Saturday night at Bonnaroo 2012 — or technically, early Sunday morning — an asymmetrically coiffed, boxily bespectacled 24-year-old by the name of Sonny Moore sits in the wings at Which Stage, as thousands of 'Roosters seethe with anticipation. Placed center stage is a DJ booth designed to look like an interstellar spaceship. Behind that, a countdown ticks away on a large video screen.
Moore — known to most by his stage name, Skrillex — extinguishes his cigarette (five!). He skitters clandestinely onto the stage (four!), crawling into his spaceship (three!) via a concealed access point (two!) in the back (one!).
As the countdown rolls over to zero, Moore bursts into the control booth of his vessel. The mothership unleashes a concussion barrage of pulsing, gut-rumbling sounds, a cacophony of bass tones, synthesizer hooks and samples. To the untrained ear, it probably sounds like a dentist's drill harmonizing with a blender. The more you listen, though, and the more you catch its rhythmic current, there's something beguilingly catchy about its hypnotic clatter.
In front of him, jets of icy gas explode from cannons. Behind him, visuals straight out of an H.R. Giger fever dream flicker and flash, illuminating the sea of elated faces looking on from that Tennessee field. As far as the eye can see, hands lift skyward, jaws drop, waves of undulating, contorting flesh crash and crest.
As far as Moore is concerned, the audience's reaction is every bit as vital as his presence in that cockpit.
"It's not so much about, 'Look at me,' " Moore later tells the Scene. "It's about how you can feel like you can take someone into a world, you know?"
These legions of kids — many locked in amorous embraces, others experiencing one sort of psychedelic experience or another, all of them a part of the world Moore is creating — aren't leftovers from the raves and warehouse parties of the '90s electro boom. Mainstream festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza feature more and more electronic dance music (or EDM) performers as headliners. EDM-focused fests like Electric Daisy Carnival have swelled to become among the largest music events in the country, with attendance at this year's Carnival reaching over 300,000. And EDM tours and one-off events — curated by guys like Moore and his fellow EDM superstars Pretty Lights and Bassnectar — have popped up in markets all over North America.
The latest of these is Music City, where, bolstered by a burgeoning local scene, the aforementioned superstars can and frequently do attract sellout crowds at large venues. These artists, whose throbbing, alien sounds are a far cry from the organic creations being played by Broadway buskers or even the garage-dwellers of Nashville's budding rock 'n' roll scene, are hosting massive parties while the rest of the city sleeps.
This weekend, Skrillex and Pretty Lights will curate and perform at With Your Friends Fest, a two-day EDM event featuring fellow electronic artists 12th Planet, Dillon Francis, Michal Menert, TOKiMONSTA, Eliot Lipp and Two Fresh, as well as indie-electronic darling Santigold and hip-hop heavyweight Nas. But they won't be doing it in the steel-and-concrete bowl of Municipal Auditorium (which Pretty Lights commandeered last Halloween), or even in our friendly neighborhood enormo-dome, Bridgestone Arena (which Bassnectar has claimed as his New Year's hub two years running). They'll be doing it right out in the open, at Nashville's new outdoor event space The Lawn at Riverfront Park, with the Music City skyline at their backs.
Electronic dance music? In the heart of Nashville's honky-tonk district? The gall! And yet, the closer you look at the current EDM boom and its emerging heroes, there's a sense that were he a 20-year-old to whom electronic and social media are as natural as oxygen, Hank indeed might've done it this way.
Named the young leader of the "new rave generation" by Spin magazine in 2011, Moore serves as something of a mascot for the resurging electronic dance music landscape. Though EDM has evolved, mutated and shape-shifted for the past three decades, in the States, it has remained on the fringes of the mainstream. Always present and always boosted by a thriving underground scene, EDM's breakout artists were typically European house, techno, big beat and IDM architects like Daft Punk, Aphex Twin, The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Prodigy.
But with the arrival of diverse, multi-genre-utilizing, party-centric artists like Skrillex and Pretty Lights, North American electronic dance music is seeing its first wave of true rock stars. They're the figureheads of what can still be called a niche market, but the niche is the biggest it's ever been.
Drew Mischke, general manager of local venues Mercy Lounge and Cannery Ballroom, has long been a connoisseur of dance music in all its forms — the word "DISCO," as a matter of fact, is tattooed across the inside of his forearm. A Middle Tennessee native, Mischke has seen crowds wane with the rise of download culture over the past decade. He admits that, thanks to audiences' seemingly insatiable appetites for nostalgia, cover bands like locals Guilty Pleasures, My So-Called Band and The Long Players always sell tickets.
But when it comes to original music, he says, there are two kinds of shows these days that bring out crowds in droves: the sort of folk music Mischke refers to as "new-mericana," and dance music.
"It's either Skrillex or Mumford & Sons," Mischke says. "Anything they touch turns to gold. It's either this kind of cleaned-up, more polished version of Americana stuff, or a more polished and palatable version of dance music that's doing really well. And your indie-rock stalwarts are no longer the big draw that they were four years ago."
Mischke attributes the ongoing success of performers like these to their ability to connect with fans in a visceral, memorable manner. "The value of music in and of itself as something that people will pay for has obviously declined tremendously," he explains. "So for a live music experience or concert or event experience, it has to be more than just music. And that's either, you know, a punk-rock band like Monotonix setting drums on fire, or incredible, transcendent performers like Bruce Springsteen or U2 that just put on this incredible show every single time, or a retarded amount of money spent on production that's well done and is mind-blowing. And then the songs are a lot different and the experience is a lot better than what I can hear on Spotify for $10 a month."
But more than just the spectacle and production, whether it's Skrillex's spaceship or Pretty Lights' brain-melting array of color-coordinated lights, the artists themselves see their live events as a sort of populist party, complete with a "communal" atmosphere that the fans have a hand in creating as much as the performers.
"What really sets [a live EDM event] apart is that people become part of it," Derek Vincent Smith (aka Pretty Lights) tells the Scene via phone from New Orleans, where he's putting the finishing touches on his next release. Self-described as "electro hip-hop soul," Smith's smooth, mid-tempo grooves frequently utilize live instrumentation and familiar soul and R&B samples from artists like Lyn Collins and Etta James — as opposed to Skrillex's adrenaline-pumping compositions, most typically made up of waxing and waning synthetic sounds. "People come [to an electronic event] and they reach this level, and everyone is connected and really getting into it. The music has so much power to really move the audience. And once everyone's sort of on that wavelength, it creates a different kind of event. You're not an observer, you're part of it."
Maybe it sounds counterintuitive that a musical genre founded on cold technology is bound by an organic, flesh-on-flesh sensibility. But Moore sees the value in creating a communal atmosphere at any live-music event.
"When there's an event or party or show or any type of thing and you walk in and, regardless of what type of music it is, when you see everyone on the same level, that's the magic," says Moore. "That's where you want to get to. And whatever that is, that runs through punk rock and electronic music and rock music and everything. As long as that synergy is there, that's the real magic, I think."
The Ecstasy-fueled rave boom of the '90s familiarized many an American with the stylistically misguided electronica-fan archetype: arms encased with rows of neon beads like a pair of orthopedic casts, pants flared to hoop-skirt radius, head sporting a beret and neck hung with a pacifier (all of which goes for both males and females, of course). Ask John "12th Planet" Dadzie, a Skrillex collaborator and esteemed Los Angeles producer/DJ, and he admits "colorful, fuckin' fuzzy-boot-wearing people" are indeed still a part of the EDM scene.
But lately, more and more serious music listeners — listeners who came up on rock, pop or even country — find themselves enamored with electronic performers. Especially in a live setting.
Twenty-six-year-old Nashvillian, Belmont graduate and music fan Dave Henton grew up on the Britpop and indie rock of the '90s. A fan of Nirvana, Pavement and Blur — not to mention Aughts indie followers like The Walkmen and Deerhunter — Henton has long attended what most would consider, as far as instrumentation and presentation go, conventional rock shows. Recently, however, he's become drawn to performers like Pretty Lights, Brazilian electronic artist Amon Tobin and British trip-hopper Bonobo. Henton's boots are conspicuously fuzz-free, his pants of a fairly traditional fit. As a music enthusiast, though, he sees more merit in the new crop of EDM stars than the prototypical rock snob's knee-jerk reaction might allow.
"Sure, there are plenty of knobs and lasers," Henton says, "but it's lazy to cast [the average electronic music show] as soulless, especially without having experienced EDM with an open mind, in a live atmosphere. The live show is a pretty integral part of experiencing the music. Also, I don't know that there's anything inherently more legitimate about live instrumentation.
"Most importantly, this is about having fun. Going to live shows doesn't always have to be about experiencing art in a serious way. That's something that's often lost on the indie-rock crowd."
The big-tent, all-listeners-welcome attitude that now exists in the world of EDM is the sort of phenomenon you might not have seen very often before the days of the Internet. Via his label, Pretty Lights Music, Smith makes all his releases — as well as many releases from labelmates such as Michal Menert, Paper Diamond, Gramatik, Eliot Lipp and Break Science — available for free download. It's a remarkable business model, one that threatens to shovel another layer of dirt onto the casket of the old major-label model.
Where the traditional music industry blanches at the thought of giving away something for nothing, Smith sends all of his EPs and LPs out into the ether without charge. While watching them spread by word of mouth (well, word of keyboard), he makes his money via ticket sales and festival guarantees, donations, even iTunes downloads. Some downloaders, it seems, never got the memo about all of Pretty Lights' music being free.
But that's precisely the point. With every offshoot of EDM leaking into every corner of the Internet, all kinds of listeners and participants are joining the fold. For a generation of consumers who balance social-media profiles and music-downloading platforms as naturally as they brush their teeth, the Internet has become both a limitless library for ambitious listeners and a playground for producers and creators of all sorts.
"It's so easy to share music and to find out about new things and to get a glimpse of something else," Smith says. "Whereas maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago, you got into hip-hop, and that's all you heard. You heard hip-hop because that was the scene you were in, and that's what you listened to, and in order to buy something else you would've had to have purchased the CD. Or you would've had to hang out with somebody from some other clique and actually heard their music collection. ...
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