PC Music Forever

by Aimee Cliff

“Are you ready to experience this unlimited experience?” asks Miss 2.0, a PC Music avatar, as she stares out from a chat window, an unblinking green-lit icon declaring that she is eternally online. She is the promise of the infinite scroll and unlimited data personified: hit “x” and she does not die.

Like the very first pop song I ever owned on cassette, most of the online underground label PC Music’s “hits” are based around the idea of an unspecified yet definitely totally blissful “forever.” For the past year, the label has had London club-goers raising their collective WKDs at sweaty basement parties, and filling their social timelines with its accelerated pop sound. It feels like an allergic reaction to the gloomy head-nodding that has dominated London’s electronic music scene in the last few years, which itself provided a counterpoint to the glossy, hyperreal feeling of chart pop. It instead wields hyperreality as an ethos: online, it’s a cast of airbrush-skinned characters reciting all-you-can-download excess; at intimate and rowdy club nights, it’s a bunch of young, uber-enthusiastic DJs who entrance equally young crowds with banger after banger after banger.

The most common critical narrative about PC Music has been that it’s “divisive.” The superlative nature of the label’s output — spanning everything from this alien instrumental from Lil Data to the A. G. Cook and SOPHIE-produced pop song ‘Hey QT’ — is consciously intense, testing new listeners with helium voices and overstuffed candy-rave production. It’s enough to drown out what might be the clearest and most vivid expression of what PC Music is attempting to perform: its lyrics.

On the collective’s showcase mix for DIS magazine earlier this year, ringleader A. G. Cook opened with a track that riffs on the words “money,” “music” and “melody” as lyrical stand-ins, seemingly mocking the way in which tropes of pop lyricism are rolled out so easily as to constitute verbal melody — easy, associative word groups to be yelled noiselessly in the club at two in the morning, or memorized like advertising jingles. In the first five minutes of the same mix, the phrase “Red Bull” is used as a beat, its corporate stamp becoming literally inextricable from the music.

In a rare interview given to Tank magazine early last year, Cook described the “manic” craftsmanship that goes into the “slick collage” he’s built with his label. “It’s sort of communicating something,” he explained, “but there’s all this extra stuff going on. By the time you try to figure out what it’s about, you’ve entered a sort of immersive world of ideas and references.”

Taken in isolation, one at a time, the sickly sonics of the tracks can feel alienating; accept the label’s spirit of excess, however, and knock them back all at once, and you find yourself in the middle of a world that’s too emotionally loaded to be purely a joke, too intricate and seamless to be throwaway. The top three tracks currently on the PC Music Soundcloud page are Hannah Diamond’s squelchy cyber-ballad “Attachment,” Cook’s bright pink rave romance “Beautiful,” and Danny L Harle’s hyperbolically amazing “In My Dreams.” All three tracks are pinned to the concept of “forever”: The boy Diamond is singing to is long gone, but she’s clinging to a memory of being told they’d be “together forever,” the same way she’s clinging to his photo she has saved in her phone; the canned vocalist on “Beautiful” rhymes “forever” and “together” twelve times, with an urgency that borders on terrifying; and “In My Dreams” sighs, “that’s the feeling, I want it forever / all the birds sing, they all sing together.”

Listen to the songs one after another, and the interchangeability of their tropes seems less accidental, more forceful. Eternity isn’t just an easy rhyme scheme for PC Music, it’s part of the fabric of its universe. The waveform isn’t enough to contain it.

“Forever” is detached from the physical world, where decay and other icky processes would just get in its way, and fittingly, PC Music’s lyrics scarcely speak to the body. “I guess I’ll see you in my dreams,” Danny L Harle’s banger repeats ad infinitum, while Hannah Diamond recalls how it felt to fall asleep next to her BF, only to see him “in [her] dreams.” “Tell me if you want to see me / play with my hair on a TV,” she flirts on another 2014 track, “Keri Baby,” because nothing’s sexier than a person on the other side of a screen, a person that you can never touch.

These songs don’t feel out of place when they’re blasted at PC Music nights alongside real-world money-makers like “Pretty Green Eyes,” Usher’s “Yeah,” or Dizzee Rascal’s cheesy “Holiday,” where they’re met with equal sugar-fueled rapture. In that context, it’s obvious that the work of Cook and co. shouldn’t be reduced to an acid take-down of commercial pop — there’s way too much love in the room for that. Hannah Diamond’s “Attachment” reminds me of Britney Spears’ 2003 single “Everytime,” — fragile starlet voices tiptoeing over sparse, twinkling productions. Britney sings, “I make believe that you are here, / it’s the only way I see you clear” for Hannah’s 2.0 version of the same feeling: “I can see you clearly / now I’ve saved a picture of you on my phone.”

The construction of the PC Music lab was clearly inspired in part by crossover post-rave dance hits that flooded the UK charts in the early aughts: Rui Da Silva’s 2001 single “Touch Me” was written around the same repetitive “I’m always thinking of you baby”; 3 of a Kind’s candied two-step, which went to number one in the UK in 2004, shares PC Music’s flat-speaking and bratty vocal style, and shares consciously silly repetitive tics. “Pretty Green Eyes” promised you would “never have to be alone.” A personal favorite, Vengaboys’ 1999 “Boom Boom Boom Boom!!” centered around a promise: “let’s spend the night together, from now until forever.”

PC Music’s infinite moment is the nightmarish fulfillment of promises made to a certain generation: A generation whose pop cassettes drummed into them that “forever” was an option, who remember the day the first personal computer was brought into their childhood homes. It’s a generation whose pop songs carried echoes of the ecstasy boom of the nineties, using repetitive hooks, rave-y stabs and pulse-racing BPMs to convey its spirit in something much more marketable. It’s a generation whose own ecstasy boom never came, who were only ever sold the experience second-hand — a generation whose club culture has always been over-priced and heavily policed, whose musical epiphanies happen on YouTube behind pre-roll ads, whose nostalgia doesn’t stop at the boundaries of their own experience, but gives them FOMO for every and any cultural moment they are able to see documented online.

“My work’s constant use of instantly gratifying elements such as kitsch imagery, catchy hooks, synthetic colours and fun sound effects feels inevitable,” Cook told Tank last year. “It’s almost a compulsion rather than a choice.” These compulsions are perfectly familiar: we are compelled to keep scrolling, compelled to Add To Basket, compelled to keep hitting Refresh. “Attachment,” “Beautiful” and “In My Dreams” are anthems for a generation that sits restlessly cropping Instagrams and drafting tweets, desperately striving to become immortal brands themselves. They might even be going so far as to sign up to one of the many services that now exist to properly preserve (or even update) your online social media presence after your very real death.

These artists crave forever: They’re terrified of loneliness, fundamentally narcissistic, obsessed with images and products and anything else that they think might help preserve them. And that’s why, despite being advertised with lifelessly photoshopped faces like those of Lipgloss Twins or GFOTY, there’s more humanity to PC Music than most listeners would like to admit.