Sliding Down The Surface Electro-clash: Your 15 Minutes Are Up

Sliding Down The Surface Electro-clash: Your 15 Minutes Are Up
Ed Upton is pissed off. You'd expect the producer, best known for his work as the electro-popping DMX Krew, to be delighted at this year's defining musical trend: the re-vogue of synthesised dance pop. As one of the forerunners of the cold sheen dance scene, Upton has cashed in handsomely, licensing his tracks to many of the nu-wave compilations now flying off shelves from Berlin to Vancouver. But according to the Londoner, his victory rings hollow, as his scene has been overtaken by style mavens with little concern for the intricacies of their new found pet sound.

"It seems to be all about hairstyles and not about music," he said recently. "There are a lot of people out there who aren't really that into the music; they're more into going out. When I see something I really care about being made into a fad, it gets me down."

Indeed, a new generation of clubbers have turned their back on the rave movement's sexless forms (e.g., trance) and embraced the new new wave's raunchy trash aesthetic. Sporting asymmetrical haircuts, torn T-shirts and studded belts, kids who missed out on Depeche Mode the first time around are embracing me-decade hedonism with a vengeance. But for all of its purported roots in electro, Upton espies a conflation of terms within the movement.

"The meaning of electro has been blurred," he explains. "If you were into electro back in the day, you weren't into Duran Duran. It meant that you were into hip-hop. I'm not interested in going to a club and listening to old new wave records."

While Upton claims an aesthetic affinity with the likes of Afrika Bambaata, the electro-clash movement's most popular artists (e.g., Fischerspooner) are descendants of a white musical tradition. The nu-wave's facile melody refrains, analogue synth tones, and 16-note bass lines recall nothing more than New Order, and the genre's tense, funkless vibe reinforces its essential Euro-ness. Referring to Detroit's Adult as an electro band is about as useful as calling the White Stripes a folk outfit.

Most blameworthy for this terminological confusion is Larry Tee, the DJ who launched the nu-wave into the pop consciousness with Brooklyn's Electroclash festival in October 2001. But while the "electro" portion of his brand name is misleading, the term's last syllable rightly evokes the punk-funk groups (like Cabaret Voltaire) to whom contemporary acts like Soviet are most indebted. If nothing else, the nu-wave should be credited for reunifying the rock and club camps, two factions which spent the ‘90s engaged in bitter opposition.
"The thing I like about electro-clash is that it's so rock ‘n' roll," Tee said recently. "I think beat-matching for its own sake took the surprise and excitement out of the dance floor. I'm famous for stopping one [track] and starting the next when I feel that the crowd isn't responding. I just went to London and it was great going to [the End's] Trash [night] where they mix the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Liars into a dance set — where rock is something that people can jump around to again."

Inevitably, the suggestion that dance music should make concessions to placate the rockers brings with it charges of treason from the nu-wave's most progressive artists. Morgan Geist, whose skeletal tech-house singles have built a cultish following, recently confronted the nu-wave's aversion to innovation. "The original electro meant people pushing technology and innovating with the few tools they had," he told the Village Voice. "Whereas today it's people with easy, advanced, and cheap technology cashing in on what in retrospect sounds like ‘80s simplicity and naïveté."

As has been pointed out by British journalist Simon Reynolds, it's startling to consider how many of the nu-wave's most popular tracks are covers, whether it's Tiga's remake of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" or WIT's version of the Cars' "Just What I Needed." But while critics castigate the nu-wave for its rejection of artistic advancement, one of the scene's leading ironists sees nothing wrong with ambition-free music.

"Our goal is to indulge and embrace the superficial and not to get too wrapped up in issues of integrity," Fischerspooner's Casey Spooner has said. "We're completely, unabashedly and absolutely prepared to say that we're pretentious and superficial." Content to slide down the surface of things, art-school refugees like WIT's Melissa Burns (a sculptor turned model turned singer) are drawn to the nu-wave's glorification of transience and whimsy. Spooner plays the flaneur to Geist's authenticist; the former is concerned with what's hip, the latter with what's worthy.

Spooner's anti-emotional stance, though unsettling, seems somehow appropriate in this hyper-kinetic era, when Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame have been downsized to five. Before it ever hit the mainstream, the nu-wave was bracing itself against a backlash. Tee, who was a house DJ in the early ‘90s, seems unconcerned at the nu-wave's inevitable demise. "I'm always the first rat off a sinking ship," he told me with a laugh. Well, Larry, dust off the life vest. Your time is running out.