Is electronic music on the brink of its grunge moment?
The genre's bleeding edge is visceral, antisocial, and downright ugly
This year’s most interesting electronic music wasn’t interested in playing nice. It was abrasive in spots and unwieldy in others; it conjured images of complex machinery, foreboding alien landscapes, and tangles of flesh, bone, and gristle. Its creators were sending dispatches from the fringe, trying to document some aspect of marginalization whether it was lived or imagined. They didn’t emerge from the same scene or the same genre, but together they constituted a defined alternative to the prevailing sound of what’s popular now. Electronic music is ready for its grunge phase.
When grunge bloomed from the Seattle underground in the late 1980s, it did so by fusing the searing intensity and angsty alienation of punk to the weight and relative complexity of heavy metal. Its practitioners were disillusioned, obsessed with authenticity, and separated from the rest of the music industry by distance and attitude. They felt conflicted over the mainstream’s promise of money and fame, and they honed their chops in the dingy DIY basements of the Pacific Northwest, not buzzy Brooklyn bars or the clubs of the Sunset Strip.
The scene’s leading figures were interested in justice and defending the marginalized, even if they were benefiting from privilege themselves; no less a figure than Kurt Cobain said, "If you’re racist, homophobic, or sexist, don’t listen to our music." No one making the music believed it was a means to some commercially glorious end. "The idea of having an indie rock ‘career’ while living in a remote backwater like Seattle was too ridiculous to contemplate," said Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt. "It was simply about having adventures."
club-friendly edm is the new metal
Just as glammy, arena-friendly metal was king at the dawn of grunge, club-oriented EDM is enjoying unprecedented influence on the sound of mainstream pop music, and it’s overtaken hip-hop as the genre people most readily associate with youth culture this decade. Close your eyes and imagine a horde of teens engaging in some stereotypical adolescent activity; when I try it, I see the tank top-clad, glow stick-waving masses of festivals like Veld or EDC, thousands in thrall of a producer spinning house and techno. (The historic flop of We Are Your Friends hasn’t tarnished the brand a bit.) It’s a genre that’s weaponized in young people’s hands, that inspires as much parental anxiety as Judas Priest before it. This year’s pop charts bear the weight of deep house, tropical house, and contemporary UK garage. Justin Bieber built a comeback cribbing from electronic music; Skrillex and Diplo became this year’s defining hitmakers.
It’s a level of dominance that demands a response, even if it’s ultimately an unconscious one. Artists like Arca, Lotic, and Holly Herndon are making music stutters, screeches, and scratches, and eschew conventional melody and structure. The people making electronic grunge are either expressing a part of their lived experience that differs from the norm or are approaching their music from the avant garde. Their work is dependent on electronics, but it also frequently references aspects of devices and computers — their physical presences, their capabilities, the sounds they make and heat they give off — at a deeper musical and conceptual level.
Two of the nascent genre’s cornerstones have been released within the last few weeks. Garden of Delete, Daniel Lopatin’s latest LP as Oneohtrix Point Never, was released on November 13th; Mutant, Alejandro Ghersi’s second full-length as Arca, came out a week later on November 20th. Garden of Delete cribs its structure and dynamics from EDM’s most aggressive forms — think Skrillex’s face-searing dubstep — but the palette is completely different. The album sounds unsavory, chaotic, and harsh in many places. Its rare moments of beauty are made more powerful by their contrast with the rest of the album’s dripping sludge.
It doesn’t sound like the kind of music conducive to narrative, but there’s one buried underneath all that gunk, and it’s one that revolves around the alienation felt by Ezra, the character at the album’s heart. Ezra is a humanoid alien covered in oozing pustules, obsessed with the fictional band Kaoss Edge and linked to Lopatin by happenstance. In the album’s fiction, Ezra influences the music that would become Garden of Delete. It seeks to document his anger and the separation he feels from his disgusting physical form. "Garden of Delete scrapes up the edges of the music you listen to in moments of unbridled teen rage," writes Consequence of Sound critic Sasha Geffen. "[The album] recalls the moment when childhood mutates into pubescence, when even your own body can’t be trusted." The music is grating and frenzied because it reflects the experience of a character who doesn’t belong and drives people into absolute revulsion.
Lopatin himself isn’t exactly an outsider; he’s probably received more critical acclaim than any other electronic musician this decade. (It makes sense that he had to invent a character — one who’s literally an alien — to play this role.) But he’s never made music like this before, having heretofore focused on drifting synth waves and warped pop with softer edges. His spot at the genre’s vanguard isn’t new, but Garden of Delete is the first album he’s made that feels completely disconnected from the electronic music that’s au courant. It feels like a dispatch from another universe.
Ghersi’s work on Mutant pushes many of the same buttons. It’s an unrelenting, unabashedly difficult record, one without an easy entry or point of comparison; attempts to describe its sound and intensity inevitably turn toward body horror. The pummeling "Sinner" is built from a beat made up of repeated, fleshy collisions; "En" is haunted by a shuddering, gasping chorus; the title track rockets from right to left like a mammoth, struggling machine, the sounds of people moaning and howling buried deep within the mix.Like Garden of Delete, Mutant uses disorientation and intimidation to say something about life on the margins. But where Garden of Delete invents an actual alien to deliver the message, Mutant alludes to the challenges that come with queerness — whether than means an unconventional gender identity, sexuality, or both — with its severity and fleeting moments of grace. Ghersi’s navigated this topic with a great deal of his solo work; 2014’s Xen, his first LP, was named for Ghersi’s "feminine spirit." "There’s a political gesture to, for example, including lyrics for something like bottoming," said Ghersi in a November interview with Rolling Stone. "Every time I play a live show, I scream to a room full of thousands of people that ‘it’s too much for me to take’ and what I’m talking about is ‘receiving’ in anal sex. I don’t do that to be confrontational; I do it because that’s my experience... I’m going to be as explicit as the music demands."
Ghersi may not be writing with confrontational intent, but the frankness and intelligence with which he renders sexuality in his work is radical by default in 2015’s glossy, sanitized electronic sphere. His toggling between disgusting, aggressive sounds and sections of placid, pretty composition feel like gender-based code switching. It’s reminiscent of the work Mike Hadreas does as Perfume Genius on albums like last year’s brilliant Too Bright, another album that embraced spiritual duality and rendered the queer experience in harsh, unflattering light. Telling these stories with any kind of accuracy or truth means getting ugly. By embracing the physicality and the slurs and the moments on the brink of disintegration, the artist has a chance to create something emotionally authentic.
Garden of Delete and Mutant aren’t the only albums that fit into this moment in electronic music. Holly Herndon’s Platform is clean, cool, and cerebral, but it ignores conventional structure and weaponized the chirping, whirring, and beeping of the machines we use on a daily basis. The music J’Kerian Morgan makes as Lotic aligns nicely with Ghersi work on Xen and Mutant, but the edges are even sharper; his plunge into imperfect queerness comes with a greater sense of menace. ("I like writing music that I think is beautiful, but perfection isn’t really beautiful to me," said Morgan in a January interview with Pitchfork. "I’m attracted to Berlin and how ugly and destroyed it is. I like men with scars.") Jerrilynn Patton’s spitting, churning footwork as Jlin evokes the smoking factories of her native Gary, Indiana, which makes sense given the time she spent working in a steel mill.
Of course, blockbuster status is still the exception rather than the rule in the spectrum of electronic music; there are hundreds of releases every year that skew toward shadow and inhabit spaces far away from festival stages and the Billboard charts. Artists like Clark or Nicolas Jaar, Actress or Burial, or even Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada are no strangers to the dark, but their music still has a passing regard for structure, melody, and familiarity. They may be foreboding or even haunting, but they want to please. Today’s electronic grunge albums have no use for such symmetry. They’re either trying to tell a story we don’t often hear or they’re feeling around in the dark for music’s boundaries. Convention and tradition aren’t getting in the way.
Electronic grunge can be scalable too
The original grunge’s great irony is that it became the mainstream it reviled, ethos be damned. Kurt Cobain was a shy anarchist who loved punk and wore dresses, and he became the biggest rock star on the planet anyway. Grunge’s translation from the underground to the heart of rock radio was remarkable because it was the first time music with a conscious, vested interest in ugliness — an ideological stake, even — dominated the cultural landscape. It was a grand accident that ended up charting a path for future musicians, and there are artists working today that are consciously walking it. This year’s electronic grunge may be jarring, but there are versions of it designed to be scalable, too.
The producer SOPHIE (aka Samuel Long) released a compilation called Product last week, one that takes four singles released between 2013 and 2014 and throws them together with four new ones. (You can buy the music along with an adult-oriented "silicone product" if you so choose.) SOPHIE’s often lumped in with the metatextual pranksters of A.G. Cook’s PC Music — they’ve worked together before, but he’s not an official part of the collective; he’s signed to Glasgow label Numbers. His work is also stranger and more confrontational; comparing the two is a little like eating a lemon-flavored Skittle and then popping in a sour lozenge a minute later. (No producer in recent memory has spent more time talking about texture.) His work employs many of the same sounds and textures used by the people making electronic grunge — the fizzing, broken laptops; the ruined machines; the dripping meat locker thwacks — and fuses them to traditional pop bones. He also doesn’t mind cracking, smashing, and reorienting said bones for humorous or bewildering purposes. The results are songs that are weird and hair-raising, but also concise, familiar, and catchy as hell.
Songs like "Hard" or "MSMSMSM" are just an evolutionary step away from the work of someone like Arca; if Ghersi spent his nights dreaming about chart positions and sync revenues, he’d end up making music like SOPHIE. This isn’t a sound that’s threatening to invade pop music’s great, fleshy middle: it’s already there. "Lemonade" soundtracked a McDonald’s commercial earlier this year; he works with Charli XCX and co-wrote and produced "Bitch I'm Madonna" with heavy hitters like Diplo and Ariel Rechtshaid.
People connected with grunge because the music convinced them they were participants in something real. It had enough rawness, urgency, and anger to supply its listeners with a transgressive thrill, the kind that so easily tips over into a pure sort of ecstasy; it’s not unusual to hear people describe "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in terms of out-of-body experiences or righteous, ecstatic vengeance. This year’s antisocial, visceral crop of electronic grunge records summon the same kind of feelings. They can be challenging and even revolting, but they also yield piercing emotional moments and a spirit-cleansing joy. Arca’s next record probably isn’t going to turf Bieber and Diplo from the top of the charts; SOPHIE might not manage it, either. But taken together, the music they’re making alongside their peers represents a compelling alternative to the polished, glossy sounds no one could escape this year.