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Welcome to Electropalooza

In advance of the 2002 Electroclash Festival, the lineup for the 2003 festival has already been announced. Amongst those artists scheduled to appear: No Doubt, Bush, Kylie Minogue, Blur, and whomever else cares to start "experimenting" with electronic instrumentation between now and then. Well, OK, this is merely a prediction, and perhaps too-cynical one at that; but frankly, given the direction the festival has taken, it might in fact not be that far from the truth. Like a Lollapalooza for the new millennium, Electroclash seems ready to transform from a showcase for the vanguard of an emerging, mostly-ignored-by-the-musical-mainstream genre, into an uninspired gathering of middle-of-the-road come-latelys looking to cash in on a trend.

Only last year, the first Electroclash festival played host to a cross-section of the most talented members of the global electronic-music underground, including FischerSpooner, Crossover, and ADULT. But now, in its second installment, it has begun to devolve into a forum for any artist with a synthesizer and an ounce of "attitude" (read: funny haircut) to either launch or revive their career. Witness the 2002 headliner, Bis, a thoroughly middling Scottish electro-pop trio, whose one brief moment of importance came and went in 1995, when they were able to ride the cresting wave of the riot grrl movement with the wincing ditty "Kill Yr Boyfriend." More recently, they've repackaged themselves as "electroclash," even going so far as to release an E.P. of remixes by the likes of ADULT. and Tommie Sunshine, so as to cement their affiliation with the genre (or rather, with the label "electroclash" - electroclash, as a genre, is still not particularly clearly defined). What they are doing at the top of this year's bill, when the only people buying their albums are the most die-hard of britpop fans - the type of people with Union Jack stickers on their cars and subscriptions to the NME - is not readily apparent. It seems more than likely that Bis, or their label, SpinArt (for those wondering, "wait, weren't they on Grand Royal?" - they were unceremoniously dumped in 1999 after tepid album sales) came looking for the festival organizers, and not the other way around.

The remainder of the lineup, though largely lacking the opportunism demonstrated by Bis, is not much better off in terms of either relevance or talent. Among the notable: Peaches, whose debut album, "Teaches of Peaches", was one of the best records of 2001, but whose live performances - which consist of her, alone on stage, singing along to pre-recorded backing tracks - are remarkably tedious (I've never seen an audience as exasperated as that during her hour-and-a-half-long set at Electroclash 2001); Chicks on Speed, who, with their high times-name-dropped-to-number-of-listenable-songs ratio, are sort of the musical equivalent of that one class in college everyone always talked about - the one with a really cool- and important- sounding title, like "Anthropology of Late Twentieth Century Subcultures," or "Situationism and its Relationship to Popular Culture" - that wound up being so dull no one could stand to stay in it past the first week; and W.I.T., festival promoter Larry Tee's latest go at Svengali-ism, who have made more appearances in magazines than in concert, and who despite not having distinguished themselves from the rest of the electro pack in any way save their supposed (as Tee so bluntly puts it) "fuckability" were recently offered a six-figure record deal (and people thought the Strokes were the ultimate triumph of hype over talent). All three of these artists, in fact, appeared at last year's festival, but it's not entirely clear why, when they are neither the cream of the new-electro crop, nor up-and-comers in dire need of exposure (is it entirely necessary to have W.I.T. featured in some form on three separate nights?), they've been invited back to this one. It would make sense to turn the festival into either a celebration of electroclash's (however you define it) pre-eminent stars (i.e. FischerSpooner, Miss Kittin, Crossover, etc.) , or a launching-pad for its lesser-known talents, but to allow it to become a refuge for second-tier acts hoping to stay relevant just a little while longer is, to say the least, a disappointment.

How Electroclash, the festival, went in the course of one year from must-see-event-of-the-millennium for members of the global avant-cool to something the readership of Spin magazine might find kind of passé can almost certainly be attributed to a single factor: hype. The music press has taken to the term "electroclash" with the same sort of cynical delight with which it took to "grunge," using it to neatly compartmentalize a broad swath of artists, as well as making it into a descriptor for the current early-1980s influence on fashion (witness the increasing use of "electroclash" on eBay as a keyword for Members Only jackets, wraparound sunglasses, and the like). Thus, just as in 1992 any band that had so much thought about living in Seattle, or donned flannel onstage was hailed as grunge, so in 2002 any artist who has ever used a vocoder, or sported an ironic haircut is bestowed the title of electroclash. Albums that a year ago were buried in the techno section, amidst Ibiza's Greatest Hits Vol. 104 and This Is Bulgarian Progressive House, are now required listening in urban bohemia, and acts that would have been lucky to register a blip on the radar screens of major labels are being offered enormously lucrative contracts. Hence it is possible that electroclash the genre is now too big for Electroclash the festival. And while nothing bearing the electroclash label has yet to make an appearance on MTV, or grace the cover of Rolling Stone, a number of artists - most notably FischerSpooner, who recently signed to Capitol Records, and Miss Kittin, who is now doing Levi's ads - are prominent enough that they might consider this year's festival not worth their bother. A likely explanation for this year's lackluster lineup then, is simply that the biggest names weren't willing to perform, and so the acts chosen to appear are the most renowned members (or at least those possessing the most clout) of a largely drained talent pool.

In fact, Electroclash, in terms of the changes it has undergone in the short time since its inception, bears a striking resemblance to last decade's trend-setting music festival, Lollapalooza. Conceived and organized by Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, Lollapalooza, much like Electroclash, initially shined a spotlight on a then little-known musical realm, and was, according to Farrell, done entirely in the interest of getting bands he felt were underexposed the recognition they deserved. In its first year, 1991, at a time when hair metal still ruled the airwaves, it featured artists who were at the forefront of non-mainstream rock, ranging from Nine Inch Nails, to the Violent Femmes, to Ice-T's experiment in rap-metal, Bodycount. A month or so after the festival ended, however, Nirvana's Nevermind was released, and the "alternative" explosion was underway. Thus, when it came time to organize Lollapalooza 1992, there was, for all practical purposes, no more non-mainstream from which to choose a lineup (a lineup that could fill a stadium at $30 a ticket, at any rate), and so the festival became a paltry mishmash of artists - including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and (ugh) the Red Hot Chili Peppers - who were never particularly avant-garde, but who were now dying to convince the world just how "alternative" they were. Rather than remain true to his stated aim of drawing attention to struggling bands, Farrell had cynically cashed in on mass media hype. So a similar set of circumstances has shaped Electroclash, albeit on a considerably smaller scale (at least for now). It could, in its first year, have been considered a true labor of love, for there was presumably little to gain in staging a multi-day extravaganza of mostly-unheard-of musicians (and in fact its promoter, Larry Tee, reportedly lost tens of thousands of dollars, despite its success). But now, with the focus of the music press squarely on electroclash, the integrity of the 2002 festival is significantly more suspect. It is not hard to imagine how, by putting together a lineup composed of equal parts recognized-names-not-yet-successful-enough-to-charge-too-high-an-appearance-fee, and opportunists-desperate-for-exposure-and-thereby-willing-to perform-for-a-pittance, it would be possible to assure a large draw, and thus significant revenue, while keeping cost at a minimum. This was the business model that made Lollapalooza such a lucrative venture during the nineties, and which now, it would seem, has been adopted by Electroclash.

But is it really that bad? Is Electroclash the new Lollapalooza? Well, as bad as they are, Bis isn't Pearl Jam, and W.I.T. isn't the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Still, it is disappointing to see the festival turn its back on up-and-coming artists, relegating them to a separate venue (the painfully hip but horribly cramped Luxx - the main stage is at the Warsaw) while giving top billing to already well known but going-nowhere acts like Chicks on Speed. This is especially the case given the abundance of woefully unrecognized performers that fit the Electroclash mold, such as the Ghost Exits, Centuries, Avenue D, Prance, Flux Information Sciences, Mommy and Daddy, and My Robot Friend (several of whom are, in fact, playing at this year's festival, as (borrowing from Lollapalooza's vocabulary) "second-stage" acts). If Electroclash were truly dedicated to the advancement of avant-garde electronic music, it would allow more obscure acts to headline, banking on its name to garner them notice (and it is, to its credit, doing that to a certain extent this year by putting the relatively un-hyped Tracy and the Plastics on the marquee). But sadly, it seems more concerned with filling the wallets of its promoters, and sustaining the careers of musicians already long on publicity, but short on potential.

During the first Electroclash festival, a number of flyers were posted around the city reading something along the lines of "Boycott Electroclash. Don't let electronic music become the next grunge. Resist the categorization of culture." Though most people, at the time, wrote this act off as the unwarranted moaning of a cynical scenester (as no doubt some people will consider this article), it has turned out perhaps to have been a valid warning. True, no major-label, synth-dabbling atrocity passed off as "electroclash" is headlining, and the mainstream music press - Spin, MTV News and the like - is still paying sparing little attention, but nonetheless, Electroclash, as a forum for electronic music's bona fide avant-garde to show the world why they shouldn't be ignored any longer, is rapidly coming apart at the seams, like so much tattered, threadbare flannel.

--Ryan Booker


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[email protected] | October 2002 | Issue 31
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