It's easy to dismiss electronica as a passing fad. Radio stations almost never play it. Record stores consign it to a small section of its own. The media haven't quite grasped it. What's all the fuss about? Come on -- this bleeping, squawking stuff will never replace rock 'n' roll.
But last week, during the Winter Music Conference at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, it was like rock 'n' roll never happened.
The Winter Music Conference began thirteen years ago as a means of bringing some respectability to the genre of dance music. Throughout the '80s, the conference focused mainly on hip-hop and high-energy disco. But with the advent of electronica, which is mostly dance-oriented, the conference became the gathering place for label execs looking for the sounds of tomorrow. This year an estimated 3000 music-industry insiders flocked to the Fontainebleau.
From Saturday through Wednesday of last week, the hotel was overrun by kids (and grown adults) wearing knit caps, loose T-shirts, baggy jeans, and fat sneakers. By day young DJs carrying square-shaped satchels full of twelve-inch singles roamed the lobby. At night hundreds of people lined up outside Miami Beach nightclubs to see the hottest names in electronica: Roni Size, the Propellerheads, Fatboy Slim, and Florida's own Rabbit in the Moon, among many others.
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The DJs and club kids put electronica on the map. Bill Kelly, a cofounder of the conference, summed it up this way: "I guess if you take the number of hours that a DJ spins other people's music in a club, over the course of many years, you get some pretty well-tuned ears."
Some electronica sounds almost alien: superfast rhythms, a busy bass line, and not much else. But much of it sounds terribly familiar: 4/4 beats with wailing vocals and simple synthesizer riffs. For those of us whose ears are still tuned to guitar strings, it's difficult to sort it all out, let alone make sense of it. In many ways electronica is to rock what Picasso was to representational painting: a new approach to an old art form. The old rules -- choruses, verses, lyrics -- have been drastically changed.
One Monday evening at the Salvation dance club, perhaps a hundred kids crowded into a room the size of a broom closet to watch a series of drum 'n' bass DJs. The sound was speedy, bottom-heavy, and repetitive, and the only visible action was the moving of two hands across a console. The event recalled a recent quip from the singer-songwriter Stan Ridgway: "I'm not really interested in seeing a bunch of guys on stage who look like they're making deli sandwiches." But just such a spectacle kept the crowd riveted until nine o'clock in the morning.
One magazine publisher hazarded a guess that electronica will be "the music of the future for the next 50 years." It's possible. Various forms of jazz dominated the first half of this century, and rock 'n' roll took over for the latter half. The timing is certainly right.
"People always tell me it all sounds the same," said a college-radio DJ from North Carolina standing outside the club. "I always say, 'Oh, you mean like those same old rock 'n' roll chords that Superchunk and Mary Lou Lord and U2 keep using
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