<em>Slate</em> Celebrates 10 Fabulous Years Of “Electronica” Thinkpieces

prodigy.jpgMy gut reaction when my eyes fall upon any headline in ’07 bearing the dread word “electronica” is to stub my cigarette out on my crotch, but when the writer is the knowledgable Hua Hsu, I even want to give an article entitled “The Second Coming Of Electronica” the benefit of the doubt. Mostly the piece is a potted history of the rise-and-fall of the marketing-speak non-genre known as “electronica” combined with a slightly ill-fitting trend piece attempting to link the class of ’97 with this year’s spate of electronic records aimed at people other than those who trainspot 12-minute minimal techno singles or frequent the kind of clubs discussed in Matos’ most recent Project X installment. But it collapses somewhat when Hsu tries to pinpoint what separates, say, LCD Soundsystem from the Crystal Method:

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.

What Hsu seems to overlook in his attempt to distance the au courant electronic pop of now from the (presumably dated) electronica of a decade ago is that most of the electronica acts of 1997 also “merely borrowed rock’s vernacular.” The supporting facts should be familiar to anyone alive during the late ’90s: One of the Chemical Brothers’ biggest stateside hits featured the digitally distressed vocals of one of the walking, mumbling bowlcuts from Oasis with the bonus of a big fat quotation from the Beatles–for chrissakes, you don’t get much more “vernacular rock” than that particular combo. Daft Punk had fatter, nastier riffs than almost any rock band in ’97 and got their Spike Jonze buzz clip to seal their connection to late alt-rock culture. As for the Prodigy, well, their purposeful similarities to U.S. rock music have been outlined so many times that they barely bear repeating. The feeling among some may have been to “relegate rock to an irrelevant form,” but mostly it was an attempt to absorb one into the other until the boundary became blurry enough to be profitable.

(Likewise his idea that, Moby perhaps obviously excepted, American labels and marketers fixated on the “politest elements of rave culture” seems off when you actually listen to most of the coarse, rough-sounding discs churned out in the Prodigy/Chemical wake. There seems to be a weird conflating of chill out/advertisement-electronica culture with the sort of rock-songs-with-electronic-textures being briefly pushed by rock mags and MTV. There are many qualities one could ascribe to Monkey Mafia or the Dub Pistols but “cerebral” is not one of them.)

In this case, “merely borrowed rock’s vernacular” as a positive example as to why this new breed of electronic music is “working” (or at least garnering some subcultural media attention) seems like code for “borrows the kind of rock vernacular I am comfortable with”–i.e. anything that’s not “electronica as thinking man’s jock jam”–whether it’s tweeness and disco kitsch and fond memories of the 1980s; LCD Soundsystem’s conflagration of eggheaded Eno-style electronics-heavy art-rock with an indie-rock irony nowhere to be found in the ’97 electronica and the blatant emotionalism of James Murphy’s new tour buddies the Arcade Fire; or the all-too-knowing “stadium rock” embraced by French producers Justice, which can often sound more like a pair of smarty Frenchies “commenting on” stadium rock than the sort of sweaty, get-in-the-pit-motherfucker actual stadium rock the Prodigy of ’97 was trying to push on middle-American Tool and Chili Peppers fans.

None of these are bad attributes to be attracted to. (Justice and LCD have released two of the records I’ve enjoyed most this year, records I’ve enjoyed at least in part because of those very qualities.) Critics and grown-ups are certainly more likely to be interested in music that reflects “fear, loneliness, sarcasm, innocence in friendship” than that which might be mistaken for Powerman 5000 in a blind taste-test. But it feels somewhat disingenuous to pretend that “borrowing rock’s vernacular” represents a break from “electronica” tradition–which is just that, an underground tradition, not a one-time label push where the “moment evaporated.”

Maybe the most frustrating thing about this article–and yes, I know that even online, word counts sometimes preclude adequate historical context–is that it reads like a rave version of those rock documentaries that critics are always (rightly) bitching about, histories which hyper-compress the dozen or so years between the Sex Pistols imploding at Winterland and the emergence of Kurt Cobain from the Seattle muck into a single jump cut. This new crop of electronica acts did not mysteriously appear from a Parisan cafe or an NYU dorm a few years ago any more than alt-rock culture just wandered out of an Aberdeen forest. (Hsu does acknowledge the debts owed by many of these acts to at least Daft Punk.) Electronic music has been seeping into rock–and especially indie/underground rock–culture for over a decade now, since the time of “electronica” in fact. There’s an interesting Our Band Could Be Your Life-esque article that could be written tracing the sub-cultural strands that have come together to form today’s electronic-pop/rock landscape in an MP3 blog world. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

The Second Coming Of Electronica [Slate]