Beyond mainstream music: exploring the depths of peripheral music
Non-mainstream music reflects the darker parts of our culture and the repressed elements of the collective consciousness.

In the constellation of culture, there exists a core and a periphery. In music, peripheral artists speak to overarching economic and cultural truths—what’s marketable tells us a lot about a given society. Certain elements differentiating mainstream from peripheral music include distinctive samples, divergent structures, and taboo themes. At the heart of peripheral music is a degree of non-marketability.

Peripheral music is controversial and experimental. As such, certain themes are more common in “underground” music than in mainstream music. Consider Australian musician Zheani. Credited with founding “Fairy Trap,” her music is carnal and raw. Her melody is abrasive and crass, and her lyricism rageful and unforgiving. Zheani’s social media and music videos are frequently censored. She attributes this to a “prudish and frigid” sexual culture, and while I agree that we are collectively sexually confused, I think the issue stems more from her frequent jabs at Hollywood creeps and Silicon Valley figures.

Zheani’s 2019 EP, Satanic Prostitute, channels her fury into compelling artistry both visual and auditory, but it is precisely this provocative representation that is inspired by critics using such terms to insult her that contributes to her unmarketability to mainstream charts and record labels. Zheani is well aware of this and refuses to succumb to more vendable artistry. She laughs at the modern satanic panic and hatred toward prostitutes. I applaud how she can handle the subject matter that our culture has yet to adequately grapple with.

Consider, also, artists like BONES and $uicideboy$. In addition to rapping about controversial subject matter like school shootings—in concept albums like TeenWitch—and horror and death, in songs like “$leepy Hollow (Slopped & Chewed)” and “Where’s Your God?” they challenge the common song’s organized structure

BONES has three volumes of “SeshRadio,” outro songs of about 10–20 minutes that feature unreleased music and theatrical skits. This unorthodox style creates a unique psychic space for listeners and contributes to a distinctive lore. 

$uicideboy$ has been critiqued for employing samples that attempt to make up for a lack of original content, but this points to a larger artistic and cultural phenomenon. 

Lev Manovich, a digital culture theorist, illustrates how most user-generated content is not fundamentally authentic: it borrows from establishment-approved templates and previously available content—in other words, it remixes and samples. 

Most of our everyday lives, from the meals we cook to the outfits we design, borrow from existing materials and trends. All creation is predicated on something from the past. Does the overt presence of previous content in “new” content meaningfully point to unoriginality? Arguably, a song that weaves in intriguing samples is far more creative than one that follows a traditional structure.

Controversial or experimental songs—like the aforementioned—require time to absorb and consider, rendering them useless on a radio station, the purpose of which is to dispense popular, unproblematic tunes for evening drives home from work. They also probe at disturbing subjects that might perplex our collective consciousness, triggering larger cultural conversations about themes like misogyny or misery that we are not yet equipped to address.


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