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What does normcore sound like?

Theorising the music of the ‘new normal’ – with a little help from 30 Rock, Dev Hynes and Fleetwood Mac

There was an episode of 30 Rock that aired back in February 2012, in which Jenna and her cross-dressing, sexually-omnivorous, trend-hunting boyfriend Paul find themselves settling into a sense of domesticity. They stay in, cook dinner at home, cuddle on the couch and abstain from having sex, all of which leads them to believe they've stumbled upon some perverted new fetish called normaling. In reality they're just getting older and regressing toward the behavioral mean. It was a pretty deft send-up of the type of cutting edge urbanites who think that everything they do is ipso facto “a thing” simply because they're the ones who are doing it. Consider how taking a trip out to IKEA to go shopping for furniture – just like a bunch of hilarious regular-ass people! – was such a reliable source of personal brand-tweaking comedy for New Yorkers a few years back.

That sense of normaling, or normcore as it's being called, was the focus of a widely-shared piece in New York Magazine this week, which attempted to put brackets around a moment in fashion. As Fiona Duncan writes, normcore is "the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses." In other words, wearing sensible sneakers or sandals, roomy sweats, baseball caps, sports jerseys and the like – what you might call doing-the-laundry-wear – is no longer just a momentary respite in the fashion-conscious individual's regular routine, it's an extension of the assumption of the fashion persona. Blending in as an expression of "blending in".

Naturally, this concept is somewhat easy to mock, and it has been dismissed as art school and downtown fashion kids slouching into yet another form of hipster irony in many reaction pieces. It may be that in part, but there are actually some interesting ideas at the heart of the premise that are worth paying attention to, particularly when it comes to music.

The pervasiveness of the impulse toward normalisation throughout various mediums is something that occurred to us while trying to imagine what a normcore soundtrack might look like. A few overlapping examples came to mind. On the fashion level, there are no shortage of current artists who are themselves applying a sort of normcore aesthetic to their public personas. Sean Nicholas Savage in his boxy, over-sized bad suits, for example, or, as Duncan points out, Devonté Hynes in his sweatpants and boxy jeans. 

It would be harder to find a young female singer who hasn't appeared in acid-wash mom jeans on stage than to list the ones who have. Or consider the current preoccupation with TLC-era R&B, with performers like LIZ adopting an outdated over-sized football jersey '90s backup dancer motif. Or the purposefully dork-lite shtick of the likes of Jerome LOL or D E N A. What was that whole Kreayshawn moment we went through there a while back besides a reversal of the normal top-down flow of style. Instead of kids at the mall dressing like the artists they admired, the artists themselves were now dressing like the kids at the mall. Food-court-wave, you might call it. And then there's the ever present maybe-ironic-maybe-not normcore cover version, of which we've consistently been fed a steady diet over past couple years; Chet Faker doing "No Diggity" for example.

But thinking about norming in music in that sense affixes a calculated irony to it that strips it of authenticity, and represents the chief complaints that critics of the New York mag piece have against it. 

"It's not being normal if you're 'being normal' in order to adhere to a concept of “'being normal'"

You may be putting on a baggy post-gym hoodie to go the club, but it also comes complete with a set of very contemporary air quotes on the label. And all of these artists are, or were at the time, paragons of contemporary coolness. There's nothing normal about that.

The essence of normcore, as laid out in a report called “Youth Mode: A Report On Freedom” by the trend forecasting group K-Hole, on which Duncan relied heavily for the basis of her argument, defines it as something purer, and a more worthwhile outlook on consumption of culture and art in general than dressing up in #basic drag. Aspiring to a state of normalcy wouldn't find one listening exclusively to artists who share a similar sense of fashion, purposefully dressing-down or not, nor would it reject them on those grounds alone. It would incorporate them instead into the wider, all-encompassing flow of acceptance.

As K-Hole put it: “If the rule is Think Different, being seen as normal is the scariest thing. (It means being returned to your boring suburban roots, being turned back into a pumpkin, exposed as unexceptional.)"

If the #emorevival isn't emblematic of a return to our shared, culture-wide suburban roots, then nothing is. But this is also the very foundation upon which all subcultures in fashion, music, art or otherwise are born. It's no coincidence that the cultural actors in cities like New York are so often themselves transplants from the very suburbs that they go on to reject so vehemently. Reaching a state of cultural freedom rejects that rejection. Denying your roots is the least authentic performance, because it requires a constant state of lying. What's worse, is that everyone is doing it, and everyone simultaneously knows that everyone else is doing it. It's the big con that pushes us further and further into hyper-specification of genre, seeking out newer and newer ways to differentiate ourselves, like a junkie upping the dose because the last one doesn't effect the same high anymore.

This is, in essence, the basis of the cliché argument that people make against “hipsters” all the time. If you think you're so unique and special, how come everyone else you know looks and acts just like you?

The state of cultural enlightenment that K-Hole talk about absolves one of that pursuit of individuality. “The most different thing to do is to reject being different all together,” they write. “When the fringes get more and more crowded, Mass Indie turns toward the middle. Having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness.”

In other words, there's nothing more hip than not caring whether or not anyone thinks you're hip anymore. One of the easiest, and most comforting ways to get there is by divesting ourselves of the artificial barriers we've set up around the fashion choices we make, and on a more personal scale, the type of music we listen to. That doesn't mean outsider music is to be shunned, but rather it should be shuffled into the mix with mainstream dance music, country, pop-hip-hop and so on. Normcore is normalisation of music in general, of recognising its original role as a means of bringing people together, rather than bisecting us into little groups.

K-Hole: “Mass Indie responds to this situation by creating cliques of people in the know, while normcore knows the real feat is harnessing the potential for connection to spring up. It’s about adaptability, not exclusivity.”

Go with the flow.

“I think, for me, embracing a normcore approach meant, this summer, being OK with loving the most popular pop songs, like partaking in the mass mentality,” Duncan explained to me when I asked about what normcore music might sound like. “It's also about being OK with loving something one day and hating it the next. So Miley Cyrus would be on my normcore playlist. I think often of the quote from K-Hole: 'In normcore, one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging.”

Normcore posits that the minor pleasures of differentiation – in wearing a label no one else is, or listening to a band no one else have heard of yet – don't have to subsume the pleasures of listening to the song everyone else everywhere loves at the same time. There's literally nothing less cool, in my estimation, than the contrarian who purposefully rejects an undeniably appealing pop song simply because everyone else likes it. How easy is it to be a cynic about music? Being open requires a little more work.

A soundtrack to normcore, then, is the stuff you listen to when no one else is paying attention – the goofy dance mix you have on your gym playlist, or the songs you dance around the apartment to when you're alone. The Flo Rida track that you hear everywhere but never allow yourself to fully enjoy in case someone notices. But the impulse to hide that pleasure is corrosive. “I feel like Fleetwood Mac is very normcore,” Duncan said as another example. “'I wanna be with you everywhere.' Who doesn't empathize with those lyrics?”

Everyone does. Whether or not they admit it is another thing.

Normcore then, in its pure state, is about empathy and connectivity. Giving it a name and dissecting it as such may place the burden of Big Trend Idea on it, under which almost nothing can stand up, but applying it to your own behavior is a freeing thing, like pulling back the veil and revealing the entire world of culture and allowing yourself to receive it. What goes on a normcore playlist then? Only everything.