Theoretically Speaking, S6:E8:

What Makes Electroclash, Electroclash?

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You might remember from last week’s episode that Bubblegum lasted a few years, but it still influences the music we make today.

The same is true of Electroclash, the electronic dance music made from roughly 1997 to 2004.

It wasn’t as mainstream as Bubblegum, but its descendants are.

Electroclash started in several big cities all at once. Berlin and New York City, particularly its Williamsburg section, are cited as the two most important but Detroit, Amsterdam, and London were among the other contributors.

The club scenes in these towns were strong, with House and Techno ruling the turntables for a few years. 

Techno and House and the other Electronic Dance Music (EDM) of the mid-90s had been influenced by 1980s New Wave and Synthpop artists like Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and Depeche Mode.

These musicians had pioneered electronic music production techniques, digital beats, analog synthesizers, and innovative aesthetics.

As equipment became more affordable and recording software got better, EDM got people dancing with bleeps, beeps, and whooshes over steady beats. It sounded futuristic.

Until it didn’t. After a few years, many clubgoers felt the music was static. Not only did the music loop the same samples or phrases over and over, it wasn’t progressing anymore. Something was missing.

And that something was humanity.

So artists in these various cities took the technical methodology of then current dance music and added song structures with verses and choruses.

They injected it with Rock & Roll attitude and grit and sex appeal. It got downright dirty, both sonically and lyrically. The most important thing was that it was new and innovative. 

Starting with the Disco of the 1970s, dance music was an important part of urban gay culture.

It was once illegal for same sex couples to dance together in nightclubs, so dancing is an important symbol of freedom. The clubs became a home of free expression and self-realization. You could be whoever you were.

When it came time in the late 90s to give dance music a much needed renovation, artists took this freedom of self-expression to new heights by exaggerating their personas and sexuality. A lot of it was camp.

Some of it was shock for shock’s sake, to shake listeners awake. Here’s your NSFW alert that some of the lyrics in the Suggested Listening below are pretty explicit.

Electroclash wanted to wake people from their loop-inspired stupor and they did it, in part, by saying shocking things.

And remember, it takes a lot to shock nightclub audiences who are already surrounded by drink, drugs, and debauchery. These new lyrics were designed to shock the unshockable. Listen at your own risk.

Some songs that might now be considered as early Electroclash influences include a 1985 cover of The Four Seasons’ “Walk Like A Man” by Divine and 1993’s “Save The Planet, Kill Yourself” by Chris Korda & The Church Of Euthanasia.

To say these artists are outsiders is a bit of an understatement.

  • Divine is best known as the transvestite actor in many John Waters’ films.
  • And Korda is an antinatalist, believing that humans should stop procreating for the good of the planet. The song’s title isn’t necessarily a joke.

Such people weren’t going to make much headway into the mainstream, but the template of Electroclash is almost fully formed in their music. The beats are danceable, the subjects are unconventional, and their images are outré.

“Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass” by I-F, a DJ from The Netherlands, is considered the first true Electroclash song.

It came out in 1997 and brought the conventional verse-chorus-verse song structure to EDM. Not only was it a huge club hit, it solidified the Electroclash ethos. 

A common sound among most Electoclash artists is a drum machine combined with a distorted bass line, usually played on a keyboard. Both could sound cheap, which is fine because the equipment was usually purchased on the used market. Professional studios could afford state-of-the-art gear, but EDM kids got by with what they could get their hands on. No one seemed to mind as long as the beat was good. This is the sound you hear on “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass.”

DJ Larry Tee came up with the genre’s name, combining “electro” and “clash” because the music was electronic and a clash of ideas.

It was part dance music, part performance art cabaret, and part minority empowerment. Tee took his ideas and records to Berlin, and began DJ-ing. He was the first connection between the two cities.

Meanwhile, when you’re a disk jockey and your first name is Helmut, of course you’re going to call yourself DJ Hell.

Helmut Geier DJ-ed at clubs in Germany through the 1980s and started International DeeJay Gigolo Records.

The label released music by anyone making unusual EDM and put out a series of compilations that let people stay on top of the latest Electroclash in the years before streaming and social media.

In 1998, Gigolo released some songs recorded by French DJs Miss Kittin and The Hacker. One called “Frank Sinatra” isn’t really about Frank Sinatra. It only mentions him because Miss Kittin thought “Sinatra” rhymed with “area,” and in her French accent it almost does. She ad libbed the line about Sinatra being dead and laughed because it was so out of the blue, and they kept that part in the song.

She later felt sorry for doing so, especially when she found out he was still alive, and then again when he died three months later.

Regardless, it was an important early Electroclash success in the clubs.

Canadian artist Peaches, known for her provocative lyrics and raw DIY approach to music production, rose to prominence with her debut album, The Teaches of Peaches, released in 2000.

Blending elements of Punk and performance art into Electroclash, Peaches pushed boundaries with tracks like “F*ck the Pain Away” and “Set It Off,” challenging gender stereotypes and what sorts of things you can say in public.

Her live performances were stripped down, meaning both that there was nothing on the stage other than her and her microphone, and that she didn’t wear much clothing.

A documentary film about her career, also called Teaches Of Peaches, was released a few months ago and may show up at an art film theater near you.  

New York Punk started in the Bowery because it was a seedy area with cheap rents. Artists and musicians could afford to live there.

Twenty years later, the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn was the cheap section that became home to Electroclash. Good luck affording rent in either neighborhood now.

Electoclash was closely associated with underground club nights and DIY venues, like Luxx in Williamsburg, where artists and musicians could experiment freely and push the boundaries of electronic music. Events like Electroclash Festival in New York City and Trash Electrocuted in Berlin provided platforms for emerging artists to showcase their work and connect with like-minded creatives.

Not only did DJ Larry Tee name the genre, he came up with the term “Berliniamsburg,” memorializing the relationship between the two scenes.

He also put together the first Electroclash Festival, however the 9-11 terrorist attack happened just a month before it was scheduled and people didn’t feel like dancing. It was poorly attended. The second festival, however, was a success. 

A New York band called Fischerspooner, led by Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner, was one of the defining acts of the Electoclash movement.

Their first live show was in a Starbucks. The audience was just there for coffee but accidentally saw a sort of pop-up performance art show in an unexpected place. Some stayed, some left, and the band felt it was the perfect debut.

Their first album, “#1,” released in 2001, combined catchy pop melodies with glitchy electronic production and avant-garde songwriting. Tracks like “Emerge” and “The 15th” became club anthems and established Fischerspooner as pioneers of the genre.

In addition to its musical innovations, Electoclash embraced fashion, visual art, and performance as integral components of the movement.

Artists like Peaches, Fischerspooner, and the German trio Chicks On Speed incorporated avant-garde fashion and theatrical elements into their live performances, blurring the lines between fashion, music, and art.

The fashion industry loved it and played Electroclash as their models walked the runways.

Electoclash became more than just a genre of music. It was a cultural movement that challenged conventions, celebrated diversity, and embraced the intersection of music, art, and technology. Coming from the underground music scenes of New York, Berlin, and beyond, it weaved EDM danceability, New Wave aesthetics, Punk attitude, and avant-garde experimentation into a new, bold, provocative, and influential sonic tapestry. 

Whether it helped broaden the 2010’s mainstream acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community or just happened at roughly the same time is a matter of debate, but the connection between the two is undeniable.

Though Madonna, a superstar who readily embraces upcoming genres, incorporated Electroclash on 2000’s Music and 2003’s American Life, they weren’t big sellers in her catalog and the genre remained largely underground.

Still, Electoclash left an indelible mark on music, influencing mainstream pop culture and inspiring artists like Scissor Sisters, Kesha, Lady Gaga, and Grimes to explore new creative possibilities. 

Suggested Listening Full YouTube Playlist

Walk Like A .Man
Divine
1985

Save The Planet, Kill Yourself
Chris Korda & The Church Of Euthanasia
1993

I’m A Disco Dancer
Christopher Just
1997

Frank Sinatra
Miss Kittin & The Hacker
1998

F*ck The Pain Away
Peaches

2000

Emerge
Fischerspooner
2001

Silver Screen (Shower Scene)
Felix Da Housecat
2001

We Don’t Play Guitars
Chicks On Speed
2003

TKO
Le Tigre
2004

Just Dance
Lady Gaga
2008

Let’s Make Nasty
DJ Larry Tee feat. Roxy Cottontail
2009

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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Phylum of Alexandria
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May 10, 2024 7:39 am

By 2000, I was almost completely done with house, trance, and techno. I had stopped going to clubs and rave parties (I believe the last one I attended was Revolution in DC that year).

I was sick of partying, sick of drug culture, and sick of the same repetitive beats all the time, sans any human touches. To make things worse, those beats were everywhere in the early 00s: not just grafted onto pop songs, but playing in commercials and shopping malls. Everywhere I went, the boom-shi boom-shi boom-shi followed me.

I was always for the notion of dance music, but in truth tehcno never made me want to dance; it was too hypnotic. Sometimes I’d jump up in jubilation, or I’d nod my head to a nice house groove, but the stark repetition always got in the way of my natural impulses to dance.

So when I first heard electroclash stuff in 2002 or 03, I could really dig what they were laying down. There’s messiness, there’s personality, there’s variety!

At least from song to song. There’s definitely an aesthetic they were going for.

A lot of it sounds like the soundtrack to the 1982 film Liquid Sky.

Or, this Siouxsie & the Banshees tune from 1980.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIhuTYoB19c

These days, I’ve been able to get into the old techno beats of my youth. But if I want to dance, I’ll put on something else.

And some days it might it electroclash.

Thanks Bill.

(although I was kind of hoping for a bracket challenge for yogurt flavors. I know kimchi’s gonna go far!)

JJ Live At Leeds
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May 10, 2024 11:07 am

I remember Fischerspooner appearing and quickly going from bright new thing to style over substance backlash in the fickle British music press.

Felix Da Housecat and Peaches tracks are forever etched into my brain from appearing on Soulwax’s 2 Many DJs mash up / mix CD from the early 00s. Greatest CD of that decade, happy memories.

Hadn’t heard Chick’s On Speed before but even if they don’t play guitars that song rocks.

Divine sounding truly divine. That was the second of two top 30 UK hits, this is the first. Fitted right into the charts of the time.

https://youtu.be/vxCorwfnlK0?si=TgOneJeWeUODC3Tl

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 10, 2024 11:48 am

And let’s not forget the Vaselines’ lovably lunkheaded cover:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbUXTJ6SqlE

rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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May 10, 2024 1:55 pm

This is not my genre by a long shot, but I have a strong connection with one act you mentioned. My sister was the costume coordinator for Fischerspooner from the beginning and made a number of the outfits worn on stage, including the tutus for the dancers, probably for at least a decade. When they were doing the late night talk show circuit, performing Emerge, she alerted the family so we could watch. I saw them perform the song on two different shows and was blown away by it. The stage show, the music and the message of the song just collectively bowled me over and was like nothing I had seen or heard. When their next record came out, Odyssey, in 2005, I bought it and became totally hooked on it. It’s still one of my favorite albums. I didn’t really know what electroclash was at the time, but I read that it was decidedly not electroclash, and they had moved away from the genre and more into dance-pop influences. All I knew was that I loved it. When their next release came out, Entertainment, in 2009, my sister got VIP tickets for their show at the Metro in Chicago, and my wife and I took my mom to see it. That night was full of great moments that have made for great stories over the years, as the three of us were totally out of our element. Above all, the look of pride on my mom’s face when she saw my sister’s outfits on stage took the cake, and is something I will always remember.

Last edited 1 month ago by rollerboogie
blu_cheez
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May 10, 2024 4:29 pm

Did not have “read an article about Fischerspooner” on today’s Bingo card… great read, as always!

cappiethedog
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May 10, 2024 10:21 pm

Damn. I discovered Grimes while she was on a downward trajectory. I didn’t get enough time to celebrate her music when she was controversy-free like everybody else. I’ve read a lot of negative comments on the mothership about Art Angels, but that’s the album. I wrongly predicted(in my head, thank god) that she was the future of music. I thought Grimes was redefining what a singer-songwriter could be.

“F*ck the Pain Away” isn’t punk proper, but, to me, it’s punk. Peaches is like a figment of Liz Phair’s imagination.

Samantha Bee, who would’ve killed as Jon Stewart’s replacement for The Daily Show, used “Boys Wanna Be Her” as the opening theme for her cancelled TBS show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. I think Bee was throwing shade at Trevor Noah, and her old boss.

Great article, V-dog. I never heard the term “electroclash” before. Electroclash sounds like two breakdance teams going at it.

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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May 14, 2024 7:16 pm

Surprisingly, I must have missed this genre. But I know it now!

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