A phone with a screen displaying TikTok. Credit: Solen Feyissa

Experimental music and the mainstream: a troubled romance

By Leila Edelzstein

Leila Edelzstein explores how social media twists the relationship between new music and a baying audience

Social media platforms have exacted three major consequences on the music industry. These are the evolution of mainstream pop to support shortening attention spans, the surge of opportunistic marketing (branded as relatable), and the defining of genres by aesthetics instead of content. They fall under an umbrella term of what I call ‘micro-catering’.

Artists hoping to gain traction on TikTok must adapt to the attention economy demanded by social media: designing their chorus around a 15-second format, and hoping that the clip gets picked up by someone with influence. If the excerpt conveys personal experience, a trend can be started. Such music is micro-catered to specific moods, situations or even mental disorders. This is less the selling of an experience or emotion than invoking a targeted circumstance. The song in question therefore won’t be nostalgic unless you’re told it should be. For example, if you have not recently been broken up with (and found out that his new girlfriend is the one he told you not to worry about), the song will not strike much of a chord. This hyper-relatable stratagem has fast-tracked lyrical literalism in mainstream music, perhaps signalling the death of the metaphor. Will this lead to a musicscape in which nothing can be left open to interpretation (artists such as Gayle come to mind)?

An especially disturbing and recent example of opportunistic micro-catering is the surge of indie soft boys gagging to replace Rex Orange County in the wake of his abuse allegations. One of the videos that emerged reads: “you just found out about Rex Orange County allegations… but lucky for you, you just scrolled into an 18 y/o virgin that makes the same type of music”, then captioned “Yes I am using this situation for clout”. The momentary hole in 2010-era indie left by Rex’s cancellation was just that: momentary.

Another symptom of micro-catering is the constant narrowing and subdividing of genres, (and, subsequently, of people). Are you a “coquette, diet-coke, lobotomy-chic” or a “mentally ill skinny 5’2 drainer gf”? As visual stimuli have become inseparable from music, the listener becomes reducible to a collage of specific clothing items, hobbies, or food and drink preferences: a shared state of mind with other listeners of the same genre. Do you mostly listen to Elliot Smith and Radiohead? You must have depressive tendencies, chunky headphones and doc martens, and you probably order something between an oat chai/matcha latte at a cafe. Are you an avid listener of emo/hyperpop? You probably own New Rock’s or Demonia’s, drink some variation of energy drink, and, at a stretch, sport a septum piercing. 

While social categorisations and assimilations in the name of “community” have always existed(see the average Robert Smith or Souxie Soux fan in the 80s), there’s something dark about current micro-aesthetics being manufactured by algorithms. If anything, these fuel individuality complexes (the general gist of capitalism: god forbid we’re ever sold anything that might unite us) rather than solidarity.

Looking at the recent phenomenon of hyperpop, it is often marketed and presented as “ADHD” in music form –  loud, fast and brain-scratching – such is its algorithmic nature. But the specificity of musical algorithms makes it difficult to predict the next trending sub-genre – am I being shown the same content as others? Nonetheless, the increased cyber-fication of main genres such as hip hop, punk, synth/electronic and experimental pop means that any facet of culture will reflect the period its consumers are living through. Therefore, the digicore cyber-sound will continue to influence this generation’s artists, while the emotionally flat-lining literalism of TikTok will further shape mainstream lyrics.


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