By Charles Toh (21A01D)
100 gecs just wants to have fun.
In what is possibly the most unexpected turn of events ever, the experimental pop project of St. Louis-born independent musicians Dylan Brady and Laura Les has risen to worldwide internet notoriety, gaining traction on social media sites like TikTok and Twitter. A year ago, 100 gecs had little more than a dedicated cult following among online communities obsessed with underground music.
So how did their polarising, abrasive pastiche of genres from music’s refuse pile capture the attention of both music critics and listeners worldwide, with virtually no radio play or promotion?
I remember my very first exposure to 100 gecs. About a week after their debut album, 1000 gecs, was first released on 31 May 2019, I’d begun hearing buzz on online music discussion forums, namely, 4chan’s music board and RateYourMusic, about a new, polarising group being touted with several intriguing labels. “easily the worst thing I’ve ever heard”, “the musical equivalent of Satan’s spawn”, “unfunny garbage trying way too hard to be different” and “the official sequel to music” were some of them. An online friend of mine sent me a link to their album, asking for my thoughts on it given our mutual love for experimental music, while also warning me that it was “easily the best worst thing to come out this year”.
Naturally, I was curious. I plugged in my earphones and pressed play on 1000 gecs’ 10 tracks.
What ensued sounded downright horrible—vocals pitch-shifted and auto-tuned to the point of sounding inhuman, tempos speeding, slowing, and stopping at will, saccharine bubblegum melodies lacerated with bursts of abrasive noise, songs no longer than 2 minutes cycling through bizarre combinations of musical genres without any respect for convention or tradition. Despite only being 23 minutes long, by the time the sound of 1000 gecs had receded into the background, I was left reeling, confused, and feeling almost violated. It was as if everything I thought I knew about music had been laughed at, ripped to shreds, and then crudely assembled back together.
Initially dismissing it as a novelty project aiming for originality by being as annoying as possible, I found myself almost inexplicably drawn back to 1000 gecs over the next couple of weeks. And almost immediately and without explanation, my repulse of 100 gecs’ unfocussed, hyperactive interpretation of pop music turned into obsession. 1000 gecs found its way onto my playlists, and I found myself endlessly replaying all 23 minutes of their debut album whenever I had the time to do so.
Cynicism aside, nothing truly sounds like 100 gecs’ music, both sonically and aesthetically. Their music is deliberately engineered to sound wrong, at least by contemporary standards of what constitutes “good” music. As of the time of this article, their most popular song on Spotify, money machine, has just under 30 million streams. In just under 2 minutes, vocalist Laura Les opens with an increasingly nonsensical diatribe against the listener, before the song morphs into an auto-tuned emo-rap number, closing with an abrasive noise outro, with Les’ and Brady’s vocals distorted to the point where any discernible melody is lost.
In many ways, money machine is the perfect summation of all of 100 gecs’ music. Surreal and off-putting on a first listen, yet filled with endless reference points that only a generation raised with unprecedented access to the Internet could ever understand. The nonsensical monologue that opens the song, where Les calls the listener a “piss baby” and snarls “you think you’re so f—ing cool?” is reminiscent of the kind of childish quarrels one frequently stumbles upon online, where discussions can turn heated at the flick of a wrist. The rap section of the song, largely satirising braggadocious claims of wealth, is reminiscent of online DIY SoundCloud rappers working from their bedrooms, making crude imitations of popular rappers like Migos, who are known for their extensive “flexing” of luxury. Meanwhile, money machine’s more introspective moments recall the poetic and sombre lyricism of the late Mac Miller, another rapper popular with Generation Z. The noise outro brings to mind ironic YouTube remixes of popular songs with “bass boost” electronic filters abused to the point of unlistenability.
In an era where digital streaming has made the music industry more lucrative than ever, music, too, has become mass produced and distributed on an unprecedented scale. Similarly, the music one hears on the radio isn’t bad per se (who can deny the catchiness of the past decade’s biggest hits like Sicko Mode, In My Feelings or Despacito?), but with this attention to mass appeal comes a certain safety, a refined, polished nature to the music that’s constantly shoved in our faces and promoted by the media.
For better or worse, mainstream pop mostly adopts a stance that’s descriptive enough to be “relatable” to an everyman audience without being overly personal and descriptive to avoid alienating its audience.
Take Drake, arguably the biggest name in music at this point in time. His lyrical themes include romance and heartbreak, and his “rags to riches” rise to fame. This isn’t so much a critique of the actual quality of Drake’s music as it is an inquiry into why his music is made and what effect it seeks to have on its audience. Drake’s music primarily sells its audience two ideas: that everyone can become a global rap superstar with enough dedication and effort, and that he understands the struggles of his everyman audience—he, too, experiences common human emotions of love and loss. His music brilliantly establishes the façade of relatability that has propelled him to success. It’s why Drake’s music enables him to connect with listeners from all generations, as it is with Ed Sheeran, Camila Cabello and so many others.
And this is where the appeal of 100 gecs comes in. 100 gecs’ music is designed to be deliberately alienating. Its humour almost exclusively references that of the digital age; its lyrics both expose and poke fun at the dead-end, routine reality of living as a member of Generation Z. It exaggerates common musical tropes to the point where their emptiness is embarrassingly laid bare for all to see. 800 db cloud opens as a simpering ballad of heartbreak before devolving into a mindless indulgence in hedonism and drugs, complete with death metal growls and industrial production.
Despite the obvious explanation that 100 gecs’ music is intended as a satirical critique of contemporary music trends, both members of the group have repeatedly sworn off any ironic intent. When asked to describe his group’s music, Brady simply replies “pop”. And he has a point—for Generation Z, 100 gecs’ music has more relatability and “pop” appeal than most of the music one hears on the radio or on Spotify’s Global Top 50. The outlandish, surreal appeal of internet humour? Check. The hyper-specific lyrics recounting the pain of being “ghosted”, “hitting the boof” and so on? Check. And of course, the earworm melodies of mainstream pop is an undeniable influence on 100 gecs’ music. Their approach to music is clearly reflected in their list of influences, ranging from radio heavyweights Imagine Dragons to death metal bands like Cannibal Corpse and avant-garde jazz composers like John Zorn. It’s a disorganised, deliberately messy approach that mirrors the attention span of a generation constantly bombarded with conflicting information from all ends, and their pastiche of conflicting styles speaks to a youth raised on absurd, quirky mashups made possible only through the magic of the internet, and its endless desire to shock or disturb convention.
In a sense, 100 gecs’ music is some of the most authentic and genuine you’ll ever hear. It’s the sound of two individuals raised on internet culture throwing together all possible stylings and influences and cranking the energy up to eleven while maintaining a thin veneer of pop appeal. For all the endless analyses of 100 gecs’ music and philosophy online by critics, 100 gecs is as much “a frustrated reaction of an unapologetic youth against the existential horrors of modern life” or “an optimistically nihilistic response to capitalism’s dehumanising impact on art” as it is fun pop music made for and by “the kids”. As they say, the emperor has no clothes, and as soon as you begin analysing 100 gecs’ music as high art, you’ve already missed the point.