Chronically Online & More Than Self-Aware

A Porter Robinson Retrospective and Track Review

Cover Art for Porter Robinson's New Single "Cheerleader"
Cover Art for Porter Robinson's New Single "Cheerleader"

What a career Porter Robinson has had. At only 31, the EDM veteran has been through all the growing pains. With a James Blake-esque precision on his relatively straightforward debut Worlds, Porter indulged in these overly synthetic and intricate soundscapes with faint pulses of lingering humanity. Despite the lukewarm critical reception, Porter was immediately set on a slightly askew trajectory. Until 2015, mainstream progenitors like Skrillex and deadmau5 had become the standard, the pinnacle of a successful DJ career; they’ve carved their niches and with infrequent innovation in sound, they can coast for the next 20+ years playing sold-out festivals to thrill-seeking ravers - honestly, a much healthier alternative to a Fantano or Rate Your Music fanbase! 

However, Porter found himself at a crossroads with the release of “Shelter,” a multi-media collaboration with EDM contemporary Madeon and anime-distribution giant Crunchyroll. In a vibrant display of cutesy vocal chops, soaring synths, and vulnerable penmanship, this song demarcated a disturbance in Porter’s balance between stiff, dystopian electronica and pop. It sent profound shockwaves through the crevices of the internet, inspiring a new generation of Stepmania/osu! players and weeaboo pianists. The hit, which could pass as the most bearable English-dub Isekai opener, was the groundwork for everything Porter would accomplish. 

In a sharp pivot from the electronic world Porter had become intimately entwined with, the North Carolina native took the step, metaphorically (and literally) touching grass with his sophomore effort Nurture. In a breath of refreshing air, bustling and lively production met Porter's heartwarming earnestness. The dichotomous contrast between technology and humanity coalesced into fulfilling mixes of fuzzy, guttural ambiance and electronic splendor. Soft-spoken pianos and meticulously programmed synths/instruments configure a disparate web of indie, electronic, pop, etc., that somehow compounds into something cohesive, consistent, and perhaps, comforting

Nurture was an absolute critical darling that catapulted Porter into proverbial EDM stardom. All chains on Porter’s formerly rigid (yet, seminal) sound felt snapped, he was finally comfortable enough in his domain to roam the musical zeitgeist and become accustomed to sounds outside his genre’s zones and barriers. His aesthetic capacity evolved from the surface-level internet affair, fully buying into Otaku aesthetics and this entropic minimalism. As the jagged, overtly digital lines of the cover art for “Mother” endlessly cycles the bloom of rugged flowers on a fragile ‘branch,’ I not only connect with the song’s recognition of the permanence of parental love but also the inevitable imperfections of life that Porter warmly captures. Though his vocal tone may feel impersonal at times, often obscured by a bevy of effects, there are glimpses where his humble tone pierces through as he speaks from his mother’s perspective: 

“Darling, I don’t want you to worry” 

Such a pivotal moment, one that illustrates the mastery of Porter’s already well-tempered craft. If there was one thing for sure, the follow-up to Nurture ought to be special. 

And so we waited, waited, and waited. Throughout the pandemic rollout of Nurture, Porter had founded Second Sky, a formerly digital-only event that included the likes of contemporaries A.G Cook and Kero Kero Bonito, which signaled a presumed pause in musical output. Second Sky became a global brand, its amorphous sound broadened the festival's horizons into an endless repertoire of alternative/electronic artists that all had their own niche. Though Nurture can be considered a ‘COVID album’ - a work reflective of the isolation endured during the pandemic - the success Porter saw on an annual basis as the headliner to an event he founded and curates made me believe that we’d never see anything like Nurture again. The post-pandemic malaise created such specific conditions. Sure, everyone decided to pick up an acoustic guitar and write a folk tune about what was lost or the friends we gained along the way; however, it was that elusive desire to agonize, to renounce our egos and become truly aware of our place in the world that felt noteworthy - lightning in an unfortunate bottle. After years of separation from the pandemic, how (and when) could Porter return?

On February 1st, 2024, Porter Robinson’s YouTube sprang back to life with a video titled “The Day Porter Robinson Deleted All His Music.” In a bizarre screen recording of the YouTube app, Porter skips and peruses through a retrospective video essay. Weird but nothing special, right? This is until you realize the video begins to mention a doomsday scenario, an Armageddon for the most annoying music listeners you know. The deletion and subsequent nostalgia of Porter’s discography on March 1st, 2024. With fake articles dating from 2027 reminiscing on Porter’s career and the supposed video essayer’s channel nowhere to be found, this seemingly innocuous video essay reposted by Porter had revealed itself as a clever bit of anachronistic teasing. And if there’s one thing semi-online electronic artists love, it’s a good ol’ ARG! However, instead of the rapture of music that was prophesized, on March 1st, 2024, Porter Robinson posted a single image with no caption on socials: despondently looking off to the distance, Porter held a star spray-painted with juvenile pastel designs. Later, on the same day, a second post appeared. A video with a caption simply reading “albums done” suddenly combusts into an epilepsy-inducing display of lights, spiraling in time with an untitled snippet. A chibi mascot obscures Porter’s face as he aggressively nods; a cavalcade of soaring synths and vocal chops that was undoubtedly overwhelming gave us a fleeting taste of a world beyond Nurture.  

Like J. Cole (a name you definitely expected to see here), Porter’s promotional material seemingly anticipates a proverbial fall-off. The rollout which has taken on the form of ironically outdated Cereal guy and bottom text memes, has been self-deprecating and ironic. With jabs at elitist music culture (which, to an extent, includes his fanbase) which he predicts would claim he has ‘sold out,’ Porter has preemptively taken initiative to embrace ‘low art’ and become wholly self-aware of his online presence. Unlike J. Cole’s oddly self-imposed fall-off, Porter has been reveling in his intentionality. 

And BANG! The first domino of the new album cycle falls… and man, I know I just praised Porter’s self-awareness but woof, that cover art. Nevertheless, the soon-to-be-revealed album’s lead single “Cheerleader” is an exuberant piece of electro-pop that bursts at the seams with an intense, vibrant energy. In another pivot from the emotional contemplation that shined on Nurture, “Cheerleader” excels in its chaotic mix of complexity and sheer drive. The track crashes awake with a piercing lead synth that, without limitation, freely wanders and invades the sonic space, immediately grabbing the ears and violently throttling them around. Though Porter is known for his meticulous sound design, this synth texture has already burned a searing hole into my brain as one of the most affectively overwhelming yet catchy bits of contemporary ‘pop.’

Whether or not most consider “Cheerleader” as ‘pop,’ the track burns with such a captivating and poignant fervor that labels become redundant. Porter enters on a buoyant note with a shimmeringly sharp vocal tone that an early 2010s boyband could only dream of. With minimal processing or vocoding, Porter establishes a newfound comfortability in his voice that was so often hidden on Nurture. The track, which grapples with the nuanced, parasocial relationship Porter has developed with his fans, is cheekily handled from a female fan’s obsessive perspective. As he sings over a clean guitar progression, he allows himself to play, characterizing this hypothetical female ‘fan’ in a bratty and fickle manner. This cheerleader not only conflates her adoration with friendship by proclaiming that she can fix Porter, but also allegedly draws him kissing other guys - scandalous! However, when confronted with the reality that her 35-page ao3 fanfic, “Y/N x Porter Robinson: A Second Sky Story” isn’t real, she puts her foot down and becomes monstrous. In staking her claim to Porter, she bemoans how “it’s not fair!” as a whirring carousel of synths, punchy drums, and power chords embody her entitled rampage. Even amongst this cathartic disarray of disparate sounds and textures, Porter soars higher than he has before, severing any semblance of an aesthetic distance and directly mirroring fragments of reality.

The track revels in a playful veneer that, without a lyrical understanding, would pass as a fun piece of nebulous pop-punk/electronic/bubblegum. From the momentous drum rolls that triumphantly lead into the chorus, the metronome that leads into the verse, to the cheerleader chants that open the track, it’s more than evident that Porter had a blast crafting every intricate detail of this discordant cacophony. As Porter grapples with the stan, solemnly reflecting on the sparse, string-led bridge, he reiterates and reframes the second verse in an empathetic, lingering tone, almost gaslighting himself into accepting his objectified position. He softly croons: 

“She had hearts in her eyes, she was rootin’ for me all the time / her love, the type that makes you dedicate your life / Oh, my cheerleader, thought she needs me, but I need her” 

A tragic, one-sided archetype of love that rarely finds closure just barely misses its fairytale catharsis as the drums launch their assault and Porter once again begins to squeal, “It’s not fair!” Porter’s knack for deeply self-reflexive narratives has only expanded from Nurture and, more significantly, Porter has begun to understand who he is. No longer is Porter that up-and-comer from North Carolina that derives his sound from staunchly planted EDM roots nor is he another lanky white man appropriating surface-level Japanese aesthetics, Porter has come into his own as a titan, an unlikely tour-de-force. He’s always been aware of his status, but his ability to confront his various feelings of alienation previously felt stilted if not still earnest. 

On “Cheerleader,” Porter amplifies his insecurities, placing himself directly in the crossfire between fan and artist. In a refusal to stagnate, Porter barges forward with an exciting, in-your-face attitude and sound that doesn’t necessarily sacrifice humility. Though this chronically online rollout is silly and goofy on the surface, it’s emblematic of a new Porter Robinson. One that can fluidly navigate self-awareness and confrontation into a balanced spectacle of grandeur and sincerity. Worlds, Nurture, and by extension, Second Sky were my guiding hands in a rapidly diversifying landscape of alternative/electronica and I hope whatever this enigmatic third project is can hold that same sentimental value for someone else. 

Thank you, Porter. STREAM “Cheerleader” NOW <3