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Commentary: hyperpop finally poised to take off

What would you expect a musical genre called “hyperpop” to sound like? Who would you expect to listen to hyperpop? If your answer to the second question is “a cyborg gangster in a ‘Blade Runner’-esque dystopia,” you are not far off the mark. Hyperpop hardly sounds like the name of a real kind of music; rather, it sounds like a creation of a hack science fiction writer. Nevertheless, hyperpop is real and destined to only become more popular.

Hyperpop is a visual aesthetic and an artistic movement just as much as it is a style of music. It might be described as anti-anti-establishment.  In response to music snobs taking “generic” pop music less seriously than genres like indie rock and hip-hop, hyperpop is a reaction against the criticism of pop, emphasizing and glorifying all the tropes of mainstream pop. Pop songs have heavy bass; a hyperpop song may turn up the bass to an absurd level. Pop songs have a fast tempo; a hyperpop song will speed up the tempo so much that it is nearly impossible to dance to. Pop stars emphasize their youth and beauty; a hyperpop star will decorate their album covers and photo shoots with hearts, candy, pastel colors and other symbols of childlike femininity. In short, hyperpop is exactly what the name suggests: pop taken to cartoonish extremes, equal parts earnest and ironic. Though not as terrible as this description makes it sound, it is definitely eccentric.

Hyperpop also brandishes a homemade aesthetic. Whereas a pop star like Dua Lipa or Ariana Grande will be backed by production, songwriting and fashion teams, each comprised of several people, a hyperpop album is typically the work of a single person, or sometimes a duo, mixing tracks on a laptop. This do-it-yourself ethos extends beyond the music itself: hyperpop album covers often include collages from movie posters and comics, and costumes tend to be self-designed. For instance, on the cover of her debut album, hyperpop artist SOPHIE wears a dress made out of cellophane.

Queer themes, while increasingly prominent in mainstream pop as well (see Janelle Monáe, Lizzo), are integral to hyperpop. Some of the biggest hyperpop artists, including SOPHIE, Kim Petras and Laura Les of duo 100 Gecs, are transgender women. 

Where did hyperpop come from? The term is of unclear origin and has only existed for the past few years. It first came into general use around 2016 on a Reddit forum dedicated to PC Music, a British record label promoting experimental music made by amateur musicians on computers. Canadian performer Grimes has been a key figure in the development of hyperpop. Her musical and visual styles juxtaposed doll-like femininity with dark and aggressive lyrical themes, set to laptop-made electronic pop music, before any of these became signature tropes of hyperpop. Marina and the Diamonds’ 2012 concept album “Electra Heart,” which affectionately satirizes pop-idol worship, has also been mentioned as a precedent to hyperpop. The songwriter and producer Charli XCX, who has worked with pop megastars including Iggy Azalea, Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan, is sometimes associated with hyperpop, although she has had more of a role in popularizing hyperpop — Charli XCX has featured Kim Petras, SOPHIE and PC Music label founder A.G. Cook on her albums — than in creating it herself.

Where is hyperpop going next? Well, as the involvement of a mainstream figure like Charli XCX in the hyperpop scene suggests, its popularity can only increase. These last few years have been unusual ones in the music world: last year, the charts were ruled by a goofy cowboy rap song and the nightmare-pop of Billie Eilish, while this year, Taylor Swift went from pop diva to pensive singer-songwriter in her album “folklore.” In such a rapidly changing time, in terms of music and everything else, hyperpop is due for a big break of its own.

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