Tuesday, June 4, 2019
electronica goes straight to ubiquity (1999)
New York Times, June 6th 1999
by Simon Reynolds
The usual trajectory for a new form of pop music is from underground sound to mainstream omnipresence, followed by eventual banalization as the style filters into television commercials and background music.
That's what happened with grunge. In 1991, after a decade brewing in the indie-rock margins, the sound exploded onto the pop charts with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Within a year, grunge's fuzzed-up guitars were part of the soundtrack for television commercials like the Subaru Impresa advertisement that featured a scruffy slacker hailing the car as ''just like punk rock''.
Two years ago, electronica – a music press and record industry buzzword for a disparate array of electronic dance music genres – was hyped as the new grunge. Despite the success of the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, it never quite became the next big thing. Instead, electronica has done something peculiar: it has skipped the pop hegemony stage and gone straight from underground noise to ubiquitous mood music.
Sounds associated with the rave subculture and linked to the use of drugs like Ecstasy and LSD are diffusing into the mainstream of American life in the form of ''quotidian music'' – a term some cultural-studies academics use to describe music that you hear but don't consciously listen to.
Radio and MTV generally shun electronica, but you can hear its clattery beats and screeching synthesizer riffs in countless commercials for products as non-subcultural as Mastercard, BMW, Call AT&T, LA Looks hair gel, Smint breath fresheners, Skechers sneakers, GMC Sonoma and even the United States Army. Its frenetic rhythms are used to get the viewer's pulse racing on the Bravo channel and even on ABC News.
If your only window on the pop world was commercials, you might think the English D.J. and producer Fatboy Slim was as big as the Beatles. In the real world, his album You've Come a Long Way, Baby has only recently edged into the Billboard Top 40 after an eight-month build. But in television, Fatboy Slim (whose real name is Norman Cook) is king. Six tracks from the album and two from its predecessor, Better Living Through Chemistry, are featured in commercials for brand names like Nike Air Jordan, Surge, Adidas and Oldsmobile or in trailers for movies like Cruel Intentions, Office Space and 10 Things I Hate About You. One Fatboy song, 'Gangster Tripping', appears on the soundtrack of Go, while another (with novel spelling), 'The Rockafeller Skank', was the backdrop for a crucial scene in the smash hit She's All That. New commercials featuring Fatboy music seem to be broadcast every week; a recent addition is the Gap Kids ad that uses his remix of Cornershop's 'Brimful of Asha'.
It's hard to think of another musician who is so relatively unknown and yet whose music is so pervasive. In addition, countless commercials imitate the big-beat sound popularized by Fatboy Slim, a blend of uptempo hip-hop beats and squelchy techno riffs that Mr. Cook pioneered along with the Chemical Brothers. Sometimes the imitators are actual artists whose music has been licensed, like the Crystal Method (whose single 'Busy Child' was used in a Gap commercial more than a year ago). And sometimes the Fatboy soundalike tracks are commissioned from companies that specialize in composing for commercials.
Compared with many other styles of electronica, big beat is accessible – it's peppy, it's crammed with hooks and its riffs often have a rock-and-roll feel. But you can hear raw underground dance-music sounds in commercials, too – the twisting, convulsive rhythms of jungle, the futuristic burbles of acid techno. One of the most sonically adventurous spots of recent months is the commercial for the Philips recordable CD player that was created by the agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer. It is set in a rave environment, with clubbers dancing to formulaic techno, until an individualist called Leon plays his own music (the British dance producer Talvin Singh's hybrid of jungle and Indian bhangra) and does a weird-but-graceful dance, which the crowd immediately imitates.
Such commercials show that despite its failure to conquer the mainstream, electronica has won an ideological victory. The youth of America may actually be moshing to funk-metal bands like Korn or dancing to ska and swing revivalists, but rave culture has somehow managed to establish itself as the signifier of youth today. Yet electronica in commercials is less a generational marker, as hip-hop is and grunge was, than a reflection of the tastes of the advertising industry, which contains a high quotient of hipsters and is largely based in cities where club culture has a strong presence, like New York, Los Angeles and London.
There are also technical reasons electronica is increasingly the creative director's first choice. ''The pacing of ads today is so frantic that techno works really well with it,'' said Anthony Vagnoni, editor-at-large of the trade magazine Advertising Age. ''The composited images, saturated colours, bizarre camera angles and scrolling of text down the screen – that kind of imagery overload lends itself to a futuristic music treatment like electronica.''
Modern dance music is attractive to video editors for precisely the same reason it appeals to DJ's – the tracks are designed for cut and mix. ''The density of rhythmic activity and the highly nuanced sonic layers provide wonderful cut-points for video editors,'' said Rick Lyon, a composer who has scored commercials for major American agencies.
Although classic rock of the '60s and '70s and this decade's alternative rock are still used in commercials (even techno-infatuated Philips uses a remake of a Beatles song as a musical signature in its commercials), electronica has advantages over rock. It is energetic yet usually devoid of the distracting sonic foreground of a lead singer. ''If you compare a band like Korn with Fatboy Slim, both are very youth-oriented,'' said Robert Kaplan, the Messner music supervisor responsible for the Philips CD player commercial. ''But Korn comes with a lot of baggage: it's very angry, sonically, vocally and lyrically. Whereas Fatboy Slim doesn't stand for anything.'' In this view, it's the meaninglessness of dance music (or at least, the absence of an overt meaning) that lends itself to background usages of all kinds.
Yet for radio and MTV, it's precisely this anonymity and meaninglessness that make electronica tracks problematic. ''Modern rock'' radio stations have generally found that only the most rock-flavoured electronica tracks – those featuring songlike structures or vocal hooks – seem to prosper. Listeners connect with a voice and a lyric. In 1997, MTV was briefly enthused by electronica's candidacy as the ''next big thing'' – the channel programmed videos by the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Orbital and Underworld and started Amp, a late-night show dedicated to more experimental electronic music.
But last year MTV abruptly ceased its flirtation with techno. Today, electronica videos are almost never played, while Amp has been relegated to a graveyard-shift slot on Sunday nights between 2 and 4 A.M. MTV's reluctance to play electronica videos is offset by the channel's paradoxical partiality toward using techno, drum-and-bass and big beat as the soundtrack to docu-drama soap operas like Road Rules and The Real World, and as ''interstitial music'' – the sonic element of the graphically bold interludes and animated logos that act as punctuation between shows.
Is this use of electronica as aural wallpaper by MTV and other channels like Bravo contributing to the trivialization of this once alien music? Maybe. Are advertisers debasing an underground sound that matters deeply to its core audience? For sure. But it's also possible that by insinuating this music, with its strange timbres and rhythmic idioms, into people's living rooms and lives, advertisers are actually preparing the way for a future pop breakthrough of electronic music.
In the meantime, the commercials are helping to sell the music as well as the intended products. ''I get listeners phoning in and saying, 'Can you play the song in that Volkswagen commercial?' '' said Aaron Axelson, music director of San Francisco's KITS, a modern rock station friendly to electronica. So in addition to the fee that the group, the Orb, was paid for the use of its track in the television spot, the band can thank Volkswagen for some extra sales.