Electroclash: New York City Compilation

(Mogul Electro)

Watching pretty people act bored isn’t usually my idea of a good time, but when it’s set to hot music, it can be a blast. Last fall, I went to the first annual Electroclash festival in New York, where the A list of international performers included DJ Assault, Chicks on Speed, the Detroit Grand Pubahs, Peaches (who played twice), Adult., and Fischerspooner. All of these folks claim not to take themselves or anyone else too seriously, but their acts heavily involve the choreography of self-indulgence–elaborate costumery, staunch poker faces, and all.

“Electroclash” is the name New York scenesters have given to their stagey spin on electro–a fusion of hip-hop and funk created in New York in the early 80s with the aid of the Roland TR-808 drum synthesizer. Most date the genre back to Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 single “Planet Rock,” which he made with producer Arthur Baker and keyboardist John Robie, reportedly after being blown away by Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express; key variations came courtesy of Mantronix, Melle Mel, Cybotron, the Jonzun Crew, and the Micronawts, among others. Non-hip-hop acts have adapted it for their own poppy purposes over the years, but in the 90s electro was ultimately robbed of its identity by techno, which gave the space jams a mechanical, cold-blooded texture, and Miami bass, which traded rinky-dink charm for big boom.

In the past couple years the form has undergone a major resuscitation. Lone artists are plugging away all over the place, but talent has pooled in Detroit (the artists associated with Adult.’s Ersatz Audio label), Berlin (where Canadian transplants Peaches and Gonzales star on the Kitty-Yo roster), and New York, where this time around the music’s hooks and poses are rooted more in punk than in hip-hop. The New Yorkers’ particularly nihilistic approach might appear to be a commentary on modern Manhattan, where musical grit and ingenuity have declined as the borough’s collective comfort level has risen. Hipster lifestyle magazines like Sleaze Nation, the Face, Vice, and Paper have branded electroclash a “movement,” printing hyperbole like “a cripplingly great new phenomenon that made New York City the center of the universe once again.” But it’s less a movement than an in-joke.

Like punks, electroclash types don’t spend their money on gear; on Electroclash, the compilation produced as part of the festival, it sounds as if many of the artists spent half the day thrifting for their cheesy keyboards and the other half writing and recording their songs. Amateurish tech skills in dance music make for charmingly bizarre song structures and adorably mismatched melodies; they also make any content stand out in stark relief. Though the candy-coated synths on all the tracks are friendly to the ear, the seemingly banal lyrics are layered: the overall message is that expressing fake sentiment from a safe distance is more effective than keeping it real. Morplay’s clever potty-mouthed “Check Your Pulse” comes pretty close to re-creating the old hip-hop-flavored electro sound, but then they “break it down all piggerish,” rapping in pig Latin. In the minimalist “Useless,” by Badd Inc. & Tobell von Cartier, a trashy tranny bitches about her sugar daddy over a wan disco beat, blurting “I’m Catherine Deneuve!” out of the blue. “God I hate Belgian designers,” bemoans a hipster imitating a hipster in Key Kommand’s “Buzz Junkie.”

The Electroclash festival was produced by New York promoter Larry Tee–the Atlanta native who produced the first B-52’s single and wrote RuPaul’s hit “Supermodel.” His involvement apparently upset some electro fans: before and during the festival, stickers reading electroclash could be the next grunge–don’t let buzzwords and marketing exploit and destroy the music you love! were adhered to posters and passed out to attendees. The shows were scattered across several venues, but New York’s native talent was showcased at Exit, an enormous fancy club that smelled of fresh plaster and plywood, had an ATM with a $7 service fee, and sold plastic cups of piss beer for ten bucks a pop. It seemed built to encourage licentious behavior; if you wanted to give your feet a rest on the third floor, for instance, you had to cozy up to fellow clubgoers on the expansive built-in bed.

Any naughtiness going on in the hall was soon dwarfed by the onstage action. The megatheatrical duo Fischerspooner (which, according to New York magazine, is being courted by MCA and BMG) comprises two Art Institute grads–puppetmaster Warren Fischer, who writes the music, and peacock Casey Spooner, the front man and lyricist. After three well-planned false starts, a heavily made-up Spooner, dressed as a cross between Mad Max and a pirate in an indigo velvet suit and feathered mullet, puffed his chest out. Smoke filled the stage, and several creepy dancers with painted-on cleavage sprang from the wings to leap around him with arched backs. High-priestess dancers paraded in while Spooner’s minions jerked in perfectly timed ecstasy, then Spooner sat on a stool to sing a heartfelt slowjam, spotlight blazing only on him, as fake snow fell from the ceiling.

There were several onstage costume changes, and at one point Spooner danced with a cane, wearing only banana-hammock skivvies, a sleeveless T-shirt airbrushed with a pair of breasts, spats, and a top hat. Midshow he introduced two blond, cadaveresque beauties, soft as peach fuzz in shiny gold dresses–one undulating in Dynasty waves, the other assembled from sharp-looking little mirrors. Motionless save for their left arms, which very slowly brought flutes of champagne to their pale shiny lips, the girls sang disaffectedly over icy synth pop. For the last song Fischer came out in a pristine white tux and began to convulse, blood spurting from his mouth. Then a confetti machine shot a shitload of gold glitter all over the place.

The message was that there is no message: “Hypermediocrity / You don’t need to emerge from nothing,” Spooner sings in “Emerge,” the duo’s recent European club hit, but it was difficult to discern, given the quality of the stage show, whether he was celebrating or disparaging the sappy and the superficial. If, say, he’s mocking the vapid wastoids who market cool to other vapid wastoids, then why does he make it look so fun to be a vapid wastoid?

Both the hypesters and the malcontents who stickered the posters believe electroclash is something special, but neither seems to get why. None of the artists themselves seem to be pushing toward anything concrete or specific–if they were, they’d undoubtedly be making clearer statements. (Does anyone have any doubt what Le Tigre is trying to say?) By focusing on the legitimacy of the so-called movement instead of the artistic output, both sides effectively reduce that all-too-rare commodity–a genuine good time–to a mere trend.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Conrad Ventur.