Around halfway through filming a September episode of âStrawberry Manâ – one of China’s most popular new musical talent shows – the jury was faced with something completely new.
An underground artist named Jiafeng took the stage. With spiky hair, heavily made up, and dressed in a ragged outfit of contrasting colors and layered layers, he was clearly not the kind of polished freelance artist who normally appears in the competition.
But the real shock came when Jiafeng launched into his song “Useless Cuteness”. A big electronic rhythm was heard. A pulsating, chewing gum pop-style melody debuted – the genre of sound made famous by the classic “Dance Dance Revolution” video game. Then the 30-year-old started singing in a squeaky, self-tuning falsetto.
It was a manic and joyful mix of musical influences – a classic example of the trendy subgenre known as ‘hyperpop’. And the judges were taken aback.
Zhang Yadong, a top Chinese producer, remained frozen throughout the performance before commenting frankly that he didn’t like the song. After the show, he went even further. “You’re an alien here, you shouldn’t be on this stage,” he reportedly told the singer as he left the studio.
The encounter – which Jiafeng later revealed in a viral article on the social platform Weibo – has since become infamous in China. For many, it summed up the yawning gap that had grown between two generations of Chinese musicians.
On the one hand, there is an insurgent group of young hyperpop artists who are attracting more and more followers with their playful and friendly music. On the other, there is an old guard of music industry gatekeepers who seem puzzled – and a little disturbed – by their underground success.
For these veteran producers, who have spent their careers managing studious pop and rock groups, the self-proclaimed âunnecessaryâ new movement violates all normal standards of good taste. Still, hyperpop fans argue that the attitude is disconnected.
âThey don’t understand hyperpop at all,â Jiafeng told Sixth Tone. âI’m sorry for these people. If you have hostile feelings towards this kind of happy musicâ¦ what kind of person are you? “
Gao Jiafeng performs on the music show “Strawberry Man”, 2021. From @ èè æç æ¥ ç äºº on Weibo
Hyperpop hits China
The origins of Hyperpop can be found in the London music scene of the mid-2010s. British DJ AG Cook and his label PC Music first gained traction with a catchy and nostalgic sound heavily inspired by the cheesy Eurodance of the years. 90 in 2014.
The style quickly began to be called hyperpop – a reference to its exaggerated, dynamic and country philosophy. From the start, it was a huge division. The Guardian described the release of PC Music as “sickly, abrasive, and super-synthetic.” The music magazine Fact called it a “pure and contemptuous parody”.
But British teens adopted it – and the movement quickly spread to China. Cook was instrumental in his move east, collaborating with Chinese pop star Li Yuchun (also known as Chris Lee) on a pair of tracks in 2015 and making several appearances around the country.
Jiafeng, who grew up in Changsha, central China, first saw Cook perform at a music festival in Beijing in 2017. He immediately became hooked.
âWhen I first heard this type of music, I thought it was something amazing,â he says.
The young DJ started playing with hyperpop, but decided to give the genre his own touch. While Cook was primarily inspired by electro and Eurodance, Jiafeng drew inspiration from the Asian styles he grew up with: bubblegum pop and high-tempo K-pop by Lee Jung-hyun. Influences run through her most recent album, “Emotional Dance Music”.
Other young Chinese designers were also inspired. The postmodern aesthetic of the movement – a semi-ironic embrace of consumerism, a blend of different currents of pop culture, and a focus on self-expression – seemed to resonate with a generation that had grown up online.
âIt’s for TikTok users, kids, or people who want to be younger, including me,â says Bloodz Boi, a Beijing-based hyperpop rapper and artist. âIt’s easy to create, anyone can do it. The songs are almost every one or two minutes long – totally 21st century. ”
The music they produce is wild, colorful and highly emotional; On the Road, the cultural media for Chinese youth, has called hyperpop “flawed emotional music”. The visual aesthetic of the scene reflects this. Fans prefer to dress and dye their hair with effervescent colors. Many incorporate unusual materials, such as latex or metal, into their outfits.
Clayton Sun, a 22-year-old hyperpop fan, says the genre is a refraction of the online culture, which tends to take everything to extremes. Most Chinese listeners are digital natives, he adds.
“These are young people who follow the trends and are deeply influenced by Internet culture,” says Sun.
The music also has an audience among Chinese LGBT people, Jiafeng says. Many of the top hyperpop artists overseas, like PC Music’s Sophie, identify as transgender or non-binary – a trend commentators attribute to the promotion of free speech and performativity through the stage.
âMy gay friends enjoy this music and give me so much encouragement,â Jiafeng says.
Visual Shijue Select / People
In conflict with the general public
Now, hyperpop is a niche, but dynamic scene in China. Although he has yet to produce any major crossover hits, underground artists like Jiafeng are reaching large audiences online. They are also starting to get noticed by mainstream music TV shows in China.
For Chinese artists, appearing on these shows can be a game-changer. Talent competitions have gained enormous influence in the country’s music industry. The launch of âThe Rap of Chinaâ and a series of copy shows have helped propel hip-hop from a largely underground phenomenon to a staple over the past five years.
Chinese streaming platforms seem to be looking for the next big thing. This year, several launched catch-all shows featuring musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds, which gave several hyperpop artists a chance.
But these appearances all followed a similar pattern: a warm welcome by the studio audience; blank stares from the judges.
Zhang Yadong reacts in disbelief after others expressed support for hyperpop artist Gao Jiafeng, during the “Strawberry Man” musical talent show, 2021. From @ èè æç æ¥ ç äºº on Weibo
Jiafeng was disheartened by his experience on “Strawberry Man”. He hadn’t really anticipated how Zhang – a legendary producer who has worked with top Chinese-speaking artists like Faye Wong, Han Hong, and Karen Mok – would turn against him.
âI was aware that the music might not be the easiest for them to understand,â he says. “But I didn’t think it would be the hardest either.”
However, the reactions of the judges did not come as a total surprise. Not long before, Jiafeng had seen Billionhappy – a hyperpop artist from Shanghai – receive the same treatment on another show, iQiyi’s âNew Generation Hip-Hop Projectâ.
âThe judges had exactly the same expression,â Jiafeng recalls. âThey didn’t know if they should like this music or not. The sound itself is pure bliss … Maybe they were looking for some sort of rebellion, or something they call “real”.
Billionhappy himself is more philosophical about the incident. He’s used to people misunderstanding hyperpop, he says.
âMost of the judges on the show were very confused about my music,â he says. âSome people said my song was like Eurodance; some thought it was a rhyme. Most of the reviews were negative. Of course, other judges thought it was all the rage.
With television success now looking unlikely, it is unclear where the Chinese hyperpop will go next. Some mainstream artists have flirted with the movement: Pop star Chris Lee has dabbled in alternative forms of pop music, while Akini Jing’s music has been compared to the PC Music release.
But Chinese hyperpop artists often find themselves overlooked. When the Chinese media covered hyperpop, they tended to portray it as a global youth trend and focus on producers working in Europe and the United States.
The artists who spoke to Sixth Tone seemed mostly pessimistic about the chances of hyperpop entering the mainstream in China. The music is just too niche. But none of them intend to give up: the creativity that the music inspires and the unity it creates between the musician and the audience encourages them to continue to immerse themselves in it.
âThere will always be listeners who think my music is too weird and scold me, but I’m actually at peace with the negative comments,â Billionhappy says. âI know what I’m doing and I can definitely do better in the future. ”
Hyperpop artist GG Longxia poses for a photo. Courtesy of the artist
GG Longxia, another hyperpop musician from the eastern city of Hangzhou, echoes this view. He recently made his own demoralizing television debut on Tencent’s talent show “The Coming Ones”, but he refuses to take it to heart. What matters, he says, is the joy that hyperpop brings to him and his fans.
âI find sincerity, kindness, sadness, anger, jealousy and more in this style of music. I can express any emotion – or even just look good or fuck it up, âhe says. “This music will appeal to all lovely people.”
Publisher: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Gao Jiafeng poses for a photo. Courtesy the artist)