PC Music's QT put a face to the synthetic shape of pop this year, but her digital fame was foregrounded by another cult CG superstar
“Who’s that chick? Who’s that chick?” a pitched-down and turnt-up Rihanna asked in 2010 on David Guetta’s EDM thumper of the same name. Beneath the donks, the low-register question presented an irony: in an age of personality-driven pop, what does it mean when all recognisability to RiRi’s vocal is eradicated by the machine?
You could ask the same of PC Music’s latest charge, QT. Is there a personality (or even a person) behind the up-toned computer beeps and chipmunk vocals she shares with labelmates A. G. Cook and SOPHIE? The London label’s candyland chorus has come to define the sound of 2014, with Cook's “Keri Baby” and SOPHIE's “Hard” bagging top ten rankings on our tracks of the year list. But if electronic music had a roll call, QT would come up as truant.
An arcane child of the internet birthed out of the label’s “sparkling future pop” scene, QT is all angular peroxide bob and lip gloss – a caricature front for the ultra-pop she creates to be guzzled down like the fizzy pop drink she peddles, ‘QT Energy Elixir’. She could easily pass for a server at Tokyo’s famed Robot Restaurant, appearing both ready to take your order and on the verge of spouting two machine gun barrels out of her chest to mow down haters à la Austin Powers’ fembots. Yet she never will: like her vocals, QT is an entirely digital proposition.
Last month, The Fader dubbed QT the @Horse_ebooks of music. Like the randomised word generator that became a Twitter phenomenon, QT is simultaneously omnipresent in her niche scene, and a mirage. In ‘person’, QT’s limp cheerleader routine and wide-eyed mugging is down to NY-based performance artist Hayden Dunham, who lip-synced to “Hey QT” – her only song – at a Boiler Room performance with A. G. Cook and SOPHIE in LA. But as she mimed in front of a violet curtain (with a sleeker, butt-length hairstyle), you’d be forgiven for questioning whether QT was today’s latest show pony or a well-orchestrated 360 degree performance marrying talent with a plucky face for this new style of derivative pop. Some asked themselves whether they’d turned up to the right venue. Indeed, many claim that PC Music’s digital kitsch and high-concept gimmickry are more satirical commentary than celebratory entries into the pop canon. They’re either trolling us well, or they’re dedicated to their limitless caricature.
So is QT simply a puppet? And if that’s the case, how long will the show go on?
There is a film from 2002, starring Al Pacino and directed by Andrew Niccol, called S1m0ne. It’s about a flagging director (Pacino) whose star (Winona Ryder) walks out on his last-chance-for-a-comeback movie. Before surrendering his film to the studio heads breathing down his neck, he’s approached by a tech-trading wacko who claims he has the answer to his problem. The solution? A ‘digital creation’ that can stand in as the star: a customisable face of the film which can be manipulated to deliver lines and made to emote. Left with no other options, he creates his film with this new digital technology and, expectedly, his CPU star steals the show.
Soon Simone, the world’s first synthetic actress, becomes the most in-demand actress of her day. She’s hot! She’s cool! She’s got it all. The hitch is that Pacino’s character, Viktor Taransky, can’t let go of the reins. She’s his Oscar bait. She won’t appear in any films but his (she admits in satellite interviews that nothing can trump their working relationship). Simone only accepts awards with pre-recorded speeches from the set of her next film. Demand to see the star IRL spikes, and Taransky is forced to hire a leggy lookalike to make a mad dash across the red carpet covered in a veil so the paparazzi and the public – hungry for flesh – can catch a much-desired glimpse.
QT is electronic music’s Simone. Often described as a “project”, she is intrinsically bound to her creator, A. G. Cook. Like Simone, QT is portrayed by a real artist – in this case Dunham – but conceptually transcends the physical via an avatar. “The QT project seems like it is taking the pop aspect and just running with it to the point where it’s hard to take seriously,” argues Reddit user mattdonnelly. “Couple that with the energy drink thing and the Boiler Room performance and one begins to wonder if it’s even serious.” Even her single, “Hey QT”, plays with counterfeit reality, as she explains to The Fader: “It's about that feeling of sensing someone’s presence even when they are not in the same physical space.”
QT’s physical absence is compensated for through her conceptual development. She has a distinct look, sound and product to promote brand loyalty. “Energy drinks are a big part of music right now,” A. G. Cook told Dazed. “You can have an energy drink using music to raise its profile and vice versa.” QT’s labelmate, SOPHIE, is apparently working on a series of real-time sound toys with some of the designers at Numbers. For now, it’s a thrilling look into a marketing team’s dream – an image-controlled superstar that has been Hannah Montana’ed (Hannah Diamond’ed?) into every child’s bedroom with products and bubblegum personality.
As for the future, QT et al might be the next generation-spanning digital model, like Robin Wright’s character in The Congress. Director Ari Folman’s half-live action, half-Gorillaz throwback animation almost felt like a sequel to S1m0ne. It was undoubtedly the weirdest movie of 2014. In it, a computer scans actress Robin Wright so a digi-copy of her person – frozen in time at a younger, more attractive age – can go on starring in the action franchise she is known for. It’s a bleak and intoxicating vision of the future. As Folman told us, this version of events may not be so far off. “Robin says that when (Robert) Zemeckis made Beowulf (2007), he told her that in 20 years’ time, he won’t need her anyway. She’s in a chip in his file!”
The sound and aesthetic of PC Music is a premonition of where pop is headed – together, they are pushing us into a world in which our virtual pop idols are so fully-formed and distinct we’ll fight and defend them to the death, all while revitalising our post-squabble energy lows with a glug of the QT elixir. Then we can shop the collection. Could QT for QVC be a possibility on her future timeline? All signs point to yes.
What’s most interesting is how QT exists at the crossroads of organic and synthetic. Is she our first transitional superstar? Not quite: J-pop vocaloid Hatsune Miku is a blue-haired hologram who appeared on Letterman this year and has a 2.6 million-strong hive of online obsessives. And lest we forget Crazy Frog, that plague-like creature that topped the charts for four weeks in 2005. But unlike Miku and Crazy Frog before her, QT may be the first to pull a S1m0ne stunt; that is, have her skyrocketing star-power trump her physical presence (or lack thereof). Either way, she’s a powerful concept which has tapped into pop culture’s collective imagination and twisted its nipple. And hopefully, as technology advances and she becomes the perfect candidate to lead pop into an unknown future, she’ll be remembered virtually forever.