f pop is grass, then electro is black tar heroin. It's fast, dirty, wild and abandons any attempt at the genuine. Obsessed with its own artifice, it takes irony so far that it folds in on itself, emerging at the other end as a new form of sincerity. And with that sincerity comes a music that is pop at its simplest--no guitars or drums, just endless butt slapping electronic noise, like Prince in his studio if he was less self indulgent and unconcerned with Jesus. Or if Madonna was an indie rock goddess not a Kaballah loving milf. They carry the pop banner for those who hate Xtina, Britney and TaTu not because they hate pop music, but because of the sterility of it all. 137 dykes lezzing it up on MTV isn’t the problem- the problem is that when they appear, TV scrubs it to its most palatable end. This doesn’t enter into it for electro. It’s dirty- and dirty is good.
The genre expresses this filth not only on compact disc, but also in stage shows that resemble performance art, taking the spectacle of pop and ratcheting it up to unnatural degrees. The fusion with the fashion and art world doesn’t end there, however. Fischerspooner’s first exposure came via the avant gallerists Dietch Projects--who paid for the first major media push, with print ads in high art publications. These print ads did not differ much at all from the usual gallery notices and show invites. What’s more, the group has not one, but two wardrobe consultants. Not so for Peaches, whose pink panties and Lou Reed glasses have become a uniform- albeit one that rarely turns a head when she makes appearance at New York art events. And ARE Weapons even did her one better by spending their early careers entertaining at those same events in the best Chelsea galleries. Before the notoriety gained by their debut album the group were photographed by Roe Etheridge, whose work can be found both on gallery walls as well as the blood splattered CD cover for Andrew WK's I Get Wet (which with its self conscious irony and image heavy presentation could be considered Metalclash--a whole other genre for hipsters to exploit).
Pop, on the other hand, is criticized as common crass and lacking substance, it is low art, with over emphasis on the low and under emphasis on art- the critical discourse that surrounds it is mocked as academic pretension. In opposition, high art is ignored by most people as rarified, cultish, and about complex ideas. Electro is the indication that this entire placement is revaluated. What is assumed to be ugly and crass or pedantic and inaccessible, are subsumed to a general sense of spectacle. In electro all of this has been transformed, so that all of pop and her children are crass.
Sound familiar? It should. The 80s were perhaps the apex of this sort of mixing and matching of low and high. We can see its return not only in the nostalgia of VH1’s 80s tribute programs or the wish fulfillment of the Pepsi ad featuring the middle manager with the Flock of Seagulls hairdo, but also in the excessively crass John Gallino collections for Diro and Steve Meisel’s LA-housewife-as-high-class-whore photos for Donatella Versace. High art, too, has gotten into the act with Art Forum’s two Eighties nostalgia issues done in the middle of this year. Jeff Koons’ stainless steel bunny is featured on the cover of one- a silver trophy that manages to be cheap and expensive, artificial and authentic, in fashion and timeless, looking at history and the future at the same time. The steel hardness over the pink inflatable is what Electroclash yearns to be, and perhaps is.
Koons has an aesthetic counterpart in the filmmaker Todd Haynes-- through these two we can attain a look at a culture that produced this kind of music. In, 1998 Haynes filmed the Velvet Goldmine, which was an affectionate look at the glam rock scene, and how it destroyed itself at the end of the 80s. Koons could have lived that life. In 1991 he had everything he needed, both financially and personally, with an Italian porn star wife and a perfect child named Ludwig. He survived the 80s without the problems of ego or coke and even the backlash that destroyed other artists reputations did not seem to affect him, while his work continued to fetch record prices at auctions. He created a large series of works commemorating this good life, and the explicit sexuality of his relationship with his wife. Soon after, the marriage exploded and he returned to work that his child would identify with. Here Koons less neatly echoes Haynes’ most recent work, Far From Heaven, which details the destruction of a happy family through the selfishness of desire.
Far from Heaven’s artifice documented a failing marriage, as did Made in Heaven, which would seem to be the exact opposite of Electroclash. Even the high moralism of Velvet Goldmine or Koons’ heart-breaking epic topiaries of Scottie Dogs and Rocking Horses seem too honest to connect to this scene. However the desire to document sexuality as performance, high camp artifice, and the way that ironic detachment hides a broken heart all tie in. Take for example Susan Sontag, who has recently been spotted at electro gigs and gallery openings. It shouldn’t be a shock. The artist is the new media star, and the musicians have moved past the old theoretical boundaries. This isn't Notes on Camp, this is camp as life style; a life style that works as an ideological tool akin to all those punk fans with mohawks and hall shows. The difference is that punk fans are still old fashioned, obsessed with their own authenticity, while the authentic has been dead for twenty years.
Fishcherspooner and their electroclash pals take issues of artifice and style so that they can play cruel games with them. The adolescent desires and lack of desires that mark popular music are turned by the electro folks into porno odes- the euphemisms that come from Britney or the anger that comes from Johnny Rotten do not need to exist-instead of using dance to talk about sex or refusing to even consider it, we have Peaches promising to “Fuck the Pain Away” and Casey Spooner crooning odes to "jizz in his wig".
But there is an important difference between Koons and this new batch of art musicians. Like Glam and the New Romantics that went before them, Electro uses costumed performance to hide the authentic.
The artists mentioned above subsume desire to make it about theory, power, dancing, the martial bed, guilt, status, clothes or money. Even Madonna, who was supposed to be all about sex, used it as a tool, playing bdsm as what looked good or who was in power. This new movement is one towards bluntness and uncoded desire, its music swells in the bosom, like patriotism is supposed to and like lust always does. This is not a revival as seriousness, a pretentious attempt to make thing new. They are the opposite of Koons’ very new easyfun series which were neither, but did have all the black seriousness of galleries white cubes. The electroclash stars come from the art world, but they are having fun, they want to have the charisma and bad taste of rock stars. Casey Spooner is the perfect example of this, feeling as comfortable with photo shoots in The Face as he is being called the hot new thing in Vanity Fair or Spin. This is the exact opposite of art bands from the East Village in the 1980s- the seminal example being Jean Michel Basquiat's Grey. The colour explains what the music felt like-a moribund, mournful noisy jazz. Even though English band Adult. suggests the same kind of seriousness, and they have titled their latest album Anxiety Always, they have a song called “We Know How to Have Fun,” and if you hear their vague and almost orchestral music, you believe them. We never believed the Lower East Side Art Stars were having fun.
Something else occurs if you obsess about money and status you may end up coming across vain. This is roundly mocked and then turned into something more magical by these bands. No one believed J-Lo, when she claimed to be "Jenny from the Block"- because she was declaring her authenticity. We want game playing and performance from our pop stars. It doesn’t matter who she was, but who she is. Horatio Alger is not meant to be advertised. We do not know where the members of these groups come from; we do not know what they believe in or how they relax on a Sunday night. With their only goal to entertain us with one kind of product they have a kind of early punk authenticity. Thinking of this in a high fashion context would seem absurd if the presence of Malcolm McLaren and Vivenne Westwood did not provide such an obvious parallel. Both of them created the Sex Pistols, until the wildly successful Situationist experiment became too large for them to control. He got a 14 year old to sing highly arch mockeries of the British class systems to a rollicking synth beat. In essence, Bow Wow Wow is more authentic for being created then hip hop/r and b stars who claim the ghetto when they are living on Cristal. Money for Electro does not come as fast or far but manages a look that is filled with ingenuity. What glitters for punk is safety pins, for glam gloss, for new romantics, make up, for rap diamonds and for electro what ever they can scavenge. They come from drag queens and club kids-broke but fabulous. And, at least economically, more autonomous.
Remember that although these bands have come from the gallery system, it’s not the galleries that sell paintings for millions. It’s the small, performance based spaces that rely on hype and celebrity to move its products. They can make art from new talent, but that talent has to have connections to support itself. The head of ARE Weapons is Paul Sevingy who is Chloe Sevingy's brother, who was an actor in small art films and worked for this generation’s Vivenne Westwood, Imitation of Christ, who resews thrift store finds to make them fashionable. This kind of work has easily realized limits, and when the bands realized how small a pond New York hipsters were they went on to absorb the history of pop, reading enough theory to be clever to those who care, making sure everything is danceable and having enough irony to wear trucker caps to Dior parties.
All of this theory is not a good time, however, even if the music is grand fun. And it helps to point towards why a band like the Strokes has broken in to the mainstream, while electroclash remains the product and provenance of hipsters. To most, though, this isn’t a problem. Electroclash wants to be cool not popular, though the money would be nice because it buys bigger costumes and nicer outfits. There are other reasons why it has not gained an audience in the outside world. The artifice, glitter and shine, even when it is almost fake, are not appreciated in a world of economic downturn. Additionally, much of the music has come from New York or London, and neither of those cities plays in the heartland, or if they do it is not to a large audience, but to small urban and often queer or black cults.
The way that it does disseminate is through producers and club play. We can look to Madonna and 80s again with her steady rise and its logical conclusion in the top ten hit “Vogue,” which had all the marks of the culture, including dance moves and a roll call of dead or nearly dead divas. Although she had a producer to notice and distill these trends in Jelly Bean Benitez, her career was her own, and she through pure strength of will, was able to conquer the heartland and push these ideas back to her home state of Michigan.
The problem is that none of today's divas or pseudo-divas has that force of will. They trust the producers too much, and the producers almost always play it too safe. Xtina, for example, has gone for sincere ballads done by Linda Perry, another 80s holdover, who managed to make Pink very wealthy. Britney has 25 producers for the 5th album, an absurd number, including the new sincerests the Matrix who helped make Avril famous.
The records are still being made, and still being appreciated by those who work hard at their meta-pop. The cult is small enough to sustain itself and provide interest to those who care about the structures of power and representation. The problem is that all of this music is deeply fun, sexy and great to dance to. In one way it is the triumph of disco, except that pop already has done that, and disco was much more hi-fi then this is. It has the sweaty dance stink, and the cocaine residue of dance music, but differences pop up. How it does work, as disco, as pop, as cult of personality, as art? Is it to provide a new kind of fuck you to the hipsters, who think too hard about this? Maybe this is the joke that is being played. It is a joke well worth hearing for yourself.
By: Anthony Easton
Published on: 2003-08-11
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