Planting his black boots squarely between a laptop and a MIDI controller, Sonny Moore stands atop his gear table and surveys the scene. As far as the eye can see, there’s an ocean of bodies spangled with flash bulbs, crowned by colorful headgear, covered in Spandex, face paint, glitter, and beads. The horizon smolders in a neon haze of fireworks smoke. Glow sticks erupt from the crowd, mimicking the jets of flame that periodically burst from the top of the stage. It’s like Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights meets the bridge battle from Apocalypse Now — a riot of flesh and light and dizzying excess.
Of the 85,000 people who have ventured out into the desert to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on this June night for the 2011 edition of Electric Daisy Carnival, a significant proportion of them are now watching Moore, a former screamo frontman who has reinvented himself as Skrillex, a maker of hyper hybrids of electronic dance music. The diminutive, bespectacled Californian is one of the most closely watched artists on the dance scene, and he’s playing his biggest show yet in his 23 years on the planet.
There must be 200 people onstage. A camera crew is filming for the documentary The Electric Daisy Carnival Experience. Photographers scrum for position around Moore, ducking under the boom overhead. An intense-looking stage manager shoos back scores of VIPs and hangers-on, yelling, “Get away from my lights!” A steady stream of go-go dancers files out, commanded by a stern choreographer who practically shoves them into formation — waves of performers who look like refugees from Brazilian Carnaval and Blade Runner, cast in a strip-club version of Cirque du Soleil. Their attire includes hot pants, fishnets, bandeau tops, platform boots, fright wigs, feather headdresses and eyelashes, jester caps, and multifarious scraps of sci-fi cosplay detritus. One troupe of performers wear spooky white contact lenses to match their ice-colored vinyl capes, which are boned with glowing blue strips. A man cloaked in mirror shards, from his shoes to his face to his fedora, paces the front of the stage. Invisible but for a fleeting, fractured outline, he is the sum of everything around us: Look close, and you’re sucked into a kaleidoscopic vortex, the Big Bang behind all of the videos of this moment that will surface on YouTube tomorrow — every millisecond glimpsed from every angle.
A honeyed, Auto-Tuned chorus blasts from the stage monitors that flank Moore, as he leans down to flick a fader. It’s Skrillex’s breakout hit, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” a song that will be heard umpteen times this weekend, in DJ set after DJ set. As the music quiets, a familiar voice tears through the speakers. It’s Speed Stacking Girl, a minor YouTube sensation whom Moore sampled for the song’s breakdown. “Oh my gosh!” she shrieks, a ragged cry of teenage abandon.
Suddenly, Moore is airborne. He hits the ground as a wave of bass radiates outward, and the crowd goes weightless in response. Every arm is upstretched; and above those, the upstretched arms of all the girls sitting on boys’ shoulders. The bass snaps back and forth across the crowd like a towel, like a whip, like a weed-whacker. A dude standing next to me cups his hands around his mouth and screams, “Kiiiiill ’em, Skrillex!”
Oh my gosh, indeed.
This is a new era in American electronic dance music. And if you want to understand it, keep your eye on Skrillex, regardless of what you think of dance music’s current ultracommercial turn, or of dubstep’s regressive macho tendencies, or of the genre’s 30-plus years of rhythmic refinement threatening to devolve into a Pauly D fist-pump. Dance music fans have been like those ornery partisans in the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials, pre-epiphany: “You got electro in my techno!” “You got commercial in my underground!” Skrillex manically disposes of those dichotomies; his music is like a melted goo of influences, sticky and chemically sweet. And the kids are eating it up.
See Skrillex perform and you understand why Deadmau5 — the genre’s most spectacular, or at least recognizable, act — has anointed him with his magic mouse pheromones, releasing Skrillex’s official debut EP on his own label, Mau5trap. You understand why Atlantic Records has made Skrillex a cornerstone of Big Beat, its recently relaunched dance-music imprint. “It’s changing so rapidly, it’s just crazy,” cool-hunting DJ/producer Diplo shouts into my ear backstage at Electric Daisy Carnival while Skrillex plays. Diplo’s T-shirt reads BABYLON IS FALLING.
“You can’t put a fuckin’ timeline on it,” he continues, “but what Skrillex does, it’s really grassroots, man. The energy here at this stage is, like, 40 times bigger than what [David] Guetta has right now.”
After years of being relegated to the margins, the American dance-music scene is reaching critical mass. And though international superstar DJs like Guetta or Swedish House Mafia, and their glossy pop crossovers, have been part of the process, it goes deeper now. At every level — from Las Vegas superclubs hosting millionaire trance DJs for the striped-shirted and miniskirted to parties on the Burning Man playa fueled by ketamine and tweaked-out underground house music — dance is back, bigger than it’s been since the last days of disco. Bigger even than in the “electronica” boom of the late-’90s, which produced a No. 1 album — the Prodigy’s Fat of the Land — and sowed the seeds for today’s bumper crop of beats.
Consider these numbers: The total of 230,000 attendees this year at Electric Daisy Carnival surpassed Coachella, which sold 75,000 three-day passes (a reported drop from 2010’s take). In its 12 years, Coachella has grown into a cultural institution, an event whose imprimatur makes stars, confirms legends, and attracts a parade of willowy starlets who are chronicled from the Huffington Post to US Weekly. Electric Daisy Carnival’s profile is sketchier, to say the least (see SPIN magazine’s “Electric Mayhem,” page 54). But even indie-centric Coachella has been skewing its lineup towards electronic dance music over the past several years.
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