In 2010, The Middle East in Cambridge was hosting a weekly party on Thursday nights called Throwed. This was the height of electro-house’s popularity, and the start of fist-pumping, drop-heavy EDM breaking into the mainstream. Kevin Wang, a BU undergrad at the time, was a weekly resident at the Middle East. As Throwed grew to become the biggest electro party in Boston, he grew to resent what EDM culture was doing to DJing. “DJing no longer became about trying to do something interesting or weaving something cool together, it was entirely a big dick contest about who could do the heaviest drops and play the sickest shit,” he recalls. After the popularity of electro-house peaked, he quit DJing and moved to New York. But EDM kept rising, and Kevin decided to use Soundcloud, then a fast-growing German startup advertised as a Youtube for audio, to poke fun at mainstream EDM culture. His account, Best Drops Ever, mashes up mainstream EDM buildups with non-sequitur drops. The first mashup he posted is the buildup to electro banger D-Wayne’s “Ammo” that drops into Sarah Mclachlan’s “In The Arms Of An Angel.” It has almost 750,000 plays.
Every media platform eventually attracts parody artists and weirdoes that stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable content in the medium. Television’s most popular weirdoes right now are Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, whose material largely mocks public access TV with lo-fi special effects and the painful awkwardness of amateur television personalities. Weird Twitter is a well-known subgenre of the social media platform, and a closer relative to the weird Soundcloud community Wang pioneered. Genre-defining accounts like @horse_ebooks and @dril attract hundreds of thousands of followers. The community of weird Soundcloud acts much in the same way, satirizing the medium with over-exaggerated takes on mainstream music. The acts often parody electronic music, creating unlikely mashups or exaggerating the focus on drops to the point of comedy. Material is often drawn from the most popular songs of the time, with an emphasis on camp. The more tasteless the mashup, the better. Another popular weird Sounclouder is DJ Detweiler, whose shtick is dissonant and tempo-less flute and recorder covers of canonized dance classics like Darude’s “Sandstorm.” Detweiler has over 19,000 followers on Soundcloud and has managed to parlay the weird Soundcloud attention into attention for more serious musical efforts, doing live shows and premiering tracks on BBC Radio 1.
And this is where the weird Soundcloud community differs from weird Twitter. For better or worse, the medium they produce in is considered an art, and many of them make non-parody art on the side. “I’d say 95% of [weird Soundclouders] make some form of real music,” Wang tells me. But Detweiler is an outlier. Most weird Soundclouders are better known for their jokes than for their genuine musical efforts. The first generation of weird Soundclouders have largely stopped making jokes, according to Wang. “It’s really discouraging for them to put all this time into a hip-hop track that gets them like 100 plays and then put a tiny fraction of that into a stupid Skrillex thing that gets 3,000 hearts in a month. A lot of people stopped making jokes because that got to them.”
But weird Soundcloud is infectious. The low barrier to entry in music production is even lower when lo-fi, dissonant material is valued for being so bad it’s good. “It’s easy to make a joke of your own, to participate. You don’t need Ableton or Logic to make a joke,” says Wang. But two distinct problems emerge from this valuing of jokes in a popular medium of sharing art like Soundcloud. The parody element becomes watered down after the novelty wears off and more people begin participating and the prevalence of jokes starts to distort our expectations of art. Weird Soundcloud material developed its own tropes and genre conventions, which are easy to replicate and lead to uncreative material, even in a genre where the uncreative is ironically valued as funny. “You kind of get trapped doing it because it’s ‘easy,’” says Wang, “I think part of the reason why the joke community sucks now is precisely because of that. Nobody’s making straight up clever shit.”
The larger problem exists when jokes and a valuing of camp become so pervasive that enjoying art for its surface-level value, a layer devoid of any irony, becomes more difficult. There’s a distinct insistence on irony in pop culture that helps acts like the weird Soundcloud community become popular, but hurts less ironic musical efforts. And this creates a distorted sense of expectations both for the consumer and producer. “The chief danger I think is someone putting an hour into a mashup, getting 1,000 likes and having that screw their expectations up when they put 20 hours into a real track that gets 10 likes,” says Wang. What does it say about our culture when it’s easier to produce and gain a following by mocking culture rather than participate in it? On the consumer side, the desire for irony prevents us from fully enjoying a genuine artistic effort that may not conform to our expectations. The “is he serious or joking?” debate surrounding acts like Lil B, Yung Lean, Das Racist, and others subtracts from our ability to value and enjoy their art for what it is.
“What does it say about our culture when it’s easier to produce and gain a following by mocking culture rather than participate in it?”
David Dranoff, an art student from Philadelphia loves Kanye West. He loves Kanye so much, he recorded himself singing along to Kanye’s three most recent albums, all in one take with lyric mistakes, yawns, and all and put it on Soundcloud as a way to archive his passion and love for Kanye. It was a personal project, essentially a way to store the files on the Internet. The recordings were also part of a larger art project that consisted of a visual element expressing his love for Kanye. But when a Reddit user discovered Dranoff’s recordings, they suddenly got tens of thousands of plays overnight, mostly from people who thought his poor singing, lyrical mistakes, acapella interpretations of instrumentals, were hilarious and intentionally thought-out jokes. Dranoff was now an unintentional weird Soundclouder with thousands of fans. Upon first listening to his recordings, a listener might think they had stumbled upon a brilliant weird Soundclouder, but according to Dranoff this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Dranoff knew the material was funny, but didn’t intend for anyone to find it. But he wasn’t surprised that people liked it for the novelty of the project. “Everything is polished, shiny, plastic and indistinguishable. When something is honest or different, it gives people a different kind of experience,” he explained. Dranoff was breaking the mold, creating art that went against the normal convention of what it means to express fandom, and his art was treated as a parody. Dranoff’s goal wasn’t comedy; he simply was expressing his love for an artist he admires, incorporating Kanye’s art into his own art. But the result was an audience, myself included, who laughed at the art out of a misplaced sense of irony.
Weird Soundcloud and parody aren’t bad for art. Parody is not inherently disingenuous, nor are humor and art mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s necessary for an artistic community to be self-aware enough to laugh at itself in order to progress. Mainstream EDM acts like Dillon Francis, Diplo, and Trippy Turtle all incorporate humor and a sense of over-exaggeration into their genuine art in much the same way that weird Soundclouders do into their parody material. The problem is that a constant insistence on irony as the prevailing tone of artistic expression prevents us from fully enjoying genuine art. When artists like Dranoff and Lil B don’t conform to our conception of what hip-hop music should look and sound like, they’re treated as parody artists, regardless of whatever message they may be trying to send. Our expectation that everything comes with a self-aware tongue in cheek sense of irony, that every mistake or humorous lyric is a carefully thought-out joke, and the pressure to “get” the joke and not miss out, distorts our ability to enjoy the music for its musical value. Because making jokes and ironic material is easier than genuine artistic expression, irony becomes a defense mechanism for artists who insist on burying more serious emotions in layers of humor. This comes at the cost of art that’s more emotionally available and honest.