In TikTok Report, we look at the good, the bad, and the straight-up bizarre songs spreading across the platform via dances and memes.
In a TikTok from late June, the blue-haired creator @bugfruit gazes into their front-facing camera, looking bored but cute. A grey Windows Start button descends over their face. A cursor clicks on it. “A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A,” a childlike voice stutters. “I wish we never met.” With each split-second glitch in the audio, the color of @bugfruit’s face and background shifts, hurling the viewer deeper into digital disarray. The scene quickly morphs into a psychedelic patchwork of green, cyan, and magenta, imitating the saturated blobs of a heat sensor scan, and @bugfruit’s face melts into long panels. What begins, ordinarily, as just a teenager in their bedroom, mutates into a mind-bending trip. Liked over 200,000 times, the TikTok is just one of the countless eye-popping videos tagged #glitchcore.
Within a few weeks, the song soundtracking the clip—“NEVER MET!” by CMTEN featuring Glitch Gum—exploded on the platform. The hyperpop bauble filters the post-mortem regret of a dead relationship through the sparkly earnestness of the old internet (“We broke up on PictoChat, crying on my DS,” Glitch Gum’s Luke Huff chirps, invoking the console’s pre-installed messaging service). Moving in sync with Huff’s Auto-Tuned stutter, creators would switch the hue and saturation of their faces using TikTok’s “color customizer” tool. Now “NEVER MET!” is featured in almost 600,000 TikToks. Last month, 100 gecs—whose Laura Les is namechecked in the lyrics—hopped on an official remix.
“Editors are really helping songs blow up,” says Tyler Shepherd, co-founder of the popular cyber rave Subculture Party. “The TikToks are like their own mini music videos.” The most influential glitchcore editor, by far, is the 18-year-old @iguana_alana, who’s revered for bringing David Shawty and Yungster Jack’s underground rap hit “Under Pressure” to TikTok earlier this year. According to Huff, “the ‘U-U-U-U-U-Under Pressure’ song” inspired his own “A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A” tag in “NEVER MET!,” testifying to the speed at which sonic features mutate and spread in this universe. Alana’s co-sign is so significant that a few months after he made a “NEVER MET!” edit in May, Huff, CMTEN, and some friends wrote him a tribute song. A rapper named kxzia did too, aptly pronouncing Alana “CEO of glitchcore.”
The common denominator for glitchcore TikToks is overwhelming chaos, with colors so bright and cluttered that they’re flagged “eyestrain” or marked with flash warnings. In them, digital malfunction becomes thrillingly intense, less an irritating accident than a desired state. The chameleonic visuals are almost always set to hyperpop and other adrenaline-fueled hits like 313d3p’s “Ibitbt” or XIX’s “Kismet.” “I have a very fast brain, so with hyperpop, I can keep up,” explains Cami, or @makofairy, who stickers her peppy rainbow clips with cartoons of Hello Kitty, unicorns, and flip phones. Consider it like synesthesia on steroids: the crazy edits immerse listeners in crazy songs, anarchic worlds tingling with stimuli.
It’s debatable whether glitchcore constitutes its own musical subgenre, as some have suggested. Of the erratic definitions I’ve been offered, the most coherent is that glitchcore represents a younger cohort of hyperpop artists dialed into emo Soundcloud rap, with 100 gecs and Drain Gang rapper Bladee as progenitors. A major feature would be, of course, the aforementioned glitch sound—an unsteady repetition of syllables, also found in songs like Wido’s “goblin ?” or d0llywood1’s “ihavefinallyhitrockbottom.” Yet, delineating the boundaries of hyperpop—“a genre tag for distinctly genre-less music,” as pithily summarized by a VICE explainer—is already its own conundrum; as an attempt at further categorization, glitchcore may only create more confusion. Many of the user-made Spotify glitchcore playlists I’ve scrolled through treat the label as almost interchangeable with hyperpop. As d0llywood1 told Complex a few months ago, “Despite the fact that people think [glitchcore] is a music genre, it’s an aesthetic, like the edits.”
Glitchcore is, I think, more intelligible as an aesthetic. It’s the latest iteration in a long and prolific fascination with the “glitch,” or the political and aesthetic possibilities opened up by technological error. In his 2000 paper on contemporary computer music, the electronic composer Kim Cascone highlighted an “aesthetic of failure” as a theme of late 20th-century art, tracing a lineage from the noise orchestras of Italian futurists to the avant-garde electronica of acts like Oval. The German trio vandalized CDs with markers and recorded all the subsequent scratches and skips; for an earlier generation, “glitch” signifies this distinct ’90s strain of IDM. Visual artists may think of Nam June Paik’s magnet-on-TV sculptures, the HTML funhouses of the impish collective JODI, or “datamoshing”—a technique in which you manipulate media files for a smeared, lagging effect, best known to the masses for its use in Kanye West’s 2009 “Welcome to Heartbreak” video. The surreal effect has boomed on TikTok as well, aided by this year’s release of a new editing app.
Coincidentally, in mid-August, Kanye hung out with a young animator who experiments with glitchcore edits: Sean-Tyler Walton, known professionally as Osean. (He’s also part of the production duo behind Yameii Online, a vocaloid rapper who occasionally appears on glitchcore/hyperpop playlists.) In one of Osean’s TikToks, he shoots his friend with a yellow toy gun labeled “happy cannon,” and the ordinary yard they’re standing in ruptures into colorful rubble, triggering cartoon smiley faces to float up the screen. When we spoke over the phone last month, Osean theorized glitchcore as a “new psychedelia” for the era of virtual reality. Our technological capabilities have surged with each passing decade, and yet this advancement is often deployed for regressive, uninspired means: data mining, deepfakes, the attainment of Instagram Face. As Osean put it, what if embedding jet packs in your feet was as easy as getting lip filler?
At its purest, glitchcore pulls on a snag in time, sending us back to when the digital world was a site of childlike experimentation and play. “It definitely has this internet glory days aura about it,” says Gannon Baxter, another Subculture Party co-founder, “you know, when everybody was watching nightcore videos and algorithms didn’t ruin our engagement.” Jenna Caravello, a professor in Design Media Arts at UCLA, postulates that glitchcore is the younger generation’s “logical next step from vaporwave,” an observation echoed by a few glitchcore editors themselves. (Over email, Osean forwarded me a vaporwave manifesto I had to Google Translate from Italian.) On a surface level, they are both internet subcultures that integrate visual aesthetics and music, and appropriate the icons of earlier consumer culture, glancing simultaneously at the future and the past. Even in glitchcore collages on other platforms like Pinterest and Tumblr, you’ll see glimpses of Microsoft Windows pop-ups and clunky Word art, Furbies and Monster Energy drinks. Caravello points to the rippling neon pyramid in Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2009 audio-visual project Memory Vague, a pioneering work in vaporwave, as perhaps a distant ancestor to glitchcore’s prismatic palette. But whereas vaporwave was sluggish and spacey, glitchcore is accelerated and maximalist, emblematic of the agitated platform it inhabits.
From an early age, digital users must contend with their likeness being broadcast, stored, and disseminated everywhere. There are reports of female TikTok stars being incorporated into nonconsensual deepfake pornography, and TikTok itself has faced legal challenges over its use of facial-recognition software. “I would be completely out of my mind if I were a young person right now,” says the 30-something Boston-based glitch artist Allison Tanenhaus. Like the younger generation, Tanenhaus creates her art via apps on her phone. She sees it as a reclamation of autonomy against surveillance and “a messy, boundaryless alternative” to the curation of Instagram, a gravitation toward unnaturalness and disarray that nonetheless asserts a real identity. In comparison to the professionalized glitch art practiced by herself and her peers, she observes, the glitchcore TikToks tend to be even more intimate and high-octane, a more direct expression of the creators’ own persona and vision. Identity is not fixed, but slippery; in my favorite clips, users’ most commodifiable feature—the face—becomes something they remix and reclaim.
Glitchcore TikToks suggest that, if technology continues to irreversibly embed itself into our lives, at least we should have some fun. More sophisticated editors might toy around with Adobe AfterEffects, but a profusion of relatively new apps have lowered the barriers to entry, and the aesthetic itself is forgiving of error. If you fuck up, that’s the point: As one commenter wisecracked, all you need to make glitchcore edits is to “get an iphone 4 and throw it in a tub.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork