by Cormac Fleming
“I don’t really know what a money machine is. Like there’s the gun kind that shoots money, and then there’s like the kind that sorts the money at like the bank, and then there’s like an ATM, and then there’s like the money minting, like printing device. Who knows? What an abstract concept. Money, where it comes from. I only know how to spend it … There’s so many levels to this. Maybe I’m the money machine. I’m printing money out my ass. Maybe you’re the money machine, dispensing money directly into my bank account, one-tenth of a cent every stream.”
Bear witness to the Artaud of this generation.
The supposedly incoherent ravings of that mad playwright brought to light a current of libidinal and visceral mania within the religious, scientific and economic systems on the rise during his life. Though confined to an asylum and dependent on laudanum, the structures of the drama that he created were made intelligible by the more rigorous philosophising of Deleuze and Guattari after his death. This is the role of experimental artists: to animate in their art the philosophy that will be interpreted and lived in the unknown (but impending) future.
The music of 100 gecs, in my view, is multifaceted enough to warrant an examination of the concepts it outlines, and alien enough to make a claim about its influence on future art and philosophy. My aim in this piece is to discuss the links, real or imagined, between 100 gecs and some philosophy and theory of the 20th century. It’s not an attempt to say ‘that’s what they were really thinking!’ – more of an exercise in breaking theory out of its academic cloister, and breaking pop out of its perceived frivolity.
We will begin with money machine, 100 gecs’ most iconic song – it has a number of striking moments and gestures, right from the opening monologue. The term “piss-baby”, much famed, began life as a sort of phantom sign, which Laura “thought … was a phrase that people said online … which I guess was not the case.” It has no grounding; it emerged as a reference to a piece of online culture that did not even exist. It’s eerily similar to the theory-fiction experimentation of the CCRU – piss-baby hyperstitions itself into existence, arriving from the future. It invents for itself this image of an infantile man-child consumer – or rather, the artist invents it as a “fake person to lay into”, with the significations organically (and retroactively) attaching themselves to the ghostly signifier.
The names 100 gecs itself has a tenuous relationship with recorded history. Two different stories have appeared in interviews (though I’m sure more have been spun) – in one version a bureaucratic error sends 100 geckos instead of one, and in the other 100 gecs is a piece of random, unintelligible graffiti on the side of a college dorm. Both are folkloric, but regardless the stories stress accidents, contingency and randomness in the formation of this identifying sign. Like any online username, it emerges from the cultural noise, a reference or an in-joke that threads between the off- and online, discarded offhand by one user and picked up by another. The mythical graffitist would have lent 100 gecs its own chain of signification, but any real or original meanings disappear as soon as the “god messing it all up” [AO 20] leaves it be. The sign collects meaning like a magnet collects iron filings.
Then, there is the “money machine.” The singer sees herself as a machine, “so clean” that the flesh of self-image is scraped right off her. To cleanse the human is the delirious demand of Artaud: “we must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally” [AW 570]. It arises in protest to the growing American industry of war, “intended to demonstrate by the overwhelming virtues of force the superiority of American products” [AW 555]. In money machine, the piss-baby’s desire passes through rituals of capital (“small truck”), self-image (“look at those arms”) and social performances (“you’d text me ‘I love you’ and then I’d fucking ghost you”) which proliferate codes and transactions endlessly. For the piss-baby, the self is constructed through capitalist regimes and embarrassing codes and fetishized commodities. But instead of constructing a neurotic subject out of little breaks and siphons, the money machine is cleansed in the pure flux of capital.
The music itself certainly engages the machine-subject, at the most basic level through the heavy application of auto-tune to vocals. Further, the song ends with violent metallic noise with the vocal melody abandoned, with vague impressions of the boosted bass making it through the heat-death of the artist. This is a theme that 100 gecs return to often: a surrender to, or perhaps revolution of, the rhythmic/melodic machines which are set in process by the artists. It is like Deleuze and Guattari’s Ravel, who “preferred to throw his inventions entirely out of gear rather than simply let them run down, and chose to end his compositions with abrupt breaks, hesitations, tremolos, discordant notes, and unresolved chords” [AO 45] – the irruption of machines occurs in 745 sticky, money machine, 800db cloud, xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx, and as the climactic moment of gec 2 Ü.
This is not to claim that the dubstep drop is a revolutionary new invention by 100 gecs. What is noteworthy about their employment is the invasive placement of the drops and genuine hostility of sound. It occurs when you think a song is finished, or when you are expecting the singer to complete a line, in songs of usually incompatible genre, and sometimes without any beat to dance to. The worst (?) part is that they are extremely gratifying from a listener’s perspective, despite the wild inappropriateness – to quote Artaud, “the endlessly renewed fatigue of the organs requires intense and sudden shocks to revive our understanding” [TD 86]. For the whole song, we have been playing chicken with the singer and their desire; the artist and the machines they put in motion; now here we are! The machines have won, we are in hell – “nothing human makes it out of the near future” [FN 443].
“I don’t know how to be alone / I’m always looking at the phone.”
It is no stretch to see 100 gecs questioning the limits of humans and machinery, because the question pervades our every corner of life. Ringtone lays it out in one of the more typical pop songs on the album. Love, attachment, popularity, connectedness; all these are mediated through the blips and tics of telephone. There is a molar aggregate, “45 group texts, 50 group DMs”, but also a molecular pole, the ringtone itself, like a birdsong in the way it announces “my boy”. This song spells out the bipolar system situated on the plane of communication enacted by the internet. And it’s effortless, sung pop-saccharine – this is just the world we live in, there’s no need to system-build to reach this social reality.
Another song where the phone appears as a partial object is 800db cloud, this time as a thread of addiction – “I might go and throw my phone into the lake, yeah”. Ultimately, the singer realises the nature of their desire in the line “I’m addicted to everything that I see, yeah”, so disposing of one cog in the machine will do little to change the flows of desire. But the pathos of this recognition, and the potential for a tragic portrait of one “smoking a zip in a day”, are far too reactionary in tone for this album. Addiction is a minute window onto the processes of capital: “Wanting more is the index of interlock with cyberpositive machine processes, and not the expression of private idiosyncrasy” [FN 337]. Ultimately, the line is “I’m addicted to making money off me, yeah” – the subject is still locked into markets, the one ‘addictive’ behaviour which is not moralised against by society. Addiction in an abstract or affective sense is integral to the processes of capital and, of course, pop music production – if there’s one word journalists have loved to describe 100 gecs with, it’s addictive.
800db cloud ends with nearly unintelligible screaming, which touches on the truth that 100 gecs’ aesthetic cruelty is equally as vital as the fun tunes they play. “Departing from the sphere of analysable passions” is accomplished succinctly in those offensively loud passages, as is the “attack on the spectator’s sensibility” in a physiological and psychological sense [TD 86]. Taking as example the end of money machine, the music is not only physically uncomfortable to the listener, but attacks their perception of the song and song-form. It maintains a trace of the bassline, tying it to the rest of the song, defying any critic who would disown it from the body of the song. Not only aesthetically perverse, but morally wrong – morally wrong because unlike a Merzbow piece, where the hostility is the attraction, 100 gecs describe themselves squarely as “pop, fun-pop, kooky-pop”. This speaks of their underlying aesthetic philosophy: the sensation comes before the interpretation always.
The distorted ‘ear-rape’ effect was already established in memes for years, as those internet micro-cultures found humour in the deepening infidelity of editing. Low fidelity music and the ‘needs more jpeg’ effect speak to an attitude of internet culture towards reproduction and originality. Yes, the polished image without artefacts might be the original version, but this signification lends it no value. It’s the image screenshotted a thousand times, or the song recorded on innumerable bootlegs and burnt CDs, which carries the mark of quality. 100 gecs, and hyperpop as a genre, have a complex relationship with the traces left by reproduction and production in an industrial sense, which we will return to.
The album 1000gecs replicates this coexistence of hostility and saccharinity within the pack, for example through the presence of I Need Help Immediately and gecgecgec right next to the infinitely more marketable stupid horse and ringtone respectively. There is no neurotic division between different ideas of style, at the level of individual tracks or the album itself – this philosophy extends also to their unrepentant mixture of genre. Ska, trance, bubblegum pop, are all assembled with no forced juxtaposition as such: these are “signs that have nothing that impels them to become signifying” [AO 54]. The aesthetic signifiers are picked up from the latent cultural noise, each one having its merits and having been celebrated in its own context. But the cultural context of any one sign is largely unimportant in this assemblage: “the one vocation of the sign is to produce desire, engineering it in every direction” [AO 54].
Sometimes the music is simply a bricolage of samples and effects from the DAW – but this doesn’t preclude it from saying something. Would it be gross pareidolia to see the Nietzschean eternal recursion in I Need Help Immediately? There is a subject staring out at us from the abstract MIDI assemblage constructed in this song, appearing as this machine-intelligence cursed to appear “back once again” whenever the mechanism is set in motion. “Please do something!” Oh God, it is trapped in there, isn’t it? And what does it say about me, in my modernity-cell, programmed to novel but artificially produced rhythmic phases of clicks, jingles and aesthetic zones? Here, we have found God, or maybe the CIA, beaming highly-advanced MIDI regimes into my brain. “Maybe you’re the money machine” takes on a decidedly menacing tone… “psycho-killer experiments in non-consensual wetware alteration” [FN 347], anyone?
“I was on your hit list / I felt the compression.”
What is ‘pop’ at any given time is determined by a consumer market mediated through capital. On the part of consumers there is aesthetic judgment, but in limited ways and moments. The market of cultural phenomena obeys more memetic principles than abstract judgments of quality. Indeed, most consumers do not hierarchicalise how much each particular set of aesthetic tropes appeals to them – they simply like some things and not others. It is not unreasonable to say that there is a practically infinite count of ‘innovations’ within the song form, and thus a practically infinite range of what any given person would enjoy if it was played to them. This principle can be applied regardless of the limited taste of a certain culture – western music consumers prefer diatonic harmony, for example – and still occupy a functionally infinite space for the consumer market to persist.
All this is to say that the pop music industry functions according to a semi-random, bottom-up system by which particular memes (i.e. aesthetic tropes) go through positive feedback loops to produce hits and make money. There is always an ‘underground’, an ‘indie’ scene, but these are in truth not rejections of capitalistic music-making but the support for the continued operation of the system as a whole. What so-called ‘authentic’ (pop) music opposes is not pop itself but the traces left on the music by the process of the industrial production: the ironing out of equalisation, the compression of the soundwave for radio-play, the procrustean bed of the song-form, the airbrush of auto-tune, the quantised grid of the drums. Too, the political respectability of the pop-star, the socialisation of the artist to their market, the flattening of the person to a consumable image.
These processes are in a certain sense the embarrassment of the pop industry, its admission that it produces music for market consumption. But where other genres critique the industry by rejecting these emergent processes, ‘hyperpop’ takes them at face value as the signifiers of success and popularity and carries them to the point of mania. As pop becomes more machinelike, the conflict emerges where one side perceives a grand tragedy and the other new possibilities. Today, an internet Boomer will tear down Billie Eilish; in 1965 it was Dylan being attacked for going electric. Always as new technology emerges, interior limits are surpassed in the production of music. It’s not real music anymore! The protest is heard for a little while, until a new shark is jumped and the machine evolves to another stage.
Pop, like the socius of capital in which it is embedded, has a schizophrenic “exterior limit” of pure machinery, with lab-created and produced songs lacking even the trace of the ‘human’. It tends toward this limit constantly. But, like capitalism, it “only functions on condition that it inhibit this tendency, or that it push back or displace this limit, by substituting for it its own immanent relative limits, which it continually reproduces on a widened scale.” [AO 283] Better audio systems, cleaner production, catchier melodies, shorter songs, more universalised lyrics; pop flattens itself towards pure immanence and eternal recursion. Hyperpop situates itself not in opposition to this process – a battle which is constantly being lost, only feeding the algorithmic machine – but as an acceleration of the both the outward affects of the process and the internal artistic productive process. It approaches pop from the side of electronic dance music, which sides entirely with the machines, and attacks the continuous reinjection of the human into the capitalistic process. Why continue to find new young stars, whose talents will inevitably be subject to the capitalist flattening? The materials are all here to produce perfect, machinic music, without the hypocrisy and baggage of idol-worship. Hyperpop stars are those “smuggled back out of the future in order to subvert its antecedent conditions” [FN 318], the cyborgs, replicants, tulpas and egregores at once produced as residue of the capitalist engine and the engineers of its future campaigns.
“You just copy everything we do / if I wasn’t me, I’d copy me too.”
What 100 gecs manage to combine is the hyperpop awareness and manipulation of the capitalist pop processes, with a genuine experimental and destructive attitude towards song-forms and aesthetic tropes. Sufficient violence is imported from an alien future, in harmony with existing cultural forms given new voice. Their album is brief but highly multiple, a project that opens up a window between various pasts and futures of pop music with force and wit.
AO = Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix, Anti-Oedipus, Bloomsbury, 1984
AW = Selected Writings of Antonin Artaud, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Inc. 1976
TD = Artaud, Antonin, The Theatre and Its Double, Grove Press, 1958
FN = Land, Nick, Fanged Noumena, Urbanomic, Sequence Press, 2011