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Now compare that image with Brooklyn-based promoter, DJ, and label owner Larry Tee's description of the New York City club scene's previous dilettantes -- the "paunchy, middle-aged, wide-assed English DJs with receding hairlines" who got paid to cue up records in the shadows. That's the choice he's been offering clubbers with the little experiment he started two years ago -- do you want your beats served up by colossal nobodies (the DJs) or turbocharged freaks like Peaches, dripping with ambiguous sexuality? Tee, a veteran scenester who at 42 has seen more of New York nightlife than probably anyone should, one day realized he was profoundly bored with it all. So, a bit like Malcolm McLaren with his Sex Pistols, Tee decided to engineer a social movement to keep himself and the rest of us entertained. He called it electroclash, and it was fun. But he pushed it out into the world so abruptly that many are wondering if it can stand on its shaky legs without him. The number of artists associated with the term who are already disavowing it raises some doubt.
According to Tee, the producer-driven, DJ-fronted way of doing electronic music has failed. The remedy? A crop of "really fuckable stars," he suggests. The candidates he's got in mind choreograph stage routines, don self-made costumes, devote at least as much time to crafting their images as punching buttons in the studio, and, most important, actually sing. For Tee, the faceless, voiceless, and fashion-senseless are so last decade. Worse, in his view, those qualities never carried over to sales anyway, at least not in America. Yes, he concedes, he does want electroclash to get really big. "It's either that or keep watching my favorite artists suffer while nu metal stays on the radio."
Tee scoured the nocturnal backwaters of New York and Europe and cobbled together quite an assortment of bands and figures that could fit his motley bill. Sharing a fetish for punk rock's disregard of technique and the drama of the synthy '80s, the acts that caught his eye had actually been lurking about for a few years, mostly unnoticed, under the nebulous "electro" rubric. Folks like the woman-deadpanning-over-drum machine duos Adult, Crossover, Hong Kong Counterfeit, and Miss Kittin & the Hacker. Peaches and the art-school, laptop feminists known as Chicks on Speed came out of the German scene. More in the new-wave band vein were New York's Soviet and A.R.E. Weapons. But epitomizing the aesthetic that Tee wanted to champion was Fischerspooner, a gender-twisting performance art/electro music troupe that dresses in cat suits, vulture feathers, and Grace Jones eye makeup.
Some of these groups held cult status in Europe thanks to the endorsement of German tastemaker DJ Hell, owner of the über-trendy International Deejay Gigolos label, but Tee saw in them a much broader success. He promptly appointed himself their pimp and began the often not-so-delicate task of introducing his stable to the mainstream. The consummate media manipulator, he understood that for his product to penetrate the market, it needed a brand name. "I just named it so it'd be more convenient for people to write about it," he says. "So it wouldn't dry up like so many other great directions that happened in the '90s because the companies weren't pushing them." Publications, catching the whiff of something happening, acquiesced and began covering it (I know, I know...).
Electro before Larry Tee rediscovered it was a fairly bizarre enclave, a sort of last refuge for producers looking to make dark, unsettling dance music outside the shopping mall that electronica was becoming. So it's to be expected that there would be resistance to Tee, who has explicitly modeled his plan for marketing electroclash on the grunge explosion. But the backlash to the fledgling movement has been severe and extraordinarily swift.
Miss Kittin bristles when electroclash is mentioned in interviews. Adam Miller of Adult, who played the first festival, described his feeling toward the word as "hate," and Alex Murray-Leslie of Chicks on Speed said in an online interview that her group's intention was to avoid being "locked into that dreaded shoebox of electroclash hell!" (In a later conversation, she added that the genre has various redeeming qualities. "The great thing about it is that there's a far greater balance of women to men than in rock or techno," she says. "It's also a really fun-loving, exciting approach about not being daunted by technique.")
Is this just the usual queasiness artists have with pigeonholes -- the proverbial biting of the hand that promotes them -- or something deeper? Electroclash as a term has been in circulation for scarcely more than a year, and already the haters are sharpening their knives. One New York scenester proclaimed on his website, "Larry Tee's 'electroclash' is phony rebel posturing at its worst; he and his puppet acts would like nothing more than for 'electroclash' to go mainstream."
Besides Tee's McLaren-like zeal to take fringe culture to the bank, other criticisms that dog electroclash are that it's a mere reenactment of a not particularly substantive decade and that its vaunting of surface over content makes for disposable product. Indeed, electroclash is not music that requires headphones -- the sounds are thin, the production values are often rather Fisher-Price, and the singing is best digested without too much scrutiny. As such, the old-guard electronic music journals like XLR8R, URB, and Mixer -- magazines that purvey the notion that techno is worthy of deep listening -- have remained largely silent on the movement.
But Tee has a spin for every barb. According to him, the music's immediacy is its greatest asset. "Electroclash by its nature is really democratic," he says. "Anybody can be an electroclash star -- you just get a rhythm box, have some stage presence, and some good new ideas and people will clear out of your way and allow you to express yourself however the fuck you want to. So of course there are going to be naysayers -- people always want to end something before it starts."