Deep-internet bubbles: How microgenres are taking over SoundCloud

Once again, Kieran Press-Reynolds makes sense of the SoundCloud craziness. Follow his work at Insider.

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Behind that text stands a man flexing a Sonic the Hedgehog backpack and holographic baseball cap, with a Louis Vuitton belt hanging out both ends of the hat. He looks like a swagged-out Club Penguin avatar, and dances like one too, swaying awkwardly to a smoothie of hazy drums, syrupy vocals, and sound effects. “Hyperplugg” is what he calls this sound—an alloy of hyperpop and plugg, a style of dreamy beat production that rose out of Atlanta in the early 2010s. Leveraging the idea that he invented this sound-hybrid, the SoundCloud artist Myspacemark has amassed tens of thousands of views on TikTok calling himself the “HYPERPLUGG CEO” and claiming he quit his job at Walmart and bought a Lamborghini after creating the style. It’s more meme than microgenre, but some of his fans have completely bought into the shtick.

Hyperplugg is just one of a handful of purported new subgenres occupying SoundCloud in 2022. Others: vamp drill, vamp plugg, maplekore, sigilkore, dutch sigilkore. The new gen of internet musicians is nickname-obsessed. They don’t just hashtag their tracks “trap” or “experimental hip-hop”—that’s too basic. Instead, it’s mutant slang like “robloxcore,” cryptic catchphrases like “slung,” “murder metal 2k13,” and “rocket tempo.” “SoundCloud rap” has always been a catch-all containing smaller sects—tread, trap metal, emo rap, phonk—but it feels like they are proliferating faster now. Plus, it’s less critics naming the micro-styles and handing them down from above, and more so the artists gleefully coining and repping them.

As the internet continues to decentralize culture, letting us choose which streaming services and video games and social media we want to base our lives around, some of the most intoxicating new music is coming from these tiny SoundCloud pockets, which you can only access if you already know to look there. This is music you won’t find in mainstream publications and algorithmically generated Spotify playlists, or talked about on Twitter, depending on who you follow.

But are these sounds, some sustained by only two or three artists, really worthy of being deemed genres? Or has the idea of “genre” lost its meaning entirely in the digital age, when anyone with FL Studio and a SoundCloud account can declare themselves a genre?

Genre “naming is not a neutral act of referring,” the late theorist Mark Fisher wrote in a 2004 blog post. “Naming produces surplus value, something that wasn’t already there in the first place.” A genre label has the potential to create an instant mythology for a sound, he argued, like with 90s jungle. “Jungle” underscored the sound’s density, and gave it a panoply of evocations (the concrete jungle, intensely rhythmic and percussive music, tribalism) along with an aura of mystery and menace. In a SoundCloud landscape teeming with off-the-wall musical experiments, it makes sense that artists are anointing themselves as genre-generators. It’s a way to compete in the attention economy, a tactic to distinguish your sound from what could otherwise be perceived as another set of weird noises in a sea of bizarre bleeps and bloops. 

Some of these new forms feel sonically diverse and innovative enough to warrant a full-on genre designation. Take sigilkore, a demon-themed scene that’s garnered tens of millions of plays across Spotify and SoundCloud. There’s no official explanation behind the name (when I asked de facto leader Luci4 to define sigilkore early last year, he told me “it’s magick” and declined to comment further). It seems likely the term is a combo of “sigil”—symbols believed to have magic powers to make someone’s desired outcome come true, used for hexes and other uh-oh purposes—and a corruption of the suffix “core” that makes it appear more sinister. The music assaults your expectations and inundates your brain: jolts of low-end, an onslaught of glitches, and a pandora’s box of unsettling vocal methods including breathing, sibilating, and snarl-moaning. Listening to some of these tracks really feels like you’re eavesdropping on demons debating how to divvy up a charcuterie board of human entrails.

Other microscenes don’t feel expansive enough to be a full-scale genre. See the Parisian lungskull’s “slung” music, an aggressively distorted style that sounds tailor-made for teens looking to troll their substitute teachers by blasting bass thuds and shrieking synths from the back of the class, with little to differentiate it from other blown-out rap besides the artist’s mewling vocals.

Kaystrueno, the first rapper I’ve ever seen peddling beats for Animal Crossing currency, calls his sound “maplekore,” a tribute to the mid-aughts Korean MMORPG MapleStory. “I got the idea from listening to my melodies by themselves and just staring at the scenery in the game,” he told me. “The melodies fit so perfectly.” I haven’t played MapleStory in more than 10 years, but I see his vision—the beatific soundscapes on “HOMESiK” and collaborator lostrushi’s “SYXX STORY” tremble with synthetic flickers, like pixelated trees rustling in the wind.

Only two or three artists produce slung and maplekore, which would make it seem like they aren’t fully-fledged genres; consider them personal styles, maybe. They have distinctive quirks—lungskull’s seagull-high squeaks, kaystrueno’s impressionistic melodies–but it’s not at the same scope as something like sigilkore, which has an arsenal of vocal techniques and distorted production styles, along with cryptic paratext (occult song titles, cover art).

Yet, some fans are insistent on calling them genres. I’ve seen TikTok commenters and Twitter users arguing over whether lungskull’s music counts as slung or sigilkore, and if kaystrueno’s music counts as “evil plugg” or it’s solely maplekore. In the end, who decides what’s a genre?

In the same 2004 blog, Fisher warned that an “individual may come up with a name, but its acceptance” is dependent on the whims of the collective unconscious. He compared this process to a chemical reaction: if listeners recognize the genre label and treat it like a natural fact, then it etches itself in the scene’s DNA. The researcher Fabian Holt called these listeners who negotiate a genre’s meaning and give it shape the “center collectivities,” which in today’s world would probably include music collectives, Discord channels of diehard fans, and clusters of people like you and me reading and writing about this type of music. The amorphous term “bedroom pop,” for example, only became a stock identifier after various publications printed it and fans regurgitated. Meanwhile, many invented phrases don’t take off—see Rolling Stone’s futile attempt to classify PinkPantheress under the ungainly compound “alt-girl rap.” (She’s not even a rapper!)

Perhaps the most hotly contested genre label of late is dariacore, a mashup fad that drowns rap and pop hits in a boiling vat of drums and sound splices. It revolves around a sprawling web of producers who theme their music after media. Its founder, dltzk, stylized their songs after the turn-of-the-century TV joint Daria. Others have chosen the games Five Nights at Freddy’s (fnafboi48’s fnafcore), Deltarune (schnozz’s berdlycore), and Pokémon (gingus’ giratinightcore), and the TV shows Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends (jvnkhee’s frankiecore) and the Amazing World of Gumball (carbine’s darwincore). Just as a cool song title or cover art adds meaning to the listening experience, coining these genre nicknames gives listeners a flag to rally behind.

But recently, dltzk forsook the term on Twitter, claiming they don’t make dariacore and are just a fan of Daria. If genre label acceptance is a chemical reaction, then “dariacore” has violently imploded like 10 mentos in a coke bottle: some of the style’s practitioners announced they were removing the “dariacore” tag from their songs in solidarity, while the scene’s communal epicenter, the “dariacord” Discord page, changed its name to the milquetoast “snare society.” It turns out that a community of people can eviscerate a genre term as quickly as they can raise it up. While genre labels were once seen as relatively immovable entities—concretized by repetition from major publications, radio channels, award shows, musicians—these nanogenre labels are the opposite: friable and ephemeral, subject to the mercurial wishes of internet scenes and community leaders.

The proliferation of “-core” style nicknames reminds me of what Kaitlyn Tiffany described as a staple of digital life, dating back to MySpace, Tumblr, and BuzzFeed quizzes: the urge to identify with esoteric aesthetic subcultures such as “cottagecore” and “romantic academia” and “pastel goth” because you want to locate your niche and belong somewhere on the internet. This is late-stage SoundCloud rap’s Auto-Tuned, bass-blown equivalent. These microgenre labels rarely describe a sound, and more often reference a loose accretion of shared signifiers: television shows and video games Zoomers are nostalgic for; occult motifs people relate with.

Among the most prominent themes within the genre-scape is an appeal to darkness, evil, and death. St47ic, a key architect of the drumless MURDER METAL 2K13 sound, lists his location as “dead” on SoundCloud. Collaborator p6nk made the cover art of an EP a picture of someone bent in a crucifixion pose, hands and skull tied to the walls by rope, who’s supposedly being treated for a mental illness in Germany in 1890. A song by vnmpire tagged “MURDERDRILL” features a thumbnail of an eyeball caving into itself like a putrescent banana and the description, “i hope yall die 4 xmas.” Even some of the musicians’ names—Luci4 (lucifer), sellasouls (“sell a soul”)—wink at wretchedness. These artists offer an in-your-face, almost parodic sense of terror so unflinchingly edgy that it comes out the other end as Jennifer’s Body levels of camp.

There’s also robloxcore, a subgenre concocted by a troop of teens who loved the 2006 world-building game Roblox. It peaked in 2020, when a slew of songs bleeding Roblox sound effects gained traction. Its influence extended laterally into alternate versions of the same, like minecraftcore (you can guess which game that pulls from). The style has developed into a fuller audiovisual aesthetic under seamoretheseal, a Roblox video maker—and onetime TisaKorean collaborator—who tags all their robloxcore tracks as “fisherprice” (the toy brand) and designs delirious thumbnails defacing aughts media (iCarly, Super Monkey Ball, the Backyardigans) with colorful kiddie chaos.

In this semantic free-for-all, you might say there are Good and Bad genre labels, just like there are Good and Bad screens (oh god, now I’m genre-izing genres). “Hyperplugg” falls in the latter camp, its deployment limited to a Club Penguin avatar-looking man who didn’t really even invent the hybrid-sound using the tag on TikTok to get internet famous. But even for the genre labels that don’t resonate or name a sound that’s got nothing new going on, they still provide this hallucination of newness that lures in listeners who want to feel the ego-tickle that comes with being “in” on an “underground” music style.

What’s striking about these internet microcosms is that despite how insular they appear, there are no geographic limits. A young teen in the hinterlands of Utah producing whatever gibberish genre they come up with—mormoncore, for example—to an audience of 10 listeners on SoundCloud can be heard by someone in Scotland, if the Scottish lad is tapped in. That’s why despite how relatively unknown sigilkore and robloxcore are within the larger musical ecosystem, there are Dutch and Korean variations, respectively. Online music is both incredibly localized and universal, simultaneously confined to small Discord clubs and capable of being transmitted through electric signals to vibrate speakers around the globe.

I’ve long been fascinated by Every Noise at Once, a website run by Spotify’s Glenn McDonald that algorithmically maps “the musical genre-space.” It has generated thousands of playlists for the streaming platform based on some preset distinctions and genres identified by McDonald using Spotify data. What’s ironic is that none of the aforementioned microscenes—the exact ones you’d expect to see on a panoramic taxonomy project like this, and no other publications’ list of genres—are on there. Computers can detect patterns based on input, but some sounds exist outside the range of input, clearly. It’s impressive that in 2022, when it feels like everything we’re doing is being mined, lumped into categories, catapulted back at us in the form of ads and content, the world is being NFT-ified, yada yada yada—that you can still fall down rabbit holes on the internet and discover something no algorithm has found. A sound and scene that’s still learning what it is, before it gets packaged into a tidy playlist. 

14 thoughts on “Deep-internet bubbles: How microgenres are taking over SoundCloud”

  1. This is an excellent portrait of potential communities maybe-forming!

    Every Noise at Once aspires to find all of these that actually form, for a very loose definition of “actually”, but something like “reach the point where there are at least 40-50 artists on Spotify doing that”. This scale rules out some scenes that are still or forever too small, and the Spotify part sometimes rules out things like dariacore that rely a bit on the unsupervised nature of Soundcloud.

    Sigilkore is a good example of a new community reaching this stage, so I just added that. It’s kind of the dark version of Glitchcore like PluggnB (which I added a few days ago) is the smooth version of Plugg.

  2. “not genres- call them personal styles maybe” what marks the difference between a personal style and a genre? as an artist i have been stealing a lot from my inspirations but what if I just call their style a genre and make music in that style? something about that perspective shift really resonates with me. also one of ya’s should make a sigilkore/maplecore/whatever playlist id love an introduction from the people that are introducing me to to these things

  3. Yeah I sort of wish we had a different word entirely for “genre” that makes some distinction between different musical styles, actual scenes/communities around music, and whatever these kids on SoundCloud are doing right now. Though I think you’re right to compare this to some like cottagecore or other TikTok first fashion trends where I’d say getting into the micro specificities might be interesting for those deep in the scene but really are just different points along similar waves. Like much of TikTok fashion could just simply be catalogued as millennial nostalgia and in a way much of this music still feel out of what is or isn’t hyperpop / digicore, which again to me has roots in heavily digital styles since the early 2010s.

  4. The “k” in sigilkore is there for the same reason that “magic” is spelled “magik” (or “magick”) in occult circles and not necessarily meant to appear to be more “sinister.”

  5. I always used to think musical genre’s were more rhythmically defined, and than sub or micro-genres were the various styles of melodic overlays inserted on top of said structures. One of the more interesting things with all the soundcloud stuff is that its not particularly innovative rhythmically largely due to it being easy mode to paste stuff over generic 4/4 drum/bass structures and the versatility of various breaks that still sound somewhat new acoustically irrespective of what you throw at them. I’m not sure how good that is really though as far as pushing the boundaries of music.

  6. Amazing Article. I think Microgenres are actually becoming a sort of a major main parent genre. While before it was Hauntology, Hypnagogic Pop, and Chillwave, these days its Hyperpop, HexD, Glitchore, and now Dariacore. It’s communities just barely existing as an out there concept before they implode and form another one. Looking foreard to stumbling into this article and read the rest of yours. Genre nerds unite!

  7. The platform allows users to listen to songs from popular music artists and labels just like the music you hear on the radio. For music artists, it’s a great way to upload original tracks to share with fans and for fans Soundcloud Pro plays, it is easy to tune in to their favorite artists. Apart from music tracks, SoundCloud is also great to stream embeddable audio pieces for sports and new media outlets.