Why the loved and hated ‘now-noise’ of Skrillex is really kind of punk

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Skrillex's massive tour stopped in New York this week ( eastscene via flickr)
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Daphne Carr

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At 11:30 Wednesday night, the two lines that had formed outside of Hell's Kitchen nightclub Pacha were still short. Everyone waited patiently and the bouncers ushered groups from either side in without concern for the “dress to dance” code mentioned on the tickets.

They were waiting to see Skrillex.

Inside the doors, on the V.I.P. line, a woman slipped Tyvek bracelets on duos and trios of boys while they posed for a camera set up in front of a red-carpet style backdrop with the club’s logo: two plump, rockabilly-style cherries. The bracelets read “I’m the 1% Tonight.” On the other side, the not V.I.P. side, there was a cash desk, and folks getting patted down, and another woman working in rapid succession to slip on general admission bracelets. Those said “Old Enough.”

But once past these segregated lines, the V.I.P. section looked pretty much just like the floor: mostly young, mostly white, mostly AmerAppareled, unpretentiously perky, and fabulously broke. Though those in the V.I.P. had paid the premium for the space, few ordered those $350-plus bottles on the bar menu. Instead, the balcony banquettes served mainly as coat racks. There was only one older, lethargic group not feeling it in the table-service section, and it turned out to be opening act Sazon Booya's parents. They stayed on for Skrillex, and so got to see the club turn from the skittish angst of the early night to the frenzied freakout the headliner induced. But Booya’s family remained stone still and unamused by the scene unfolding.

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It wasn’t from drugs being done (at least visibly). Though more water than alcohol appeared to be ordered, it was probably more to do with the $15 price tag on drinks than whatever was already in the bloodstreams of the assembled. What was in the air at the Skrillex show—and it really was only Skrillex that the audience was there to hear—was straight-up awkward, bumping, electric youth that annoys anyone three or more years older: psyched to be old enough to get in, and yet not quite old enough to know they shouldn’t want to.

And why shouldn’t they want to? Because critics, tastemakers, and especially cool kids hate Skrillex and his music just as much as all those people packed into Pasha obviously love them. Variously considered the suburbanization of dubstep, maximalist garbage, or as the blog MTHRFNKR wrote “…Richard D. James in disguise, trolling us all.” If it were the guy from Aphex Twin behind this, it would be evil genius. Since it’s just a femme 24 year old from Southern California, most people can just write it off as evil.

Skrillex’s music is the worst nightmare of electronic music aesthetes because he doesn’t give a shit about the carefully enforced micro-genres, cultural hierarchies, and bro/nerd distinctions that characterize producers, D.J.s, clubs, and every other facet of contemporary dance music life. It’s a sound built from electronic music’s detritus: bad synths, corny Jamaican sound and lyric references, Romantic piano melodies, chipmunk vocals, and blow-this-shirt-to-shreds action-film sound effects. But brave as such a stance might sound, Skrillex is not doing it for art. As he’s often said, he’s doing it for fun. And for that reason, Skrillex is pretty punk.

Which is why Pacha, the second of three nights on the New York leg of Skrillex’s 322-stop Mothership Tour, was the perfect venue. Pacha’s a Euro-style dance club (meaning no frills—apart from the rather Spartan V.I.P. section—and a massive, very high-fidelity, and very expensive soundsystem) built in the space formerly occupied by New York’s revered Sound Factory by the Ibiza-originated megabrand’s global nightclubbing empire. The club epitomizes the 2000s decade of tasteless decadence in American electronic music: all velvet ropes, bottle service, and faceless progressive house dudes pulling down five-figure guarantees thanks to faceless progressive house devotees who keep the “lifestyle” discrete from their day jobs.

What could be more incongruent, and therefore fresh, than the place turning into a giant mosh pit before a D.J. booth manned by a pogoing beanpole of a former emo singer with too-big glasses and what Camper Van Beethoven would have called “a sideways haircut,” one which mostly resembles Lisbeth Salander, really in any depiction, but mostly in the Swedish film of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, where she spends the whole movie recovering from a head wound. It wasn’t an ascension to a throne so much as it was an inversion: somehow Skrillex turned Pacha into a basement with really high ceilings and a better than decent P.A.

During his set, the room churned with Skrillex as its master, and each track’s vocal had the crowd singing along, not in the way of ecstatic house music divas and diva wannabes, but closer to transcendent Fall Out Boy fans. Remember when their “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race” seemed like a genre smasher? That was 2006, and Skrillex was 18 and playing in a post-hardcore band—just old enough to be defining himself against the Hot Topic-approved genre of the day: scenecore. A lot has happened to mix pop beyond genre since then: Kanye with Daft Punk, Beyoncé with Fela, Girl Talk with radio hits, Gaga with Elton, Paramore with B.o.B, and those odd genre mashups that have managed to parlay the formula into smash success: 3OH!3, LMFAO, and whatever it is that Will.i.am keeps bringing to us.

Skrillex is the electronic ear grown up on that generation of weird collabs, and he takes from all of today’s pop sounds—electro, metal, noise, dub, industrial, Youtube celebs, Southern hip hop—to make his own gritty, gleeful mess. Some call it dubstep, I call it now-noise. And it’s this, as well as the indescribable energy his music inspires, that got the 24-year-old his five Grammy nominations this year. That’s four more than Trent Reznor got in 1992 for his E.P. Broken (which happens to be Skrillex’s favorite of the Halos, as he told the writer of a forthcoming cover story for Billboard). Reznor, also very much of a genre-defier, won for “Wish” that year at what then seemed like the young age of 26. Hearing was even more stratified then: the judges thought of Nine Inch Nails as the “best metal performance.” (Skrillex, nominated for Best New Artist, got two nominations in the “dance” category and one in the “remix” slate; the last was for music video.)

Compare Skrillex with his middle act, the German D.J./producer Zedd, who spent his two hour set before Skrillex’s 1:30 a.m. appearance dropping by-the-book electro and dubstep remixes of LMFAO, Daft Punk, and Ke$ha in relentless succession. This is low kitsch at its most mediocre, groveling fun from the already known without adding much to spark the listener. Girl fans with slinky dresses, big glasses, side pony tails, and innocent faces, so often strikingly similar to Skrillex himself that there is actually a webpage devoted to the trend, milled and mugged through Zedd’s as the tunes blipped by, texting in between bouts of foot-spazz dancing while the boys held onto banisters, twitching with anxious energy like it was a middle-school gym and no one could figure out if now was the time to get on the dance floor.

When Zedd finally handed over the booth to the skittering melody of Skrillex’s signature tune “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," the energy in the room changed at once. Fans powered off their smart phones and perked way up. Within moments of Skrillex dialing up the first tune the crowd was a seething pile, and at ten minutes in, Skrillex was artlessly turning down the master control to warn the forty-deep, mostly bro mosh pit in front to “take care of those ladies.” Sure enough the two women in blonde bobs who’d ventured into the scrum smiled in small relief from their distress at the crush of bodies all around. On the edges of Pacha’s too-small dance floor folks tried to form small dance circles, but the pit kept getting larger and larger until the whole floor was one mass of arms waving high, waiting for the breaks.

It’s been remarked (on pretty much every D.J. message board in the world) that Skrillex is a decent producer and a shit D.J., and indeed the sort of dynamics and drama one expects from a club superstar were in short supply while the pace moved a short space from frenetic to extremely frenetic. His propensity to make the intros and outros of each of his tracks as wildly weird as possible, and to thunk in half-time dub drops right in the middle, made it seem less like he was using the traditional art of transitions as much as finding the oddest combinations of tracks to continually snap his audience between groove and noise. There went the industrial distortion of “Kyoto,” here comes the hip-hop funk of “Bangarang,” next, next, next.

The same sort of attitude toward pacing can be experienced in another scene: hardcore shows. At these, two-minute song blasts, with stops only for the four-counts between, are deployed in such unrelenting progression in order to whip the (already primed) audience from the first second until the sweat-drenched end. It’s certainly something Skrillex took from his years playing on the hardcore, punk, and emo circuits. Only, in the case of Skrillex and his audience today, the aggression that spreads around the hardcore moshpit in the form of kicks and windmills, in the now-noise club experience escapes up and out in his gigantic bass drops.

“This guy with a computer can do anything he wants,” Skrillex told Spin in his October cover-story interview. “Electronic music isn’t a fucking genre, it’s a platform.” Spin is a sponsor of the current Skrillex tour, and issues were shoved between the empty ice buckets on the tables in the V.I.P. section. And the copies on hand weren’t just of the Skrillex issue, but also of the latest Spin, the one with the mug Fucked Up’s singer Damian Abraham on the cover.

And there you have a slice of music today: the magazine that enshrined what American alternative was in the ’90s is now touting two acts sprung from hardcore, one making earnest, proggy rock, the other frantic club bangers. The difference, of course, is in the obvious goodness of Fucked Up as espousers of politically progressive language, where Skrillex took other part of the hardcore ethos: rupture, tastelessness, discord. What his music “says” isn’t as important as what it does, and at Pacha on Wednesday night, it rendered a room made for professionalized fun into a steaming, nasty jumble of amateurish, awkward kids unsure if they should dance, mosh, cry, kiss, or sing along. As Skrillex’s Mothership keeps floating through the year, surely some of this will settle down, become genre, loose its ugliness. For now, it’s not a scene; it’s the best kind of hot mess.