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The Rise and Fall of ‘Manipulator Music’

The COVID-19 Pandemic saw the development of an umbrella of music called “manipulator music” however its origins go deeper may not be what you

Vintage record store displays records by the Cure and David Bowie, both of whom fall under the genre of "manipulator music"
(Photo: Shutterstock/ Jeppe Gustafsson)

“You like the Smiths?” The rise and fall of “manipulator music” and how it impacted TikTok’s taste in music.

Music taste and individuality have gone hand in hand for a while now. Subcultures and music scenes have occupied the same spaces for the longest time. By identifying what subculture someone is a part of, you can usually tell what kind of music they listen to. Chances are, if they dress like a goth, they might listen to Bauhaus or the Cure. Additionally, these subcultures and music scenes would commonly reflect attitudes that were pervasive throughout a community at the time. Most importantly, though, it showed a shared interest in music and, by extension, made connecting with like-minded people easier.

The pandemic era, however, put a pause on this kind of development. With everyone being chronically online, the music of the present took a backseat, and everyone instead looked to the past. The internet, being the only source of entertainment, led many to discover past artists, some known and others obscure. Set against the backdrop of social isolation and desire for human connection, a new trend in music developed: “manipulator music.”

What is “manipulator music”

Most people will know “manipulator music” by the more specific and commonly used term “male manipulator music.” This is a term generally used in reference to artists who create emotionally vulnerable music and whose audience is mainly women. These artists are usually of the past, ranging from the 70s to the 90s, and are associated with those decades’ alternative scenes. Likewise, genres popular within those scenes, such as twee pop, shoegaze, punk, etc., make up most of what is considered “male manipulator music.” Known artists such as the Smiths, Radiohead, and Slowdive give an idea of the core of music considered “manipulator music.” 

The “male manipulator” part derives itself mainly from men who happen to share this taste in music with women. As the name goes, men associated with this taste in music are toxic and, of course, manipulative. They usually leverage this shared taste in music to enter into otherwise toxic relationships with women or simply hook up. This tactic was so common that a certain kind of music would be associated with a certain kind of male. Characters such as Tom from 500 Days of Summer and Rob from High Fidelity would go viral on TikTok as the archetypes of “male manipulators.”

The lesser-known history of “manipulator music”

“Manipulator music” is an umbrella term developed during the pandemic era TikTok where Dickies 874 wearing soft boys dominated Pinterest boards. It was during this era that these artists of the past saw a resurgence in popularity that continues to this day. Feelings of yearning, desire for human contact, and overall isolation are hallmarks of “manipulator music.” As such, much of “manipulator music” reflects the overall attitude of the pandemic period: emotionally starved and isolated. And it’s due to this that many will pinpoint the origins of “manipulator music” to this period. However, the history of this taste in music goes further back.

As with most chronically online things on the internet, much of it can be traced back to 4Chan. On 4Chan’s music board, or /mu/, anonymous users would discuss niche and alternative artists and albums. New users to the board would be overwhelmed with the amount of artists they’d need to know to participate in discussions. To lower this barrier of entry, /mu/ composed a chart of albums that are considered to be essential for new or present users. This chart would serve to give an idea of what /mu/is considered to be the best album of all time. The /mu/ essentials chart would predate 2015, years before the pandemic. Additionally, this chart would serve as the foundation for snobbish music elitism for years to come.

The evolution and fall of “manipulator music” post-pandemic

The bridge from TikTok /mu/’s essentials chart would eventually be formed during the pandemic period. The Smiths, a popular alternative band of the 80s, would go viral on TikTok and become “manipulator music’s” flagship band. Their reintroduction into the mainstream led to an interest in other 80s alternative bands and genres, such as shoegaze and dream pop. The genre of shoegaze specifically found its popularity through My Bloody Valentine’s album “Loveless” and Slowdive’s album “Souvlaki.” 

Most of these genres and bands would be consistently featured on the Essentials chart. This consistent association ended up with the Essentials chart commonly being used as a point of reference for “manipulator music.” The chart, being a point reference, led “manipulator music” to the 90s alternative scene, with artists such as Radiohead and Jeff Buckley coming under this umbrella of music.

Since the pandemic, “manipulator music” has slowly fallen out of use. What was once a term derogatorily used for men was also being used for women, albeit jokingly. As with all things on TikTok, “manipulator music” slowly assimilated with the mainstream. Artists and albums, for better or worse, once underground and niche, slowly fragmented into TikTok’s numerous “core aesthetics.” 

The effect of the pandemic and TikTok on music now

Much of the music that goes under the “manipulator music” umbrella has since evolved to fit under another. “RYM-core” music, as they call it now, is used in reference to the music database website “Rate Your Music.” Developed in the early 2000s, it is a forum and database of music where users can rate and discuss artists. Much of the ratings and rankings of albums follow the same order as /mu/’s essentials chart. 

@notorious_long

Sorry I haven’t uploaded shit in a while it’s too hot to record+I’m lazy+unoriginal #music #rateyourmusic #rym #fantano #bowie

♬ original sound – Luke

Due to Rate Your Music’s comprehensive database, there’s been another push to explore artists of the past. While artists on /mu/’s essentials chart were of the past, they were popular then and enjoyed renewed exposure now. Artists discovered on Rate Your Music commonly never enjoyed success and would have otherwise been left obscure. Nick Drake, a folk artist of the 70s, once obscure during his time, is experiencing a surge in popularity today. 

While the pandemic ended long ago, its effects on music in the modern day are long-lasting. Explorations into musical niches and artists that would’ve otherwise been left obscure are becoming increasingly more common. Additionally, pop music is experiencing more influences from the past as well, specifically the 80s. Regardless, the world of music still leaves much to be explored, and it’s exciting to see where it goes from here.

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