Electroclash. One word simultaneously has the media buzzing about the newest "it" thing, kids dancing in clubs from Brooklyn to Berlin and critics dismissing the scene as nothing but over-hyped '80s nostalgia.
So what exactly is Electroclash? According to the movement's most vocal champion, DJ/producer Larry Tee, it's "where electronic music hits the star power of rock and roll and the content and politics of punk." Growing out of Brooklyn and Berlin, the scene made its official debut last year at the Electroclash Festival in New York. Artists grouped in the Electroclash genre include Peaches, Whatever It Takes (known as W.I.T.), Soviet, A.R.E. Weapons, Mount Sims and Tracy + the Plastics. Just below the movement's glossy veneer lies vehement social and political commentary. Think rock'n'roll but with grooveboxes instead of guitars; punk, but sporting leg warmers and teased out fan-bangs; techno minus the robots.
Having recently emerged from an addictive cloud of drug abuse, Tee was tired of house music: "Intelligent dance music struck me as an oxymoron." Nor was he happy with the state of the Top 40: "Puddle of Mudd -- so not alternative." When he came across early LPs by now-established Electroclash giants, like Chicks on Speed and Fischerspooner, he finally found something exciting. "The point wasn't to name any musical genre, but to create some hype so that these artists would get some attention." (Can you say Fugazi, Ian MacKaye?)
Tee was struck by the democratic and D.I.Y. sensibility of the scene, where "anybody can pick up a synthesizer, and if they have a really great idea or a new approach to something, they can be a star." In part, Electroclash is a response to the late '90s dance culture that had become overly self-referential and intellectual. It plays up the fun, via elaborate performances, and sometimes by self-consciously selling the artists as sex symbols. In short, it's about injecting some rock back into electronica.
Overall, the idea is the band as conceptual art. In the case of W.I.T., band member Melissa Burns explains that the group began as an art project that sought to embody the cliches about the wild ambition stereotypically associated with girl bands: "We're gonna do whatever it takes to get on a thermos!" Hence, the band's name. "We're not really a 'real' band, we're like a dream band,"she explains. They don't even play their own instruments: "Like, ew! You might break a nail!" W.I.T. wants you to wonder: is it social commentary, or just two girls singing "songs you'd sing into your hairbrush?"
Given that neither art students forming bands (Talking Heads) nor musicians trying to combine elements of high and low culture (Patti Smith) are particularly new ideas, why pay any attention to Electroclash at all?
Electroclash combines cutting-edge art with kitschy pop -- a fusion that is both intentional and self-aware. These artists mine popular culture for inspiration, (take W.I.T.'s focus on "the all-girl topics of love, loss and longing"), but present their music in an avant-garde context.
If things go according to plan, and Electroclash steals the Top 40 from the Gamma Girls and the nu-metal thrashers, we may all be humming along with the W.I.T. girls, "I surrender my love to you / I can't fight it anymore." As they sing, "Resistance is a waste of time"