with intense eagerness since 2012! a channel of the los angeles review of books

Notes on 100 Gecs

100 Gecs sounds like the internet. When I saw them play live at Berkeley’s Cornerstone in November, 2019, I had the strange feeling that the crowd looked like the internet too. A 6’4” shirtless man paraded around, embracing random audience members and then (semi-)tenderly tackling them to the ground. The merch table, filled with shirts stylized like a bastard child of video game and death metal tees, asked that you simply venmo “@bikini.”  There were old school DIY guys, streetwear clothing flaneurs, bad smelling skaters, glasses-wearing music aficionados: an astonishing superposition of countless subcultural archetypes. The high volume, fever pitch, autotuned cacophony of the music and milieu was as sublime as it was disorienting. Was this avant-garde? Underground? Camp?

100 Gecs is a musical duo out of Chicago, composed of Laura Les and Dylan Brady, both of whom had been previously moderately acclaimed in online underground music circles. Their debut album 1000 Gecs (2019) was an unexpected and largely incongruent hit within the “hyperpop” genre (of which Charli XCX might be a more recognizable name), substituting its characteristic glistening glamour for dissonance and turmoil. The sound of the record might be variously called experimental, chaotic and energetic, or less charitably, manic and grating—when asked, though, Les and Brady simply refer to it as “pop.” I love them deeply and listen to them in the shower most days.

Trying to write about 100 Gecs poses challenges, as it is not immediately obvious how seriously to take them, nor how seriously they take themselves. Their music possesses a self-aware, in-your-face absurdity, but nevertheless I find it deeply unsatisfying to render them only as a joke. I take a bit of offense whenever I hear friends describe them as “meme music.” Even so, I often find myself, intentionally or not, taking the same turn when trying to introduce them to the uninitiated— I reduce them to a cheap gag.

It feels, to me, harder to explain that “Gecs” is not simply a joke to be in on, or that my appreciation for the sound does not start or end at being able to laugh at it. 100 Gecs could not be more aesthetically opposed to sentiment, but my relationship to their music, nevertheless, feels genuine and sincere. With enough plays (or maybe just one, depending on your generic inclinations) it becomes difficult to maintain your critical distance, and it becomes much easier and much, much more fun to go along for the ride than to fight to keep the music at arm’s length.

A tweet from @deathstuds reads “100 gecs fans be like ‘i’m sorry’ before they even get the aux” 

Inasmuch as 100 Gecs is a musical project that wears its weird jumpy heart on its sleeve, I urge you to take their music precisely at face value. Whereas comedy is often branded as a humorous surface, belying some more serious truth in its depth, In 100 Gecs, the surface and depth have collapsed and become identical. There is no subtle ironic detachment that Laura Les and Dylan Brady preserve in secret, nor any concessions of an artist’s facade. The joke – and the music — doesn’t have some hidden treasure to uncover or code to decipher, but that doesn’t mean there’s no truth or meaning present.

In a January 2020 interview with Them. magazine, Dylan Brady says “I just like ska, too, and dubstep.” This attitude of “I just like…” offers a useful means of interpreting 100 Gecs’ relationship with aesthetics, as well as their loyal fanbase’s relationship with their music. Perhaps the feature of 100 Gecs’ music that jumps out—or grates upon—new listeners the most is the high-pitched and heavily autotuned vocals from Laura Les. Dylan Brady, too, modulates and pitch-corrects his voice, but in a fashion much more familiar to listeners of mainstream artists like Young Thug and Travis Scott. Les, in contrast, occupies a vocal range associated primarily with the much derided internet genre of “nightcore”: pop and dance songs sped up to make the vocals nearly squeak, often accompanied in thumbnails and videos with an image of an anime girl, converting whatever original singer into excited hyperfeminine cuteness. Les herself readily cops to the association: “I knew that I liked nightcore vocals. From the first time I tried it, it sounded amazing to me. I was like, ‘I’m never doing anything else,’” she told Them.

“Liking” is the aesthetic response here, and it’s a minor affect that offers a surprising amount of range.  “I knew that I liked” says Les, and also, “I was like.” What we like, the act of liking, can offer a way to consider what we ourselves are like—a path into deeper forms of identification.

In this case, Laura Les’ trans identity plays a significant role in the aesthetic choice of distorted vocals, and she has often explained that she uses pitch correction and autotune to alleviate the dysphoria produced by the tone of her unaltered singing voice. Les is far from the first transfeminine artist to employ this technique; I remember first encountering (or at the least clocking) this sort of vocal modulation at a small 4/20 show at a live/work art space in Oakland, several years back. In that way that these things possess a subconscious magnetism, the group of five friends with me that night have all come out as trans or queer, though none of us were out at the time, to the varying extents that any of us were even aware of it.

That night, the act for which I was most excited was Technopagan, a DJ upon whom I—over the previous several weeks—developed a serious instagram-based crush. As often happens in these parasocial relationships we build with our favorite performers, a certain Freudian transference occurred in the dark wherein I, high and anxiously excited, desperately at once wanted Technopagan to see me and be me (who wouldn’t?). When she began to play with the formant knobs connected to the microphone, swinging her voice up to hit the iconic “Hi, Ken” of her Barbie Girl remix—one of those moments that makes you cherish the intimacy of live music—it also displaced somehow its pitch shift onto me, plucking at my unconfronted dysphoria and discomfort with my own voice. I liked it.

This is to say, there is a slightly different note that Les’ singing might register for young queer people, among whom 100 Gecs is an ascendant hit, and it is no accident that her particular aggressive and dissonant style is already beginning to spin off subgeneric trends, with rising artists such as Osquinn/p4rkr and Fraxiom, both of whom identify as trans/nonbinary, echoing similar vocal performance.

Laura Les and Dylan Brady at Washington D.C.’s The Anthem

To the loyal fan, her autotuned voice is, in a meaningful way, Les’ “real” voice, whatever significance that is supposed to hold. In live shows, she doesn’t turn the effects off between songs: at the show I attended, “hello Berkeley, how are you doing?” was cast out over the crowd in the same lilting, compressed timbre as on the opening track, “Ringtone.” A 2018 writeup from Pitchfork on SOPHIE (another trans musician in the same scene) described her voice modulation as a sort of surgery upon her “artistic flesh,” a mirrored transition occurring in her aesthetic and her physical being. I have always been much more inclined, however, to view this sort of musical experimentation as an extension of the body rather than a modification to it. To borrow Deleuze and Guattari’s language, Laura Les and her microphone appear in my eyes more a constellation, heterogeneous yet inseparable, than discrete bodies interacting contingently—haven’t we always said an artist’s work is an appendage of the self? As to the chaotic, unyielding sound they produce in common, I keep returning to a quote from Jack Halberstam and Ira Livingston’s introduction to Posthuman Bodies:

The self disintegrates in this queer narrative into a posthuman rage for disorder and uncivil disobedience. For the queer narrator, rage is the difference between being and having: it is a call to arms, a desire that the human be roughly shoved into the next century and that we become posthuman without nostalgia and because we already are.[1]

The posthuman assemblage of Les and her microphone have, to me, always sounded “without nostalgia,” and on tracks such as “Bloodstains,” belting about “smoking dope in empty cans I got from corner stores,” filled with an intoxicating rage.

It is this ceaseless transgression and aggression in 100 Gecs’ music, and the “hyperpop” genre at large, that makes me side-eye any pronouncements of the death of camp. I’m sympathetic to the view that insofar as RuPaul’s Drag Race has massive mainstream popularity (among straight people, no less), and Susan Sontag’s famous essay became the theme for a Met Gala, what used to be referred to as campy might just now fall under ‘good taste.’ Nonetheless, any who believes that camp at large has met its end, simply because its old gay beacons have been reincorporated into the normative current, has failed to spot the dialectical inversion taking place — or, to put it differently, they are not nearly enough online.

100 Gecs rejoices in those parts of “bad bad taste” that camp left behind, substituting camp’s old homes of overwrought urban glamor for the unpolished and awkwardly earnest. Genres such as midwestern emo, nu-metal and ska—all slightly too embarrassing relics of our recent past, not yet distant or forgotten enough for kitsch—find a heightened and exaggerated expression in 100 Gecs’ music, sacrilegiously scavenged and composited. A vivid example: while Christmas music has long toed the line of camp in the old sense of affected sentiment, 100 Gecs released “sympathy 4 the grinch” for this past year’s holiday jingle, a two-minute ska/dancehall thrill ride about stealing Santa’s bag—“I’ve been good for way too long / gonna get the shit I want.”

If this musical ‘bad taste’ chaos, however, represents the present and future of gender and aesthetic transgression, and confrontation with the normative, consider me on the ramparts. If the varied and electric audience of their show is worth anything, shaking loose ceiling tiles out of sublime, ecstatic fervor, I do not imagine I will be alone.


Dylan Keoni Burgoon is a student at UC Berkeley, attempting to be a serious Marxist while remaining an unserious person. On Twitter @red_w_love and Instagram @i.am.red.with.love.

[1] Halberstam, Jack and Livingston, Ira. Posthuman Bodies. Indiana University Press, 1995.

Related Posts