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This Sunday, the music business celebrates itself with the 54th running of the Grammy Awards, where the impossible task of categorizing pop music is made plain. Songs from diametrically opposed genres butt up against one another in the Big Four categories—Album, Record, and Song of the Year, as well as Best New Artist—which stubbornly cling to their five-nominees-a-year rule despite the Academy Awards opening their Best Picture field to a possible 10.
The list of nominees in this year’s Best New Artist category makes the point about music’s sprawl well: There’s the lite country-pop of the sibling act the Band Perry; the syllable-splitting hyper-color antics of Nicki Minaj; the tenacious St. John’s–bred hip-hop of J. Cole; and the feelings-swaddled exercise in 21st-century tastefulness Bon Iver. And then there’s Skrillex, the business name of a 24-year-old named Sonny Moore, a dance producer who is one of this year’s most nominated artists. Moore, under his own name, sang with the rock band From First to Last in the mid ’00s; upon leaving the band, he went into producing, and then he dove into the world of electronic-based music. His look—inky black locks on one side and a smooth-shaved head on the other, oversized black glasses, pale skin, clothes that look like they were picked up at a garage sale held by a Soundgarden tribute band’s lead singer—has resulted in him being a meme as much as a musician, with bloggers Photoshopping his haircut onto unsuspecting cats and animated gifs transforming his twiddling of controls into the making of sushi or of macaroni and cheese. (It’s unknown how many of the people responsible for such handiwork are actually fans of his music. But does it matter?)
Last week, Skrillex played a series of shows across New York, which he advertised as a “takeover” of the city. Tickets to all the shows sold out quickly. On Friday night, he was at Roseland, where he went on at 2 a.m.; but the crowd’s response to him was as overcaffeinated as someone who was up at 11 after a full night’s sleep. For nearly two hours, he pummeled the crowd with songs and visuals (with nods to Mortal Kombat and Call of Duty). Looking down at Roseland’s floor from the balcony, I saw hands being waved, heads undulating up and down, every person turned toward the stage and watching Moore as he twirled knobs, nodded along, and tucked his hair behind his ear. If there was a lull in the crowd response, I missed it.
Much is made of the “drop” in Skrillex’s songs—that point where the bass dives deep into the listener’s ears, accompanied by skittering electronics that bring to mind a particularly balky dot-matrix printer spitting out a banner that says CONGRATULATIONS!!! or WE LIKE TO PARTY!!! or a similarly excitable (and long) statement. But that shortchanges the energy that courses throughout his music up to that point. When it’s loud, his music’s grinding bombast makes it sound like an heir to the nu-metal likes of Korn (whose 2011 album, The Path of Totality, contains a couple of Skrillex productions). It might be rooted in electronics, but the sort of dancing it elicits is more of a mosh than a two-step. It’s all climax, all a moment where Skrillex can interject with a screamed “Put your fuckin’ hands up” and have the crowd oblige automatically because they already feel that much joy. (On Friday, he was commanding the crowd to do this two songs in.) You could say that it’s the polar opposite of the music put out by his Best New Artist rival Bon Iver, who uses reverb and sax and falsetto as a cloak, as a way to move imperceptibly along a stream of melody and feeling for the length of his songs. Skrillex, by contrast, shoves and chugs and gets to where he wants to go—only to spin off toward another destination almost immediately after he has arrived.
Since nu-metal imploded in a great fireball of self-loathing and daddy issues at the beginning of the millennium, mainstream rock has seemed somewhat rudderless, with stations that play new tracks either falling by the wayside or just retreating into the safer territory of classic rock. (New York’s most recent entry in the rock-radio race, WRXP, flipped to an all-news format last year, three and a half years after it rose from the ashes of smooth-jazz CD 101.9.) But the sort of electronic music that Skrillex is making seems like a logical next step for people into hyperaggressive, ball-busting rock, or at least a progression more logical than becoming a fan of the ad-agency-approved rock put forth by those bands that parlayed their Best New Tracks status on Pitchfork into commercial placements. Where the Papa Roaches and Puddle of Mudds would get tripped up was the adolescent attitudes in their lyrics, which successfully channeled a specific subset of the growing male brain for a brief period but which quickly seemed embarrassing, fodder for one of those “I Heart the Decades” clip shows to laugh at in retrospective.
In contrast, Skrillex’s music has minimal lyrics, and they seem pretty much beside the point; even the most potentially nu-metal-in-spirit songs (“I want to kill everybody in the world/L-O-V-E, L-O-V-E , L-O-V-E/I want to eat your heart,” repeated by a pitched-up voice, comprise the lyrics to “Kill EVERYBODY”) are leavened by all the other stuff going on around them. The beats lurch and bounce, the gears sound like they’re opening up portals into parallel dimensions, and when the drops hit, it’s like an endorphin rush to the brain. Which is why in a live setting, the crowd goes absolutely nuts from note one, with even those people who might not have been convinced going in succumbing to the drop and bouncing along.