By Andrea Domanick
It’s approaching 3 a.m. on the Monday night/Tuesday morning of XS’s third-anniversary party, and the scene is more or less what you might see on any given night at the mega-club: VIPs pop champagne bottles the size of small children, glow sticks abound, and confetti showers the packed dance floor. And then a mosh pit breaks out.
So maybe it’s not your average night at XS -- or any Las Vegas nightclub, for that matter. Behind the turntables is 23-year-old DJ wunderkind Skrillex. He’s different. The L.A.-native born Sonny Moore is not the hair-gelled, ambiguously accented DJ who parties with models into the wee hours (never mind the rumors linking him to Las Vegas sweetheart Holly Madison).
He’s pale, pierced and notoriously shy, with thick Sabre glasses and a shock of black hair that’s shaved on one side. Before he sold out 3,000-seat venues as Skrillex, he fronted the popular emo band From First to Last. His fans are Las Vegas clubbers and angsty, devoted teens. And he’s the first DJ to be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist (in fact, he has five nominations).
Should you believe the hype? It’s an interesting debate. It’s no secret that Grammy nods have been less about talent than recognizing an artist’s mainstream appeal (see: Milli Vanilli and Justin Bieber). And like New Wave in the 1980s and folk rock in the 1990s, EDM is just the latest musical trend to flavor the sound of pop music. Its variations can be heard in the latest chart-toppers from artists like Rihanna, Britney Spears and Usher. In that sense, it’s no surprise that the Recording Academy is giving a token nod to the genre this year.
So why Skrillex? The simple answer is that he’s one of the few new artists to emerge on the EDM scene this year. Others DJs currently enjoying similar success, like Kaskade and David Guetta, are already several albums deep into their discographies and have been wooing crowds in Europe for years. Another reason might be that the type of EDM Skrillex caters to -- dubstep, a melange of bass and rapid drum beats programmed in such a way that it sounds slow and arrhythmic -- is relatively new. Or it could simply be that Skrillex is one of the few DJs to put out an album of original songs rather than remixes and collaborations.
But Monday night at XS suggested that he’s more innovative than being at the right place at the right time. There’s something magnetic about the kid -- even during the boozy celebration, there were as many people standing, turned toward the DJ booth and singing along to his tracks as there were those dancing obliviously on the floor. The show itself superseded a DJ’s normal strobe-and-DJ-booth setup, incorporating Skrillex’s much-hyped (though underwhelming) high-tech 3D visuals, which artists like Tiesto have begun borrowing.
Unlike his compatriots, you won’t hear Skrillex on the radio (unless it's XM). You won’t see him collaborating with a pop star (though he did recently collaborate with the Doors). But he has gone viral. Unlike Tiesto, Kaskade and others, Skrillex’s fans are focused less on the nightlife/club scene than they are on Skrillex himself. The Internet reveals a boyband-esque devotion to the DJ: There’s endless fan fiction, classical covers of his songs and entire Tumblr blogs devoted to fans who dress up as him. They make porn about him; they call him God.
Still, at the risk of sounding like someone’s parent, it’s hard to understand what it is about Skrillex’s music itself that’s earned him accolades from the Grammys and fans alike. It’s not catchy; it’s not nuanced; it’s certainly not danceable (dubstep in fact prides itself on being decidedly un-danceable, though fans manage to do it anyway). It’s warped; it’s erratic; it’s a dizzying sonic vertigo that lacks any kind of conventional narrative or emotion.
But it is intense, and its heavy, screeching bass lines borrow more than a little bit from Skrillex’s emo roots. It’s a dark, saturating sound that numbs the listener, and maybe that’s just the right fit for a generation weaned on the hyper-immediate, emotionally disconnected world of the Internet. It just happens to be palatable enough for the Las Vegas club scene, too.
Appropriately enough, Skrillex rounded out the night with a track featuring the chorus “You better believe there's something more." As far as his music goes, this jury’s still out -- let’s see what the Grammy judges decide this Sunday.