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Why the music of 100 gecs is perfect for this moment

The rise of 100 gecs, meme culture, and a global pandemic


Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, God, 1917


A global pandemic is raging, the world seems on the brink of imminent disaster, bourgeois-capitalist elitism and xenophobic nationalism are on the rise and seem to each day push our collective existence closer to the precipice of utter annihilation. Sound familiar? Undoubtedly the year 2020 has been nothing other than an abhorrent shitshow in basically every way imaginable, but the above illustration could just as easily describe the onset of the last global pandemic and first world war a little over 100 years ago. Similarities between the late nineteen-teens and our contemporary goings on are extremely important and have been written about extensively over the prior months. Yet more immediately important to this particular essay are the effects that these events had on the development of leftist art movements like dadaism in Europe, and the ways in which the principles of those same movements have influenced contemporary pop music and meme culture.

Artist and poet Tristan Tzara described dada as “A protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action”. This destructive action took the ostensible form of opposing traditional definitions of western art. By creating anti-art, dadaists weaponized irrationality and nonsense against the logic and supposed rationality of capitalist western aesthetics. Dada was inherently a political exercise, a means to protest the European bourgeois whose esoteric statesmanship had plunged the continent into war. Dada is therefore a clear example of art as responsorial action in order to speak out against the absurdity and cruelty of a broken political system. Dada provides early evidence that times of uncertainty serve as incubators for experimental art movements; almost as though fear and anger prime an exhausted audience, creating a state where anti-establishment movements are lauded. Covid-19 era America certainly provides compelling evidence to support this hypothesis, as the meteoric rise of 100 gecs and their anti-capitalist, absurdist oeuvre parallels the dadaist output of Elsa Hildegard von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and others.

The band 100 gecs has been simultaneously praised and derided across the internet for the past year, the Twitter algorithm can’t resist serving me up another gushing Pitchfork article or meme making fun of gecs fans’ lack of taste; but why is it that social media, meme creators, and gen z tiktokers alike can’t seem to get enough of this band? By delving into 100 gecs music we will find close ties to contemporary meme culture ranging from subject matter to aesthetics to the methods of artistic production. I hope to use dada as a vehicle to help explicate these relationships between 100 gecs music and contemporary meme culture and provide some rationale as to why the group has gained such wide popularity over the past year, even during a global pandemic that has redefined the everyday norms and conventions of music performance and consumption.

The ineffable duo 100 gecs, made up of musicians Dylan Brady and Laura Les, burst onto the alt scene in 2019 with their album 1000 gecs and subsequent 2020 remix album 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues. 100 gecs is ostensibly pop music, gecs themselves agree with this categorization of their body of work, yet the seemingly limitless milieu of genres and digital influences undergirding the entire project defy the expectations we’ve been conditioned to anticipate from a pop album. What’s more, when listening to 100 gecs one can’t help but escape noticing that this music is at home in today’s contemporary meme culture, and leans into the zany absurdism of our current internet age. As Pitchfork put it in their review of 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues “All of it is quintessentially gecs—the “beep boop” cacophony; the playful iteration on a meme; the subtle sweetness”. What is it about this music that is so evocative of contemporary meme culture? In this essay I posit that the groups’ music is so difficult to pin down in large part due to the myriad genres and styles present in each track. Not only does this genre synthesis create a music that is difficult to define, but a thick, chaotic texture that in many ways resembles contemporary memes both in process and function. Furthermore, the current pandemic climate we find ourselves in, a contemporary “age of anxiety”, lends itself to the nihilistic, absurdist, dadaist music of 100 gecs. In other words, gecs is emblematic of this time in world and internet history.

At first listen, 100 gecs sounds at once entirely bewildering yet vaguely familiar. Gecs describe their music as simply “pop”, yet a closer listen to any of their projects reveals a musical onion, peel back layer after layer to find source material from genres as disparate as euro house, metalcore, ska, emo, noise, the list goes on and on. That onion-ness is what helps to ground the listener despite the maelstrom of musical debris swirling around them. While at first one might not understand the track “stupid horse”, they are certainly able to pick up on the unmistakable ska backbeats driving through the entire track. At once playful yet absolutely chock full of musical material, 100 gecs sound is emblematic of the absurdist, in-group humor of contemporary meme culture. In fact, in my opinion one of the primary reasons 100 gecs music has exploded to such prominence in recent months has to do with the group's meme-ification of pop music and the way this has connected particularly with gen z teens.

I am far from the first to connect the dots between 100 gecs and meme culture; the humor in their tracks, the sheer reflex of laughter in the face of such absurdity is not lost on anyone, however a brief point of clarification is necessary. Many critics and fans point out the humor of 100 gecs music, but I want to be clear that the music is not itself a joke. Les and Brady are not making song parody - while their music is funny and often tongue-in-cheek, it is not funny music in the same way that Weird Al or The Lonely Island is, nor is their brand of genre blending similar to a YouTube "All I Want For Christmas Is You/Creep" mashup. If 100 gecs was simply making music to be laughed at the product wouldn’t be nearly as engaging, the subversion of pop music norms and clever acerbity is what makes the music compelling and thought-provoking. In this regard the bandmates make their intentions incredibly clear, in a June 2020 interview with the Guardian, Brady simply said “it’s not a joke” when asked if gecs music was a type of “postmodern internet gag”. It is important to pause and consider this statement as it is critical, I believe, to what makes 100 gecs music so engaging, particularly to a Gen Z audience. The music is not a meme in and of itself, not a “joke” in its own right, but it plays up and mimics several characteristics that are also present in contemporary meme culture. The music is not meme per se, but rather music a la meme.

One of the primary ways in which 100 gecs music evokes meme culture is the multitudinous genre synthesis present in nearly every track. A listening of the 1000 gecs album unveils a nod to a list of genres much longer than the track list itself; nightcore, pop-punk, trap, noise. In many cases, several of these genres are present simultaneously, transitioning back and forth throughout the duration of a track. This is the same effect that is foundational to the development of meme culture; as internet users overlay one meme format on top of another, constantly evolving and iterating on the same concept, drawing inspiration from more and more obscure memes and references until a meme has reached its comedic zenith, a truly remarkable frankenstein’s monster of a meme. Take for example the subgenre of “deep-fried” memes, where more and more memes are piled on top of one another until the end result is a “meme” that is almost unrecognizable from the original format. The humor of a deep fried meme derives in large part from the act of parsing the many layers of cultural material embedded within it. The 100 gecs listening experience acts in much the same way, the listener not only derives pleasure from the musical material itself, but derives humor from the unfurling of the genre fragments, influences, and cultural material present in the track. This pleasure and humor in its base sense comes from the satisfaction of understanding the reference and “getting it”, much like those who find humor in a subtle “loss” meme, the humor comes from discovering an obscure reference implanted in an unexpected location. However, the pleasure of understanding these obscure references, of piecing together the embedded meme in the track is not the full extent of this concept. The other side of this coin is the notion that this satisfaction is bolstered by the obscurity of these references, they may often seem unintelligible, or at the very least difficult to process without a lot of prior knowledge and familiarity with meme culture. This “in-group” concept is critical to understanding its appeal to a younger audience, the fact that it feels impenetrable for the out-group (especially older generations) is a feature and a selling point.

The group nods to this very concept with the 1000 gecs remix album 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues. Many of the remixes on the album can be heard as memes of the original, some of the tracks depart to such an extent and with an immediacy that allows them to function as a type of meme in their own right. Take for example the "xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx (Remix)" featuring Hannah Diamond and Tommy Cash. The track begins with the Estonian rapper boasting while a Baltic house beat drives over the original. Listeners familiar with the original version will recognize the track, but it's clear that it has undertaken quite the transformation, with Cash describing his intentions with the track as “happy hardcore”.



Now consider the "gecgecgec remix" ft. Lil West and Tony Velour, this track has undergone an even more radical metamorphosis, transitioning into a trap remix that is nearly unrecognizable save the “gecgecgecgecgec” sound effect repeating throughout the track as Lil West raps over top. Not only does the remix album serve as a meme version of the 1000 gecs album, but there is an anti-commodification thread running through the project as well, it is clear that gecs have given their friends free reign to bastardize and fully reimagine the original tracks, in a way mimicking the decentralized nature of the open internet, where users are free to take and redefine whatever they can find. Gecs relationship with the many collaborators on Tree of Clues is also a nod to the tight-knit communities that form via online platforms, where creators can meet and mingle without many of the limitations present in face to face interaction. In many ways Tree of Clues personifies the aspects of internet culture that have allowed memes and meme-culture to flourish within it.



Let’s return to the concept of meme augmentation as it relates to 100 gecs music. This idea of combining several meme formats to create a new meme even permeates the temporal progression of many gecs tracks, where musical material is added and edited and distorted until the track reaches a critical mass from which the song devolves into a wash of industrial noise and distorted sound, rendering the initial material unrecognizable. I want to take a moment to delve into noise and its influence on 100 gecs, as it is one of the most prevalent genres referenced in 100 gecs output. Curiously, despite its prevalence in all of 100 gecs projects, notably their self titled EP, noise is often overlooked by many critics, even those who are quick to cite the groups’ many other influences. Perhaps this is due to the peculiar space noise occupies in the popular music world. As Ray Brassier puts it in his article Genre is obsolete, noise “has become the expedient moniker for a motley array of sonic practices … with little in common besides their perceived recalcitrance with respect to the conventions governing classical and popular musics”. In other words, noise is categorized as a non-genre, effectively the “junk drawer” of the music world, where certain musics that do not fit into other neatly ordered classifications can be stowed away. While this definition may partly explain critics’ oversight of noise as a precursory genre, I want to focus on how noise is utilized in gecs music more specifically, and what this says about gecs music and the genre more generally.

Noise is often employed by 100 gecs as a device to fully realize the climax of a sustained build, creating the feeling of a musical precipice from which a track tumbles over into a chaotic but satisfying outro. While it is true that noise is employed for practical purposes, it also exists as the glue that holds together many gecs tracks, anchoring a sonic landscape as disparate genres collide and synthesize into one another. As Brassier says “noise not only designates the no-man's-land between electro-acoustic investigation, free improvisation, avant-garde experiment, and sound art … it refers to anomalous zones of interference between genres”. It is the genre’s capacity to create these “anomalous zones” that gecs uses masterfully within many of their tracks. Take “bloodstains” from the group’s self titled EP for example, trap beats and autotuned lyrics are accompanied by periods of noise and ambient industrial sound akin to a haunted data center, creating a powerful and disorienting juxtaposition while also serving as a practical segue between sections within a track and between tracks themselves.



Noise, meme culture, and 100 gecs also share another commonality in that all three communities share a strong history of DIY culture and decentralized methods of production. Meme culture is predicated on and fueled by DIY aesthetics and decentralized production by way of the open internet, which allows anyone with a stable connection to access, manipulate, and engage with contemporary cultural material and en vogue meme templates. Many alternative and punk genres, including noise and many of gecs’ precursory genres wear their independent DIY heritage as a badge of honor, a symbol of their anti-establishment dispositions. Noise is, as discussed previously, a “non-genre”, its lack of musical categorization begets an inherently decentralized system. More granularly, we can take 100 gecs as a singular example of this phenomena. By combining disparate genres into a patchwork genre-defying output, 100 gecs is also utilizing a decentralized, open-source form of musical production akin to the system meme creators work within. Similar to noise and other alternative artists, 100 gecs operates outside the realm of a traditional artist-label structure, opting instead for the freedom afforded by an independent network of like-minded creators. It is this shared aesthetic philosophy between 100 gecs, meme culture, and noise that takes the groups affiliation with memes and meme culture beyond solely intra-musical associations, illustrating how the two communities share a common cultural bond.

 

Contemporary meme culture takes influence from all corners of contemporary life, commenting on topics ranging from the geopolitical crisis du jour to the American pastime of blacking out at an Applebee’s. The music of 100 gecs taps into this absurdist, devil-may-care culture via genre synthesis, dadaist sentiments, DIY oriented community-building, and an embrace of the global open internet. Both Gecs music and meme culture share numerous similarities with the dadaist movement of the early 20th century. As we have previously discussed, dada developed in response to a period of rampant nationalism, xenophobia, and reprisals against the far-left, not to mention a respective world war and global pandemic. For these reasons dada is a touchstone we can use to form a hypothesis as to why the music of 100 gecs has built such an incredible following during a global pandemic. 100 gecs, in both their music and online presence, promotes many of the same leftist, even anarchist sentiments, creating the type of absurdist, “counter culture” art that has a history of gaining prominence and cultural capital during periods of social upheaval. Where dadaism opposed oppressive -isms and embraced progressive values, so too does 100 gecs music. In fact, early 20th century leftist art movements like dada represent the fulcrum upon which this essay rests, linking contemporary meme culture with the music of 100 gecs and emplacing both within an unstable political/socio/cultural environment.

In an effort to ground these dadaist and anarchist conversations in musical reality, it is useful to take a closer look at 100 gecs output, namely the track "stupid horse". Here 100 gecs absurdism is on full display, both in terms of lyrical content and musical material. The song paints a ludicrous picture of a horse bettor losing on a race and sprinting onto the track, beating up a jockey, stealing their phone as well as their horse, and riding off into the sunset. The lyrics suggest total anarchy “Yeah, I stole his phone, that put him in his place, Me on the horse, we ran out of the place, Then we took my Porsche back to my place”, and a wanton disregard for money, a characteristic also present in other gecs tracks, case in point: “I spend my money like it's stolen, yeah, Shit, I'm already broke and it's only 7:45 in the morning, yeah” from "745 sticky". Throughout this essay I have referred to “generic reference”, or 100 gecs planting references from other genres within their tracks, however stupid horse transcends this categorization, essentially becoming a full blown ska track. Green lighting a ska track on a pop album in 2019 is unusual enough, but pairing ska instrumentals with the track’s lyrics takes it to another level of absurdity. Ska music also has a very important historical role in musical counter-culturalism and protest, in that the genre was at the center of anti-colonialist Jamaican art in the 1960s and 1970s. While a full accounting is beyond the scope of this essay, ska itself shares the anti-establishment attitudes common to both dada and 100 gecs.



100 gecs music has blown up in 2020 due to its cultural relevance during a period of unrest and anxiety by tapping into the same absurdist aesthetics that drove dadaism to prominence a century before, however the group is also thriving due to several more practical, functional reasons. Namely, 100 gecs music is seemingly custom-built for a Covid-19 world, a world that is not just digital-first but digital-only, where in a matter of days virtual interaction became the only form of interpersonal communication. Gecs is among a group of digital-age hyperpop acts, including the label PC music, that has built a dedicated following of online fans by tapping into meme and “alt” culture. This made for an easier transition for the group compared to other more analog acts. Gecs has continued promoting throughout the pandemic by hosting a series of virtual concerts on minecraft servers, as well as appearing on popular zoom DJ sets and festivals like Hurt Free Network. 100 gecs DIY background put them in a great position to pivot quickly when Covid hit, and their digital background and online literacy allowed them to easily navigate a changing world, where minecraft skills finally get the respect they deserve.


As I sit on my phone while waiting for another zoom call to start, I’m browsing tiktok in my practice-room-turned-home-office (the privilege of midwestern rent prices). Among the barrage of dance videos, home chef recipes, and political commentary comes a video featuring a “slowed + reverb” version of 100 gecs’ song "money machine". Slowed + reverb is a genre of music made popular by gen z teens via YouTube with ever more common cross pollination on tiktok as backing tracks for memes. While slowed + reverb is another in a long line of genres taking remix as their point of departure (chopped and screwed), its use on tiktok provides further evidence of the increasingly tight relationship between music and meme and music as a vehicle to support a meme. It is fitting then that 100 gecs, a group that has built a cult following by developing a refined yet unmistakably trashy output inflected with a carefully assembled mish-mash of precursory genres, would receive the same treatment. The group takes influence from the surrealist and dadaist sensibilities of contemporary meme culture, has given their music up to be memed via a halfway tongue-in-cheek remix album, and has been memed themselves through growing popularity on “alt tiktok”; the late-stage capitalist digital circle of life.


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