Hyperpop provocateurs 100 gecs have a great new album. But if they are "the world's strangest band," what does this say about the wider culture?
I really like 10,000 Gecs — the second album from hyperpop duo 100 gecs, a 10-track, 26-minute speed ride through video game bleeps, super-crunched laptop beats, Autotune and rococo-vocoder vocals, and surprisingly reverent pastiche of late alterna-thud genres like ska-core and nü-metal. There are enormous American Idol-ready melodies to reward the first superficial listens and plenty of deep musical in-jokes to encourage returns.
For playful bands that make absurd musical choices (e.g. Ween), listeners are always left with the question: Do the genre-hopping and convention-bending result from artless amateurism or intentional artistic genius? 10,000 Gecs is so crisp and relentless that Laura Les and Dylan Brady’s idiosyncrasies never sound like anything other than auteurship. They somehow utilize the pop power of clichés while critiquing them. Despite being great lyricists, they leave the second-half of the “Hollywood Baby” chorus as “whoa-oh” filler. They know that trick where ska bands jump from the one-two-beat to the half-time rock-beat to create the big mosh moment, but in “I Got My Tooth Removed,” they deploy it way too quickly. They do a perfect Limp Bizkit tribute in “Billy Knows Jamie” and then distort the master track so much that it causes faux speaker-breakup. In “Doritos and Fritos,” Les sets up an infantile rhyme scheme — “Okay I went to France / to get some new pants” — only to break the rule on the next line — “I went to Greece / to get something to eat.” These aren't flubs; 100 gecs know exactly what they’re doing.
100 gecs' combination of musical virtuosity and direct references to late 1990s post-alternative rock is obvious critic-bait for people my exact age. I have, admittedly, not listened to Dance Hall Crashers in a very long time, but that particular style of pop ska-rock will forever remind me of struggling to get my 1984 Volvo station wagon to push 45 mph on Saturday mornings to make academic team practice on time.
That being said, I feel a big generation gap with the late 20-something gecs. I suspect most people from the actual Primus and Fred Durst generations would be too embarrassed to musically riff on Primus and Fred Durst. Yes, I know the song “Nookie,” but I never respected the song “Nookie.” Of course, by denying these alternative metal bands a place in the canon, we set them up for later reappropriation as retro kitsch. It was inevitable someone would swoop in to play with the burnt-out trash pile and $4 water bottles from Woodstock '99.
Yet what would have been even more embarrassing in the 1990s is the obviousness of the 100 gecs's references. Their software prowess and major label budget allow them to sample nearly anything they desire (they got the real THX intro noise!), but for “The Most Wanted Person in the United States,” they rap like sorority girls doing "Paper Planes" at karaoke over the world-famous Sleng Teng riddim, the horse-neigh horn from “Insane in the Membrane,” and lines of dialogue from box office hit, Scary Movie (itself a parody of a pastiche of a tired genre). In the mold of Girl Talk, their approach is the very opposite of crate-digging — it’s more akin to ensuring that every musical reference is well known to your slightly older cousin Phil, who used to hand you Sharpie-smudged CDRs of Incubus and once got rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning after the Kid Rock show.
During the communal celebration of De La Soul back in March, Questlove noted on a podcast that 3 Feet High and Rising was especially groundbreaking for building its beats from samples not on The Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilations. (Prince Paul also took his lines of film dialogue from Putney Swope, which wasn’t exactly the Scary Movie of its day.) 100 gecs are absolutely as clever as Prince Paul, but at least on 10,000 Gecs, they show very little interest in Paul's old-school obscurity: whether that's making obscure music for obscure communities or turning previously obscure source material into pop. (Probably coincidentally, 100 gecs sounds a lot like Cornelius and the proto-hyperpop coming out of Japan in the early 2000s, but Cornelius referenced arcane garage band Count Five and the Plus-Tech Squeeze Box was obsessed with using 1,000s of samples no one could ever identify.)
It's tempting, then, to associate 100 gecs's pop-first approach with the commerce-friendly M.O. emerging among their generational cohort. As Hiji Nam concluded on Art Forum, "Zoomers don’t want to be broke and obscurely cool artists; they want to be rich and legibly cool entrepreneurs." This is sensible as an artistic strategy in the 2020s. To fight against audience distraction, artists must win over listeners immediately. To stand out amongst cultural over-proliferation, artists must establish their influence through big hits. Now that “cred” has lost its value as a legitimate form of cultural currency, money is the only marker of success. And where the internet makes everything potentially non-obscure, there is no reason to celebrate esotericism. Whether 100 gecs are conscious of these contemporary dilemmas, their particular production style sounds like a solution.
For the tidiness of this logic, Fluxblog's Matthew Perpetua offered the useful rejoinder on Twitter to Nam's article that "It's absurd to characterize an entire cohort of people who are mostly minors by the outliers who are ultra driven to be successful at a young age — the less careerist artists become known later, we don't have enough information to make these statements yet." Sure, but here is where things get complicated: 100 gecs are often described as the world’s strangest musical act. Why are these ostensibly non-careerist weirdos so pop-first?
Well, first of all, 10,000 Gecs isn’t that weird. If this is what passes for overwhelming strangeness in 2023, we are living in a conservative era. When Wordsworth says that “every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed,” he speaks of a past when artists attempted to create new aesthetic effects through strange new twists on conventions — a technique that would require audiences to have patience in learning the material before it became comprehensible and pleasurable. 100 gecs aren't taking this risk: They mix and match a ludicrous set of Top 40 conventions from the last two decades, which are immediately comprehensible and pleasurable. The pre-chorus in “Doritos and Fritos” could be a Katy Perry song. It's ready to skank along to, right now.
With this year's meltdown of major social media platforms, there is a growing consensus that 2023 marks the real beginning of the 2020s as a decade. Maybe this is why 10,000 Gecs sounds so good right now, as it promises what a brand new Top 40 chart could sound like in a potential cultural renewal. But I've also come to accept that our most talented weirdos really just want to make pop. So if this is the weirdest possible music that we’ll have a communal moment around, do more oblique forms of obscurity have a place in our culture at all?