Last week, PC Music poster girl GFOTY got in serious trouble for making a joke. In a review of London festival Field Day, written over iMessage for Noisey UK, the artist played the usual self-obsessed character she portrays in her songs and interviews, penning tongue-in-cheek quips like “pretty damn fucking annoyed that no one has played any of my songs during their sets.” But then, she said she “saw a tribal band play,” referring to legendary Malian kora players Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, adding, “I think they were covering Bombay Bicycle Club/Bombay Bicycle Club blacked up.”
The comments struck a similar chord to her off-color quote in a Guardian profile this year, in which she called PC Music the “white version of Odd Future.” This time, UK website The Quietus immediately called out the Field Day comments as “racist” in a tweet. The reaction was significant enough that Noisey eventually removed the offending comments from the piece, writing that “It shouldn’t have been published in its original version.” Even PC Music tweeted, “We are extremely disappointed by the completely inexcusable comments made by GFOTY.”
She quickly apologized on Twitter, clarifying she’d intended her words as a “joke about appropriation”—i.e. it was supposed to be obvious that she didn’t actually believe the Diabatés were covering a British indie-pop band with a fetish for African sounds. I get the joke, as a parody of a certain kind of casually racist, non-self-aware, white upper-middle-class festival-goer. But GFOTY is white and upper middle-class (her real name is Polly-Louisa Salmon, and her IRL dad is art dealer Jeff Salmon). She went to a festival with a VIP wristband and said a blinkered, racist thing. She says it’s a joke. But what—or who—is the punchline?
I like the music of PC Music and GFOTY a lot. I once wrote in this column about the parodic element that PC Music bring to pop, with a mention of GFOTY, who I believed to be trolling “online manifestations of femininity” and consumerism with her justgirlythings.tumblr.com-esque lyrics and seeming worship of all things fiscal (once asked by FACT about her most prized possession, she replied “money...money...buying...money!” while slurping a Starbucks). Similarly, PC Music’s heavily re-touched and branded visual aesthetics (think: their energy drink/superstar, QT) and accelerated radio-pop sound mirror the mainstream in a way that’s suggested parody from the start. Their musical and visual output has consistently walked a fine line between being humorous enough to suggest they’re being ironic, but also technically rigorous enough to suggest they’re being sincere. It’s a blurring of intent that’s led to an avalanche of thinkpieces, all revolving around a single question: are they being serious, or what? Are they mocking the corporate musical mainstream, or joining it?
Some have leapt to GFOTY’s defense, claiming that she shouldn’t be criticized because her intention was to satire racists. It’s a freedom-of-speech, anti-political correctness argument that we’ve been hearing time and time again this year. Recently, comedy gatekeeper Jerry Seinfeld sparked controversy by telling ESPN that he avoids college gigs because today’s university campuses are too politically correct—and because teenagers in general are too quick to label things as “racist” or “sexist” when “they don’t even know what the fuck they’re talking about.” Later, he lamented to Seth Meyers that some of his bits don’t work any more because “there’s a creepy P.C. thing out there.” In some ways, Seinfeld is right: American young people are more politically aware and, thanks to the internet, more mobilized than they’ve been in recent memory. And with good reason: the GFOTY story broke at the same time as some major news about a cop in Texas pulling a gun on teenagers and pinning a teenage black girl to the ground did—just one in a string of racist police brutality cases that are now gaining worldwide attention in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. When these are the headlines popping up on our feeds, can we blame today’s youth for not wanting to laugh along with a racist joke, however sarcastic its intentions?
For his part, in a Rolling Stone interview earlier this year, PC boss A. G. Cook spoke pretty unequivocally of the collective’s aims: “We take it seriously...There's no way that satire could be at the core of anything.” But his declaration of sincerity only makes things more confusing. If there’s no parody or satire at the heart of PC Music, if its characters are for real (Cook describes GFOTY as a “real, wild personality”), why would GFOTY say racist things and then claim she was playing a parodic character as defense?
There’s one general rule that prevents a joke from simply being as cruel as the system its mocking: punch up, don’t punch down.
Following GFOTY’s Noisey flub, Berlin-based Houston-born producer Lotic tore into the collective and into the press’s obsession with them. He pointed out that having ambiguous intentions does not mean your work is meaningful, and accused the music press of over-hyping the group when there are queer artists and people of color with more important messages. “You can congratulate PC Music et al. for their mystery and ‘clever’ use of ‘irony,’ or you can just investigate and realize that it’s merely a vapid art project by a handful of rich kids (mostly male, with female avatars btw),” Lotic wrote. “Your making excuses for their boring music is part of the problem. You actually don’t have to pretend that anything that’s even vaguely non-conforming is good or cool...There is so much music being made by incredibly talented queers and people of color that it’s almost always comical to read headlines about straight white musicians...There’s nothing brave about not showing your face and nothing exciting about having nothing real to say.”
With both parody—GFOTY’s preferred mode of humor, which involves embodying and exaggerating the object you’re making fun of—and satire—which is more critical, highlighting the flaws in the object—there’s one general rule that prevents a joke from simply being as cruel as the system its mocking: punch up, don’t punch down. Aim your critique at institutions and more privileged classes, never at the more marginalized or oppressed. In his recent Saturday Night Live opening monologue, Louis CK showed it’s possible to be a controversial, funny (white) comedian in 2015 while still being mindful of his own potential blindspots. Louis performed a bit about himself being “mildly racist” that was actually very similar in intention to the joke GFOTY was trying to make; he spoke about the implicit racial bias that he as an older middle class white person has internalized. He didn’t only punch up, but punched firmly at himself, and made that explicit.
When it comes to the musical underground, there are plenty of voices who have surfaced this year with ideas on how to critique the powers that be without falling into the ethical grey areas of irony. Earlier this year, I interviewed experimental artist Holly Herndon on her ambitious and optimistic new record, Platform for Dazed. Speaking on the “sarcasm or parody” that exists in some of the current musical underground, in outtakes from the piece, she told me, “I think a lot of people deal with the pressure of mainstream culture by emulating mainstream culture in an ironic way. Which can be quite cathartic, and can be therapeutic, but it doesn’t offer anything else.” On Platform, Herndon tasks herself with finding new ways in which to express ourselves and free ourselves (track titles include “New Ways to Love” and “An Exit,” the concepts of which you can read more about here). “It’s so easy to be cynical these days,” she said during that same interview. “I really like the idea of people being optimistic and envisioning different social structures and different ways to live, and artists have a unique role in that; we’re given this opportunity to imagine and fantasise and create new futures.”
The conversation echoed one I’d had for another Dazed interview with Night Slugs’ Jam City, whose debut album had an almost parodic, hyper-capitalist, hyper-glossy feel, which was flipped on its head for his grunge-y, lo-fi follow-up Dream A Garden. Jam City—real name Jack Latham—was also skeptical that the status quo could ever be effectively challenged by emulating it sarcastically. “I’m aware that there’s a certain use of consumerist aesthetics by people, with maybe a degree of irony or something, and perhaps I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past,” he told me, also in outtakes from our interview. “You’re in dangerous territory when you choose to use those aesthetics, because if all that’s separating a critique from a replica of that is a thin sense of irony, or play even, then you’re in danger of replicating a lot of the real ideologies of hatred that goes into the production of those images.”
Touching on the misogynist and racist frameworks behind mass-marketed images of beauty, Latham went on to suggest that it’s exclusionary of people at the bottom of the class structure to launch a critique of capital that mirrors its imagery: “Just remember who the enemy is. When you replicate those aesthetics, those advertising images, there’s a whole context you need to situate them in of global violence and global oppression...I think it can be really irresponsible to replicate those things and not situate them, just being kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink about it.”
Beyond Herndon and Jam City, there are plenty of artists reshaping the underground by building the world they want to see. There’s the likes of Lotic and Total Freedom, part of a geographically far-flung scene of producers creatings their own radical, global club culture, scraping the insides out of pop music to make it 10 times more fun and 10 times more nasty. There’s collectives like London’s Endless, who are envisioning new futures for the UK’s clubs by throwing rowdy DIY parties in abandoned spaces, and bringing multicultural sounds to the dancefloor. Similarly, London club night Body Party is revolutionizing the city’s nightlife by actively creating a safe space for queer people and people of color, and, in the words of founder Kareem Reid, “[making] immigrant sounds the norm.”
The night before writing this article, I watched conceptual Norwegian artist Jenny Hval perform at London’s Southbank Centre. Her work, including this year’s bristling Apocalypse, girl, is widely described as “psycho-sexual parody” (one lyrical stunner: the cupcake is the huge capitalist clit), and the performance made plenty of people in the Southbank audience uncomfortable enough to leave. There were flashes that reminded me of GFOTY, parodying the oppressive capitalist idea of womanhood that’s predicated on buying stuff and looking pretty: Hval wore a long pink wig, offsetting the deep sarcasm of her lyrics (feminism’s over...I consume what I want now, she announces on “The Battle Is Over”). Onstage, she and her backing dancers and musicians sang extremely bad karaoke of Toni Braxton’s “Un-break My Heart.” But the parody had disruptive elements, too: ”Un-break My Heart”’s instrumental was slowly overwhelmed by a deafening drone, and Hval eventually ripped off the wig, transitioning into a moving display of fragility and tenderness as she turned to embraced her dancer. The parody progressed, becoming satire or critique: the status quo was made fun of, then swiftly torn apart.
That’s where Lotic’s words, “there’s nothing exciting about having nothing real to say,” rang loudly in my ears. Contrast Hval’s performance, or the progressive aim of Body Party, with a set from PC Music affiliate and collaborator SOPHIE that I watched last week, where at various points he displayed images of pigs and internal videos of surgery as he played his sugary pop contortions. It felt like satire; it could have been a takedown of the greed of corporations, a comment on the rotten innards of the music industry. But that seemed like a pretty huge leap of logic, given the fact he was playing a song that was literally licensed to appear in a Samsung advert. SOPHIE once said his genre is “advertising.” It was a funny thing to say, but what was the point?
PC Music’s appeal has always largely been that it’s kind of pointless. It’s described as parody so frequently because it repeats the aesthetics of mass-marketed pop music, but it also revels uncritically in those aesthetics; some of my favorite PC Music tracks trade on the same promises of infinite bliss that you hear in vapid pop songs (that’s the feeling, I want it forever) while also being self-consciously trendy and of-the-moment, burning up hard, fast and bright. The tracks generate that same arms-in-the-air feeling of weightlessness that comes at 2am when you’re wasted and all you can focus on is the cheesiest of hooks.
But the moment of oblivious infinity has to end. There is a world outside the club, and that’s becoming increasingly important inside it. A. G. Cook has spoken of his desire to turn GFOTY and Hannah Diamond into bona fide pop stars, and to build himself a long-running super-pop-producer career akin to that of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. PC Music put on sold-out shows with corporate sponsorship, and they license their music for major advertising campaigns. They serious about what they do, and they’re cashing in on it. But if they’re aiming for longevity, at some point they need to stand for something. Jokes without a point fade away quickly, like the vacuous one-hit-wonders of your youth; meanwhile, the ones having the last laugh are the ones with something real to say.