Hyperpop Is the New Sound of Rebellion
The emerging community is repackaging pop to be queerer, realer and more shocking
Published Mar 25, 2021"Hyperpop almost has punk energy," says Quinton Barnes, a solo artist from Kitchener, ON. "It's so serious that people take it as frivolous, but it's serious because it's rebellion. It takes everything you're not supposed to do and puts it together."
The sounds most often associated with hyperpop — pitched-up, hard-tuned vocals, distorted synthesizers and bursts of experimental noise — reflect the duality and fluidity of the queer experience, he says. More than a genre, Barnes sees it as a community of outsiders repackaging pop to be queerer, realer and more surprising.
"The noise seen as abrasive is a way of communicating what it's like to be me, to be a queer person of colour, to be emotional, to be happy, but not always. How do you convey that in a song without being sonically abrasive or lyrically vulnerable?" he asks.
Out of resentment for binaries, he makes multifaceted music that's harder to digest than run-of-the-mill pop. "It's rebellion, but it's using the most mainstream genre — the one we're all taught to hate, the one that's corporate-made — and delivering it on a platter in this ugly context," he explains.
"In that way, we're reclaiming it for ourselves."
Scottish visionary SOPHIE was a fundamental part of creating that environment within the hyperpop community, not only as an extraordinarily inventive producer, but also as a trans woman leading a movement of young, queer creators. Her death this year at age 34 shocked her massive fanbase, but her impact can't be erased. Hyperpop is only growing, expanding through a global online network of producers and songwriters eager to defy the conventions of pop, leading to the international success of artists such as American duo 100 gecs and UK-based art collective PC Music.
It's been on the rise in Canada too. In the past year, Toronto's Casey MQ released babycasey, an opulent, dramatic LP inspired by *NSYNC, Kidz Bop and the desire to make the queer subtext in pop explicit. KICCC put out "MRKMI," a teaser for their nee EP in the genre, scheduled for release on April 1. Barnes put out As a Motherfucker, a sensual experiment with sound and reflection on identity that's fun enough to dance to. Cecile Believe, the SOPHIE collaborator formerly known as Mozart's Sister, dropped Plucking a Cherry from the Void, a dazzling, sexy homage to 2000s starlets and UK garage. Hyperpop artists continue to bubble up across the country, including Hamilton's blackwinterwells, Victoria's Petal Supply and Montreal's Zora Jones.
MQ, who also co-founded the queer Zoom party Club Quarantine, sees hyperpop as a "contribution to and expansion on" punk. Both scenes share an aversion to authoritarianism and conformity, but where punk refuses commercial sounds, hyperpop accepts and exaggerates them to the point of absurdity. MQ says that encouraged him to revisit and recontextualize his love of pop music after repressing it during his youth.
"It's a way of acknowledging that pop diva, that boy band that lives inside you. You can be it. You can own it. It's there to grab," he says.
"We're always kind of rewriting history for ourselves. Going that route was empowering to me, and it was also a way to express a side of myself that I, for a long time, was fearful of because people are homophobic."
Barnes also got to reclaim parts of his past with As a Motherfucker, pulling inspiration from queer icons and "shapeshifters" like Prince and Madonna.
"The way they kind of discard identities and try on new ones, that's queer in a way," he says. "SOPHIE said, 'I can be anything I want,' and that's what's exciting about it. It's queer, left-leaning, not in line with the prevailing order."
Where disco or punk once stood, hyperpop offers a connection point for people outside the binary of sex, sexuality and gender. For Barnes, it's also resistance against capitalism and the celebrity machine that produced his childhood idols.
KICCC, a queer, non-binary Chinese artist in Vancouver, also writes hyperpop with a purpose. They're preparing to release an album that stands in opposition to the masculinity that "permeates most of the space in this world," and part of that meant being able to digitally manipulate their vocals.
"I get to use all my voices. I get to use my sweet soft voice and my low growly voice. There's a freedom for me to play with duality and play with different characters," they say. "A lot of the content in hyperpop points to this intersectionality that mainstream pop might glaze over in order to be more relatable."
As a trans woman, SOPHIE presented the idea of the artificial being real, encouraging artists to recreate themselves fearlessly. The genre she helped build transcends sexuality, making it an alluring option for artists like Barnes and KICCC, wary of being caged by labels.
Cecile Believe, who provided lead vocals for several tracks on SOPHIE's debut album Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides, says the genre is all about exaggerating artificiality. That can manifest as anything from a bitcrushed bassline to unintelligible, chopped-up vocals.
The first time she produced a song entirely on a computer was with SOPHIE, giving her the opportunity to "see how it works when it's really, really working."
"In a more traditional pop setting of a producer and songwriter, you're sitting in a room with a computer with another person or more than one, and you make something. I've been in bands before, but I've never done that, and it's this new way of life," says Believe.
"I think I learned right away that you go with it. You don't put the brakes on. When you're writing a song with somebody you don't know that well, you throw it all out there," she says. "You speak from a place of instinct and the critique comes in later."
There's diversity in each artist's sound, but hyperpop at large remains a cocktail of humour, drama and camp that clicks with queer listeners.
"I think that there's understanding of what that is in the LGBTQ community: playing with going too far with things," she says.
"You're listening to [hyperpop] and it's hard and cool and badass — and then it's fun and bubbly. It just has all these qualities of gender flexibility."
If the number of new hyperpop artists keeps rising at the rate it has in the past year, it's not going anywhere anytime soon. The gender-bending, pitch-shifted music keeps getting more innovative, giving LGBTQ+ folks and anyone else interested in pushing the boundaries in art.
To Believe, the most important part of producing great hyperpop is freedom. Rather than purely being a genre of audio, she compares it to PC Music, as much a collective as "a playful comment on dance music. It's a rhetoric that's signified by sonic things. Like, I always found PC Music and affiliates to be an idea more because the music broadcasted the idea of the saccharine, the artificial being emotional," she explains.
"It's the experimentation with pushing the artificial to the extreme to get to some new, unexplored truth."