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

Sep 19th, 2007 // 12 Comments

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]

  1. Botswana Meat Commission FC

    I didn’t think it was an awful story either, but I think the problem is that Hsu doesn’t make the distinction between concert music (rock, pop) and club music. To me, dance music is more about the context than what instruments you use.

    So while LCD Soundsystem and Fischerspooner use plenty of sequencers, I still see them as concert music (even if not technically rock)… compare them to, say, Ben Watts’ music (whose tracks are all dance floor workouts) and it’s a world of difference.

  2. Ned Raggett

    Great, very well-written response, Jess. Can’t put it any plainer than that!

  3. extracrispy

    “My 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”

    Ya know, that pretty much describes the same reaction I have every time I see the dread words “rap,” “hip hop” and “Kanye West” on Idolator. Which these days is nearly every other post.

    It’s nice to see Idolator broaden its coverage with (finally) a mention of electronica. I appreciate the link to the story.

  4. the rich girls are weeping

    1) Jess, as usual, you are awesome.
    2) Wait — I AM writing that feature. Sort of. Have you people been spying on my hard drive or something?

    As for concert music vs. club music, isn’t the difference just hovering inside the boundaries of a Jacques Lu Cont remix or something?

    Which I think proves that what we’re really missing here is a namecheck of Madonna. That is all.

  5. rogerniner

    What Hsu also skips over is the undeniable “Euro”-ness of the electronica boom, which ultimatly distanced most listeners. I think executives wanted to feel a little more worldly (profit), and were looking over the pond for that new sound (market). Astralwerks, who released The Chems albums, were States-based (with albums by Spacetime Continuum, a San Fran mainstay) but defiantly had a toe hold on the electronica thing. We had Moonshine, but they were dedicated to releasing more hippy dippy trance stuff than “album” based music, which is what the boom really represented. Full lengths, like what Warp had been doing, not just singles. Home listening music that could maybe bring a stadium sized crowd. But the cool thing is that after the electonica boom, people state side were mobilized to start releasing their own stuff. In 2000, the electro-clash thing exploded out of the east coast, synonymous with the darker electro coming from Germany and the UK. Through this, electronica latched on to the Me generation in America and insisted on having an image and face attached to the music, which gave its cold bleeps a personality, and finally a selling point. The DFA was born from this, along with one of the best electronica labels, Ghostly International. Erstatz Audio paid homage to the great electro Detroit sound, while Schematic, based in Florida, shared a kinship with Warp. So through all this, I think the typical American college radio listener could finally identify with all the strange, new sounds coming from oversees. The electronic market is truly international now, with LCD (States), Justice (France), Simian Mobile Disco (England, all releasing great full length albums, adding to the mix

    Off topic, but can we please find another term than electronica? The word conjurs bad chill mixes from overpriced hotel lobbies, not the four to the floor fun of the acts mentioned above.

  6. The Mozfather

    Yeah, the idea that “electronica” (and with it, an attempt to merge rock and dance) went away is belied by the success (and rapid failure) of Electroclash (which Mr JT tried to bring back), the world domination of Kylie in Fever, “Where’s Your Head At” and it’s associated Pringle ads, etc.

    In fact, the only thing that’s really changed is the knee-jerk dismissal of dance in the indie community, that among other crimes, loaded Basement Jaxx’s first two albums with appalling ratings on Pitchfork. The switchover in taste can probably be pinpointed to the moment when PFork named The Rapture’s Echoes the number 1 album of 2003.

  7. Audif Jackson Winters III

    An underrated element in the failure of “electronica” in the U.S. was the downfall of Big Beat. Most of the stuff that crossed over here in that ’97-’99 time range owed something to the Big Beat sound/aesthetic; not just the bigger names mentioned in the article and in this post, but even things like “Start the Commotion” by the Wiseguys, which charted in the Top 40. But that style quickly became played out in the UK, and many of the well-known artists largely abandoned it for their follow-ups (I’m thinking specifically of the Chemical Brothers’ “Surrender.”) The U.S. pop/alternative audience wasn’t particularly receptive to acid house throwbacks.

  8. rogerniner

    @The Mozfather: It was definatly “House of Jelous Lovers” that kicked every one over to the idea of actually enjoying dance music. ‘Cause it totally had guitars.

  9. brianp

    The article was ok. I love electronica, especially the minimal/tech-house acts, and don’t really give a shit about the rock aspects of the genre. Electronica doesn’t need rock influence to legitimize it as the article seems to imply.

  10. chaircrusher

    As someone who has been a fan of electronic music since Kraftwerk blew up in the 70s, I think it is doomed/blessed to always be a niche thing. The pleasure of listening to it (or dancing to it) hinges on completely different musical phenomena than rock music.

    When I hear a good DJ mix, I hear every shifting rhythm and synth timbre as having meaning and sensual pleasure. Most people just hear 74 minutes of oontz oontz. And I’m not being condescending — Why should anyone feel required to understand and enjoy music that they don’t understand or enjoy?

    Honestly, given what happens to rock musicians when they’re a big success in the US — the overexposure, the backlash, the lame second album, then inevitable VH1 documentary — I’m not sure I’d wish it on my favorite electronic artists. They can go overseas and make a decent living, and come back here and only be celebrities to their families and 300 kids bouncing around in tent in the Midwest.

    And I wish advertisers would fuck the fuck off. I can’t hear House music on commercial radio, but it’s bumping away under an advertisement for smelly cooter deoderant. What happens to a style of music when most listener’s first exposure is advertisements? It comes pre-discredited.

  11. Trackback

    I was actually thinking about proposing an article at the end of 2007 called “The Year of Electronica,” in which I make the argument that some of the best albums of the year are direct descendants of that horrible word no one has used in a decade.

  12. Raul23

    The word twee is twee. Is there a word that means a word is what it means? I’m off to Japan.

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