Brainwaves on the airwaves: hyperpop, denpa-kei, and the music of societal collapse💕

Sometimes pop music is cheesy fun. Sometimes it’s a meditation on our impending doom. Sometimes it’s both. In my most incoherent blog yet (I’m trying my best here), I will try to explain why denpa music and hyperpop are optimistic in content, pessimistic in theme, and, well, perfect for any playlist during an economic crash.

In a 2012 essay for Altair and Vega, the blogger Bitmap attempts to define the nigh-impenetrable phenomenon of denpa. Bitmap named two criteria crucial to understanding the denpa aesthetic: 1. The denpa aesthetic exists within the otaku infrastructure and; 2. The denpa aesthetic is defined by excess. 

Denpa is the sound of Akihabara, of Comiket, of late 00s 4chan /c/. It’s the sound of twenty “lost” years after an insane economic boom that ended in a real estate and stock bubble that burst, shrinking the economy and killing the conspicuous consumption of the 80s. 

Falling from the cliff’s edge into a deep, lumbering recession leads to anxious, fractured media. The archetypes and tropes that became a spine for mainstream anime were trampled by genrefuckers whose deep cynicism and irony created warped copies of the media they grew up with. The saccharine moe bore denpa; the sincerity of the early 90s crumbled.

While moe remains mainstream — the JSDF has discovered cute anime girls are the key to recruiting young men — denpa festers in independent circles, where true believers do it for the love of the game. Authors like Koji Kumeta, Masaki Okayu, and Tatsuhiko Takimoto, satirize moe elements, giving us cute girls with eye patches and a bandaged body (from volunteering at the zoo), an angel with pigtails (who bludgeons the main character to death on a daily basis), and the ultimate denpa cutie created from combining as many moe elements as possible.

The progenitor of Western musical denpa is none other than M.I.A., the British-Sri Lankan multimedia artist who exploded onto the scene with “Galang,” a track with the foresight of a Delphic oracle. “Galang”’s unmatched crashing, cataclysmic sound was novel in the early 2000s, when today’s hyperpop hunies were growing up. 

M.I.A.’s efforts, “unpretentious, stuck together with Scotch tape”, would be the spiritual godfather of the PC music scene. Electronic clangs, whirls and whizzes that cram into your brain, and rhythms reminiscent of playground taunts can be heard in denpa-kei tracks like MOSAIC.WAV’s “AKIBA POP the Future”, IOSYS’s Touhou OST remixes, and, naturally, parodies like “ハンマーを電波ソングにしてみた” (“I tried to make the hammer a denpa song”).

(M.I.A.’s personal label N.E.E.T., shares its name with a derogatory classification of unemployed young men in Japan.)  

It’s difficult to say with a straight face that denpa music, music that sounds like a sugar rush, is the coughs of exhaust that eject themselves from a backfiring engine. It’s playful, it’s cheery, it’s bright and it’s creepy. It’s the escape from an economic recession, loan sharks, and shrinking wages. Though a massive stimulus package prevented Japan from having its own Great Depression in the 90s, the kids were, well, depressed. 

Denpa music is pure escapism. While the phrase denpa was borne from a serial killer who blamed it on “electromagnetic waves” being beamed into his don’t-do-murder cortex, or whatever, the themes of lunacy were reworked into cyberpunk anime, and would further evolve at the hands of indie musicians into a less gloomy, but still awfully creepy iteration. The focus on lunacy, and schizophrenia in denpa anime was not entirely lost in the transition to denpa music. Rather than machines and men questioning the realities and truths of the main character, denpa music uses nonsensical, non sequitur lyrics with hyper-produced backing tracks to make you question what exactly it’s supposed to mean. Not the same, but similar enough.

This is something that does not export well. Americans, save for the small few who love this particular aspect of Japanese culture, do not and would not enjoy denpa music. (I asked my boyfriend to listen to some of the examples above, he did not “get” it, and he hated the “lack of rhyming”.) It’s cloying, it’s crashing, it’s a calamity of the ears. 

But Americans don’t particularly like 100 gecs either. 

And for good reason. Artists like 100 gecs, Charli XCX, SOPHIE, and A.G. Cook don’t get popular for producing the Music of the Day. Like the denpa music heroes before them, they make the music that plays in the taxi from Europa to Io. They make music that physically hurts to listen to because our human forms aren’t yet advanced enough to appreciate it.

And they make music that can only be possible after economic collapse. 

The extreme pastiche of pop music, the nonsensical lyrics that literally (“1999”) or thematically (“xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx”) recall the the youth of the artists and listeners, the walls of sound that drown you in massive arrays of sparkling, glitchy, electronic texture: this is the music of a youth in decline. The schizophrenic sounds of hyperpop are like those denpa waves creeping into your brain. 

After the 2008 financial crash, blah blah blah, you know this part. There was a once-in-a-generation (2020 says lol) economic contraction that hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression. A generation of young people will downwardly mobile, their age cohort’s wages and standard of living never likely to recover. And as long as Boomers keep their rocking chairs on the million-dollar-in-equity homes while the rest of us are so poor that rent is 50% of our monthly income, what’s better than escaping to the simplicity of being a teenager on MySpace while your mom reheats Sunday’s pot roast?

Listening to Charli XCX can do for you everything or more than crying alone in your bedroom to “Sk8er Boi” or In The Zone can. Maybe it’ll even make you feel cool–you’re listening to an album dropped in 2020 after all–but it will make you feel like a kid. It’ll make you feel like you’re blinging out your Gaia Online page with Longcat Scarves that are now worth billions in inflated gold coins

Don’t confuse hyperpop nostalgia bombs with the recent disco revival pop music seems to be going through. Dua Lipa is not creating music for your parents to relive their glory days to–no, the disco revival is meant for yuppies to bust their asses on the dance floor, something you can’t do if you’re home watching Frasier and listening to 100 gecs. 

It’s not just the nostalgia, and it’s not just the escapism that make hyperpop like denpa. It’s the blockades of sound and nonsensical lyrics resulting from years of austerity. With no social safety net, with bridges crumbling around you, with fires burning and globes warming, no amount of acoustic guitar guys at protests will heal the deep wounds of alienation. Move aside, Pete Seeger. Behind the pure word salad of “feel so clean like a money machine” there is a generation lost. The world doesn’t make sense, so why should the lyrics?

Hyperpop is about running from your reality, looking to find a hivemind to take you in. A Matrix of Y2K pop crushing you like a ball of tin foil before you Kobe! it into a trashcan across the cafeteria. It’s overdosing on pop motifs, on the cliches of the music of A Better Time, while hoping it’ll take the edge of a two-figure savings account.

And like denpa in Japan, hyperpop is the domain of nerds and freaks. Despite what diehard fans tell you (remember, these people have their favs sign their buttplugs, or their mother’s ashes, among other strange objects), the mainstream palate will never be ready for the pop music of 2999.

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