21st Century Soundscape
Skrillex: First Of The Year (Equinox)
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For good or ill, these artists are representative of the current bipolar mind of our culture.
What Skrillex and Lana Del Rey Bring to the Table
There's something happening in the world now, and it's something our music is reflecting. Given that we're at the height of the current Information Age (or maybe not?), we are being bombarded with text, images, videos, and ideas at a rate that humanity's never seen before. It's an era of endless, anonymous babble. The internet is literally showing us our collective mind. That's a lot to deal with. Our music and our minds are being polarized: digital mania vs. desperate nostalgia. Skrillex vs. Lana Del Rey.
If you look at the top of the Billboard charts, you see the usual names. Rihanna, LMFAO, Flo Rida, Katy Perry, Gaga, etc. Big names that have been cemented into popular culture as to give some solidarity to the jarring flux of the digital world. Though we're all internet pros by now, its impact on our culture, and how our culture moves, is still hard to gauge.
While Big Brother continues its onslaught on the internet, trying to keep up, enforcing stricter web security through legislation like SOPA, and while studios and record companies scramble to stay afloat, popular culture continues to accelerate into the digital void at light speed. Even still, audiences seem restless, and they should be; as there are exciting things stirring beneath the current pantheon of music gods that are waiting to surface. If you haven't heard the names Skrillex or Lana Del Rey, then it's probably time to start paying attention.
Let's start from the more manic side of things: Skrillex.
Despite the fact that it's changed the world of Pop, Electronica is a genre that's still often overlooked in the mainstream arena. It's a genre that went from entertaining strung-out teenagers in empty fields and warehouses in the 90s, to now dictating who will be cleaning up at the Grammys.
Circa 2008, the effect of Electronica trailblazers like Justice, Steve Aoki, MSTRKRFT, and Crystal Castles was already redlining. A new era of Electronica dawned, and there were those of us lucky enough to be paying attention; an underground that was struggling for breath under the juggernauts of Daft Punk, Kanye West, and MIA. It was so palpable anywhere you went. Coachella, Lollapalooza, hole-in-the-wall Los Angeles venues like Banana Split Sundays (hosted by Steve Aoki and the late DJ AM). The industry gatekeepers, however, remained reluctant to lift their boot off the face of Electronica. There was no tangible peak; an anti-climax that's kept us wanting; a sick drop that never came.
Perhaps as some kind of subconscious backlash, Dubstep reared its warping, aggro-driven head at just the right time. It came out of London in 2002, gaining popularity in the U.S. once the more grinding, dirty sounds of, say, Justice started dropping on ecstatic audiences. Dubstep was birthed from the more dark and experimental attempts to meld pieces of drum and bass with the South London-based 2-step garage sound. The result of which quickly evolved into the metallic, dirty-crunching four minute hits you hear at a Skrillex show. Twenty-three year old Sonny Moore, aka Skrillex, went from Screamo band singer to worldwide Producer/DJ phenomenon in the tail end of the last decade. The single "Nice Sprites and Scary Monsters" set a precedent, upped the stakes, and DJ's all over the world are experiencing a new high, mish-mashing whatever they can in order to jump through the Dubstep hole that's just been punched into the music industry.
Though techno pop is now the norm (a sound that those like Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Rihanna, Flo Rida, Nicky Minaj, LMFAO, and now Britney Spears have fully embraced), it's safe to say that Skrillex's up-and-coming influence on the electronic culture will soon be too strong to deny. Already, Skrillex is an "old" and "tired" name among the Dubstep underground (what do you expect after getting five Grammy nominations?). But where a trail has been blazed there are many who were quick to follow. There is a new subculture to pick up the slack. And it's not happening gradually over the span of a decade, like in the days of pre-social networking, it's happening within just a year or two. Considering the exponential growth of the digital world, the pace is bound to get quicker. While Flux Pavillion, Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, and 12th Planet are names that may not mean much to you now, or maybe never will, they will most likely play engineer and architect for what the mainstream is becoming, as quickly as the internet will allow.
There's a sigh of relief to it all, though, and her name's Lana Del Rey. The high water mark is visible, the wave has receded, and things seem to have gotten more polarized. Certainly, the electronic gas pedal is kept floored and new boundaries are constantly being challenged. There's also, though, a throwback to the classic American zeitgeist, to the Lo-Fi analog; a vintage outcry. Perhaps there's a collective social need to withdraw, even if for 3 minutes and 42 seconds (the running time of Lana Del Rey's "Blue Jeans"), from this manic digital Frankenstein, this runaway freight train rife with remixes and no driver. Del Rey's music videos alone, such as "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans", are blatantly intercutting grainy clips of old-fashioned Hollywood with shots of her, in vintage garb, singing sincerely to the camera. Could it be any more obvious?
Her songs are deadly; as beautiful as they are dark. Songs that hit their sopranos and altos with moving precision. The lows of her coos are just as mesmerizing as the highs. Del Rey has apparently pieced together a new genre as well. "Hollywood pop/sad core" is what she has pigeon-holed her music as and, whatever it means, it certainly speaks to the bittersweet melodies about young love, contraband, bad boys who like bad girls, and death; remnants of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang" come back to haunt us, reminding us that we are not invincible, that a purely digital soundscape is not our salvation.
The songs of Lana Del Rey embody the notion of soul (something critics of Dubstep, and Electronica altogether, insist is missing). Her songs are emotionally explicit, and though dark, evoke the deep yearnings, lusts, heartaches and whatever other thoughts go through our minds when we're alone and in love and wandering among beautiful vagrants somewhere in Venice Beach while the sun sets. Her live rendition of "Born To Die" at the Chateau Marmont poolside is enough to convince an audience that she enjoys different variations of her songs. She doesn't seem comfortable sticking to what's recorded in any studio.
Showing up on the covers of endless magazines, being this week's Billboard cover story, and making a sudden musical guest appearance on the latest episode of Saturday Night Live, Lana Del Rey has received her fair share of critics as well. Over the last six months, as her songs and videos grew more viral, people began questioning her sincerity. It's public knowledge that her real name is Elizabeth Grant, and that she is the daughter of domain investor and millionaire Rob Grant. Whether how much of a factor her father was in pushing her toward success, she is here and soon, very soon, we will be forced to deal with her.
Case in point: her performance on SNL was met with a lot of internet sneer and would have been off-putting to anyone who hadn't heard her before. "Blue Jeans" was almost unrecognizable, and she wasn't the girl we all saw in the video. Instead of cool, damaged, and engaging, she was self-conscious and distant; donned in a formal gown, something we'd expect from Celine Dion, but not from the groomed queen of Hollywood Pop who dies in bloody car wrecks. Whether it was a rookie move to stray from the original version of the song during her first major national television appearance, or whether it was just lack of preparation, I don't think it was a defining moment in her current molding as an artist. Besides, SNL no longer has as much cultural influence as we want it to, and a part of me is glad she didn't give the performance everyone expected. It just goes to show you how far-reaching the long arm of digital democracy really is. From the caddy comments of a few celebrities on Twitter, a consensus was based around the integrity of this woman within just a few hours of her performance. Before Del Rey had a chance to change out of that gown and hop into a limo to some after party, her fate was already sealed, the people had spoken.
Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta, continues to experience similar criticism, and the debate of her sincerity is still ongoing. The framework for this Del Rey vintage throwback could be attributed to those like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, as well as the late Amy Winehouse. But even Edward Sharpe isn't Edward Sharpe. His name is Alex Ebert and he hails from the former Electro-Rock group Ima Robot. I didn't hear much about the questionability of Edward Sharpe's sincerity when we couldn't get away from the 2009 hit single "Home". And I shouldn't really have to bring up the animosity that someone like Bob Dylan faced once he stopped doing what audiences wanted, and started doing what resonated with him and his work. It's hard to believe at one point he was labeled a "has-been" by the media.
I don't really care if Lana Del Rey's real name is Elizabeth Grant. I'm really not interested in her sincerity. Whether Skrillex's innovation within dubstep may or may not have any "soul" doesn't bother me. It's what they bring to the table that draws me. For good or ill, these artists are representative of the current bipolar mind of our culture.
Sure, Electronica may still have a "soulless" stigma attached to it, and while Skrillex's songs may have no emotional arc for its listeners, Dubstep offers relief for all the tension and anxiety that the youth are feeling in these times. I imagine it'd be hard to get 10,000+ twenty year olds to congregate for anything. That's not the case if you're a good DJ.
Lana Del Rey's debut album, Born To Die, set to release at the end of the month, and Skrillex's anticipated second EP, Bangarang, will be backdrop for a brand new decade amidst socio-political havoc.
Del Rey sets it straight, and right off the bat: we're all born to die. So get over the sincerity of it all, and enjoy some good tunes.
Brent Smith, Contributing Writer: Brent was born and raised in Los Angeles. He received an MFA in Prose from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. He lives in West Hollywood. (more...)