Pretty much every report from last weekend’s Governors Ball has noted the generation gap implicit in its choice of headliners: Jack White and Skrillex. The two played at the same time on Saturday night, and really, you couldn’t get a more neat contrast — the old-school guy who loves vinyl and vintage instruments versus the due who makes tracks on a laptop, the songwriter versus the guy who drops the bass. It’s safe to say there weren’t many people agonizing over the clash, and which artist’s set you chose reflected a choice between the old and the new: the kids lost their shit to Skrillex, while more staid correspondents retreated to White’s set and stared in polite horror at the bug-eyed lunatics with glo-sticks.
The thing is, though, that they’re not so different, Skrillex and Jack White. Not in some ways, at least. A decade ago, it was White who was the young guy who’d emerged from a largely ignored subculture to teeter on the verge of mainstream acceptance. It was his music that promised to provide a change from a mainstream that’d grown dull and repetitive. It was the the twilight of the era of superstar DJs, and White was at the vanguard of what the NME insisted on calling the “New Rock Revolution.”
What happened next? The same thing that’s happened to pretty much every subculture that popular music has ever had: he got eaten by the same mainstream that he challenged, drawn into the belly of the beast and spat out as a sort of lesser, semi-digested version of himself.
It’s easy to forget that White was ever any different, being as he’s now pretty much the definition of mainstream rock star, from fragile ego and inflated sense of self-importance to attention-grabbing stunts and general dickishness. But I remember when the White Stripes visited Melbourne in the early ’00s, a largely unknown US blues duo booked to play one show at a small local venue. They ended up playing six nights in a row. None of the additional shows were advertised; it was purely a matter of word of mouth, that people were seeing this band tearing shit up on stage and telling their friends excitedly to go along the next night. Jack White hung around at the bar after every show, chatting with whoever wanted to say hello. Nobody had a bad word to say about the guy.
But then, that was the tipping point. Not long after, White Blood Cells was released and the White Stripes were suddenly massive. When he next came back to town, White was a bona fide star, playing large venues and being spirited away by men in black suits after shows. “Seven Nation Army” was apparently written at a soundcheck on that tour. The sense of freshness had gone. The sense that this young band might really change things had been replaced by a feeling that they themselves had changed.
These moments of possibility are always fleeting, of course. Part of what makes music special is its power to make you feel part of something, but that power is enabled to some extent by its essentially transitory nature. Nothing stays the same. If people succeed, they move on to bigger and better things and the “scene” that surrounds them disperses. If they don’t, then the scene starts to stagnate, and eventually melts away. You can’t freeze a moment in time. It’s powerful because it doesn’t last.
And now, a decade later, here’s the former Sonny Moore, enjoying his moment. If the White Stripes brought guitars back to youth culture, then the current wave of EDM threatens to sweep them away again. And, of course, this is no accident; the cycle of rock and anti-rock has been in place since the ’60s, bouncing like a sort of sine wave between “guitars” and “no guitars”: high on the y axis have been the original incarnation of rock ‘n’ roll, along with metal, punk, grunge, and the blues revival, while the other pole is disco, synthpop, hip hop, rave, and what we’ve come to call EDM.
The rise of EDM, then, is just the latest pole in an ongoing cultural oscillation. But to continue the sine wave analogy, it’s worth noting that as soon as these things peak, they’re on the way out. And part of the reason they decline is precisely because they become mainstream. They become ubiquitous, and a new subculture reacts against them. So it went with disco reacting against early-’70s prog rock, and with punk against disco, and with grunge against synthpop. You might argue that in both these cases, it was guitar music reacting against its own stagnation — punk against prog, grunge against LA poodle metal — but that stagnation is really just a sign that the other side of the binary was in ascendance.
Right now, I’d suggest Skrillex and EDM are just on their way to peaking. There’s a real sense that they’ve emerged from a fairly niche subculture — in this case, a distinctly Californian interpretation of dubstep music that bears almost no resemblance to the original English sound — and crossed over into the mainstream. Rock ‘n’ roll, meanwhile, is on the downswing — while you may well still enjoy Jack White and remember the early White Stripes fondly, and though his fan base remains strong, he’s not exactly picking up any new disciples at this point.
EDM, meanwhile, is inspiring the sort of Damascene conversions you got with rave culture in the late ’80s and yer Digweed and Sasha devotees in the late ’90s. People who might, five years ago, have never dreamed of listening to Skrillex are losing their shit at his shows. As Noisey’s Drew Millard wrote about Saturday night’s Governors Ball set, “Skrillex [is] the closest thing we have to the Sex Pistols. He makes an unholy racket that seems designed to annoy the old and enrapture the young… he’s our generation’s way of saying, ‘Fuck it — we exist, and we are not old.'”
What happens from here? Skrillex plays arenas, his fanbase is overrun by (even more) hideous bros, his original fans get older and start to reminisce about the early days, something new comes along for a new generation that regards EDM with the sort of gentle condescension that the young reserve for the old and adorably clueless. It happens quickly, too. Not even a decade ago, it was Daft Punk playing crazy shows that seemed like a genuine cultural experience for my generation. Now they’re recording with ’70s luminaries and releasing albums based on “authenticity” and are generally dull as fuck. So it’s gone with Jack White between early 2000s and now. So it was with disco and grunge and psytrance and pretty much every other genre you can think of. “We exist, and we are not old.” Not yet, you’re not. Superstar DJs. Here we go. Again.