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Meet CG5, a neurodivergent musician creating viral hits in a nonlinear fashion

In September 2015, Skrillex and Dillon Francis uploaded a vlog where they were heard saying random things like ‘No’, ‘Nay’ and ‘Bye’ before a then-16-year-old remixed the audio “moombah style” and cemented his debut on YouTube with a channel called CG5. Today, the channel in question stands at a staggering 3.5 million subscribers with over one billion views—featuring absolute bangers based on popular video games, memes and TV shows.

From original music on Dream SMP, Big Chungus, the Duolingo Owl and even the Terrified Noot Noot meme to wholesome remixes and covers of Plants vs Zombies and ‘Omae Wa Mou’, 23-year-old singer and songwriter CG5 (born Charlie Green) has undoubtedly evolved into one of the leading music creators on YouTube who understands his audiences’ tastes.

But what is it about CG5’s unique takes on internet and meme culture that has helped the artist build a loyal community across media platforms? And given how meme culture is always dynamic, is it still a noteworthy factor more artists should start considering in the future? In order to break down the process behind CG5’s catchy beats, his latest single ‘Strangest Thing’ and his nonlinear approach to music as a neurodivergent person, SCREENSHOT sat down with the artist, who is also well-known to create masterpieces at record speed.

A nostalgic tale of initiations

Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, CG5 discovered his affinity for music at the tender age of five—using anything at his disposal to make a rhythm and beat to sing along to. Throughout his formative years, he was inspired by pop groups from the 70s and 80s like Hall & Oates and the Doobie Brothers, who continue to have a deep-seated influence on his music today.

By the age of six, CG5 also became curious about music production using basic platforms which led him to master more advanced software as he grew older. Though the multi-instrumentalist launched his YouTube channel back in 2014—he rose to prominence through his original songs—it was in 2017 that his success took off following tracks like ‘Can I Get An Amen’, ‘I Got No Time’ and 2018’s ‘Labyrinth’.

In 2020, CG5 made further waves on TikTok with his trending single ‘Absolutely Anything’, which currently stands at 7.2 million video creations. In fact, the single was also hand-picked by Warner Music Group’s imprint label Spinnin’ Records for redistribution—in turn, marking the artist’s first commercial success. With a viral following on the video-sharing platform, over 400 million streams on Spotify and 20,000 members on his Discord server, it’s safe to say that CG5 has nailed the art of capturing interests by creating and mastering everything in the realm of music that meets the authentic demands of the masses.

@cg5beats

minions rise of gru song? #minions #fyp

♬ Rich Minion - Yeat

Now, if your 2020 lockdown had been synonymous with the online multiplayer game Among Us, then chances are that you’ve already fallen down CG5’s musical rabbit hole with his original songs, ‘Show Yourself’, ‘Lying 2 Me’ and ‘Good To Be Alive’. Raking over 90 million views on the former, the hit single is often revisited by players looking to refresh their nostalgic voids left by the party game of teamwork and betrayal.

While this sphere of gaming and internet culture offers huge potential to musicians, it also puts them in a dilemma rooted in uncertainty. “Meme culture is short-lived,” CG5 explained. The claim checks out, given how legendary artforms like YouTube Poop are on the brink of extinction. Heck, the whole Gentleminions trend is also being wiped off our FYPs the further away we stray from the release date of Minions: The Rise of Gru.

For CG5, however, a certain element comes into play with his viral hits based on the latest memes: the speed of creating them. “This has worked in my favour because I can produce a song in a few hours,” the artist said. In fact, it only took CG5 two hours to whip up the entire ‘Noot Noot’ song. Two hours for a meme-based masterpiece that has amassed close to two million views and is nothing short of a masterpiece worth playing on repeat.

But unfortunately, the artist further mentioned how this dynamic approach to trends is a “hard formula to stick to forever.” In turn, he has another piece of advice for musicians who are looking to tread down the same path: “I say, do what speaks to you and you will not regret it!” This reminds me of the tips and tricks on ‘how to make memes’. The music industry has come full circle when it comes to its bouts with internet culture if you ask me. And we’re all definitely here for it!

Welcome to the Upside Down

In the past, CG5 has debuted his unique take on movies and TV shows like SCOOB!, Frozen 2 and Squid Game. On 1 July 2022, the artist released his latest single and music video in this category titled ‘Strangest Thing’—inspired by none other than his love for Netflix’s hit American sci-fi series, Stranger Things.

Stranger Things is just an amazing show! I wrote the song as if it was a theme song,” CG5 explained. “I wanted to bring aspects from every season into the video.” And boy did he succeed. From the intro screen and the Christmas light communication scene to minor details like Eggos, the grandfather clock and even Steve Harrington’s spiked bat, the visuals in ‘Strangest Thing’ capture the very essence of the TV show—accompanied by CG5’s playful tones and flawless vocals to complete the immersive experience, of course.

“I’m inspired by the 80s. Everyone loves the nostalgia and aesthetics and I’ve always been a sucker for it,” CG5 continued. “I grew up listening to this music and to be able to capture that in a music video is a dream come true.” The video in question also has an easter egg in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, which can only be spotted by a fan who’s been catching up with all his musical creations. Hint: It has something to do with ‘005’, similar to the Squid Game-inspired ‘Inspector Royale’.

While the artist takes viewers on a mysterious adventure with the music video and truly transports them to the Upside Down, it should be noted that CG5 curated the visuals first and then the music for ‘Strangest Thing’.

“The most exciting part of this project is that I didn’t even have a song before I had an idea for the video! I conveyed this to the director, Justin (Marmo) Marmostein, and he took the challenge with his team where they created a treatment before having the song,” he said. “The fact that the producer was such a fan of the show really helped bring the video to life.”

Although the creative freedom with this nonlinear approach to music is in another league altogether, it also makes one wonder about the challenges faced by the artist during the process. When I queried CG5 about his experiences, however, he highlighted an important aspect that comes with taking routes that are otherwise considered ‘unconventional’. “I feel like there weren’t any challenges because the inspiration for the song was just so powerful,” he said. “And my ability to visualise drove the song to victory!”

‘Music is my first language’

As a neurodivergent individual, music has always been CG5’s first language, and English, the second. When asked if neurodivergence has influenced how he perceives and approaches his musical creations, CG5 said, “Some artists can write about the ‘human experience’ better than I can. However, if you give me a topic and a storyline that is inspirational, I can connect better to the music I am creating and make something amazing.”

“Being neurodivergent helps me get lost in the project and hyper focused until it is complete.”

On online forums like Reddit, I’ve previously come across members of the neurodivergent community who make music for a living. But some of them admit that they don’t disclose the same due to the discrimination others have witnessed in the industry. Although the pandemic has brought questions of access and disability rights into focus and the music scene seems to be listening, the risk of “exploitation” allegedly still remains high.

When asked about his take on the discourse, CG5 admitted, “I haven’t personally experienced that kind of discrimination. When I did a short documentary video called ‘The Complicated Life of CG5’ with director Matt Fitzgerald, he did a great job of presenting this part of me to my audience. After that, I’ve only received positive feedback and found that many people who follow me have the same experience and can relate.”

After ‘Strangest Thing’, the artist highlighted that fans can look forward to more singles and video releases this year. “I just finished the music for a highly anticipated project that follows the storyline from a popular Minecraft server called the Dream SMP,” he teased. “I’ve also been working on an exciting collaboration, but I can’t give any details on that… just now…”

Until then, I’m planning on launching a petition to officially include ‘Strangest Thing’ in season 5. Who’s with me?

From Kendrick Lamar to Ye, can the music industry finally reclaim deepfakes from their malicious intent?

Deepfake technology has been associated with a long list of dark, bizarre and slightly horrifying digital trends over recent years. Nonconsensual celebrity porn, dystopian political disinformation, and more have all been linked to the technology, giving it a controversial air. The emerging AI tool has even been used, in some cases, as a scapegoat—such as in that strange cheerleader vaping scandal we saw gain traction in 2021. The predominant worry that the general public has about deepfakes is that many are unable to detect whether something they encounter online is real or not. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has even created an ongoing research project which lets you know how well you can spot the difference. The difficulty of identifying what’s real as opposed to fabricated testifies to how believable and lifelike these computer-generated simulations can seem.

Another significant concern about deepfakes is their problematic nature when it comes to subverting truth without the consent of those in the images being transformed. The Guardian’s science editor, Ian Sample, defined deepfakes in January 2020 as being “the 21st century’s answer to Photoshopping.” Leveraging deep learning, a form of artificial intelligence, the technology is able to create fake events, primarily in the form of videos—though it can be applied to photos and audio as well.

Sample noted that many deepfakes found online are linked to porn. At the time of writing his article two years ago, up to 96 per cent of deepfakes found by AI firm DeepTrace involved simulation porn of female celebrities without their consent. This nonconsensual media is created by mapping the well-documented faces of celebrities onto the bodies of pornstars. While deepfakes related to women are primarily explicit content, DeepTrace’s report also revealed that men targeted by the technology are largely found on YouTube and the content they’re featured in tends to be commentary-based.

Though deepfakes seem to have only grown more controversial over the years, top-tier musicians have recently employed the technology in a different way—in the form of music videos. On 9 May 2022, days before the release of his album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar dropped a music video for his single ‘The Heart Part 5’ on YouTube.

In the six-minute-long video, the award-winning rapper is seen from the chest up, wearing a simple white tee and bandana against a red backdrop. Over the course of the song, his face morphs into an array of famous black men, from OJ Simpson and Kanye West to Will Smith and Kobe Bryant. The most significant moment of the music video is perhaps when Lamar transforms into the late Nipsey Hussle and then raps from his perspective about his own murder from beyond the grave. Though uncanny at times, the film pushes the envelope in terms of artistic expression, allowing Lamar to vividly complement his lyrics with realistic depictions of other renowned black men.

Pitchfork senior staff writer Marc Hogan noted that “while the prospect of fake videos that seem legit has plenty of disturbing implications, it’s also a perfect tool for an artist who has long delighted in employing a range of voices in his work and destabilizing listeners’ concepts of identity.” By using emerging technology in a ‘wrong’—or rather innovative—way, Lamar was able to create groundbreaking visuals that further express his truth by using the visual language of the 21st century. Pitchfork writer, Dylan Green, observed that deepfakes, in this instance, “a​​mplify Lamar’s words and serve to visualize a complicated lineage through Blackness and the pressures of celebrity.”

In the same week, Kanye “Ye” West shared the music video for his track ‘Life of the Party’, which employed similar deepfake-styled clips. The music video featured an array of photos from the rapper’s childhood, each of which received new life—thanks to AI automation. Though the animation seems almost cartoon-like in comparison to the seamless verisimilitude of ‘The Heart Part 5’, both the videos demonstrate the wide range of artistic expression that deepfake technology can achieve, be it reinvigorating past voices and images à la Kanye, or drawing sharp comparisons between contemporaries à la Kendrick.

Deepfake technology, though synonymous with videos, can also closely imitate voices, fostering uneasy implications for its usage in the music industry. When the AI is employed in this way, it’s referred to as voice skins. Those whose voices are widely documented online—think podcasters, YouTubers, politicians and musicians—are more likely to be seamlessly replicated by the technology, as there’s more data (here, thousands of minutes of them speaking) to draw from.

Back in April 2020, audio files of Jay-Z rapping soliloquies from ‘Hamlet’ and Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ that nobody had ever heard before, surfaced online. A comment on the latter video succinctly described the realistic but fake audio clips as “entirely computer-generated using a text-to-speech model trained on the speech patterns of Jay-Z.” The videos were taken down at the request of Roc Nation, the entertainment agency founded by the American rapper, but then were put back up on the YouTube channel Voice Synthesis which features an array of high-profile voice skins, from past presidents to famous comedians. While the audio clips unmistakably sound like Jay-Z—though they aren’t a perfect replica—legal experts involved in the case don’t think any existing copyright law is being violated by deepfakes like these. In fact, many within the industry view this technology as a new form of sampling.

Deepfakes have had a fraught relationship with the music industry—rappers, in particular—over the recent years, as many navigate how to grapple with the possibilities of the technology. By reclaiming deepfakes in a creative fashion, Lamar and West have potentially pivoted their role in the music industry, giving new light to the otherwise malicious technology. Though the AI simulations still have disturbing implications in many ways, it will be interesting to witness the journey as it becomes yet another tool for artistic and musical expression. And, as deepfake technology continues to become more accessible to the average internet user, this synthetic music video style has even more potential to grow, for better or for worse.