Skrillex photo c/o Jazmin Million
American electronic dance music phenom Skrillex won big at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards over the weekend. He is a controversial figure, the public face of modern electronic music with a haircut as contradictory and whimsical as an 80s boy band’s. But for certain hardcore elements, his sheer popularity has made him a genre traitor. His mass popularity is sufficient for reverse snobs to dismiss him as the acceptable face of dubstep. Even worse than the sin of commercializing is why Skrillex is so popular: his operatic approach to dubstep, that stands in relation to most electronic music rather as the elaborate prog rock (progressive, or pomp rock,) of groups like Yes and Genesis did to the bare-bones punk that it overthrew in the mid-1970s.
Skrillex’s little secret is structuring his grooves and abstract textures so that they are radio-friendly yet still work on the dancefloor. With the emotional EDM created by this Californian ex-Emo Boy, on works like “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, he has given dubstep a heart.
“Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” by Skrillex | Photo c/o OMGLeeta
From Kraftwerk on, the aesthetic origins of electronic music are all streamlined, stark; being deliberately,defiantly machine-like was a statement of the now. The brave new sound was designed to be un-organic, and where possible, un-human. For electronic music’s initiators, being as robotic as possible meant being modern. In interior design, the same process governs, say, the swing from chintz wallpaper to plain white walls. And so the electronic music would have remained as emotionless as possible, but for one thing. People crave change and nothing stays modern for long. Leave it a while and the chintz comes back.
The more popular dubstep became, the more it absorbed fans from other genres. Among the newly converted was a young Californian punk singer called Sonny Moore, for whom Warp Records and IDM’s electronic dance explorations were just one part of his generation’s cultural kit. But Sonny had his Damascus moment, changing his name to Skrillex in the late 2000s. Experimenting at home, he found his sound. When he delivers his Grand Guignol mixes, Skrillex scores because he conveys emotion. In his take on dubstep’s Wobble bass, unfathomable sounds thump alarmingly through the track, like giants lumbering through a neon forest. In the wibbly-wobbly world of “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, the listener gets to ride on the giants’ backs.
If electronic music had the sparseness of punk, Skrillex has ventured into what I like to call electroprog, and fellow scribe and electronica don Simon Reynolds dubbed progtronica. Meaning that it’s not straight-forward like, say, regular house or trance, relying greatly on repetition for effect. Instead, like Prog Rock, recent Skrillex is highly arranged and orchestral. A track will move through several distinct and quite different phases that often rely on abrupt transitions for part of their effect.
A pivotal figure in this connection is Rick Wakeman, the keyboard/synthesizer player of the ultimate prog rock band, Yes, whose 1973 album, Tales of Topographic Oceans defined the style. With his keyboards slung round his neck like an axe, Wakeman would stride the stage wearing velvet capes and other wizardly gear. His timing coincided perfectly with the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, the first role-playing game, which was often enjoyed to the strains of Yes or Genesis.
They may have been dressed in a nerd’s cords, plimsolls (gym shoes) and pullovers, but fans were plugging into their heroic fantasy selves as they soared with each surge of Yes’ mini-operas. The cosmic Sci-Fi vision expressed by their artist, Roger Dean completed the mythic construct of tracks like “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn Part One)”. You can just imagine Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters” frolicking in Dean’s glowing moonscapes.
“The Revealing Science of God: Dance of the Dawn” by YES | Photo c/o Rob Brown
The ecstatic release Skrillex followers find at his shows, lifted out of themselves by his thrilling audio-visual dynamics, is in tune with ye olde weird world of Dungeons and Dragons. Everyday demons like unemployment or tyrannical bosses can be translated into power plays between a man, his sword and a fire-breathing dragon. Or a sound mixer and a light show.
Vivien Goldman is a journalist, educator, and musician from London. She currently lives in New York City. Goldman’s fifth book The Book of Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley & the Wailers’ Album of the Century was published in 2006 on Three Rivers Press.
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