Skrillex Is Green Day, and This Is Dance Music's 'American Idiot' Moment
a.k.a. Why I passed on reviewing the new Skrillex album.
Last week a publication I sometimes write for contacted me, asking if I’d be up for reviewing the new Skrillex album, Quest for Fire. (It hadn’t yet been announced that a second new Skrillex LP, Don’t Get Too Close, would be released literally one day after the first.)
I declined the offer.
As someone who’s been involved in dance and electronic music since the late ’90s, I’m supposed to hate Skrillex. When he first broke big in the early 2010s, I was working as an editor at XLR8R, where we collectively decided to ignore his work. It didn’t matter how popular he was; as far as we were concerned, the guy was a joke and an interloper, a goofy-looking mall emo refugee who’d somehow become the face of the equally contemptible EDM genre. That genre was filling arenas—and raking in oodles of profit in the process—but amongst self-respecting electronic music fans, it wasn’t something to be taken seriously. A bastion of braindead bros and glowstick-carrying fangirls, EDM wasn’t seen as an organic cultural movement; it was a perversion that swapped out decades of DIY-driven history for gaudy spectacle, corporate excess and a seemingly endless parade of mind-numbing drops.
This attitude wasn’t just some fringe position either. When Skrillex won his first Grammy in 2012 and gave a nervous acceptance speech shouting out labels like Dub Police and the “Croydon dub guys,” it wasn’t hailed as a transcendent moment for dance music. It was regarded as just another signal of how profoundly disconnected the awards (and by extension, the mainstream music industry) were from the genre’s roots and authentic fanbase. Even as EDM kept growing, reaching a point where its biggest stars could play 50-date tours across the US—something that was previously unheard of for dance music acts—it remained an object of derision, and not just amongst embittered old heads, self-assured tastemakers and rock dudes who reflexively hated any music without guitars. By the time Saturday Night Live spoofed the genre in 2014, pretty much anyone who thought of themselves as having even a modicum of good taste felt wholly comfortable shitting on EDM.
That contempt lingered throughout the 2010s, even as EDM began to fizzle somewhat. I spent much of the decade’s latter half working with Red Bull Music Academy, and can vividly remember an argument that broke out on Slack one day when someone merely suggested that we should do something with Skrillex. To me, the idea felt like a betrayal, and I literally penned a multi-paragraph screed outlining not only why this was a Very Bad Idea, but how Skrillex—and the cultural moment he’d ushered in—represented the complete opposite of the artistic values and musical history that RBMA had been working to celebrate and preserve for more than a decade. (In retrospect, Slack probably wasn’t the best venue for that little diatribe, and my words were met with multiple eye rolls—and at least one “Old Man Yells at Cloud” GIF—by my younger colleagues.)
RBMA has been closed for more than three years now, and in the end, we never did anything with Skrillex. (Oddly enough, he did walk in unannounced to say hello one day while Red Bull Radio was doing an extended pop-up in Los Angeles in 2016. Nothing became of it, but he was friendly, genuinely curious about what we were doing and, true to his reputation, did appear to be exceedingly nice.) As the 2010s wore on, he took a step back from dance music, but also quietly stayed busy, working with many of pop and hip-hop’s biggest names—Justin Bieber, Ty Dolla $ign, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Mariah Carey, The Weeknd, Jennifer Lopez and FKA Twigs are just some of folks he’s collaborated with—and gradually becoming ensconced in the upper echelons of the music industry’s hit-making machinery. It’s hard to imagine that he’s worried much about his standing in electronic music circles in recent years, and though he’s never really won over the folks who railed against him during the early 2010s, many of them have by now aged out of the scene / industry anyways. (Grumbling on Facebook doesn’t really count as being truly active in the genre.)
Perhaps that’s why during the run-up to Quest for Fire, Skrillex has largely been treated as a returning hero, his every move documented not just in the mainstream music press, but also in the electronic music outlets that once turned their nose up at his work. Many of those moves have happened alongside his buddies Four Tet and Fred Again, and last Friday, the three squeezed into a converted school bus and DJed for throngs of fans in Times Square. That performance was broadcast by The Lot Radio, a world-renowned online radio hub that, despite being home to many of NYC’s critically celebrated and nominally “underground” DJs (not to mention whatever fashionable left-of-center acts happen to be passing through town), was seemingly thrilled to hop aboard the Skrillex train. The following night, the trio went even bigger, playing a sold-out show (which was billed as a “pop-up rave”) at Madison Square Garden.
It may seem odd, but this is what dance music is now. The genie is out of the bottle, the borders between the underground and the mainstream have largely been eliminated, and regardless of the music’s humble roots in places like Detroit, Chicago and (in the case of dubstep) Croydon, it now belongs to the masses. Pop culture doesn’t care about things like local scenes, DIY values and exactly who came up with a particular sound in the first place; it’s a ravenous beast, and one that’s determined to drink up everyone’s milkshake, whether they like it or not. What’s happening now isn’t the first time that it’s come for dance music, but while ’90s electronica, 2000s Eurodance and 2010s EDM were all met by major pushback, this time around, it seems that the resistance has finally been vanquished.
More than a decade after he first appeared, Skrillex is now both seemingly everywhere and more beloved than ever before, to the point where even dance music’s biggest snobs have to admit that “Rumble” is a pretty phenomenal tune. It no longer matters much whether the critiques hurled at Skrillex over the years were right or wrong; he’s transcended them, building a body of work that’s so large and consequential that much of the dance music spectrum (not to mention a good chunk of the pop sphere) has been sucked into his gravitational orbit. His music simply has to be reckoned with, irrespective or whether or not critics like it all that much, so what self-respecting dance music writer wouldn’t jump at the chance to review the man’s much-ballyhooed new LP?
Me. I wouldn’t.
And no, it’s not because I have some lingering resentment towards Skrillex or irrationally blame him for everything that’s gone awry in dance music in recent years. I don’t want to write about his new album for the same reason I don’t want to write about any mainstream pop artist’s latest piece of work: I’m just not all that interested.
Allow me to explain.
Watching this latest round of Skrillex hype unfold, I’ve repeatedly found myself thinking of an unlikely parallel: Green Day, and specifically the East Bay punk band’s landmark 2004 album American Idiot. To this day, it’s often hailed as their finest hour, and though its contents didn’t actually sound all that punk—for the uninitiated, the politically charged record was literally touted as a rock opera and eventually spawned a Broadway show—there’s no question that the album catapulted the group to a newfound level of respect and stardom that exceeded even the heights of their initial break into the mainstream.