System Focus: Fandom Music Is As Underground As It Gets

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System Focus: Fandom Music Is As Underground As It Gets

From Minecraft to My Little Pony, an explosion of fan-made music is challenging what it means to be a "real" artist

One of the major drivers of underground music culture is sincerity. The underground seeks musicians for whom making music is an art and a passion, rather than a performance or a get-rich-quick scheme. You might have heard a lot about 'The New Sincerity' or 'post-irony,' ideas dating back to the 1980s which have been applied to music with a notable level of (usually positive) emotion and innocent frankness. But the search for sincerity goes back as far as its perceived opposites in, say, industrial capitalism go—back to the Romantics and beyond. That's not to say that all underground music culture is sincere. Irony and satire are arguably stronger than ever as the underground re-engages with hi-tech modernity, shunning the ubiquitous, twee, and now almost empty sincerities of the indie aesthetic. But to find music today made from pure positive passion alone, try an online DIY music almost completely outside the remit of the hip underground sites: the music of fandom.  Fandom is one of the earliest impulses of underground culture. After radical politics, fandom of science fiction was one of the biggest factions of the underground press in the early-to-mid twentieth century, earning homemade magazines on any topic the label 'fanzine.' Traditionally fandom has been associated with science-fiction and fantasy franchises: Lord of the RingsStar TrekStar WarsDoctor Who, Marvel and DC comics, Harry Potter. Lately, fandom has extended to games, anime and online forms like websites and podcasts. Nowadays, when you're deep in Web 2.0, you can't move without encountering fandom. Famous fandoms keep coming up on Tumblr and Twitter: New WhoThe Hunger GamesStudio Ghibli filmsSherlockFrozen. But then there are recurring fascinations with weirder things you might not have heard of: animes like Attack on TitanFree!, and the classic Evangelion, the game Animal Crossing and the mock-wyrd-gothic podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Some of these highly active subcultures count their members in the millions, but barely crack the surface of pop culture.So what makes a fan besides watching, playing or listening fanatically? Creativity that reflects their fandom, or what's often called 'fan labor.' You've heard of fan fiction. There's a musical equivalent and it's all over Bandcamp, YouTube and Soundcloud. And we're not just talking covers and remixes of the relevant music—there are parodies, tributes, new soundtracks, and whole new compositions.

Music by fans about what they like dates back to the 1950s at least, and one older kind of it related to folk is known as 'filk.' But can fandom music all be grouped together as if it were a genre? Not really, at least not in the conventional sense. The music of each fandom often takes its cues from the object of the fandom first, whatever the genre. And yet there are certain similarities and connections. Firstly, people often participate in more than one fandom, and musicians are no different. Secondly, there is a particular flavor to some the music of certain fandoms, at least as they manifest online today, and it's something that's rather uncommon in the parts of underground music I normally frequent.Fandom music, especially by the most popular musicians, is very well made. It doesn't tend towards the minimalism and primitivism in some areas of the underground, where too much effort and ability—especially on non-vintage equipment—can get a bit uncool. (But even when it isn't well made in the traditional sense, it's interesting for its surprising results.) In the same vein, fandom music tends to be complex—it often uses the best and broadest tools available to contemporary musicians, and likes to draw on many different instruments, harmonies and forms in the course of a song or album, rather than just deploying a few riffs or loops. And if variety itself can be a characteristic, it's definitely a characteristic of fandom music, which manifests in any and all genres, some which don't even seem to be genres. One of the most tangible qualities of fandom music, however, is linked to its sincerity—it explores a level of emotional or sentimental expression that more cynical listeners would consider kitsch.But fandom music is not just purely sonic. One of the most captivating things about it is the artwork, often made with considerable effort using digital painting equipment. This creates a new and distinctive visual signature that I've learned to associate with musical sincerity while browsing Bandcamp. Often the paintings are colorful, romantically intense and highly detailed, and it's common to find each individual track page in Bandcamp assigned its own painting. Then there's the way fan musicians behave online. They aren't anonymous, scrupulously shadowy, they don't send cryptic tweets. On their pages, they typically make friendly introductions to themselves and their music. Sometimes you can even see their faces, or at least an avatar styled according to their fandom of choice. Overall, the creative world of fandom music is a bit of a refreshing break from what's hip, and I don't mean that as an insult to either party. And actually a lot of this music is only a few heartbeats away from re-engineered and often highly sincere pop sounds more often covered in the underground music press.
So where to begin? Perhaps with a fandom that quite a number of my readers might have encountered: Pokémon. The video game is still going strong on contemporary devices, and NYC rapper Le1f can often be heard rapping and talking about them—a Pikachu mask even appears in his video "Wut." 'Pokémon' is quite a common tag on Bandcamp: you'll find a remix / concept album by Grimecraft [above], an artist with strong links to the greater cuteness network we explored a bit in last month's System Focus. Le1f and Grimecraft epitomize a certain kind of contemporary musician with clear fandom elements in what they do, and you'll find Grimecraft referencing a number of different games throughout his online presence (such as his Soundcloud, where there are nods to Animal CrossingFinal Fantasy and Zelda). But we can go further than musicians who are merely mixing the objects of fandom into what they do. Fortissimo Hall is 'the official music page' of a group on amateur-art-upload site DeviantArt that's dedicated to Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time. Three albums on the page—A Troubled PastA Dark Future, and Lethe Wept—feature the work of various artists, and each track has its own almost semi-abstract rendering of a particular Pokémon or related subject. Like a lot of fandom music, these compilations are stylistically close to contemporary video game music (aka VGM, which is more cinematic than its 8-bit ancestor), but their eccentricities are intriguing. In particular, the tracks by Pengosolvent are quite unlike anything else—contemporary orchestral VGM squashed imaginatively into a jovial, frenetic and slightly disturbing blur. Try the crazy "Breaktime Over," the highly cute "Enamored Regard" (below), or the proper creepy ghost-type "Paved With Good Intentions" (belated happy Halloween).A more recent fandom has grown up around the animated TV-show Adventure Time, a light-hearted and absurd fantasy series that seems to have aesthetic roots in the freak folk of last decade, as can be heard in the ukulele of the show's brief opening theme. You can hear that theme in an expanded cover version (on an album of AT covers), in punk tones, and sung by some kid a cappella (do check out the same kid's original song "Carryin Up a Cable"). But intriguingly, Adventure Time is a recurring reference point for some fairly parental-advisory hip-hop—herehere, and here. Then there's Oddpauly, who raps about the attractions of the show on one of his tracks. Pauly also has a YouTube channel featuring a music video of his highlight track "Rain," and a video of him playing Minecraftwhile eating Fruit RollupsOh yeah, Minecraft—now we're really talking fan communities. This video game started out in 2009 and has become a force—it recently featured in an episode of South Park (the kids make their parents answer Minecraft-related questions as a way of locking them out of the murder porn they've taken to watching)—but is otherwise unlikely to have touched the lives of many people over the age of 25. It's not especially a children's game, though. It's a 'sandbox' game, with blocky retro graphics, situating a player in an environment where they can mine various materials and build what they like, all in blocks. There's no other objective to the game, and it leads to the creation of enormous online worlds in which players can interact. There are enough Minecraft players worldwide to fill a decent-sized country, so unsurprisingly, music has gotten involved.There are millions of YouTube videos relating to Minecraft. As well as gameplay videos, something the game provides is a virtual environment for shooting films, or what is called 'machinima'. Machinima (or something like it) is the format of choice for Minecraft music videos uploaded to YouTube, which appear so regularly that some channels run monthly Top Ten compilations (such as this one and this one). The most prominent kind of Minecraft music is the parody—'a Minecraft parody of...'—where a famous song is covered with the lyrics rewritten to relate to the game. Minecraft has its own lingo and set of tropes to use for this, such as 'griefing,' the game's rough equivalent of trolling, or 'creepers,' annoying monsters who approach a player's buildings only to blow themselves up. There are Minecraft parodies for practically any pop hit of recent memory, together with parody videos—there's Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" ("Play Minecraft"), Miley Cyrus's 'Wrecking Ball' ("Wrecking Mob," above) ***and my favorite, PSY's "Gentleman" ("Very Crazy Griefer"— just look at their faces below...)

But then there's the music from the game itself, of course. It's by Daniel 'C418' Rosenfield, it's on Bandcamp, and it's so popular that Rosenfield was able to give up his day job. Like a lot of indie game soundtracks, the music is kind of unusual—in this case a mysterious ambient blend of prone, often reverb-laden toy melodies and pensive harmonies. It appears to have had an influence on a number of other prospective Minecraftcomposers such as MTCT (aka Music to Craft To), Wolfi, and the epic Taylor Grover. And then there's music that's simply made in tribute to the game, such as by MololoSentinus (with an album of '13 songs inspired by Minecraft gameplay'), and in the oddball dance instrumentals of Reshif. There's even an album entirely made from the game's sound effects, which is a bizarre listen. But with a game as rich as Minecraft, there's also music within it too, and this is where things get really interesting. The game has 'note blocks,' which can be directed to play a certain pitch and change timbre depending on what material they're on top of. There's also a form of electrical wiring that can activate the blocks remotely (using a switch) and in sequence, setting off the notes like a pack of dominoes. Thus by placing several note blocks in the right configuration and activating them through the wires, players can create music boxes that can play certain tunes, even polyphonically. Here's a tutorial on how it's done. To really get a polyphonic tune playing for its full length, players have to create vast structures several stories high and almost a kilometer in length, that witnesses can move around inside as the music plays. Then they upload the videos to YouTube. This is music and architecture as the very same thing. A fairly simple one where you can clearly see what's going on is that internet classic, the Requiem for a Dream theme. Then they become gigantic—Pharrel's "Happy" (below) has all the syncopations down, and includes a cart that automatically runs alongside the structure as it plays. The structure for Coldplay's "Clocks" has a glass bridge running over it so that you can look down as you walk with the notes. That one's made by Petraller, a master of the note blocks with a huge repertoire that includes Bon Jovi, Owl City and Scott Joplin. But it doesn't stop at note blocks—one player used an array of other sound-making inventions to recreate (a kind of) dub step.

One of the most visually striking fandoms online is Homestuck, an epic webcomic about some teens who inadvertently bring about the end of the world, and then get involved with these bizarre troll-like beings that are perfect to dress up as. But don't take it from me—there's a fan song to introduce you to it all. I discovered Homestuck early on in my Bandcamp travels because much of its soundtrack had ended up in the 'experimental' tag and the bizarre digitally-painted visuals and difficult-to-place music caught my attention, even if the music was hardly for Wire magazine. The weirdly great-looking official Homestuck Bandcamp page compiles the soundtrack (made by fans) music and more, and it tends to subtly evade genre, skipping through all kinds of sound worlds, seemingly guided more by emotion (and whatever's going on with those trolls) than form. I've been oddly mesmerized by Erik "Jit" Scheele's One Year Older and the cosmically soppy Song of SkaiaAnd of course other fans have gotten involved too, following the ethereally elusive nature of the official music. Robert Blaker's early unofficial album features the best of the fan art in its individual track pages, while Team Paradox and Sam Neiland have written soundtracks for fan-made adventures. Some of the most interesting Homestuck music has been produced by musicians who seem less concerned with the polish of traditional compositional standards, such as SKAIANET and Eric Beer. Equally, there are moments when strangeness and sculptural control meet, as in "Confinis" by Horizon.
One of today's most notorious fandoms is focused on the latest version of the My Little Pony franchise, Friendship is Magic. When fans of the show are older than its target audience—say, 13 and up—they tend to be called 'bronies,' as many of them are men, but there are plenty of older female fans too. Two documentaries have been made about the unexpected phenomenon, Bronies and A Brony Tale, and it's very widespread, having seen several conventions around the world. The older fan community appreciates the positive messages of the show and are brave to openly celebrate it with their considerable creativity, although their reputation online has suffered somewhat due to a certain amount of overlap with less well regarded communities based in 4chan and Reddit, notorious for fedoras and misogyny. In any case, pony music, as it's called, is a fascinating and diverse reflection of the fandom. And it's huge. To give you some idea, there are several radio stationsdedicated to the show and its fandom. The main site for the fandom, Equestria Daily, has a lively music section. Fan music ranges from remixes and covers of songs from the show, songs telling its stories, and parodies (indulging the community's fondness for puns and phrases like 'everypony') to instrumental albums that draw on the show's imagery or tropes only at a tangent. The fandom has a hefty contingent of Bandcamp customers whose pony avatars can be seen lining up on the pages of the most popular albums. But the music only rarely reflects the child-like aesthetic of the show, often bringing out the darker, more romantic connotations of characters and its stories. Alongside sometimes Friedrich-like digital paintings of the relevant ponies, pony musicians regularly put weighty, grand, maximalist and very technically accomplished music.There's punk rockhappy club soundsambient electronicfunky song-writinghardcoresoft rockepic orchestral, and metal. One of the most popular artists is Eurobeat Brony, who has three volumes of hyperactive 'Super Ponybeat.' Another is TAPS, who has an ear for glitchy vocal science deriving from samples of the show: ponies fractured and suspended in enormous spaces.But one of the things that really seems to mark out the My Little Pony fandom is the sheer sentimentality of much of the music, an unusual space probably opened up by the show and admitting a fondness for it, and like it or not, it can be quite something to behold. Often it's found in cinematic synth-orchestral tracks like those of Dashdub or Radiarc. There's even an artist who does hyper-tender pony-inspired piano improvisations. 4everfreebrony is a technically faultless songwriter who has a 'ponified' version of Pharrell's "Happy" and can really whip up a mood on the album Pink Side of the Moon. And I've found myself listening repeatedly to Australian artist Feather's album In My Mind. It has a parody of "Mad World" (all around me are familiar ponies) and several gentle songs of a curiously and persuasively emotional bent about characters and events in the show. She often weaves in electronics and unusual textures, like the weird vocal manipulations of "Jealousy", and "City Slicker" (below) is charismatic and skilled without a lick of pretension.So yes, I'm appreciating fan music, even My Little Pony fan music. And fan music in itself, not necessarily in relation to the object of the fandom, or because I get all the references. Its emotion might seem over the top sometimes, its obsessions might seem ridiculous, but you know what? At the very least it's something quite different. At the most it's a labor of love, it's honest, and it's real—realer than a top indie artist performing while wearing Google Glass so that one of the world's largest companies can get people to adopt a failing product, and everyone reporting on it. And none of this stuff is 'post-internet' about its online status either—it's simply music on the internet, usingit as the best tool. It's the sort of creativity that's been online long before art and music started to address the digital age in scare quotes. In fact, it's the sort of subcultural celebration that was underground before the underground.

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