHIE’s excessively high vocals promise whatever your heart desires, without actually elaborating on what that desire is.
There are other artists engaging in a similar collusion with pop music right now—if not with the pop makers themselves, then with the pop those makers make. A pocket of them exists in London, where SOPHIE collaborators and peers A. G. Cook, Felicita, Ana Caprix and GFOTY suck an internet's worth of influences, including the shameless celebration of cultural commodities, into their musical vortex. Plus, there's also the bubbly keyboard melodies of other projects, including the baby pink puffer jacket music of Hannah Diamond, the high-end, hip-hop pageantry of Princess Bambi and the almost-nauseatingly bouncy, low-end of identical cheerleaders Lipgloss Twins, with their brand-dropping references to Maybelline, Top Shop and fake Prada, fake Louis, fake Zara. These producers, and more, are all loosely tied together, be it via the garish sonic exploits and HD imagery of A.G. Cook's brainchild and online label PC Music or by virtue of sharing bills for London parties like the short-lived Sheikha or Simon Whybray’s JACK댄스.
“I mean there's definitely an aesthetic, and it's cute,” acknowledges GFOTY (which stands for ‘Girlfriend of the Year’) in an email interview littered with the emoticon winks and cheeky smiles. “I don't think people are making music cos they want it to be cute, but it's a trend definitely. I don't particularly think gfoty is cute though :(“
I tend to agree—particularly when absorbing GFOTY’s Secret Mix, where sped-up vocals and cut-up, repetitive gasps carry the pronouncement that if your friend’s your lover, let your friend be your lover over an insistent metallic clank. Or her autotune-heavy cover of Toni Braxton’s 1996 hit "Unbreak My Heart," sung in an overpowering British accent that’s even more warped and inflected by its own feedback. While GFOTY molds those frivolous feminine tropes into a kind of brazen sentimentality that you could easily define as "cute," there’s also something darker going on beneath the surface. There's a jittery energy to her track “Bobby,” for example, but it also has the most "who-are-you-kidding" lyric ever: I guess it doesn’t really matter. Basically I’m over it.
Complexity is something that might easily be overlooked in listening to and watching these producers, whose engagement with pop is as intuitive as it is keenly constructed. “Maybe there isn’t any difference between Hannah [Diamond] and Kylie [Minogue]?” offers Ana Caprix when I wonder where one might draw the line between big budget super-production and productions that seem to mimic it. “Maybe you need to listen to some Kylie!” he suggests. “Pop is such a spectacle on so many different levels, too. It’s endlessly layered.” Ana Caprix’s recent For Seven Nights This Island Is Ours EP extrapolates on those layers with its fragmented Britney Spears a cappellas and elated trance blasts, while its cover artwork complicates the cartoon gloss of Pacha Ibiza nightclub’s famous cherry symbol with the addition of an inverse indent shadow. “It’s so glossy, bright, the connotations of fresh fruit,” says Caprix. “But what it really represents is so desperate and sad.”
According to GFOTY, her music is partly the result of being a “huge huge psycho fan for romantic/ love/ depressing/ power ballads” by artists like Braxton and Céline Dion, singers who carved big careers out of rose-tinted heartbreak. Meanwhile, keen nail polish wearer Felicita—whose upcoming Frenemies EP builds on the jacked-up sound fetish that tracks like "climb up eh" feast on—has grown his fascination with the practice to the deadly side of acrylic nail shops: “I wanted to create sounds that were as intensely noxious as that smell.”
It is in these tiny asides that the deep, dark side of the hyper-cute aesthetic shines brightest. It’s a consciousness that feels familiar in this age of optimization, where the pursuit of perfection can actually kill you. Extreme plastic surgery, deadly workouts and high cholesterol are part of the inescapable reality that a contemporary cult of consumerism peddles—and Kyary, SOPHIE et al are freely joining the parade to the edge of self-destruction. They bring the seemingly opposite poles of "cute" and "creepy" together in what GFOTY pretty accurately, if unintentionally, analogizes as her love of R Kelly’s “insane” lyrics: “He's either the most clever guy in the universe or a complete moron, and I love that I can't figure it out.”
t’s a consciousness that feels familiar in this age of optimization, where the pursuit of perfection can actually kill you.
Now that an underground artist like SOPHIE is working within the mass media machine that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu represents, I can’t figure out whether this crazed commitment to total superficiality is commendable or reprehensible. Surely, it’s a win for everyone when such a singularly bonkers musical aesthetic makes it to the mainstream, but at what cost and to what end?
It should be noted that not long ago, PC Music artists A. G. Cook, Danny L Harle, GFOTY and others contributed to the PC Music x Dis Own mix, a playlist to accompany and promote New York multimedia art publication DIS Magazine’s DISown "retail platform"/art exhibit, which has thus far been sponsored by Red Bull. In the mix, GFOTY brazenly points to the art-commerce collaboration with an obnoxious vocal chant over an incessant beat—Buy me a drink and I’ll drink it, drink it... Red and blue. Red, silver and blue—while making no pretense as to what’s really at stake: Got the cash. I’ll spend it. So much money gonna lend it. Here, GFOTY directly references said energy drink, for a mix being broadcast from Red Bull Studios, presumably without fear of reprimand, because, to once again quote “Bobby," it doesn’t really matter.
Perhaps, then, it’s not so much a sense of sadness but of futility that makes this music so weird and creepy. In a time of ever-expanding markets feeding on rebellion, that futility makes sense: where there's an oscillation between two seemingly opposing ideologies of capital and resistance, it creates a feedback loop of celebrating and rejecting a hyper-capitalist aesthetic of endless consumption until the two, inevitably, blur into one. In enjoying the superficial frippery at the same time as recognising its profoundly destructive darkness, “more” appears to be the maximalist mantra that Kyary and SOPHIE share, but of what remains a mystery. That’s the revealing duality of this 21st century incarnation of ‘cute’—it identifies the emptiness in excess that is as true as it is ultimately terrifying.