How Hyperpop Gives Trans Artists a Voice

Sometime last year, I found myself listening to the Black Dresses album WASTEISOLATION. I had heard Black Dresses’ music before during a late-night drive. While it struck me then as hard-hitting and memorable, I didn’t pay close attention to the lyrics. The second time, something stuck out to me: on “RUNNER,” the line “Mirror image of something that I never really even was / Heterosanity able-bodied LCD display,” from the breathy, almost-tortured voice of Devi McCallion. A switch flipped in my head. I recognized that I was listening to fundamentally queer music. Searching up an interview with the band revealed that Black Dresses was a duo of trans women. WASTEISOLATION was reflective, in part, of the trauma and anxiety of the trans experience. No wonder I liked it, then. It was, in a sense, my music. Maybe on the first listen, I had made some subconscious connection to the words and sounds I heard, a connection that drove me to come back for more. Or maybe it was only a coincidence. Either way, finding out yet another cool new artist I had discovered was a trans person (or, in this case, two trans people) led me to ask myself: Why is it that so much of the music I love is made by other trans people? 

Graphic by Zoe Axelrod

This scenario was not new. I had been introduced to hyperpop through 100 gecs’ “money machine,” one of the most viral songs to emerge from the genre. Someone had posted the music video on a forum dedicated to laughably bad music. As soon as I watched it, I was obsessed. I found it far from laughably bad. The tongue-in-cheek humor of the lyrics and the bright, over-energetic industrial sound combined to produce a song that was completely iconic and unforgettable. I also sensed the element of queerness in it. Pitched-up voices reminiscent of the nightcore era of the 2000s and early ‘10s, the early Tumblr-esque internet slang, the jokey references to hyper-masculine American truck culture. It all reminded me of the online communities I had been a part of as a young queer teen, the places I had found solace. In short, it seemed kind of like something a queer person would have had a hand in making. I wasn’t necessarily surprised when I found out that Laura Les was trans, but I was excited and happy, especially since popular trans artists outside of hyperpop are few and far-between. As I dove deeper into the genre, I found more and more trans creators, both seeking them out on purpose and stumbling across them by accident. Their names stuck in my head. It felt like entering a new world, a world where people like me could express ourselves freely and be understood.

Hyperpop is unique in this regard. It’s one of the only genres that doesn’t shut trans musicians out, other them, and turn them into novelties. Instead, it welcomes queer and trans people with open arms. Trans artists figure prominently among hyperpop’s elite, defining its sound and acting as the faces of the genre. As hyperpop grows in popularity, so do the trans musicians it houses. And while trans people have always been active in the music world, their sudden rise to prominence feels revolutionary. In the past, popular music was written about trans people and about the trans experience, but never trans people themselves. Take the Kinks’ “Lola,” peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970, telling the story of a man who meets a transgender woman at a bar while assuming she’s cis. Lou Reed’s “Candy Says” describes gender dysphoria and disconnectedness from the perspective of actress Candy Darling: “I’ve come to hate my body / And all that it requires in this world.” Darling shows up again in Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” (which peaked at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973) along with Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, both prominent trans performers of their day. These songs reflect a time when popular culture resigned trans people to “oddity” status, when the average listener saw their existence as something that only occurred “over there” (in New York, San Francisco and Hollywood). Americans were fascinated by trans narratives, but only when filtered through the cis male artists who used them as musical inspiration. Now, trans artists are using hyperpop to take back control of their own narratives, to tell their own stories unfiltered. But what attracts trans people to hyperpop over other genres? I asked Hexcode, a nonbinary hyperpop artist, who told me that part of the appeal comes from the freedom that pop gives musicians to truly “perform” gender, using gendered expression in a way that’s personally and musically empowering. “There’s something very freeing about expressing gender in the purposely flamboyant and over-the-top way that pop idols embody, so to take that to a further extreme is even better,” they said.

One of hyperpop’s hallmarks is pushing standard elements of pop to their extremes, and that includes gender expression. This is one of many reasons the genre is especially important to trans women and transfeminine people. Mainstream “pop girls” are often viewed by popular culture as the ultimate representations of femininity, a standard of womanhood that, while unreachable for most cis women, people assigned male at birth are harshly discouraged from trying to attain. Presenting themselves as intensified exaggerations of pop stars allows trans women to reclaim and distort cultural standards of femininity, taking rigid gender roles and twisting them into a uniquely expressive performance. From the other side of the spectrum, Dorian Electra grounds their music in a hyper-exaggerated performance of modern masculinity that’s both satirical and empowering.

It’s easy to compare to the drag world, where performers become caricatures of gendered ideals as a form of personal self-expression, often inspired by the same pop idols that influence trans hyperpop artists. “The idolization of pop has always been a thing for the queer community and specifically AMAB people,” said Hexcode. In pop idols, queer people see the standards of normalcy that we, because of our queer identities, are often shut out from. Loudly and proudly over-performing and subverting those standards allows us to reclaim something of ourselves.

To trans people especially, hyperpop also feels nostalgic. In addition to mainstream pop culture, it also incorporates influences from a variety of subcultures from the 2000s and early 2010s: nightcore and anime fandoms, early youtube meme culture, emo, scene, and pop-punk. (See fraxiom’s “scawy monstews and nice spwites :3,” combining references to uWu anime culture, dubstep and asdfMOVIE, among others.) Shunned and discouraged by the outside world, many trans people found solace in these spaces as adolescents, while at the same time never feeling able to fully participate.

Now, the resurgence of cultural icons from this era in the public eye—Minecraft, Vocaloid, My Chemical Romance—has given some trans people the opportunity to relive their formative years from a place of increased freedom, comfort, and mental stability. “I had a friend explain it as ‘the 13 year old girl I never got to be,’” Hexcode said. They think the prevalence of references to these earlier subcultures “sort of speaks to making up for lost time that you never got to have as a trans kid.” Many trans people begin to experience gender dysphoria around the onset of puberty. So while their cis peers were dyeing their hair in funky colors, wearing fun clothes and going to concerts and conventions, trans kids were becoming increasingly, painfully aware of the growing disconnect between their minds and bodies, unable to look, dress, and feel how they wanted. As adults, hyperpop gives them a chance to do it all over again in, and in a more welcoming environment. Internet-based subcultures in the 2000s and 2010s could be intensely homophobic and transphobic. Hyperpop dilutes those subcultures and removes (most of) the bigotry, allowing trans people to express their authentic selves within a uniquely queer space.

One final element, and possibly the most important, is the way hyperpop allows for change and distortion. “Hyperpop is all about forcing your music to sound the way you want it, and then liking the distortion that comes because of it... and that’s a trans desire of mine,” said musician Nicky Masso, also nonbinary. A heavy emphasis on glitchiness and vocal modulation gives artists room to alter their voice significantly, meaning trans female and transfemme vocalists can digitally pitch their voices up to a “standard” female range or, as Laura Les does, much higher. This pitch changing can also be used in creative ways: in “Machote,” Arca sings in two voices, one lower and one higher, creating a duet with herself. At its most basic level, though, it allows trans people to sing comfortably without the burden of dysphoria. “I hate my voice and want it to sound different,” Masso said. “I played a live punk show and ran my mic through a guitar distortion pedal because I couldn't tolerate it otherwise.”

Beyond just vocals, the futuristic atmosphere of the genre allows trans artists to present themselves however they want. Hexcode pointed me to a line from SOPHIE’s “Faceshopping:“I’m real when I shop my face.” It’s an expression of how altering one’s body and voice can create a more authentic picture of the person they’re attached to. SOPHIE notably wears sharp prosthetic cheekbones when she performs. One can view these sorts of alterations as an extension of the hormone treatments and surgeries trans people often undergo. Medicine can’t do everything, but technology can fill in the gaps. To many artists, any part of the physical body that does not reflect the inner self can be changed. “Synthetic enhancement is sometimes a better portrayal of inner self and gender expression,” Hexcode said. “You don't have to be ‘natural’ to be real.”

Hyperpop draws in more listeners by the day, both through streaming platforms and word of mouth. It’s a double-edged sword. While the flood of new fans gives trans creators more exposure and acclaim, it also opens them up to mockery and verbal abuse, as evidenced by the sudden wave of cruel, transphobic comments on music videos from 100 gecs and SOPHIE. And as hyperpop inches closer to the mainstream, it loses some of its unique association with queerness, part of what makes it feel like a safe space for me and other trans music lovers and musicians. Black Dresses, who formed part of my introduction to hyperpop, recently broke up due to a combination of TikTok’s inappropriate use of their songs and online harassment. Their safe space was violated and their music abused. This is one result of divorcing hyperpop from its roots as a means of queer self-expression: we fail to keep queer musicians safe to express themselves.

Even still, hyperpop remains a musical community of shelter and of solace. It’s a place where deep traumas and depression are expressed alongside joy, jokes, and cheeky cultural references, all blending together into something that feels wonderful, unique, and new. It’s a place to exist without judgement. For trans musicians, hyperpop is home—and they’ve put out the doormat.

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