oft Cell are celebrating. You can just tell. Even from across the Atlantic, you can hear their blood pounding through their arteries with the galloping urgency of analog basslines. For the first time in about 20 years, the world is ready for them. A new album of theirs drops and a tour commences at a time when there’s a scene of music that’s standing on the shoulders of sex dwarves.
The scene is electroclash. Or electrocrash. Nü-electro or Neo-electro. Tech-pop, nü-NRG, neo-Italo or new new wave. Or just retarded.
For the purpose of clarity, the music (and scene, and while we’re at it, attitude) will be referred to here as “electroclash.” Groan all you want at the suggestion of this music being boxed in with, no less, an often deceptive description cum name. Electroclash groans, too. It doesn’t want to be contained so easily. It’s a mishmash of styles and sounds and sexual persuasions and postures. It’s sweeping New York, the country, the world, faster than West Nile, though no inter-borough (/national/global) spraying can contain it.
The very definition of “electroclash,” like “obscene,” is evasive - you know it when you see it. It is host to a battery of sounds: Italo disco, hi-NRG (the parameters of which have been grumbled about and tossed around to the point where the qualities of the two “genres” are often considered interchangeable), electro, Detroit techno and new wave. It’s a category that’s so packed, any name for it is bound to be virtually meaningless.
Electroclash’s formula lies outside of the typical dance music parameters. Here is a type of dance music that isn’t designated by beat emphasis or pounding per minute. It can’t be boiled down to a common usage of particular synthesizers or programming. It can’t even really be called a genre, more a style. One of the most prominent producers/DJs, Tiga himself was quoted in The New York Times as having proclaimed: “Techno is strangling itself with its own provincial rulebook. People have finally grown tired of this. Electro has no real sense of rules and thus there is a lot of excitement, innovation and creativity.”
Its origins are suitably evasive. Tracing out a history of the genre’s influences could fill up volumes, as the footsteps to electroclash are varied, vast and not always clear. Moreover, pinning down exactly when the new new wave washed in is also difficult. The scene had been burgeoning way before the fall of 2001, when DJ Larry Tee threw a party, a “festival” he dubbed “Electroclash” and began spinning its acts on Saturdays at a rat hole in Brooklyn named Luxx on a night he calls “Berliniamsburg.”
And it almost seems stupid to attempt such a thing, anyway, not only because dissent is obviously going to abound, but because as much as electroclash is steeped in retroism, it’s about now. It’s about an ardent fixation on the fixation of the past. Electroclash is self-awareness. Perpetually referencing, electroclash is a feeling.
You’ll Dance to Anything
For the sake of DJs’ playlists, if not discourse, there at least must be traces of commonality. Yet, the only thing closest to a point of uniformity is the bubbling analog (or analog-sounding) bassline that Giorgio Moroder brought to a surprisingly receptive pop-listening audience when he hooked Donna Summer up with the first major U.S. hit that was completely synthesized (save Summer’s transcendental vocals), “I Feel Love.” The song was an anomaly, sporting a sound that remained largely unexplored until a few years later when disco dropped back into the gay and European underground where hi-NRG and Italo disco thrived.
In some ways, electroclash serves to further explore Moroder’s clipped, pulsating promise. Along with that galloping bassline comes a synthy-as-we-wanna-be pop aesthetic, intent on experimenting. The major change is the indifference toward straight-forward sonic innovation. Electroclash consumes styles like a person who’s just on the verge of an eating disorder consumes food. It takes the 80s idea that disco should be injected with rock to give it an edge, and goes overboard, gorging itself on the past 25 years of dance music. What was once futuristic has become irony-packed retro-futurism. Electroclash, a self-aware hodgepodge, has all the makings of the first postmodern dance genre.
What it’s often lacking, though, is the brains to match the lofty concept. An act like Fischerspooner, as their (admittedly) electrifying stage show proves, is, in fact, all concept. True, their interpretation of Wire’s “The 15th” is heavenly synthlove, but so much of their oft-reissued #1 is by-the-numbers. Their biggest, boldest anthem, “Emerge,” is amazing in its simultaneous incoherence and obviousness (“You don’t need to emerge from nothing, you don’t have to tear away,” Casey Spooner sings after repeating “hyper-mediocrity,” a phrase that every die-hard electroclasher wants to aspire to, even if they don’t know what it means). Like almost the entire catalog of Adult. tracks, the song is abrasive and obnoxious. If the Thompson Twins were to reunite and make a punk record, they’d have more of a convincing edge than Adult. and Fischerspooner at their worst.
Also grating and obnoxious is Tiga’s cover of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night”, which almost singlehandedly proves that he should remain behind the decks as a DJ. His “Mister Hollywood” refashioning of “Madame Hollywood,” in which he sings Miss Kittin’s previously spoken vocals, is no better. The cover’s mere existence is its gag – the only thing that it has going for it is the irony of covering such a recent track. In a rare moment of electroclarity, the song upholds the virtue that is sticking with originals.
But where wit is concerned, Miss Kittin is the reigning, unsurpassed queen of the ‘clash. Her album with the Hacker is a virtual how-to manual for the scene, sporting a specific manifesto, “1982.” “Let’s go to the rendezvous/Of the past, me and you/DJ plays déjà vu/As we were in ’82,” beckons Kittin, before she name checks New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Depeche Mode’s “I Just Can’t Get Enough,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and Telex’s “Moskow Diskow.” Over the Hacker’s sparse, proud-to-be-cheap NRG, Kittin lampoons the scene as she creates it, and shows love for those without whom, electroclash wouldn’t be possible.If “1982” sets the scene, Kittin’s already-classic 1997 track, “Frank Sinatra,” defines it. Kittin illustrates its ridiculously blasé self-importance more succinctly than anyone thus far when she purrs in her French accent, “Motherfuckers are so nice.”
The less profane Ladytron aren’t entirely electroclash (they dabble with dance music as much as they do Krauty, sometimes noisy rock), but their ventures onto the dancefloor have brought credibility to the genre. As a band, Ladytron are the rare example of an act to be implicated with electroclash that takes pride in songwriting craft. “Playgirl” has an indelible melody, punctuated by (again) lyrics that make fun of the scene in general. “Why are you dancing when you could be alone?” asks the group’s Helena Marnie, though the answer isn’t so obvious when the steam-thick groove of the song is considered. “Seventeen” is Ladytron’s other classic contribution to the genre (though it should be noted that both of their albums, 604 and light&magic are exemplary pop records, regardless of how much or little they have to do with electroclash as a whole). The song, which laments, “They only want you when you’re 17/When you’re 21, you’re no fun,” could be about Traci Lords but is probably just about modeling in general. Still, the mere hint at underage porno seems a lot naughtier than the brash attempts to be provocative that Peaches and her lovertits have churned out thus far.
Rounding out the picks of the bunch who are capable of creating intelligent dance music that isn’t IDM is DMX Krew’s Ed Upton. Since 1996, he’s been releasing albums that salute old school electro, though his most recent output broadens his influences and can be considered electroclash proper. He claims people told him that his 1998 release Nu Romantix resembled Italo disco. Unaware of the genre, he schooled himself and turned out his best release, We Are DMX, which includes “Street Boys.” That track is emblematic of what makes Ed Upton shine so bright amongst his peers. The ode to gigolos pushes the cheese-filled envelope straight over the top. That the titular refrain is so easy to mistake as, “straight boys,” is icing on the richly synthetic cake. As with most of his music, particularly on We Are DMX, Upton’s production is crisp, free of the novelty of a lo-fi aesthetic for the sake of being lo-fi. It’s aware of its roots (here they are Patrick Cowley’s “Menergy” and Ken Laszlo’s “Hey Hey Guy,” among homocentric club classics) without ripping off its source material.
Upton’s ability to pull off rampant style dabbling and turn out cohesive albums is his biggest contribution to electroclash. Still, nothing that he’s released can quite compete with Felix da Housecat’s Kittenz and Thee Glitz, which is the great record of the movement. From the funky, whiplash breaks of the album opener, “Harlot,” to the super analog NRG of “Glitz Rock” and “Control Freak,” Felix makes his ownership of the genre certain. As he’s a housecat, not an electrodog, Felix excavates the idiocy of the “electro” label – a public service in itself.
More often than focusing on defining the scene, Felix makes songs. And indeed, part of what makes electroclash so appealing is its involvement with melody. True, the speak-singing Miss Kittin gets away without really worrying about it in her work with the Hacker, but her collaborations with Felix turn out to be her most indispensable work. Yet another genre-defining anthem, “Madame Hollywood” benefits from Felix da Housecat’s supremely slick underproduction and Miss Kittin’s musings like, “Everybody wants to be Hollywood,” and “One day I’ll be a great big star, you know, like the big dipper?” Kittin runs down her take on the philosophy of the scene over Felix’s sinister frigid clanking and steady beats.
Of course, labels and less enterprising producers want a say when it comes to qualifying the scene. And so, the music-listening public is inundated with compilations. Most are average at best. Defining Tech is fairly adequate, hitting a lot of the staples (Kittin, Felix, Adult., Tommie Sunshine, et. al.) and adding rare straight-up old school electro flavor with tracks by Japanese Telecom and Mr. Velcro Fastener. There’s nothing truly surprising to be found, but there are certainly worse places to start.
Both Larry Tee’s Electroclash and Ministry of Sound’s This is Tech-Pop: 21st Century Electro and New Wave are largely unnecessary and packed with lousy, cheap-sounding filler that will be forgotten long before electroclash (and that’s saying nothing about electroclash’s potential longevity, or lack thereof). Electroclash tends toward happily cheap material that signifies most on new wave. If new wave often sounded like a confused, watered down hybrid that couldn’t decide if it was dance music or rock music, most of what’s on Electroclash doesn’t even have that much of a direction. It plays like the epitome of an unfunny comedy record.
Because of its strong theme and its educational goals (early pressings included a highly informative 30-page booklet with essays on the evolution of electroclash), Ghostly International’s Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau is a truly vital collection. It focuses on the thoughtfully-produced, housey tracks that can be considered ‘clash. Daniel Wang’s “Pistol Oderso” opens the album with a slice of midtempo, boogie-influenced soul, showing that Nouveau is anything but typical. Ed DMX turns in one of his finest tracks to date with “Make Me,” a tribute to the Stock, Aitken, Waterman production team that ruled the European charts in the late ‘80s, fashioning hits for Samantha Fox, Donna Summer, Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue, among others. It might be incredibly obvious to look toward the later ‘80s to make a mark, but the fact that virtually no one else is doing it renders “Make Me” a mini-revolution.
Finally, I-F’s Mixed Up in the Hague Vol. 1, is about as educational as a mix record gets, especially considering the general lack of knowledge of, information about and access to early ‘80s Italo and Eurodisco records. The 2001 DJ mix is the producer’s shining moment, even more so than 1998’s “Space Invaders are Smoking Grass,” which is largely considered to be electroclash’s first bona fide hit. Not only is the mixing impeccable and ingenious, his selections are fantastic. Using only a smattering of current tracks, I-F skips the uber-corny MOR Italo tunes and plunges into the best of the genre, pumping up the BPMs when necessary (like on Mr. Flagio’s “Take a Chance”). It’s a 70-minute extension of Miss Kittin’s “1982,” a tribute that’s both informed and definitive. It also is solid proof to the fact that electroclash does very little to update what’s already been done – any of these tracks could fit seamlessly into an electroclash mix, and fool people into believing that they’re new.
And certainly, that is electroclash’s charm and downfall. Innovation comes mostly by way of blending genres and styles, based on a vague idea of ‘80s retroism. Clearly, this is trend-based and seated in fashion, perhaps more so than any style of dance music that has preceded it. It’s a pounding race to the finish between producers and the movement itself – the few notables here show signs of being able to outlast the genre, but this may come at the expense of a complete abandonment of the ‘80s influence and spirit for a the next sound to make a trendy splash (late ‘80s Chicago house?). But even after electroclash dies and its lucky (and talented) former proponents totally give up the shtick, will anyone care in 10 years, anyway?
You’re the Treble, I’m the Bass, Let’s Find a Common Pace
When electroclash broke on a large scale at the end of last year, fashion was already waiting for it. Hell, even Madonna, who couldn’t be cutting edge in a knife factory, was sporting shirts held together by safety pins in 2000. Walk the streets of New York (or any other major metropolitan area), and you’ll see mullets, brassy, bleached, feathered hair, ripped shirts, one-shoulder Tarzan tees, absurdly “faded” jeans and foam caps worn proudly, ironically and expensively. Of course, this retrofashion follows its patrons to the clubs and bars.
For that reason, the “look” of an electroclash crowd isn’t much different than the look of any other particularly hip crowd. Much the same, the clubs and lounges don’t look (or even feel) much different than they do on the nights that they don’t play electroclash. You can read tons of press that mystifies electroclash. Not only is it wide-eyed in its attempt to prove that the music is unique, but it also wants to show how wildly original the scene is, as well. This is hype. Perhaps a pervasive, “greed is good” feeling that the retroism and lyrical content of the music advocates, prompts people to glam it up a bit, but it isn’t terribly surprising to see someone from the conservative, uptown crowd wearing a Poison t-shirt, either.
Tiga told the UK’s Guardian Unlimited, that electroclash “reminds [him] a little bit of the rave and techno scene in 1990 – that same kind of camaraderie.” Perhaps because he’s “in” on the scene, or maybe because he was speaking to a UK paper, presumably about how the scene is over there, Tiga’s statement is correct. For everyone else who doesn’t know Larry Tee personally, the scene is just as intimidating, superficial, ridiculous and sceney as any. This isn’t a soulful movement like house can be, wherein the music often strives to be a sermon celebrating life. Electroclash is not about hugging and feeling the music deep in your MDMA-enhanced soul. It's about having something playing in the background that will make you look cool as you strut and snap-dance.
Felix’s recent mix CD, Excursions, is an accurate reflection of the standard electroclash DJ’s set. It starts midtempo and funky, quickly reveals its Euro/Italo disco fascination, complete, of course, with those basslines. Whereas in the ’80s, such a set would have plateaued at this point because disco was about as fast as it got, a typical electroclash set will accelerate until it’s frenetically pounding minimal Detroit techno. When the set starts flirting with a return to the comparatively subdued Italo roots, it’s over.
If the playlists could be chopped down to 15-minute bites, they could perfectly accompany a cocaine high. This doesn’t seem to bother too many people, though, as the use of coke is widespread. Obviously, this involves some discretion – acolytes aren’t sniffing lines off of the bar, generally. Still, for a ‘clashhead, ecstasy is about as passé as weed. Nothing says glamour, ‘80s-style, like cocaine.
But the interest in blow is not only ubiquitous, it’s telling. It’s as metaphorical as it is concrete. Electroclash jolted dance music as hard as its mascot drug does the brain. As up and happening as it feels now, it’s bound to crash and burn just as hard. Anything that explodes in popularity this quickly is bound to lose fans just as quickly. Electroclash, then, faces a short shelf/pop life.
Just Imagine My Face in the Magazine
Adding fuel to the movement that is so intent on hyping itself are outside sources of commentary. In fact, electroclash wouldn’t be electroclash if it weren’t for the press. It’s unsurprising that the press should flock to the “next big thing,” but perhaps even less surprising, though still disappointing, is the lack of knowledge that’s common in the press. Some journalists get it right, but when many of the articles that cover electroclash talk about Afrika Bambaataa instead of Giorgio Moroder, people are clearly taking things too literally. To wit, nobody breakdances at electroclash clubs. Nobody.
Maybe on account of the myth of objectivity, journalists have been thus far too timid to call electroclash what it is: a fad. Its days might not yet be numbered, per se, but they will be soon as the world of electronic music zips from trend to trend as though coasting on fiber optics. The press, much like the dance music audience in general, can’t help but be dazzled by the ‘clash.
The most tired manifestation of this enchantment is beginning articles with scene-setting descriptions. While the technique has been drilled into the heads of j-school students as a way to draw the reader into the piece, some of the writers in question aren’t skilled enough to portray an accurate description of what being in Luxx is like (starting at Luxx, in particular, is a more specific cliché). Even the most dead-on details, though, can’t redeem the overused device.
Recent cover stories in Billboard and Fader prove this, though Tony Ware’s “Electroclash Titans” story in Atlanta’s Creative Loafing takes the technique to a new level. “Androgynous arctic sex kittens and their handlers cruise through the length of the room, brushing against a mix of sounds and a range of fashions from 1982 through, it seems 2012. It’s a room where even queens can feel like kings, and where boys named Mary and girls named Chris – fairies, fetishists and fashionistas with watchful eyes – can turn an urban anywhere, anytime into the here and now. Right here, right now, it’s Brooklyn – Williamsburg to be precise – at a club called Luxx...”
The only thing more overused than scene-setting in electropress is the word “fashionista,” which barely means anything if you’ve ever been anywhere with even a modest cover in New York (we’re all fashionistas, baby). Ware’s description, though, is simultaneously inflated and vague. One can’t quite picture anything from his words except a writer behind a computer screen who is more eager to impress with language than to paint a picture with his words.
Simon Reynolds’ article “The 70’s Are So 90’s. The 80’s Are The Thing Now.” which appeared in The New York Times in May, attempts to homogenize the scene so that even Upper East Side fourtysomething yuppies can understand it. He takes the reader by the pinky finger as he explains, “...pop cult revivals tend to arrive punctually after roughly 20 years.” Yes. Now tell us something we don’t know.
Attempting to carve out electroclash’s uniqueness, Reynolds claims: “Where house and techno tracks present themselves meekly as mere components for the D.J.’s seamless mix, the electro songs compete for your attention through domineering vocals, witty lyrics and extravagant amounts of trash talk and profanity.” The second part of his assertion is sound, but if he listened to house in the early ‘90s, he’d remember the huge-voiced divas whose chord-power put production in the back seat (Shawn Christopher, Ce Ce Peniston and Robert Owens immediately come to mind), who made the charts despite the music they had behind them. And the idea that a 140+ BPM techno track would come across as meek is truly absurd.
The nature of the essay that you’re reading suggests the understanding of, and perhaps need for, press coverage of electroclash. It might be unfair to expect every single person who writes about the scene should be vastly knowledgeable about the past 30 years of dance music, and even the electroclash scene itself. Still, between the misinformation, too many articles on electroclash strive to glamorize the most self-glamorizing movement in dance music since Liza Minelli sucked cocaine off of dick in Studio 54 to a soundtrack of funky, pounding disco.
Why Are You Sleeping in Tomorrow’s World?
Tiga might not be musically reliable, but he’s often on-point when commenting on the scene. He told Billboard, “A backlash to all things electro is imminent. At that point, it will be survival of the fittest. The artists who really have something to say and offer will still be around in a few years.”
Whether or not Tiga has staying power is beside the point. Equally unimportant is the fact that what he’s saying is obvious to anyone with a teenager’s amount of foresight. It’s truly refreshing to read the down-to-earth words of someone who’s a major player in electroclash. The press, the audiences, the producers can get so swept up in the moment, they fail to see where all of this is headed and, of course, beyond.
Fundamentally, electroclash is the cool incarnation of the ha-ha-ha '80s-retroism that's sweeping mainstream media. All that it needs to garner mainstream attention is a savvy, well-dressed act who’s willing to go over-the-top in front of a broad audience, much like Deee-Lite did when they brought club land to MTV in 1990. It might look, sound and feel a little different (as any "underground" scene does when it's cleaned up for the mainstream), but rest assured that electroclash can and will invade mainstream radio.
To some, it already has. Ladytron’s Daniel Hunt said to Billboard, “If I may be brutally frank, it’s Kylie who’s taken this sound to the mainstream.” Some of the scene’s tendency to exaggerate itself has rubbed off on him. Surely, Kylie’s newest single, “Love at First Sight,” owes more to early-‘90s radio house (and therefore, classic disco) than it does anything ‘80s. If he’s talking about “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” he’s still off the mark. While the tune does sport the trademarked bassline, it’s presented in such a cavernous manner that it immediately recollects Robin S.’s 1993 smash “Show Me Love.”
This is in itself odd. Kylie Minogue, whose intelligence is not about to be accounted for, seems to have vaulted over electroclash and into what’s bound to come next – the late ‘80s/early ‘90s house revival whose headquarters are in Chicago. Kylie’s most likely ahead of her time merely by default.
But why aren’t more people extending their ears past the current scene into the future? Isn’t that what being hip is all about? Surely, electroclash’s following is big enough that the supremely hip should start considering it, by all rights, passé.
What it comes down to is that in its heedless borrowing from the past, electroclash has its disciples so fixated on the now that they can’t be bothered to look ahead. It has nations of clubgoers content with the present, with waiting around to see how it will all pan out. Electroclash, then, is extremely powerful and certainly not to be taken for granted or downplayed or ignored. The people who fill Global 33’s Thursday “Jack Your Body” party, which offers sets full of early Chicago house, are missing out on myriad parties celebrating what’s going on now. They should rest assured, though, that their time is coming.
If ambivalence clouds this piece, it’s due to the vast, slippery nature of electroclash. There’s so much material out there, of varying quality and sound. In a way, it’s the movement’s undeniable strength – it’s generous to the listener. In its own contained way, it’s unpredictable. It’s an ongoing party that’ll be around for at least another few years, and everyone’s invited.
Still, over the past few months of conceiving, editing and writing this essay, electroclash has seemed more and more tired. Maybe attempting to dissect electroclash is foolish in and of itself – the music, the scene, the hype is inherently connected. It’s a package that’s not nearly as enjoyable separately. Perhaps even that as electroclash’s popularity blossoms, it becomes less interesting merely on principle, as most “underground” scenes do and as Soft Cell are about to find out.
But regardless of anyone’s personal feelings about it, electroclash thrives and it’s for enjoying. As much as it consumes, it begs to be consumed more. And, really, it’s not a bad way to bide time waiting for the great hip-house revival that’s merely around the corner.
By: Richard Moroder Juzwiak
Published on: 2002-09-30