Did Spotify invent hyperpop? (2023)

If there’s any genre that can claim to be at the forefront of modern music, it is the loosely defined hyperpop. From the charts to festival headline slots, it’s one of the most popular musical sensations on the airwaves, with the likes of Charli XCX,Caroline Polachek, 100 gecs and the late Sophie deemed as its vanguard. Additionally, much of its history centres around A.G. Cook’s pioneering label and collective, PC Music.

As with any so-called movement or microgenre, it’s a term that inspires intense debate, with the aforementioned artists and their fans questioning its parameters. Instead, they posit that it is a cynical umbrella term invented by Spotify to lump a host of acts that bear minor artistic similarities together for economic gain, a topic that previously reared its head with the advent of grunge three decades ago.

So what classes artists as hyperpop? Emerging in the early-mid 2010s, it is primarily associated with acts from the United Kingdom during this period, such as Sophie and A.G. Cook, who helped popularise some of its most common characteristics. A style known for vivid sonic worldbuilding, it’s deemed a maximalist, fluid and postmodern take on music that sees artists mesh avant-garde pop with electronic, dance and hip-hop. Commonly, there’s also a glitchy aspect, conveying culture’s present juncture, which is inextricable from technology. That’s not forgetting an overall penchant for auto-tuned vocals, references to the 2000s and using the studio as an instrument.

The above genres are just the tip of the iceberg for hyperpop, with Caroline Polachek’s recent single ‘Sunset’ drawing on a heady reading of flamenco to bring the piece to life. Elsewhere, the kaleidoscopic works of PC Music associates Charli XCX and Sophie point to the vast sonic library the genre draws from.

Following this, the likes of J and K pop, emo, punk, trance, nu metal, dubstep, chiptune, and Eurohouse are other forms repurposed with verve by artists often connected to hyperpop. There’s also an inextricable connection to LGBTQ+ online communities, with many prominent figures identifying astransgender, non-binary or gay. It is a genre built from many different musical bricks; all cemented together with perhaps the strongest sense of self the industry has ever witnessed.

Interestingly, the term ‘hyperpop’ was coined in October 1988 by Don Shewey in an article about the influential Scottish 4AD band Cocteau Twins. There, he wrote that Britain in the 1980s had “nurtured the simultaneous phenomena of hyperpop and antipop”.

The ethereal colour that melisma-loving vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist Robin Guthrie and the rest of the group crafted certainly went some way, if only indirectly, to influence a landscape that birthed hyperpop. It often conveyed a dream-like essence, something that the likes of Caroline Polachek are experts at, conjuring striking escapist experiences. Shewey also mentioned the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Pet Shop Boys as early examples of those creating music that blended fashion and escapism whilst also inverting the traditional concept of a pop star.

Hyperpop, as many now understand it, began to be thought of as some form of movement in the mid-2010s. As pointed out in a 2020 piece by theNew York Times, Spotify “data alchemist” Glenn McDonald, whose job is to find emerging sounds on the platform and classify them into microgenres, said he first saw the term apply to PC Music releases in 2014. Still, it wasn’t until 2018 that it qualified as a fully-fledged microgenre. He told the publication: “For our categorisation purposes, it was mostly a matter of waiting to see if enough artists would coalesce around a similar ebullient electro-maximalism.”

Whilst some of the most eminent acts associated with hyperpop were finding great success before it, 2019 is marked as the year things were taken to another level culturally. The now-famous ‘Hyperpop’ playlist on Spotify, which started in 2019, began as a direct response to the swift rise of 100 gecs, one of the most influential acts on the hyperpop spectrum. During this year, Charli XCX arrived with her third albumCharliand Caroline Polachek releasedPang, two albums now also considered cornerstones of the genre.

Lizzy Szaboma, a Spotify editor and lead curator of the playlist, told theNew York Times: “The fact that so many people were talking about this project inspired us to look deeper and see if there were other artists making music like this that we didn’t know about”.

The playlist featured music by the likes of 100 gecs and Cook, and it gradually spread through social media platforms, finding a facilitator on TikTok. As a byproduct of the popularity, it also entered meme culture via terms such as the denigrating tag ‘hyperpoop’. Since Spotify attempted to characterise it, some artists closely associated with the term and genre have been dubious of its validity.

One person who moved from being cynical to slightly more open is 100 gecs vocalist Laura Les, but even now, she wants it at arm’s length. “I think hyperpop has evolved to be a flexible enough term that I’m not as hesitant anymore to rep it at an arm’s length,” Les told the publication. “It seems like it’s become more encompassing of many things.”

A fascinating account of hyperpop was provided by Caroline Polacheck during an April 2023 interview with Tom Power on Q. After saying, “I don’t think about genre”, and discussing how tags might now be ineffective, she said, “I think it’s invented by radio stations ultimately.” Then, she offered a more cynical reading of hyperpop and its connection to Spotify.

“Spotify is just as guilty”, she continued. “Spotify invented the term hyperpop, which didn’t even really exist before.” Asked what it is, Polachek replied: “Hyperpop is this term that gets used to describe actually a lot of the work of my collaborators, especially people associated with the British music collective called PC Music that a lot of my producer-collaborators work with. Spotify just invented a name of a genre to loosely assemble a lot of the social scene into, even when a lot of people’s music had nothing to do with each other formally or sonically.”

“And I sometimes get lumped in with that too, which I find quite curious -that a name was given to people who were just in communication with each other rather than have anything sonic in common.” Why does she think they do that? “Because genre is cultural as well as sonic, and I think Spotify wanted to sell that bit.”

There is weight to what Polachek says outside of her knowing more than most due to her status. Stylistically, if you were to take a track of hers such as ‘Door’ and compare it to 100 gecs’ ‘money machine’, you’d find that apart from an ostensibly ‘experimental’ use of the stereo, both are distinct. The former is a hypnotic piece of pop refinement, with the latter a bombastic cut featuring intense use of auto-tune and distortion, representing opposing ends of the emotional and creative spectrum. On a broader level, as their oeuvres are so dextrous and cherrypick from many places, they are essentially indefinable, rendering the hyperpop tag useless regardless of its origins.

This point brings us back to Polachek saying she doesn’t consider genre in her creative process. At its core, genre has mostly been a capitalist idea pushed by labels and the musical powers-that-be to sell units. Hyperpop, is, in itself, a very modern form, given that it doesn’t fall into the traditional and tribalist notion of a genre or subculture, with it purposefully transcending the barriers of categorisation. This means that whether Spotify gave its name or not, you get the sense that it’s more of an indicator of the direction of the postmodern zeitgeist than purely a musical category, which seems to diminish its impact and broader significance. I wonder how we’ll view it in a decade’s time, and if proper distinctions between the artists will be made or whether, like with grunge, this more forensic organisation will be up to the listener.

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