In 2004, a 16-year-old named Sonny Moore left Los Angeles to play guitar for a band called From First to Last. Somehow he wound up becoming its lead singer instead. The group recorded for Epitaph Records, played the Warped Tour, opened for Fall Out Boy. They were a “scene” band, part of that realm of black-and-pink, mess-headed emo and hardcore acts—a world that’s never entirely been embraced by the mainstream rock press. Magazines might put a big name like My Chemical Romance on the cover, for the copies it would sell; then they’d slink back to arm’s-length joking about studded belts, Hot Topics, bad haircuts, kid stuff, malls, commercial rock.
These days, Moore is a black-clad producer called Skrillex; vocal-cord problems helped steer him out of the singing game. He records electronic dance music, and is lately experiencing a pretty massive flush of notoriety—a storm of interest in his new EP, Bangarang, will surely extend. A month ago, he was nominated for five Grammys, including the one for Best New Artist. When Facebook counted the most-played pieces of music on the site in 2011, two of the top 10 were by Skrillex. Kanye West spent New Year’s Eve tweeting about him, including the allegation that his remix of Benny Benassi’s “Cinema” is “one of the greatest works of art ever made.” He draws massive crowds at festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, where the Lollapalooza-sized attendance numbers positively dwarf those of rock fests you read about more often. His asymmetrical side-cut hair inspires blogs and novelty songs. The guy is rapidly becoming the face of something: a big American groundswell of love for buzzy, populist dance music.
You only have to look at the Billboard charts to notice that Americans as a whole have taken to club sounds lately. As I type this, our number-two song, “We Found Love,” has Rihanna singing over a straight-up ecstatic house production by Calvin Harris. But there’s also a deeper boom going on, one you can trace down from hit producers like David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia to the huge rave-style events they play in this country; and from there to big-tent, pop-minded acts like Deadmau5, Aviici, and Kaskade; and from there to the way Skrillex can pack tour dates in places like Montana; and from there to peers like Bassnectar and 12th Planet. If these aren’t names that mean much to you, well, it’s a bit like that rock scene again. Those who are in the business of noticing what makes money move around the industry seem to have plenty of eyes on this stuff; notice the Grammy nods for Skrillex. Those who act as gatekeepers for musical artistry have been slightly more standoffish about it.
One reason for this is that the acts we’re talking about are not, generally speaking, interested in offering some refined or studious advancement on the long, rich, soulful history of electronic dance music. Skrillex’s work, in particular, is a lot more of a pile-up, as if someone’s picked all the most obviously, superficially cool and high-impact parts of a dozen different genres, dredged them in stimulants, and started mashing them against one another—the same way Quentin Tarantino can rifle through a dozen film genres and borrow all the best fight scenes. There’s Daft Punk’s insistent pop-dance; the blocky neon blips of electro; the melodic buzz of old video games; the gushy, sentimental melodies of trance; the high-speed skip and glitch of Aphex Twin; the glammy pop feel of L.A. party music—all things that are easy to like. And when you mush them all together into one clanging, high-octane stew, they become extremely easy to like, whether or not the listener has ever known or cared about electronic music before. Not elegant, deep, or moving, but very easy to get a thrill out of.
But the genre Skrillex milks the most is dubstep. If you wanted to pick any one trick from this London genre that is super-obviously cool, fresh, and head-turning, it would be the massive, grainy bass blurts that have spun out of it, revved up by English producers like Rusko—giant, wobbling shudders that go wubwubwub and activate the same part of the brain that makes 10-year-old get excited about explosions. You hear them everywhere now: in commercials for Transformers DVDs, behind TV footage of extreme sports, folded into the bridges of pop songs. The way Americans have made these basslines lately, they’re aggressive, vertiginous, and adrenaline-heavy, and they conjure up obviously cool images like being inside the gleaming metal torso of a planet-sized robot while it punches an even bigger robot, or Cookie Monster barfing up that liquid-metal Terminator from the sequel. They’re littered throughout a lot of the tracks masses of Americans are suddenly raving to. The cut that got Skrillex a Grammy nod for Best Dance Recording is called “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”; it crashes casually back and forth between glowy video-game melodies and that big slobbery scenery-chewing dubstep grind. His remixes chew up original songs in the same way, making the source material glitch and wubwub around itself. If those big bass drops are the car-chase scene, you typically do not have to wait long for him to cut to it.
Keep in mind that Americans, and especially American males, have traditionally had some weird reservations about electronic dance music—at our worst, we’ve written the whole thing off as silly, trashy, soulless, effeminate, or “gay.” And there is clearly something about that gut-punch dubstep trick that can help certain Americans overcome those reservations. For one thing, it sounds essentially like hard rock or metal—a gnarly, monumental, distorted sound that tears through the middle of the frequency spectrum. (If you’d like to hear evidence of this, consult the nu-metal band Korn, who just released a “dubstep” album, complete with contributions from Skrillex himself; those blurts of bass slot easily into the space where the band would once have deployed guitars.) In Skrillex’s hands, you can hear an odd, clear continuity between the world of young hair-rock and emo acts and hyperactive dance music. One of his remixes, for the Scottish band Twin Atlantic, manages to swap out their instruments for a light-speed recreation of old rave music, complete with vacuum-cleaner whooshes, sound-the-alarm noises, and chewy wubwub. (There’s a slight kinship with hip-hop, too—the Bangarang EP features an L.A. party rapper called Sirah, and people dancing to Skrillex have a habit of moving their arms like they’re rapping to Linkin Park songs.) It’s another species of that rare and lucrative beast: A form of electronic dance music that does not threaten anyone’s masculinity. Sort of like the last time electronic music threatened a sales boom in the U.S., when one of the top successes was the Prodigy, whose 1997 single “Firestarter” felt as aggro as anything else on offer.
Hence the new insult pointed at some of this American music: “brostep.” The epithet comes complete with scary visions of amped-up meatheads stomping around to the stuff—even if the actual audience is as mixed-genre as any. You can probably guess how dubstep’s old English guard has reacted to the stuff. Rusko, one of the first producers to nudge the sound in this direction, has stepped back: “Brostep is sort of my fault,” he told the BBC, “but now I’m starting to hate it”—Americans, he said, were taking it too far, turning it into an arms race of heaviness, draining the music of richness and subtlety. James Blake, a highbrow British producer whose debut LP sounded more like an elegant singer-songwriter’s, told the Boston Phoenix that the American scene had “hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there’s this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds.” (He suspected this would not appeal to women, which I think misunderstands certain things about how both dance music and gender work in America.) The word “soul” comes up a lot: This American sound is all big, sick, melt-your-face-off noises, and no soul.
One doesn’t hear a lot of soul in an act like Skrillex; that’s true. One doesn’t hear the long, sensual pacing of dance music, either—his tracks surely get all that Facebook play because they shoot straight for the three-minute flash and bang of a rock single, not the elegant build and release of tension. But some of electronic music’s biggest bursts of ideas have come from eras of populist face-melting. Take, for instance, the original, early-90s heyday of British raves, when thousands of kids—many of whom had never much cared about dance music before—would flock to empty fields in search of relentless, alarm-sounding music, and the process of trying to keep them excited kept leading to the invention of fascinating sounds. (Even the epithet “brostep” puts me in mind of a graceless, hard-pounding, and fairly lovable techno from that era—“gabber,” which comes from a Dutch term that means basically the same thing as “bro.”) When you have huge numbers of people flocking to one spot with the agenda of getting messed up and hearing something crushing and spectacular, the race to please them stands a chance of rushing out on limbs and creating new things. You don’t hear much of that in Skrillex, or among many of his peers; so far, there’s just a lot of collisions and amplifications of sounds we’ve already heard. But that’s what people said about our mess-headed emo and hardcore scenes at the start of the century, and they rapidly became their own weird world.