We need to talk about Fred... Again
Frederick John Philip Gibson hasn’t exactly built his career from the ground up, but his tunes are huge, he has a mega fanbase and he's just been nominated for the Mercury Prize. So, Clive Martin asks, is it really fair to paint him as the enemy of dance music?
Words: Clive Martin26th July 2023
There can’t be many more maligned contemporary musicians than Fred Again. The 29-year-old producer-DJ has become a whipping boy for “serious” electronic music fans across the world, who appear to view him as an interloper, an appropriator and a threat to all they hold dear. He is a one-man culture war, an artist whose very existence brings forth frenzied dialogue about authenticity and class.
Last month, as his viral, field-block performance at Glastonbury was blasted across BBC2 and iPlayer, my Twitter feed became a wall of memes and flagrant digs in the direction of Fred Again and his admirers. Some were funny (“Fred Again fans are the second evolution of the Carhartt side bag Loyle Carner fans”), some were enraged (“fuck these culture vultures”), while some took it upon themselves to tweet a list of his lawyer father’s unsavoury clients (who include tobacco and pharmaceutical companies).
The charges against Frederick John Philip Gibson are well-circulated and impossible to deny. Chiefly amongst them is the fact that he is posh. Not just standard Brit School nepo-class posh, but genuinely blue-blooded. His establishment credentials are impeccable; he hails from a line of Barons, Earls, landowners, socialites and James Bond creator Ian Fleming. His family tree is now so well-discussed that the “early life” section of his Wikipedia page is almost a meme in itself.
Then, there’s the music: a kind of pseudo-ambient techno, loaded with juddering, euphoric melodies and hushed vocal samples. You can hear his influences clearly – Burial, Aphex Twin, Bicep and the lesser-known Traumprinz/DJ Healer (who to my mind seems like his biggest musical crush).
His fans also don’t fit the standard Berlin mould, or even an Ibiza one. Mute the audio on his Glastonbury appearance and you might assume it was the Kings of Leon playing, or more generously, a post-EDM act like Flume. Look into tweets about Fred Again, and the word “normie” pops up over and over again. His fanbase are not moody, trendy or queer. They’re happy – really happy. They’re straight – really straight. The boys wear short-sleeved print shirts and the girls smear gold glitter on their faces. They all bask in the strange ecstasy of his music in a way that calls to mind an Alpha Course summer camp, and will pay well over face-value ticket prices to do so.
Combine all these factors together and Fred is the perfect victim for a shot of 21st-century authentocracy. In a day and age when awareness and representation are front and centre of music culture, he is a throwback to the days of progressive rock, when enthusiastic public schoolboys like Peter Gabriel and David Gilmour toured the world with vast stage sets and 30-piece drum kits. Indeed, things would probably be a lot easier for Fred Again if he made prog rock, but he doesn’t. He makes electronic music – a scene riddled with hardcore discourse and arguments about appropriation.
So, here he sits; a wildly successful, yet widely-derided artist. Someone who it is empirically uncool to even tolerate, let alone enjoy. To many, he is the zenith of a problem that has been going on for decades, whereby privileged artists can lift from the underground, apply generational business acumen and a major label sheen to the whole thing, making millions in the process. Meanwhile, the originators and innovators of genres (many of whom are Black, queer or just creatively uncompromising) play on far smaller stages, with far lesser returns for their efforts. At Glastonbury, even successful electronic music artists like Sherelle and Jayda G couldn’t get close to a “Fred Again moment”, resigned to smaller stages while he played the sunset slot to what might be considered a headliner-sized crowd.
In many ways, Fred is almost indefensible. He’s not just an honest kid whose bedroom project has gotten out of hand, but a music industry veteran with real commercial pedigree. He cut his teeth in the fast-pop factories that produce the bulk of the streaming charts, working with chart-music stalwarts Ed Sheeran, Clean Bandit and Rita Ora, to name a few. Much has been made of his relationship with the guru-ish Brian Eno, a family friend who took a young Fred under his wing and recently released a lukewarmly-received ambient album with him.
In Fred Again’s music, you can certainly hear a cold professionalism at work. Something about the melodies, the textures, the constant search for a euphoric “moment” takes this genre of music from Soundcloud fodder to stadium-worthy in a way few acts have done before. As a Sheeran disciple, he’s likely picked up the former’s ability to take underground and Black sounds, and reinterpret them for daytime radio and festival audiences.
There is also something in the entire Fred Again modus that suggests a certain level of cynicism. Muso credentials aside, his work appears to be deeply algorithmic – seemingly precision-designed for climatic festival moments (Fred Again fans often cite the “goosebumps” his tunes give them), but also perfect for Instagram travel and fitness reels. He seems to be as much a content creator as a music producer, like Mr Beast with an MPC.
Revealing their hand somewhat, in an interview in Music Week, Atlantic Records co-presidents Briony Turner and Ed Howard described their golden boy not as a “musical God”, but a “world class creative”. They even said: “He set himself up for a real ignition moment with the Boiler Room [set in July 2022]… we’re obsessed with having moments that create virality and bring more people into his orbit.” This kind of chat makes Fred look suspiciously close to the similarly-maligned upper middle class boys better known as Coldplay, who have long employed a “creative director” and “unofficial fifth member of the band” (interestingly, Brian Eno is also a frequent collaborator and admirer of Coldplay, seemingly unfazed by accusations of blandness or class wars).
“Hating [Fred Again] feels like hating Nando’s or Instagram or the Premier League. You might loathe the idea of it, but the output is too consumable to deny”
It’s very understandable to feel a little bit queasy about Fred Again – about him, his music, his business model. I agree that his work is a proficient but ultimately hollow approximation of artists who could never summon the crowds and big money record label backing that he has. Yet, having said all that, it’s also tempting to say that the anti-Fred cause is totally overblown and somewhat hysterical.
The music, as shallow as it might be, is nowhere near as bad as the reaction demands. In fact, it’s hard to call it “bad” at all. The tunes are so well-considered, so glossy and so palatable that it’s almost impossible to summon up any genuine ire about them. They are what they are: cleverly crafted, stadium dance pop numbers. Like all the best instant gratification suppliers, Fred Again’s music sparks off some mysterious neurological reactions, through saccharine, dopamine and cognitive memory releases. Hating him feels like hating Nando’s or Instagram or the Premier League. You might loathe the idea of it, but the output is too consumable to deny.
Much of the discourse around Fred Again appears, to me, rather forced and somewhat pious. He provides a cheap, free shot at proving your unimpeachable taste and ethics. The pile-on against him is so immense that you can kick and spit away without anyone ever calling you up on it. There is a strange dichotomy at play here, because whilst nothing about Fred’s upbringing or career seems to have been particularly difficult, he also feels like something of an easy target. How different is he, really, to Overmono or Confidence Man or Daniel Avery or Two Shell? Acts who also make and perform festival-friendly dance music, yet get off entirely unscathed. Maybe the devil is in the details, but I can’t escape the notion that the Fred backlash doesn’t really fit the crime.
“Fred Again’s music is a perfect reflection of the era we live in, and I wonder if time and distance will reveal it to be more interesting than the sum of its parts”
The reaction also recalls the uneasy idea of “rockism”, here finally transposed to electronic music. Rockism is defined by a kind of informal but highly puritanical set of rules regarding who is allowed to make certain types of music, what instruments you need to play to do so and how you should behave. It’s the mindset that gave us “girls can’t play guitars” and a thousand tedious Noel Gallagher quotes. Fred seems to elicit a techno version of this within people. Not because he is too “out there” or experimental – but because he isn’t the type of person who should make techno. Again, he’s a strange artist to hold up as an example of creative freedom, yet there is a worrying whiff of Gallagher hanging over the debate. For many, he is doing something they consider to be wrong.
It reminds me of when, growing up, a lot of the music I listened to was dismissed by NME writers, “cool” teachers, older brothers et al. Blink 182 were not proper punks, Eminem was a pop star and not a rapper, Bloc Party were a bunch of geeks, UK Garage was commercialised jungle. Now, as many of those sounds and aesthetics are being rediscovered and reimagined by younger artists, the not-so-distant backlash against them seems very short-sighted.
That’s not to compare Fred Again to those aforementioned acts necessarily. Rather, it’s about drawing parallels with the futility of taking too much issue with how music presents itself. When I think about the older, supposedly enlightened people who scorned the things I liked as a teen, it leaves something of a sour taste in my mouth. For Fred Again’s young fans – many of whom are just starting their journey into electronic music – it feels a shame to do this all over again, with a few facile points about society and class thrown in.
There are also some under-the-surface qualities in his music. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become increasingly interested in music as a broader concept, and not just a product to be taken on its own terms. Fred Again’s music is a perfect reflection of the era we live in, and I wonder if time and distance will reveal it to be more interesting than the sum of its parts.
In many ways, Fred Again reminds me of Disclosure, a pop-house act I had something of an issue with as a younger, more self-serious music fan. Still, I now remember their tunes quite fondly. Disclosure were not Omar S or Kerri Chandler or even Joy Orbison. The Surrey-raised duo were middle class, commercial, ambitious and music industry-connected. Their music has not stood up over the years like the others I mentioned, but as a capsule of a time, a feeling, a mood. Disclosure sound like their era (which incidentally, was the time in which I was young and unencumbered, and people were more likely to argue about shuffling than climate change). And down the line, that can be quite an interesting quality to tap into.
“Music that exists totally within a moment will always grow an ephemeral, transportive quality. That, I think, is Fred’s underrated strength as an artist”
There is always something inherently interesting about music that could only have been made at the moment in which it was released. Think: Moby, Mötley Crüe, Phil Collins, Korn. These mega-selling artists were far from cool in their time, but as years have passed, they have found interesting after-lives, having often been rediscovered by rappers, designers, TikTok kids. Similarly, writing off Fred Again as “posh bollocks” feels all a little too headlong and myopic.
Music that exists totally within a moment will always grow an ephemeral, transportive quality. That, I think, is Fred’s underrated strength as an artist. If, at some point in the far future you were to make a film about life in 2023, you would probably have to choose a Fred Again song, much like you might choose I Feel Love to portray the late ’70s. Of course, director Ruben Östlund actually did choose a Fred Again song, Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing), to end his satire of contemporary class, Triangle of Sadness. Make of that what you will.
You might not like Fred Again, and I’m not sure I do either. But he’s an artist that should be considered rather than condemned. He probably teaches us more about the time we live in than a thousand edgier, more acclaimed acts, who are often just recycling Iggy Pop and Grace Jones and Klaus Nomi anyway.
Fred Again sounds like now. In fact, he is now. Maybe it’s better to start thinking about him creatively and expansively, rather than becoming those parents who turned off Top Of The Pops in disgust every time an act without a guitar came on.
Corrections: This article originally referred to an incident as “doxxing”, inaccurately described artists as house/techno acts and referred to them playing tents, rather than stages, at Glastonbury. It was last amended on 31st July.
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