BROOKLYN, NY – It's the early 2000s, the future is fast approaching and with it, the new wave. Tabloid newspapers are drenched in celebrity scandal: sweet, musical children turned sour. Spoiled little brats and full-blown bozos command legions of devotees with just their voice — tastefully autotuned, of course. But the era of the pop star is about to take a turn.
It's the 2010s and the super producer has a buzzed side cut and long, oil-slick hair. "Like a G6" is just about the closest route a preteen has to God. And somewhere in the Philippines, a fisherman catches a golden milkfish doomed to die. It's underscores' twelfth birthday and they have been making music for seven years.
A word of advice from their future self: Open Garage Band on the computer your dad couldn't salvage and make bowling pin album art. This is the first step to pop stardom when you're riding the new wave. Fast forward to now and realize you've been doing the same thing all along. Make the biggest, loudest, brightest song you possibly can and then make another. Detach from your most well-received body of work mere months after bringing it into the world. Perform interviews. Show your face. Taste fame and spit it out like cinnamon. And when it's all over, sit under the smiley face water tower and contemplate your celebrity.
"I don't think I can claim my own aura," underscores says. "No one knows how they're perceived by the rest of the world."
A week after being interviewed, underscores will launch a 30-day vinyl campaign for their latest LP that is completely funded in one hour. The album is fishmonger. Months later, 100 Gecs will announce the openers of their North American tour with underscores’ name stylized in bold. This type of recognition is unexpected for underscores. "I don't know if I wanted it for myself or if I could ever achieve it," they say of the looming possibility of success. In their mind, they do not fit the description of the celebrity that they sing about so frequently on fishmonger.
The LP paints celebrities as entitled brats and bitter burnouts — "worldwide superstar[s] running out of mileage." These characters are loud and unapologetic, but not unlikeable. They're spectacles — like so many celebrities before them — which makes them enjoyable to watch, no matter how many times they tell you to "shut your mouth, listen up when I talk." "What the hell did you expect? I'm a pop star, baby," they state, unbothered. These characters are vessels of escapism for the otherwise quiet and unassuming underscores. They're able to indulge in a little celebrity conceit and "express things that [they] sort of wouldn't in conversation." Just sing into an iPhone mic and become someone new; adopt the aura of a celebrity.
"I think I got a bit obsessed with this idea of like, the aura of a celebrity almost without being a celebrity," underscores explains. "It doesn't even matter what you've accomplished." Just turn a few heads at a party and that's all it takes. Celebrity is an energy that one projects regardless of credentials. It's a self-assured poise. It's proud and it's humble. It's big and bright and enviable. But it's also achievable. Niche internet micro-celebrities litter the corners of cyberspace and claim stardom in its many forms; a pop star with 100 followers and a pop star with a million followers are both pop stars. It's all about attitude.
This attitude is exemplified by fishmonger's features: 8485, knapsack, and Maxwell Young. underscores believes that these artists have pop star energy, and wanted to expand on the album's celebrity landscape by placing flesh-and-blood pop stars among the loudmouth caricatures that underscores created. However, these little brats are yet unspoiled. Even at her brassiest, 8485 struggles with the same issues underscores has with claiming their aura. On "Your favorite sidekick" she sings, "I think you drank my Kool-Aid / And I've been up for two days / Why are the things that you say always in my mouth?" Despite serving her audience the proverbial Kool-Aid, she can't help but be enamored by the aura of those around her. "We're so cool!" she sings to underscores, affirming the energy of the DIY scene.
"I'm really grateful to have surrounded myself with people that are making what I believe is like, the most interesting shit out there," says underscores. "Every time I hear something from one of my friends, I'm like, 'How the fuck did you do that? I can't believe this is fucking real!'"
Suddenly underscores' favorite pop stars are their best friends. They probably met on Twitter, or stumbled across their SoundCloud on their preteen journey towards dubstep stardom. Sometimes they call each other by their real names; sometimes by their online handles. Then one day, they meet face to face. "I think relationships, regardless of where they come from, are very important," underscores explains. "I had like, one or two friends in high school, and I was making music on the internet, so I didn't feel lonely."
"I think if you can, you know, extend internet relationships into the real world, I think that's an amazing thing," underscores continues. This year, they connected in real life with more online friends than ever before. "I don't think I've ever been in a group of people that are on such a similar wavelength."
This new wave is driven by nostalgia for "the pop sensibilities of the 2010s," says underscores. They believe that this was a really special time in music where pop was made for partying. Far East Movement introduced a generation of kids to the concept of "getting slizard" long before they were ever "poppin’ bottles in the ice, like a blizzard." And it didn't matter. Pop's party culture extended beyond the club and included all the "sober girls around me … actin' like they drunk." This music was created by artists that exude a pop star aura without taking themselves too seriously. They were having fun as pop intended, with underscores and their friends taking notes.
"And then fucking Kygo steps in, in like, 2015 and starts making tropical house and like, ruins pop on accident," says underscores, shaking their head in disbelief. "No one wanted to make the craziest shit, or like, no one was trying to be 'random XD' anymore." After enduring several years of "super boring pop," underscores is drawing from the not-so-distant past to dictate pop's future. They're combining the joy of 2010s EDM with the "emotional shit" of late 2000s pop punk. "It's about shit that means a lot to people, but at the same time it's super tongue in cheek," underscores explains of their method. "I want people to realize that if I'm writing about serious shit, I don't want to be taken seriously."
"I want to make pop music and I want to sprinkle in moments in moderation where people can be like, 'What the fuck? What is that?'" underscores continues; their favorite fan reaction is one of disbelief. "If they don't laugh, I've failed." Subtle production choices like sampling a My Little Pony AI throughout fishmonger might go unnoticed, but underscores is far less subtle on their collaborative projects. As a member of six impala, underscores and their collective are always "coming up with really wacky ways to piss people off." "I think the goal is to subvert people's expectations to the point where like, most people will be annoyed by it," underscores explains. This includes unexpected musical stops and starts, long periods of silence, and operating within super high frequencies. Also, one of the collective members is a cartoon AI named NEUTRA who fucking hates her fans. "six impala is definitely the most punk thing I do," underscores says — though this brand of punk is meticulous in its presentation. "We think actively about how people are going to listen to it."
This level of care extends to underscores' current production methodology, which has changed in a way that they don't fully understand. "The sort of method that I'm using to create music now is like, so intentional and mathematical to the point where it's like, not really fun," underscores explains. While finishing up fishmonger, their musical direction became cold and calculated. Before that, their method involved just opening Ableton or picking up a guitar. After completing the album in the summer of 2020, they couldn't bring themself to make music for six months.
During underscores’ musical black out, their creativity existed in the liminal space reserved for writer's block and stagnation. Their DAW resembled a darkened parking garage or the underside of a fishing pier. This emptiness is a by-product of fishmonger's creation, but it's also a theme that permeates the album. fishmonger is "a body of work that you can play in the middle of nowhere, and it'll make sense."
On a bus ride from New York to Toronto, underscores found nowhere. Press play and listen to the same album again and again and again. Not fishmonger — that doesn't exist. Not yet. Just melt into upholstered seats and share armrests with strangers. The landscape is unfamiliar and drained; the album is E by Ecco2k. "E had just come out that day and all I did was listen to it the entire way there," underscores recalls, "and I was looking out into nothing." To them, the album was perfect. An unintentionally great soundtrack to an upstate road trip. Its perfection wasn't defined by its production value or its lyrical content, but by its aura. It just made sense. This was the feeling underscores needed to replicate.
"It's the new wave of the future!" echoes across Devon Avenue in Longport, New Jersey. The tagline, so central to fishmonger, bounces off the water tower that adorns the album's cover. A smile is painted on the tower's container; two black eyes stare past the Atlantic Ocean. Somewhere deep underwater and half a world away swims a school of silver-scaled milkfish. They whisper of the incident, nine years ago, when a silver fish turned gold and was caught in a fisherman's net. They became a Filipino celebrity — not the man, but the fish: a golden bangus. Displayed behind panes of glass, the bangus was beloved by all except its keepers whose neglect left it belly-up. Some believe, however, that the steady stream of paparazzi killed the fish with each flash of their cameras.
"Take a picture," underscores sings, "hope it lasts long." They are in San Francisco, surrounded by their Filipino family on their twelfth birthday. News of the golden bangus' death has reached the party. "I guess there are moments in life that I think are just like, really surreal and don't feel like they should be happening," says underscores, now 21 years old. They're not a spiritual person — not yet — but "I know you are / Onto something," they sing, half to themself and half to the melancholy fisherman whose catch spawned the fishmonger mythos.
On a lonely boat in a lonely sea, underscores fishes for fame. Dive off the edge and find a school of contemporaries whose silver bellies flash gold in the right light. No celebrity status, no spoiled little brats, just harmonic movement and endless blue. Fate brought you to the foot of the water tower, so swim up until you reach the top, and smile down on every moment that led you here. "The new wave of the future is the old wave of the past," underscores reveals, "which means, in reality, there is no new wave of the future." All we have is now.