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Why you should be listening to hyperpop

When I started the first track of 100 gecs’ first album 1000 gecs, I thought the entire band had to be a joke. The music was distorted to the point of destruction, and all of the vocals were autotuned to near-incomprehensibility. It was the most maximalist music I’d ever heard, and I couldn’t believe anyone could find it even moderately listenable. There was absolutely no way that this album could be anything but satire. And yet, as I progressed from track to track, the song transitions punctuated with wailing sirens and staticky noise, I found myself oddly addicted to the chaos. Even if I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why, something was strangely compelling about this ridiculous album; I found myself starting the album over when it finished, and then again after the second play. By the time the third repeat finished, only about an hour total of listening, I felt like I had seen the future of music - and was completely converted.

As I would eventually come to learn, 100 gecs was just one of many bands creating hyperpop. Hyperpop is a loosely-defined type of music, as much a movement as it is a genre, characterized by extreme, maximalist takes on pop. A typical hyperpop song features vocals that are auto tuned past the point of sounding human, unrecognizably distorted bass, and chaotically messy cheerfulness. The sounds are very crunchy and frequently off-putting. Mixed with a fast tempo, aggressively upbeat melodies, and a hook that’s just a little bit catchier than it should be, it’s a genre that’s pretty much unlike any other. It feels different than other music, and not always in a good way; most people hate hyperpop upon a first listen, characterizing it as “just noise” or “not real music, just loud noises”. To understand why hyperpop is so revolutionary, we must first look at music itself.

What is music, and why do we enjoy it? This is the topic of a lot of discussion, scientific and philosophical, and it’s a question I feel completely unqualified to answer. However, one specific aspect comes up in nearly every discussion of music: tension and release. As a song plays out over time, it sets up and resolves tension in a way that’s particularly satisfying to our ears. There are three main dimensions of tension and release that music can incorporate: harmony, rhythm, and timbre. A good song can create and release tension with all three of those to create a multifaceted experience for the ear, and the way that we define a genre has a lot to do with the balance they strike between the three dimensions.

The first pillar of music is harmony, made up of the melody of a song and its interplay with other notes. The superposition of individual notes into complex chords creates tension and release within the notes, often referred to as dissonance (a chord that feels unresolved) and consonance (a chord that feels resolved). When harmonies and their melodies play out over time, beautiful and complex songs can be created. Harmony is present in all music, but the genre that brings it to its extreme is jazz. Jazz relies heavily on complex chords and detailed music theory to create wildly complicated harmonies that can often be harsh to the ear, but can also evoke emotions unlike anything else. 

The second pillar is rhythm. If harmony is vertical, meaning that notes are stacked on top of each other, rhythm is horizontal; it’s how these notes play against each other over time and how the song moves forward. When notes are played, how long they’re held, and how fast they move are all aspects of rhythm. Much as every song except for a simple drum solo has harmony, every sound except for a single sustained tone has a rhythm to it. The genres that bring rhythm to its extreme include funk, R+B, and most recently, hip-hop and rap. All of these genres rely on syncopation and heavy rhythmic variation to drive the song forward, setting up and releasing percussive tension more than harmonic tension.

The third pillar is timbre, also often referred to as texture, tone, or color. It refers to the actual sound quality of the song; for example, an electric guitar solo and a flute solo may contain the same notes in the same rhythm, but the way they sound will be completely different. As our musical capabilities have expanded, it’s timbre that has changed the most, from our humble origins singing and drumming around fireplaces to modern orchestras and rock bands. Jazz instrumentalists love wind instruments like saxophones and trumpets, whereas an a capella group that covers those same jazz songs doesn’t use instruments at all. Over the last fifty years, our ability to electronically synthesize music has absolutely exploded, leading to dramatic developments in the spheres of pop, electronic music, and essentially every other genre. The vocal effects used by Daft Punk, the synthesizers used by The Weeknd, and many of the other iconic sounds of the last few decades of music would be impossible without our newfound technological capabilities.

If jazz is the extremification of harmony, and hip-hop and rap are extremifying rhythm, what is the extremification of timbre? Our capabilities have been expanding so rapidly that every time it seemed we were at a limit, we unlocked whole new worlds, from the continuous invention of new instruments to digital sound synthesis techniques. These inventions have brought us multi-track songs, synthesized instruments, EDM, ASMR, and so much more. After years of new frontiers in timbre, we are finally reaching the limits, and the genre that brings timbre to its newest extreme is hyperpop. The sounds it uses are the most exaggerated sounds we’re willing to accept as music, and it uses everything from light chimes to grating, distorted bass to create tension and release simply off of the texture of the note.

The biggest way this extreme control manifests in hyperpop is in the distortion typically present at the moments of release in a song. Often, when a hyperpop song is building, the sound will be relatively clean, or will sound a bit distant as to feel less energetic. When the tension mounts, and the song hits the chorus, the tonal tension is relieved by a huge, distorted bass note. The sounds themselves build the tension and release it, bringing the dimension of timbre to its limit.

The fine control over a song’s sound is used in more ways than that, too. In some songs, hyperpop creators retune sound effects from real life to act as instruments: a retuned police siren, for example, or a text tone modified to fit with the song. The ability to retune is also personally important to the hyperpop community, which is largely made up of LGBTQ+ creators. These creators often use autotune as a vehicle to experiment with the gender presentation of their voice. In short: hyperpop lets creators reshape their songs to have whatever sound they want, with absolutely no limits, pushing the underutilized third dimension of music, timbre, to the limit.

And when something new happens in music, even if it doesn’t have immediate mass appeal, the effects will eventually ripple out. Many types of jazz have yet to break into the mainstream and perhaps never will, but the way jazz has studied harmony has been instrumental in the creation and development of rock, pop, and essentially every other genre we listen to today. As hyperpop continues to push timbre to the breaking point, more mainstream music will incorporate its sound and build it into something beautiful. Charli XCX (you may remember her from Boom Clap, her hit 2014 single, among a ton of other good music) has slowly been transforming her sound into hyperpop, and Phoebe Bridgers recently released some hyperpop remixes of her hit song Kyoto. Five years from now, your favorite band might not be hyperpop, but your favorite band’s favorite band will be.

Want to join in on the future of music? There’s never been a better time to get into hyperpop. The genre is continuously evolving, and has so much more depth to it than I could ever describe in one article. My favorite hyperpop album is 1000 gecs, and the current state of the movement is usually pretty well-described by Spotify’s “hyperpop” playlist, curated by some of the biggest artists in the scene. If you’re looking for a slightly gentler introduction, though, I made you a small playlist of relatively accessible hyperpop to get you into it. Give it a shot; once you get past the initial shock, you may like what you find.

Sam Carpenter is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.

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