404 Error, Genre Not Found: The Life Cycle of Internet Scenes

Music scenes and microgenres now have life cycles that play out entirely on the internet. We dive in to hyperpop, digicore, cloud rap, and the artists involved.

life cycle internet scenes hyperpop feature
P&P Original

Image by Elijah Justice

life cycle internet scenes hyperpop feature

For the first time, we are watching music scenes and microgenres with life cycles that play out entirely on the internet. Born from the open-source ambiguity of the online world, the last decade has seen genres accelerating from the void at a breakneck speed, chewing up an internet’s worth of influences, and spitting them out again. Burning bright and burning out, sprinting to keep up with the all-you-can-eat consumerism that has defined the way we engage with music. Today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s lo-fi; what was the sound of the future is already a passing reference point. Pick it up, put it down. Do it because you can; do it because you’re bored. In the virtual world, Rome was built not just in a day, but on a school night—but was any of it made to last?

In the last decade alone, there has already been a dynasty of genres established in the online dimension, as quickly dug up from the underground and crowned as the sound of the moment as they are dethroned, confined to nothing more than a distant, slightly cringeworthy memory. Vaporwave, nightcore, chillwave, cloud rap… this online index is sprawling, stemming from the same source, the same radical promise, and all, in some distant way, connected to the next. 

Yet compared to the likes of grime, which was anchored to the concrete jungle of London’s council estates, or the regional Brooklyn drill scene tethered to a localized community of artists, the freeform internet genres have a considerably shorter lifespans. Without feeling the earth under its feet, without a physical epicenter to call home, internet music belongs to anyone and everyone. Unlike its IRL precursors, it’s unlimited—a continually evolving sound.

Growing at a meteoric speed, the scene that has been brought to light from obscurity and has become the latest fascination of fans, critics, and the music industry at large, is hyperpop. Already, its coverage has been extensive, including a deep excavation from The New York Times, with many of its leading lights now working with major labels, from 100 gecs being absorbed by Atlantic to 16-year-old glaive signing the dotted line for Interscope. 

If the term itself doesn’t already invite an eyeroll, with the artists themselves being first in line shrug it off as “cringe,” there is a sense that already, hyperpop is bleeding into something else before the world has truly understood what, exactly, it was in the first place.

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Being pedantic over the genre classifications is nothing new. We saw it with grunge and countless scenes before it when the internet was just a pipe dream. But now, music scenes are no longer defined by city limits. The internet knows no borders, from the lawless freedom promised by vaporwave all the way to SoundCloud rap’s early days as an internet genre untapped and unexploited by the music industry who were trailing behind its evolution. This time, it feels that no one wanted to miss hyperpop’s party—in fact, they got there unfashionably early. 

Billy Bugara, a creative director at SoundCloud, curator of the Digicore playlist, and journalist embedded in the communities and scenes that would become hyperpop, remarks that its first flush “was like the Wild West, and now it’s kind of gone corporate, in a way.” 

Follow hyperpop to its short but sprawling lineage of internet ancestors in the last decade alone, from vaporwave—largely accepted as one of the first entirely online genres—to the likes of bedroom pop and cloud rap, and you will see that the fate which has befallen hyperpop is nothing new. What the internet creates, it also destroys. The same pantomime villains make their appearance: the major labels, the streaming platforms, the journalists who excavate these underground subcultures and bring their sound to light. Through picking it apart in an attempt to capture its essence and bottle it, the pale imitations that are sold back to us can replicate the sound, perhaps, but none of the feeling. By the time the larger music industry is desperately feeling for a pulse, the “genre” has already gone cold.

When hyperpop-adjacent artist and pop star Charli XCX tweeted: “what is hyperpop?” last year, such an innocent handful of characters belied a greater cultural dilemma to be reckoned with. The fact that there was, and never will be, an agreed answer to that question is proof that the internet has the ability to transform the identity of subcultures at an alarming rate. The unseen influence of the music industry has distorted hyperpop to the point where it no longer recognises its own reflection. 

The origins of hyperpop are tangled and murky in the way that things conceived on the internet often are, but depending who you ask, most people can agree that the genre was a descendent of SoundCloud’s ‘nightcore’ scene in the ‘00s. Speeding up and pitching trance tracks to breakneck extremes, plastered with otherworldly anime thumbnails for artwork, nightcore struck the match for Danny L Harle and A.G. Cook, the founders of record label and art collective PC Music, to lay the groundwork for what is now widely understood to be ‘hyperpop.’

Taking pop music to its gleaming, synthetic extremes, an early structure of hyperpop was built by the likes of Scottish producer Rustie’s seminal album Glass Swords in 2011, alongside a smattering of collectives, beatmakers, and record labels that saw SoundCloud as their playground. SOPHIE would then go on to extrapolate on these early, subversive electronic sound designs, developing her own distinct flavour of bending, contorting, and redefining pop to its most dazzling, disruptive extremes. Mothering a generation of queer artists who had no limitations in the music they consumed, SOPHIE offered a vista of infinite promise to not just create exactly what and who you wanted, but to embody it.

But it would be genre-annihilating antichrists 100 gecs who would raise the genre to a mainstream platform with their completely unclassifiable debut record 1000 gecs. Spotify’s solution was their now notorious ‘hyperpop’ playlist: a never-ending taxonomy of far-reaching sounds that, to many artists’ chagrin, is a thousand times removed from its foundations.

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Hyperpop isn’t dead, but it is changing, and playlisting is taking the driver’s seat. Commanding the ears of listeners who want a shortcut to the digital underground, playlisting allows streaming services to play god. Being added to a playlist can be as transformative as being touched by a miracle, plucking an artist from relative obscurity and elevating them to the status of the genre’s poster child overnight. Playlisting is not a documentation of a scene, instead it’s about curating it, changing the tide of a movement and bending its trajectory in unexpected ways.

The hyperpop community itself is splintered more determinedly than ever into its individual parts in an attempt to reclaim their identities when the world beyond has stripped them of the internet’s birth right of self-definition. Delve into a fast-food hyperpop playlist on any streaming service, and you’ll notice some disparities. 

Can the ecstatic, popping-candy sound of PC Music’s Hannah Diamond rub shoulders with the feral, glitched-out extremism of SyKo? Can hyperpop, of the PC Music strain, be smudged into the same genre as digicore? Not only are they sonically and aesthetically different, but they emerged at entirely separate times. PC Music was founded in 2013, but digicore, founded predominantly by creatives of color in the trenches of Discord, is startlingly new. Emerging as early as 2017, networks of collectives such as Losers Club, Radiation, and Bloodhounds acted as springboards for digicore’s now-essential names. Inspired by the glacial, lost-in-translation sound of Drain Gang and Yung Lean, digicore pioneered its own musical evolution which was entirely separate from the hyperpop world. 

Bugara’s relationship with SoundCloud began with a mutual interest to draw a clear line of distinction between those scenes and create a space exclusively for digicore artists to thrive. “When you dig into the data, you can totally see that these scenes are not the same, engagement-wise, or audience wise,” he says. “There’s a crossover—of course there’s gonna be a crossover, that’s just the way it is on the internet. It’s the name of the game. It’s the name of the game for the scene, as well, with collaborative efforts driving it. I’m not saying these things are different because I want them to be different—they’re different because they are different, and people should realize that.”

While hyperpop in a PC Music context describes a particular genre of dance-orientated music with a futuristic tone, digicore has a very different agenda. “We’re a community first,” Bugara explains. “Creating a scene that sounds like something isn’t even on the priority list. If you listen to the digicore playlist, nothing really sounds the same—sure, there are certain sonic motifs, but these artists don’t want to be boxed into anything, they want to be totally on their own.” He recalls being approached by SoundCloud to begin curating a playlist that captured the scene’s essence. “I literally told them, ‘They don’t want to be called anything, we can figure out a different way.’ But they insisted that they needed to categorize this scene, they needed to call them something.” Digicore was agreed as a formality, but it would never be instrumental to their identity; they want to create music as vast and lawless as the internet itself, where rebellion isn’t a radical act, but the norm.

ericdoa, one of the foundational figures of the digicore scene and an Interscope signee (though if we’re talking titles, he prefers “A-Bunch-Of-Degenerate-Teens-Making-Music-On-Discord”) believes that to neglect the scene by lumping it in with hyperpop on a playlist is far more than splitting hairs, but an issue of representation. Digicore, unlike PC Music which is largely white, is defined by artists of color who are at risk of being drowned out. “Oh yeah, we get mad,” says ericdoa. “They’re the face of pop music, they’re getting the articles, and sometimes we get left behind. Not everybody wants to give people who look like us a chance to be in the spotlight. Pop music has been run by people who are not people of color for a while, but that’s okay, because slowly we are getting representation as the originators of something different.” 

“We finally have something,” he continues. “And what I mean by ‘we’ are my friends, amazing artists who bring queer representation, Black representation, Hispanic representation, Asian representation… It feels great. Before, in pop music, you’d never see all of us making music together side by side, but we said fuck all that. There are finally kids that look like me and other people in the scene who can look up to us and be like, ‘Damn, I could do it, because they can do it.’”

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Not only has the hyperpop name been renounced, but we’re standing on the edge of a musical mass exodus where the genre’s “faces” are turning their backs on its blown-out, maximalist tropes in search of pastures new. Charli XCX’s tweet: ‘hyperpop is dead. discuss’, demarcates a new, disco-driven era for the pop star. The same can be said for glaive, whose latest EP, all dogs go to heaven, has side-stepped the battery-licking sonic chaos of his original, digicore-indebted sound for sharper, cleaner pop. In the pre-internet era, sounds and styles had years—if not decades—to incubate. Hyperpop, however, has already burned up from its unfathomable acceleration.

But the ‘death’ of hyperpop might just give the digicore community the oxygen they’ve been waiting for. Bugara says: “A lot of these artists are still young, they’re still incentivized to make their own thing and they’re still fighting against that term. If hyperpop were to ‘die,’ they’d be fine because they were never hyperpop artists in the first place. They’re still young enough to capitalize on this stuff, and being unsigned, they’re not contractually obligated to anything—they have the free rein, all the time in the world and all the youthful energy to continue on in their own way.”

“Pop music has been run by people who are not people of color for a while, but that’s okay, because slowly we are getting representation as the originators of something different.” – ericdoa

Hyperpop, with all its blessings and curses, is suffering the same growing pains as its siblings. Looking at its lineage, its sprawling family tree, it begs the question: are all internet music scenes doomed to repeat themselves, flaming up and burning out before they truly had a chance to become established?

Let’s begin with the eldest child: vaporwave, accepted to be the prototype for internet-born music. The original vaporwave scene came out of an online circle of artists who originated on turntable.fm a decade ago, and as it gained traction, the sound was incubated on the likes of Tiny Chat, last.fm, Bandcamp and mediafire– many of which are now defunct or rarely used. Its intention was to be a kind of anarcho-capitalist pop, which appropriated retro songs from the ‘80s—the kind left to collect dust in a dollar bin—corporate stock music, and warped software start-up noise samples to create something nostalgic yet entirely hollow. It was the sound of an abandoned mall, a wreck of a capitalist fantasy, the sound of unachieved utopias of previous decades, consumerism and globalisation. Yet for many passive internet users, the lasting memory of vaporwave was when the scene was in its final gasps: nothing more than a double-spaced ‘A E S T H E T I C’, a snobby, high-brow kind of “real music” for hipsters. A meme.

Vaporwave enjoyed two halcyon years where the subculture was untouched by tastemakers who criticized it for being on the one hand “too pretentious,” and on the other, “too dumb.” With its rise came the detritus of witch-house, mall soft, and chillwave among a dozen others which all seemed to be a different term for only slightly different sounds and aesthetics (this, of course, was a meme in itself). Joe Price, a music journalist who documented vaporwave for Pigeons & Planes, says: “Many people were hesitant to give much attention to something that seemed like a fad.”

In the end, it was not any blog or music critic who declared vaporwave as “dead,” but the fans themselves. In many ways, it was buried alive before the very same thing it was protesting against would inevitably contain and profit from it. It was the first scene to lose control of its meaning. “At best, it was a serious joke, but at its worst, it was a joke and nothing more,” says Price. “As the aesthetics started to become more commonplace, you started to see people who didn’t have much of an interest in music talking about it. There was an inherent meme-like quality to all of it, and it provided a fantastic template. Ultimately, I’d say it was for the music dorks first, and the dirtbag memers later.”

It wasn’t until a point where vaporwave was culturally inescapable did the likes of Anthony Fantano and Pitchfork pay serious attention to it. But it’s important to remember that while Fantano was instrumental in making vaporwave more visible, he famously made a joke review about it, and had a similar reaction to the music of Yung Lean, vaporwave’s successor. Price says, “I think the moment coverage of it started to heat up fans could feel it slowly drifting out of their grasp. A lot of the key artists in the early days had moved on by 2014 to 2015. The moment I felt a distinct shift is when it went from something I thought was interesting online, to one of my friends who knows fuck all about music asking me what vaporwave was. Once it became a meme beyond the music, that was really the end of it for many.”

The skepticism with which critics and music journalists treated online music, however, has progressed since vaporwave’s short reign. “When something very much a product of the internet arrived on the scene 10 years ago, it would be met with hesitation. Whereas these days,” says Price, “I don’t think you see that reaction to the likes of 100 gecs or anyone making hyperpop. Maybe there’s more of an openness to stuff like that now, or perhaps people learned their lesson on being dismissive of something so early on.”

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It was the emergence of a bored, baby-faced 17-year-old Swedish rapper in 2013 who marked a changing of the guard in the realm of internet music. Armed with bucket hats, Arizona iced tea, and a lethargic, blood-shot delivery that perfectly encapsulated the sound of a generation drifting along in an online un-reality, Yung Lean built his hollow YouTube hits, “Oreomilkshake” and “Ginseng Strip 2002” on vaporwave’s abandoned wasteland. The lo-fi, retro aesthetics, the pointless materialism and the lagging, slow-mo beats were all an essential part of Lean’s early appeal. But more than that, he did it all with a knowing smirk. Unlike the artists of the vaporwave scene, Yung Lean knew how to communicate—and at the same time, actually become—a meme. You can’t be the butt of the joke if you started it. But while his meteoric rise on the likes of Tumblr and SoundCloud demanded attention, journalists and critics were left scratching their heads at whether or not this kid was serious.

The era of Yung Lean raised a lot of questions about cultural export, and how the internet has made music, which usually has its origins tied to a particular region and community, fair game for anyone in the world. Lean’s music takes American hip-hop and distorts it through the lens of a Swedish teenager on the outside looking in. It’s both familiar and different, deep in the genre uncanny valley.

While Yung Lean took the sound to commercial heights, the vision, as is so often the case with internet genres, was dreamt up long before. When Bay Area rapper Lil B showed the Cocaine Blunts music writer Noz a CGI picture of an uprooted castle floating among the clouds and told him that’s the kind of music he wanted to make, cloud rap was born. Defined by its ethereal, almost otherworldly sound with slow, spaced-out delivery, cloud rap was the sound of hip-hop floating in a virtual black hole. Often, cloud rap vocalists would use lyrics that were online bait, creating catchphrases primed for virality, like “swag” and being “based.” It indicated a sense of self-awareness and parody that was perfectly in step with the internet’s sense of humor.

“It was between that time of making actual records and streaming. It was a time of just, like, complete freedom. There were no rules.” – Clams Casino

Clams Casino, the pioneering producer behind Lil B’s “I’m God”, first reached out to his long-time collaborator through MySpace. Lil B was the first artist who used one of Clams’ beats—or even tried to. Through their online collaboration, Clams Casino started to weave himself into a scene of West Coast artists despite having never been there in his life. It was a transitory period which liberated online music before the wider music industry caught up with it. He says: “It was between that time of making actual records and streaming. It was a time of just, like, complete freedom. There were no rules: we could just drop free music on the internet. We didn’t have to worry about samples and all that legal stuff—we weren’t even trying to sell the music. So that was to our advantage, there was nothing really that was in our way, creatively.”

Speaking to Clams Casino, who can look at the evolution of cloud rap and internet music as a whole through the lens of an artist, there is only gratitude. “When a journalist started writing about it and acknowledging it was something new and refreshing, that motivated me to keep pushing in that direction and making more weird stuff that would stick out,” he says. “I don’t know of any artists who were mad about it. I think they were just happy to be a part of something that didn’t exist before—and someone had to give it a name. I think there was a lot to be proud of.”

The seminal works of the scene, including A$AP ROCKY’s mixtape Live.Love. ASAP (only recently made available on streaming services), Yung Lean’s Unknown Memory, and Lil B’s6 Kiss laid foundations that are still being built on today. “What’s done is always gonna be there,” says Clams Casino. “You don’t have to dig up all the records and rare, physical things from decades ago. It’s all documented on the internet and that’s the cool thing about it.” 

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The reverberations of cloud rap can still be felt in the next wave of rappers who dominated the online world in the mid to late ‘10s, including Lil Peep, $uicideboy$, and XXXTentacion, who are cited by many digicore artists as major influences. Hip-hop, accelerated by the inexhaustible appetite of the internet, means that even if a scene is eventually dismissed by those most closely connected to it, the next generation is always ten steps ahead, regenerating the sounds into something that feels entirely fresh. While IRL scenes can be seen as an isolated success, online music never dies, but it is ever evolving. 

But to try and disentangle the young yet sprawling web of online music and simplify it to its pure components is failing to understand the core of every internet movement: community. Follow the dotted line from vaporwave, to cloud rap, hyperpop, and digicore, and you will find that what unites these constantly expanding sounds are the creatives who brought them to life. 

“The internet is everything. These scenes have no set location, no cultural ties. Its culture is the internet, and that means their culture is all cultures. I think that it’s important for society in general to see art movements like digicore happen. It’s a celebration of anything and everything—loudly and proudly,” says Bugara, considering the trajectory of digicore and the unknowable next steps in its evolution. “It happened with vaporwave, but it’s not like vaporwave artists were flaunting their trans identity, or anything like that. Digicore artists are proud of who they are, they’re proud of the music they make. If there’s anything I can say that drives this moment is that everybody’s unique: uniqueness is celebrated and uniqueness is needed to succeed, and what that means is evolving by the day.”

No matter how far the music evolves past its online origins, the community itself remains constant. There’s something to be said about the radical potential of the internet being an ever-renewing form of punk: music, now more than ever, holds the possibility of including anyone, regardless of race, sexuality or gender, because the barrier for entry is nothing more than a wi-fi connection and a .wav file. When it comes to the moment, blink and you’ll miss it—but the spirit itself? It’s on the internet forever.