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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Let’s Get Digital: Electronica and The Future of Rock n’ Roll

When the electric guitar first roared its way into the lexicon of rock n’ roll back in the fifties, Jerry Lee Lewis, that stalwart disciple of the piano, claimed it’s popularity was just a passing fancy. As foolish as that remark may sound to most of us who have grown up weaned on the chunky rhythms and squealing solos of the electric guitar, from the Beatles to Hendrix to Nirvana, in some circles Lewis’ words may indeed seem to speak the truth.

In the past few years, many forward-thinking musicians, from underground artists like Le Tigre to (relatively) mainstream bands like Radiohead, have been turning their focus away from the guitar and back to the keyboard. Though the keyboard they tend to turn to isn’t necessarily made up of Jerry Lee’s cherished ebonies and ivories; the contemporary musician’s keyboard is more likely to be attached to a monitor and a powerful hard drive.

Electronic music has, up until recently, been divided between two extremes of public interest. On one side, under the name of Techno, it dominates the mainstream dance club scene. On the other end, it is transformed into the aggressive sound of Industrial (think of Nine Inch Nails or recent Ministry). For the most part, however, electronic music has remained somewhere outside the boundaries of rock and roll’s domain, where the electric guitar is King. All this may be beginning to change.

Enter electronica-the favored name for this “new” breed of pop music.

Actually, for all of its trendy “newness”, electronic music has a long and colorful past. At one end of the spectrum, its innovators include cerebral minimalist composers Philip Glass and John Cage; on the other, oddball genius Raymond Scott, whose use of electronic manipulation of sound for commercial jingles was both brilliant and paradoxically non-commercial. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Early rap and Hip-hop were pivotal in the development of the samples and drum loops that are so essential to much of contemporary electronic pop. The rise of the synthesizer in the eighties gave birth to electronic music’s golden age of mainstream popularity, exemplified by such digital devotees as Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, not mention mastermind Brian Eno, whose collaborations with David Bowie yielded some of that pop superstar’s richest and most exciting work on such albums as Lodger and Low. Then, for better or worse, the Grunge phenomenon came along and the somewhat intellectual sounds of keyboards, oscillators and drum machines were buried beneath a wave of fuzz as the guitar once more flexed its muscles as the boss of rock instruments.

But popular culture is nothing if not cyclical, and sure enough a new crowd has now re-discovered electronic music and been charmed by its possibilities.

Defining Tech, released recently by Orbisonic, is one of what will surely soon be a slew of compilations attempting to cash in on electronica’s burgeoning popularity. It purports to be “a compilation of essential tracks representing an emerging genre…the very best of experimental electro, ghetto tech, electro funk, booty bass and restyled new wave/retroelectro” and, more extravagantly, “an immersion into innovative audio frequencies, illuminating musical evolution.” At the very least, that comprehensive list of subgenres should give some idea of the variety of electronic music being concocted by this new wave of musicians. I was pretty excited by these claims and decided to give the album a test run.

Frankly, I was a little disappointed. The problem is, the album doesn’t live up to its promise. For all its proclamations of embracing the diversity of electronic pop, its content is pretty damn narrow. Maybe it’s in the nature of the beast, but too much of this album sounds formulaic: program a drum beat, lay on a looping synth line, add the requisite throbbing bass and maybe toss in some endlessly repetitive lyrics, filtered through a computer vox to minimize any potential melody, and you’ve got yourself a song. While the effect is sometimes amusing, as in the techno reductio ad absurdum of Innate’s “Fat Girls”, it wears thin as quick as any shamelessly redundant guitar solo.

But, it’s not all bad. There’s enough good stuff here to indicate what’s lacking. Fischerspooner’s playful deconstruction of eighties synth-pop, Miss Kitten’s jaded, euro-trash persona, Peach’s sexy-tough-girl-with-a-beat-box act-these are the highlights of an otherwise uninspired offering. These performers are engaging because they capitalize on the inherent icy, superficial glamour and theatrical posing of electronic music. Better than that, they lend the music something a computer never could-irony and a sense of humor.

The thing about the current wave of electronica is that is essentially all about surface. At its best, when this surface is interesting, the music can be bold, innovative and oddly funky. A postmodern soundtrack for the tongue-in-cheek generation. At its worst, it comes off like a bad joke. Dance music by robots for robots. A strong attitude is needed to survive this flat impenetrable landscape of beeps and beats; those that have this attitude, like Fischerspooner, Miss Kitten and Peaches, come across as the real artists of electronica.

Defining Tech isn’t a bad introduction to a certain kind of electronica, but it is by no means exhaustive or even representative of the wealth of talent and diverse innovation that is blooming in the world of this increasingly expanding art form.

I would suggest buying the albums themselves. Fischerspooner’s debut album, #1, is a good place to start-when I first heard this album, while riding in a friend’s car, we had to stop driving and get out in the street and dance. It’s that good. Also, I’d recommend going back to those definitive electronic albums of the eighties-Gary Numan’s Replicas or, for the more adventurous, the strange, scary tunes of Throbbing Gristle (the choicest of which have been collected on the hard to find Greatest Hits), for example-albums like these are more than revealing historical documents, they are vibrant, progressive works in their own right.

For those interested in more current, and more currently popular, electronic music, several outstanding albums have been released by performers like Bjork, Radiohead, and the French band Air. These are artists who have found a way to go beneath the slick surface of electronic music and, with their delicately textured, emotional compositions, reveal the heart hiding inside the hard-drive. Then there are bands such as Matmos who magically elicit music out of anything from rat cages to balloons, or Kid 606 and The Avalanches who are expanding the parameters of sampling, making art from the scraps of pop culture. Then again, there is the art-dance music of Underworld and Aphex Twin.

All of which is really just to say that there is far more in the wide world of electronic pop than is exhibited on Defining Tech. The artists working in this genre are putting out some of the wildest, alive and balls-to-the-wall rocking stuff in the pop universe. This compilation may have may missed the boat, but you don’t have to. Take a chance and shop around, there’s a lot to choose from and so much of it is so very good. Go on, get digital.