Skrillex: My Name Is Skrillex/Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites/More Monsters and Nice Sprites/Bangarang Released: June 7, 2010/October 22, 2010/June 7, 2011/December 23, 2011
Dubstep is a style of electronic music which developed–alongside grime–as an offshoot of the influential UK garage scene. Often cited as reflecting the damp urban sprawl of London, it combined deep bass sounds, irregular drum patterns and chopped samples. It got play in clubs, but it was known mostly as dark, moody, insular music, more suitable for headphones and late nights alone in your bedroom than massive speakers and sweaty nightclubs. In the last few years, dubstep has swept the US and right now you can hear it in commercials, on pop radio and just about everywhere you look on the internet. But America’s brand of dubstep only bears a passing resemblance to the kind that emerged in the UK, so much so that critics have invented their own derisive name for it: brostep.
Dubstep has become the realm of loud college dudes and moody teenagers across the nation and it has to be one of the most remarkably improbable musical developments of the last ten years, particularly in a country that has never truly embraced electronic music before. Who would have guessed that the quiet, contemplative work of a producer like Burial would one day share a genre with music beloved by drunken frat boys? And how many of those drunken frat boys would even recognize Burial’s songs as dubstep?
At the center of America’s dubstep explosion is Sonny Moore, better known as Skrillex. Moore, one time lead singer of punk band From First to Last, released his first EP as Skrillex–appropriately titled My Name Is Skrillex–in 2010. In the two years since, he has essentially become the face of dubstep, achieving huge commercial success and winning several Grammys. He has also attracted criticism from genre fans, who see him as a representation of everything that’s wrong with America’s aggressive brand of dubstep.
It’s not hard to see why Skrillex and artists like him appeal so much to today’s teenagers. Dubstep has invaded the cultural arena once dominated by Hot Topic punk, and a typical electronica festival in America today looks more like the Warped Tour than you’d expect. It’s the result of a kind of cultural turnover. The sort of hip-hop, punk and metal that once made baby boomers’ hair stand on end will only become more and more tolerable to new generations of parents. How can kids rebel when their mom is a former mall goth, when their white suburban dad knows more about hip-hop than they do? Skrillex’s style–the melding of pop sensibilities with outer limits electronic noise–hands kids a totally new way to piss off their parents, something loud, weird and completely alien to mom and dad’s cultural experience.
Skrillex’s songs often trade in sounds that seem to have been designed for maximum annoyance, filled with grinding, whirring synth basslines that have become a trademark of his music and hundreds of imitators. There’s something viscerally engaging about it, like the sound of a spaceship’s engines mixed with the voice of a dying robot, but it has its limits. “Fucking Die 1” from the My Name Is Skrillex EP and the remix that follows it (Skrillex’s EPs contain a lot of remixes) prominently feature stuttering synth belches which stab at the ears for minutes on end. More Monsters and Sprites EP single “First of the Year (Equinox)” starts with a pleasantly loping mix of piano and chopped vocals before being cracked in half by a sample of someone screaming “CALL 911 NOW” and those same stretched and contorted synth sounds.
Admittedly, it’s all a bit much for me. Moore’s constantly shifting landscape of electronic sounds, vocal samples and driving beats can be noisily overwhelming on tracks like “Rock ‘n’ Roll (Will Take You to the Mountain)”. I have a weak spot for busy, frantic electronic music but Skrillex’s brand of it just seems noisily confused much of the time, like he has no idea when to reign things in or leave sounds out and little sense for how to tie those sounds together into an aesthetically coherent whole. For others, I get the feeling that this anything goes, rollercoaster attitude to electronic music is exactly what makes Skrillex so exciting. It goes back to that rebellious teenage affinity for noise and apparent complexity.
Skrillex and dubstep’s appeal to bros is a much more confounding subject. Beyond the occasional flirtation with house music, their kind has never been known to embrace electronic music as rabidly as they have dubstep. Dubstep’s popularity has risen alongside a particular brand of maximalist electro house (which itself has come to influence and dominate just about every sphere of pop music) and the DNA of the two genres has mixed considerably. Skrillex often plays alongside rave-ready DJ’s like Deadmau5 who once shared little in common with dubstep, but the lines have blurred significantly. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, one of Skrillex’s signature songs, combines harsh industrial noise with chopped vocals and a breezy, catchy synthline that sounds like it was lifted straight out of a 90s trance track. The intersection between dubstep and more familiar forms of dance music seems to be a common entry point for bros.
Again, this is indicative of shifting cultural tides. A kid today may have been raised with no real sense of loyalty to guitar music. Dance music, a genre once associated by bro types with femininity and flamboyant homosexuality is now just as acceptable a listening choice as metal or rock. This isn’t to say that electronic music will turn any bro into a feminist or a gay rights activist, or that the brand of it that they enjoy isn’t heavily, obnoxiously bro-ified, but it represents a definite shift in the relationship between American masculinity and electronic music.
What’s really bothersome about brostep is it’s ubiquity (ubiquity is a problem I’ve written about here before) as well as it’s repetitiveness. YouTube is crammed with incredibly pointless and hopelessly unoriginal dubstep remixes of songswhichneverneededdubstepremixes. Skrillex’s repeated use of various techniques has spawned a generation of aspiring producers with a depressingly narrow sonic palette, an obsession with the “filthiness” of their sound and an inability to produce a single piece of music without generic bass wobble and throbbing drops.
I can’t hate Skrillex. He’s a humble person, just as confused at his own success as his detractors are. There’s no way he ever intended to spawn brostep’s stagnant culture, and he has made a genuine effort lately to break free from his own restraints. His most recent EP, Bangarang, brings a range of influences into the forefront, with songs combining his familiar dubstep and electro elements with hip-hop, R&B and rock. And the success of Skrillex and brostep hasn’t impeded the growth of dubstep in other areas. So called “post dubstep” has flourished in unexpected ways, with artists like James Blake making dubstep as much a part of the musical diet for Pitchfork readers as it is for bros.
From Blake to Skrillex, it’s all a far cry from the dark London streets where dubstep began, but it doesn’t show any sign of stopping. What about dubstep has made it so pliable? I still can’t say, beyond the hypothesis that it has become a meaningless term that could eventually be applied to any style of electronic music. Whatever dubstep’s secret is, what really makes the success of it and electro house so interesting is America’s past reservations towards electronic music. It seems like it was only a few years ago that a typical American would consider anything with a beat and a synthesizer “techno”. If, decades from now, dubstep goes down as America’s first true love affair with electronic music, perhaps we’ll remember Skrillex as the matchmaker.