An Ode to PC Music

In this retrospective on the life of English music label PC Music following the announcement that it is to stop releasing new music this year, GAY45 staff writer Jude Jones reflects on the queer attraction of the label and how it changed music forever. 

“2013-2023. After a decade of activity, 2023 will be PC Music’s final year of new releases”. On 25 June 2023, the ten-year anniversary of the transcendent record label PC Music’s founding, it was announced that this year will be their final one of new releases. “Following this,” stated its Instagram account, “the label will be dedicated to archival projects and special releases”. The announcement was accompanied by the release of “10”, a 100-minute-long playlist that features music from the “past, present & future” of PC Music, including work by the likes of A.G. Cook, Kane West, Easyfun, Dux Content, Ö, Grrl, Datalord, and Caro, amongst others. 

 

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PC was founded in 2013 by luminary English music producer A.G. Cook, at the time a student of Music Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Initially launched as a sort of experimental arthouse project with the mission of “recording people who don’t normally make music and treating them as if they’re a major label artist”, embracing the nepo-baby artifice of then-viral hater hits like Rebecca Black’s Friday (who has since worked with PC Music on her hyperpop-injected path to career revival), PC’s first words were spoken in a boundary-pushing synthesis of the pop/dance music spectrum’s most disparate ends, congealing everything from UK garage and David Guetta’s Ibiza anthems to J-Pop, K-Pop, Nightcore, Jumpstyle, and Eurodance to the autotuned chart-trash hits of Britney Spears and Cher Lloyd together into one pulsating, kaleidoscopic, quasi-nightmarish sonic hallucination. Critics and casual listeners alike genuinely didn’t know how to react. Comment sections on early releases were littered with false-prophet claims that “music is dead” and that this was “some of the worst music [ever] made”. One person shared under a video of SOPHIE’s 2014 Boiler Room set that “[t]his was the weirdest performance I ever experienced […] I was as confused as everyone else in the room. Cool ass shit”. I’m sure each of these reactions would have brought a smile to Cook’s face.  

These early days were prolific, with over 40 songs being released onto SoundCloud in PC Music’s first year. Pundits cast Cook as the “svengali figure” of the operation, pulling at the strings of his performance art-cum-pop star puppets, many of whom, including GFOTY, Hannah Diamond, and Danny L Harle, were recruited from a small group of likeminded musical ideologues he met while at Goldsmiths. Each of these releases was different and wildly exciting, but always felt strangely cohesive within PC Music’s uncanny musical universe. “PC Music, Vol.1”, the label’s first playlist release, oscillated from bubblegum-tinged, helium-voiced dance tracks like Diamond’s “Every Night”, A.G. Cook’s “Beautiful”, and easyfun’s “Laplander” to the postmodern pop ballad “Attachment” (also by Diamond) and the deceptive darkness of Danny L Harle’s “In My Dreams” to the disorienting spoken-word maximalism of GFOTY’s “USA” and “Don’t Wanna/Let’s Do It”, described as “ADHD on a track” in one CRACK review.  

Promotional art for “Every Night” by Hannah Diamond (2015), PC Music’s first paid download release.

Part of this cohesion was the label’s carefully curated visual aesthetic, masterminded by Hannah Diamond, also the co-founder and photo director of LOGO Magazine. Diamond combined variously a Warholian attraction to branding and consumer kitsch, the dystopian melodrama and exaggerated textures of MTV-era music videos like TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, and anime and kawaii culture’s sickly-sweet colour schemes, these motley influences summarising in visual form the eclecticism of the label’s soundscapes. These were the same “airbrushed articulations of digital life in all its silly, beautiful, desperate triviality” that Pitchfork could hear in Cook’s music, an anti-material materiality that dovetailed perfectly into the topsy-turvy self-made universe that PC Music had engineered, where Hannah Diamond was a bonified, Hatsune Miko-esque pop star and the energy drink promoted in “Hey QT”, the first collaboration between Cook and SOPHIE, was a veritable global phenomenon. 

This intentionally unstable relationship with reality peddled in PC’s early days was a consistent point of ire among critics who failed to see that projects like QT were multi-layered pieces of performance art as much as they were simple musical releases. A group project worked on by Cook, SOPHIE, and American performance artist Hayden Dunham, the fictional QT ‘artist’ would release a single cotton-candy track (the aforementioned “Hey QT”) before it was convolutedly revealed that QT was not the name of a singer but a fictional energy drink that was then made available for public purchase, leading confused commentator Xavier Boucherat to wonder for Crack Magazine “out of interest, has anyone real gotten a hold of an actual can of QT yet?” in one unfavourable review of the Vol.1 playlist. Absurdist live performances of the song, which would see Dunham disinterestedly lip-sync the repetitive lyrics on stage while cans of QT were handed out to audience members, never helped. 

Promotional art for “Hey QT” by QT (2014), a musical-artistic collaboration between A.G. Cook, SOPHIE, and Hayden Dunham.

However, PC Music’s unflinching commitment to the abrasively experimental was one among many factors that swiftly won it a devoted cult of followers, disproportionately queer in its makeup. “The image of this PC Music showcase will surely be burned into my mind the way people remember American jazz clubs in the 20s,” humorously wrote one reviewer on the crowd at a PC Music show, “[e]xcept instead of handsome men sucking on pungent cigars […] I watch twinks in Keith Haring print shirts puff banana-flavoured vapes.” 

Think pieces soon started circulating about what this all meant. Some turned to the label’s sardonic appropriation of brand imagery and rhetoric in “Hey QT” as the irony-tinged apotheosis of Gen-Z’s anti-capitalist angst to explain for its distinctly queer appeal. Others pointed to PC’s pungently bubblegum-flavoured meme-culture and early-internet iconography, which leant directly into the special nostalgia that many younger LGBTQ+ people have for the online micro-communities where they were first able to articulate questions concerning sexuality, gender, and identity, localised on platforms like Tumblr. Others to the genuine reverence that the label held for the robotic, feel-good music of Britney and KE$HA rejected by hetero-soc listeners, music that was blaring through any good gay bar sound system at the time.  

Yet, most transformative of all was the radical visibility that the label gave to queer artists like Hannah Diamond, GFOTY and, above all else, SOPHIE, the celestial face of PC whose chaotic liquid-metal music introduced the world to a lustrous new mode of trans expression, equal parts joyous and haunting. Frequently heralded by critics as the “future of music”, SOPHIE was one of PC’s first collaborators and would go on to have a trailblazing career in her painfully short lifetime, producing music for the likes of Lady Gaga and Madonna as well as becoming the first openly trans artist to be nominated for a Grammy category with her debut album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

SOPHIE, A.G. Cook, and Charli XCX. Although neither SOPHIE nor XCX were ever officially affiliated with PC Music, SOPHIE was one of its earliest collaborators and helped to shape its sound, while XCX was pivotal in bringing both to a wider audience.

PC Music’s path to the mainstream was unsteady, marred most notably by a failed collaboration with Columbia Records UK in 2015. However, its sound has nonetheless seeped everywhere since, triggering a genuinely iconoclastic musical revolution that has pushed pop music to its most beautifully illogical extremes and which has birthed a new avant-gardist pop vanguard, amongst whom rank the likes of Caroline Polachek and Charli XCX. “The reverberations of PC Music’s influence extend resoundingly across the broader musical landscape of today,” commented Ciprian Ciobanu, our Senior editor at GAY45, “[…] By fearlessly challenging entrenched notions of genre and identity, PC Music heralded a newfound era of artistic freedom, forging an indelible path towards a more inclusive and boundary-pushing music industry”. Put an ear to it and you will hear PC everywhere, from the latest Charli release to hyperpop’s apathetic new wave of autotuned Canadian kids and Swedish Soundcloud collectives to the modest donk and gabber revivals percolating steadily through the UK’s rave scene right now. It is as Shon Faye, author of The Transgender Issue, wrote in her beautiful eulogy to SOPHIE after her passing: “She is not gone, merely in eclipse. She is waiting for us in the beating, pounding joys and the inebriated exultations of the dancefloor, where we will meet his again and again”. Just like SOPHIE, the sound that she helped pioneer and of the label she helped bring to the world will keep waiting for us too. PC Music lives on. 

So like a spectre PC Music will continue to haunt, and it will do so with a mechanical fizz and a BIPP. “Time will tell if PC Music really [are] just another Tumblr fad,” wrote Clive Martin for VICE Magazine back in 2014, “[…] but, right now, they’re a fuck of a lot more interesting and exciting than anything the heads are offering up”. Ten years on, time has told its secrets, and a fad PC Music was not. Instead, it mutated grotesquely, gorgeously, into a genuine musical game-changer, something that feels increasingly hard to come by in today’s hyper-saturated culturescape. And it did so in a way that was beautifully, divinely, irrefutably queer. So for that I say: thank you PC Music, thank you. 

Jude Jones is a staff writer and social media manager at GAY45. He is also an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge primarily researching the literary, visual, and academic cultures of HIV/AIDS in Britain, France, and the USA. 

 

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