Electronica: The Sequel
Has the music of the future finally arrived?
Electronica is one of the stranger genres of our time, mostly because nobody is quite sure why it exists. In the mid-1990s, apropos of nothing but a fear of floppy Dr. Seuss hats and pacifiers, someone hatched the idea of splicing electronic music from the dance floors it had been created for. "Electronica" described a wide range of styles, the only commonality being an appreciation for synthesizers, sequencers, and other things that looked nothing like a guitar. The result was a marketer's dream: an idea, a sound, and potential stars that would vanquish rock music, just in time for the coming millennium. Circa 1997—a year during which Prodigy went platinum, the Chemical Brothers achieved stateside success, and Daft Punk released their well-received debut—it seemed that change was around the corner, a finger hovering above the reset key.
The breakthrough never came. Perhaps it was the approach: Marketing the politest elements of rave culture to those with no taste for camouflage and little interest in dancing—in short, "electronica as thinking man's jock jam"—may have missed the point. And so electronica remained the music industry's perpetual Next Big Thing, intriguing enough to merit the occasional push but too esoteric and weird for the general buying public. Some 10 years later, that original vision of circuitry-obsessed infidels shaking the rock canon is very much upon us. This year, stalwarts such as Underworld, the Chemical Brothers, U.N.K.L.E, and even the Crystal Method (the reason someone saw fit to coin the awful term rocktronica) will release new material. Daft Punk has just completed a celebrated tour. There is always the threat that Moby will return to the fold. Meanwhile, younger acts such as Justice, Digitalism, Simian Mobile Disco, the Mercury Prize-winning Klaxons, and LCD Soundsystem have recalibrated the sound and posture of traditional indie rock. In England, there is even a micro-genre called "New Rave"—the discriminating lad's rocktronica, if you will.
Besides the fact that no real artists self-identified under the electronica banner, the genre's moment evaporated because many of the accusations lobbed at the kind of electronic music on sale were more or less true. It trafficked in texture and ambience, shunning traditional songwriting techniques. It worked better in dance clubs than on home stereos, and was rarely created with album-length intentions. For many partisans, this was a perfectly suitable way to listen to music. And, as Moby soon discovered, these were also attractive qualities for selling tunes to advertisers. But the idea that electronic music could reach a wider audience was often predicated on a belief that its rise would relegate rock to an irrelevant form. This certainly seemed plausible in the late-1990s, as groups like U2, Radiohead, and R.E.M. noodled around with samplers and synthesizers. The trappings of electronic music made them seem even more cerebral than usual. But the moment came and went, with only the savvy and publicity-wary Daft Punk really emerging unscathed. (As time drew on, Daft Punk grew weirder—this year they even released Electroma, a bizarre art house film that tests the patience of even their most strident fans. Maybe it's better in the club.)
Instead of replacing rock—or entering into tasteless, horrible-sounding alliances—many of the new electronica acts have merely borrowed rock's vernacular. A band like Norway's Datarock perfectly describes the distance from 1997 to the present. They come gimmick-ready—matching tracksuits and sunglasses—and supported by advertisers: a very caffeinated and regrettably named beverage called Stokd. And their twee, disco-influenced songs wax nostalgic about the 1980s: boxy computers, Cold War culture, really sharp sunglasses, etc. But one imagines that a previous incarnation of this type of band would have toiled in the trenches of indie rock, brooding forward rather than imploring their fans to film themselves dancing.
This isn't a bad shift, as evidenced by New York's LCD Soundsystem. LCD conveys the kinds of qualities—fear, loneliness, sarcasm, innocence in friendship—often associated with indie rock, only through a more inclusive marriage of punk and disco. This year, LCD has released one of the year's strongest albums (The Sound of Silver) and best singles ("All My Friends"). In an even greater feat, the group has converted countless "indie rock crowds"—traditionally as dynamic as a queue at the DMV—into pulsing, fully functional dance floors.
Hamburg's Digitalism recently released Idealism, an album of short, hooky songs that owes much to the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk. Most of their songs feature something approximating singing and are structured like traditional pop songs, never lingering for too long on one or another of their distorted textures. It's an interesting record in that it seems to "out-rock" most rock records, though it's not as compelling as the debut from Paris' Justice. That album, Cross, is the suitably stylish thing that happens when two French graphic designers decide to procreate. Whereas their most obvious predecessors, Daft Punk (sense a trend?), yearned for the playfulness of disco and early house, Justice seems fixated on the tropes of stadium rock. It is a huge-sounding record, filled with all the goose-stepping, drumstick-twirling, comically oversize riffs, and squawking solos one associates with '80s metal.
While electronica circa 2007 won't fulfill the promise of some lost marketer's dream—after all, nobody buys records nowadays—it does represent a fascinating moment of colliding styles and postures. At Daft Punk's recent sold-out show at Coney Island's Keyspan Park, two of Justice's label mates, SebastiAn and Kavinksy, played an opening DJ slot showcasing all the newest records from Paris. Out of nowhere, a guitar: It was a squelchy, dance-floor edit of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name"—a song that had reached across many aisles upon its release in 1993. And the crowd roared: dancing wildly and in ways the original song was probably never intended for.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.