Oh, the humanity

North American audiences want more than just music

I had a discussion with a friend recently about the continental differences in approach towards pop and electronic music. On our continent, dance music is mostly isolated to Jersey Shore fist-pumping buffoonery if not an ironic deconstruction of that. Pure dancing for dancing’s sake requires a level of self-confidence not commonly associated with a subculture somewhat incapable of physically expressing themselves.
I went to Osheaga in Montréal for Major Lazer and the outdoor festival audience couldn’t wait to take off its shirts. I saw a group of three couples rolling on E in front of me, tugging at each others underwear, undulating to sawtooth synth lines and bass drops. Other than realizing the thin line between good and bad club, it was also made apparent that they could not understand what (other than foreplay) they could be getting out of this perceivably faceless club DJing.
Your average clubgoer doesn’t attribute much value to the DJ or the person who produced the music. Across the pond, this music culture is different. In Berlin, for instance, minimal techno is the pop enterprise and many DJs and producers are stars. But dance music has a different value there. In Europe, music festivals are more plentiful and the purpose of dancing is more insular. It’s privacy in public, thousands alone together, a euphoric internal journey. It’s the reason why instrumental electronic songs can be chart hits on BBC Radio, but that may never happen in Canada.
We crave personality and humanity in our popular music. Major Lazer attracted twice as many people to the Piknik Electronic stage at Osheaga as Mary Anne Hobbs, former BBC host and dubstep tastemaker, did the previous day. Mary Anne Hobbs routinely plays for thousands and is a bonafide star in England. Their skill level and musical taste aren’t that divergent, but there needs to be a hook to appeal to North American audiences. Major Lazer has a cartoon mascot and memorable video clips directed by Eric Wareheim of Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! fame.
Electronic producers have routinely only been able to break big on our continent through the presentation of a human element behind the music. During the big beat craze of the late ’90s, the breakthrough stars were those that cultivated a personality separate from their music, as if that music were not enough of a message for the audience. Moby, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim all succeeded more due to visual elements than aural ones: proto-viral music videos by Spike Jonze with celebrity cameos, songs in ad campaigns, interviews highlighting their place outside the electronic music community. Most importantly, they realized the value of the human voice.
Even electronic artists who try to create characters that strive to separate themselves from the music they are making as commentary on our need for personality and increasing reliance on technology (Kraftwerk, Daft Punk) are championed for this truly human decision. Their depersonalization is done in the thoughtful nature of the human mind (by taking away the self to reference our reliance on technology) so it actually makes them more human than if it were just Joe Public spinning the tracks of the day. Their decision to subvert and comment on humanity actually makes them more attractive to regular people. And their voice, however manipulated and vocodered, is still coming from a human source.

One of the biggest electro musicians in the world is Deadmau5, a Canadian named Joel Zimmerman who makes glitchy club music but wears a huge red mouse head whenever he plays it. The name comes from finding a dead mouse in his computer. There is no narrative behind wearing the mask. There is no reason for the image, other than manipulating the audience. And people eat it up. Rather than just another guy making house music, he’s the guy with the mask doing it.
And the visual is paramount. Shirts, replica mouse heads, even an iPhone app where you play with a platform-jumping cartoon mouse are available. He’s the Mickey Mouse of the club scene. He differs from the aforementioned depersonalizing electronic legends. His music is secondary to his image. It’s a way to monetize a market that doesn’t survive on record sales or radio play.
This creates an iconography that succeeds in personalizing the music even more than presenting a real person behind it could. It works even better without an ethos behind it. People just assume it’s the same thing. Take the Bloody Beetroots, a pair of Italians who wear a luminescent take on Spider-Man’s black symbiote mask. They take a recognizable image and transpose it with a hard partying, buzzy, blown-out techno sound. They loosely imply it’s an “art project” while eschewing the creative and critical hallmarks of other conceptual music groups.
I’m often reminded of how surprising it was to hear grime music and minimal dubstep artists like Burial frequently on BBC Radio during my last trip to England. People had this kind of music as their ringtones, easily assimilating higher brow media into their everyday routines. That isn’t to say CBC Radio 3 isn’t a great resource for developing bands and the independent Canadian music scene. It’s just a shame that electronic music has a pallor over it, just because a few meatheads have defined it broadly as tribal anthems for the unevolved. V

Roland Pemberton is a musician and writer, as well as Edmonton’s Poet Laureate. His music column appears in Vue Weekly on the last Thursday of each month.

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