For nearly a decade in the early 2000s, the recorded music industry was in freefall. As the CD format declined and digital downloads, legal and illegal, began to grow, label revenue streams began to dry up. By 2014, global recorded music revenue was at a record low of $US14.2 billion, nearly $10 billion less than it had been in 1999. The supposedly irreversible decline of the industry was so widely reported that it’s hard to believe what’s been happening in the years since: recorded music is back with a vengeance. Since 2014, recorded music revenues have been increasing exponentially, driven by the advent of paid streaming and a renewed interest in physical formats, mainly vinyl. In 2021, the global recorded music market was worth nearly $26 billion.
Accordingly, we seem to be re-entering a ’90s-style major-label boom period. In the 1990s, the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind led to a spending spree, with hundreds of alt-rock bands being offered lucrative deals on the off-chance that they might be the next big thing. Now the kind of indie acts that five or 10 years ago would never have been major prospects are signing with big-ticket labels. Boygenius, a folk-rock trio of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, which is ostensibly a side project for the three musicians, recently signed to Interscope Records, home to artists such as Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey. The Dare – a relatively unknown New York producer who makes tongue-in-cheek dance pop – just signed to Republic Records, home to Ariana Grande, Drake and Taylor Swift. Most curious of all: 100 Gecs, a Los Angeles-based duo who came to prominence during the pandemic with an anarchic mix of dubstep, pop-punk and harsh digital noise, signed to Warner in 2020.
100 Gecs’ debut album, 1000 Gecs, tapped into the intense, surreal feeling of being trapped inside and online 24/7. Lyrics such as “Hey you lil’ piss baby, you think you’re so fucking cool? Huh? You think you’re so fucking tough? You talk a lotta big game for someone with such a small truck!” tapped into the shitposty irony of so much online discourse. Listening to 1000 Gecs feels a lot like scrolling TikTok: one disparate sound blares after another, seemingly without continuity or context, creating an ungainly and intensely attention-grabbing bricolage.
Released in May 2019, the album began gathering fans in a trickle, generating the kind of word-of-mouth hype that so many publicists try to engineer but few can. By 2020, the duo – comprising producer/vocalists Laura Les and Dylan Brady, both stalwarts of the underground electronic pop scene that would eventually and controversially become known as hyperpop – were breakout stars.
Following up 1000 Gecs looked like a tricky prospect. That record created a singular moment, its off-the-cuff genre hybrids capturing the attention of a culture whose synapses had been collectively fried. A recent New York Times profile of the band suggests that the development of 10,000 Gecs, their second album, was troubled, marked by many scrapped drafts and maybe the pressure of a wealthy label looking to recoup its investment. While they were fun, early singles such as the memeish, ska-influenced “Doritos & Fritos” and the prickly, post-fame “mememe” – sample lyric: “You’ll never really know anything about me” – failed to capture the outlandish spark of 1000 Gecs, relying on underbaked jokes and cloying melodies.
In a pleasant surprise, 10,000 Gecs sticks the landing. It’s less outwardly wild than 1000 Gecs and less interested in forging musical non sequiturs. For the most part, it draws from ’90s alt-rock and rap-rock, building from spidery riffs and lurching, leaden rhythms. Les and Brady are clearly devotees of that sound and the resulting record is aerodynamic and exhilarating, fusing these ultra-melodic rock songs with the digital mess of their earlier work. It’s a better record than 1000 Gecs – less meme-y, with more of an eye towards carving out what 100 Gecs might sound like as a band, rather than an internet phenomenon. There are the prerequisite totally random moments, such as a twee ska song titled “Frog on the Floor”, whose ribbiting oom-pah rhythm cuts the tension of a record that until that point is dark, even occasionally sinister. Moments like this almost seem like a flex of the band’s pop instinct, and of their fondness for keeping listeners on their toes.
As seems to be mandatory for the second albums of nascent pop stars, there are also songs about the stresses of fame and money. Les and Brady are sharp-tongued lyricists. While they never veer into poetry, their moments of piquant rebellion are still extremely pleasing. The harshest song here, “One Million Dollars”, finds a robotic voice saying “one million dollars” over and over, as nu-metal riffs screech in the background. “Money coming from my mouth, money coming from my eyes, and I keep a loose account, I’m the dumbest girl alive,” Les sings on one song. Another ends with the refrain “you’ll never make it in Hollywood, baby”. The prickliness of “mememe” blossoms here into absurdism – there is something kind of nuts about a band such as 100 Gecs signing to one of the biggest labels in the world, and Les and Brady remind you of this at every possible moment.
At the same time, you get the sense that 100 Gecs are taking this seriously, although the qualities of fun or strangeness remain. This album was designed to sound crafted. One of the biggest misconceptions about 1000 Gecs was that it was a fluke, the result of button-mashing in the studio. A cursory listen to either Les’s or Brady’s solo work – such as Brady’s remixing for other artists or Les’s brilliant Big Summer Jams EP – reveals that to be untrue: 10,000 Gecs is filled with subtle and sharply intuitive production choices. On “757”, a frenetic vocoder line is made to sound like a hair-metal guitar solo and real guitars and moments of synth noise are used interchangeably, resulting in a disorienting fusion of the physical and digital. The gleefully silly lyrics of “The Most Wanted Person in the United States” (“Anthony Kiedis, fuckin’ on my penis”) are paired with an undulating beat that re-creates the warm, skew-whiff textures of ’90s rap.
It’s likely that some diehards will complain that 10,000 Gecs lacks the borderline bloodthirsty chaos of its predecessor. Perhaps that’s true, but this record reveals that the shock value of 1000 Gecs was merely a veneer. The biggest shock of all is that while we all expected another album of blunt-force electronic pop, 100 Gecs were busy making one of the year’s most satisfying pop-rock records.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2023 as "10,000 blows".
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