Since the early days of the musical genres techno and electronica in the 1980s, artists have looked to synthetic, computerized sounds to expand the horizons of musical technique. As the 1990s wore on, elements of hip-hop and garage rock swirled beneath the mainstream sounds of synth-pop artists like Madonna, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, giving birth to a subversive, label-bending genre: experimental.
The experimental genre has since become dominated by the use of strange, synthetic and grating sounds in a rhythmic cacophony of music, remaining quaint, succinct and underground all the while. Undergoing revolution after revolution as new acts put their spin on the label, the small subgroup has continued to expand and evolve rapidly in recent years, especially in the 2010s. This rapid growth, however, reveals one of the music industry’s most pervasive problems: flash.
2018 has seen the until-now underground experimental style emerge into the mainstream, with core elements of the genre appearing on mainstream successes like Travis Scott’s “ASTROWORLD” and Ohio-native Trippie Redd’s “LIFE’S A TRIP,” blending hip-hop with mind-melding synthetic interludes, warped vocals and grinding, bizarre melodies that leaves the lister dazed and spacey.
These albums intertwine the established mainstream style of trap rap with established elements from its sister genre without compromising the integrity of either.
Veteran guitarist Jack White also dipped his toes into the experimental genre in 2018, producing the wiry, cacophonic “Boarding House Reach,” a wide departure from his 2000’s-era garage rock roots.
Artists like White have implemented the core elements of the experimental to achieve a richer, grittier and stranger tone in music that before lacked a modern edge. “Hypermisphoniac” from White’s “Boarding House Reach” opens with a series of clicks, beeps and whirs before molding into a soft piano melody layered over an electric guitar and the whirs and beeps, giving listners a taste of the depths the album will venture into the experimental.
Rainbow Kitten Surprise, meanwhile, blends elements of rock, electronica and folk on their album “How To: Friend, Love, Freefall,” and hip-hop duo Hermit and the Recluse produces lo-fi beats with grungy, monotonous vocals mixed with subtle elements of experimental R&B on “Orpheus vs. The Sirens.” Hip-hop collective BROCKHAMPTON blends heavy noise with a unique take on cerebral rap lyrics, and has gained flash-pan success since the fall of 2017.
Other acts like Igloooghost, King Gizzard & the Wizard Lizard and Thundercat also blend these odd, underground synthetic sounds into an otherwise mainstream-friendly discography, a label few experimental artists share.
On the opposite end of the experimental spectrum is Death Grips, a dark, cacophonic collaborative between producers and vocalists Zach Hill, Andy Morin and Stefan Burnett. With seven full-length albums under their belt, one of which being 2018’s “Year of the Snitch,” Death Grips is seasoned and well-versed in course, furious cuts of bizarre metal, synthetic and electronic noise music.
Death Grips’ “Year of the Snitch” falls prey to the same trap that Jack White’s “Boarding House Reach” and Trippie Redd’s “LIFE’S A TRIP” falls to: flash. In a musical age increasingly reliant on attracting clicks, streams, retweets, and shares, the most vibrant, head-turning or shocking act takes the monetary victory. Each of these projects, while unique and groundbreaking in their own right, simply overwhelm the audience with dozens of bizarre experimental elements to gain attention.
If flashiness gains artists attention, then more and more will be willing to take drastic measures in their conduct and music to earn extra stream revenue.
Experimental music isn’t the only genre that is guilty of stream-pandering: rap acts like Migos, Rae Sremmurd and Nicki Minaj are well-known in the hip-hop community for releasing massive albums with just enough songs to keep plays and visibility high. Experimental music, though, has the distinction of being the loudest, most aggressive and most easily noticed strain of modern stream-trolling.
The solutions to this problem are twofold: first, stop using experimental music to attract attention. Second, take the focus of the music industry off of money. Music has always been an art, and shouldn’t be so heavily monetized that albums are written and sold specifically to gain attention or money.