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Nightlife

Classically trained EDM star Zedd is blazing his own very smart path

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Young blood: EDM prodigy Zedd is only 24, but he’s risen quickly—and his fans include some of the genre’s biggest names.
Courtesy
Andy Wang

It seemed like a safe bet that being handpicked by Lady Gaga to produce songs on Artpop would change Zedd's life. Turns out the DJ's life didn't need changing.

Artpop, released last November, was a dud, commercially and critically, that didn’t move Gaga or dance music forward. (When your big hit is a “let’s get down” jam with R. Kelly, there’s probably no point getting an EDM superstar to punch up other parts of your album.) But the impact of Zedd—fresh off a Best Dance Recording Grammy for “Clarity,” a Bud Light Platinum Super Bowl ad featuring “Find You” and a Jimmy Kimmel appearance—on the pop-EDM crossover formula that’s dominating the charts right now is undeniable.

You couldn’t walk into a mainstream nightclub or millennial-targeted clothing store last year without hearing his hit single “Clarity.” And based on recent long drives I’ve taken, Zedd’s “Stay the Night” seems to be on at least three Sirius Satellite Radio stations at all times.

Zedd at Eclipse at Daylight Beach Club

These chart-topping dance songs are ultra-poppy, more easily digestible by the American Idol-loving masses than Gaga’s album. But so far, there hasn’t been any backlash about the classically trained Zedd going this music-for-the-masses route because: 1. The EDM world is so relaxed and focused on love, acceptance, having a good time, doing shots and not judging anyone while you dance till dawn; and 2. The most prominent DJs, who don’t buy into the nonsensical parts of the EDM world’s syrupy silliness, recognize Zedd’s mad skills and understand that he’s making a conscious choice about who he should be.

Zedd is a prodigy, a Russian-German music geek (born Anton Zaslavski) who started playing piano at age 4. At 12, after already having spent years composing music, he learned the drums and quickly joined German post-hardcore/metal trio Dioramic. It’s no surprise that Skrillex, who also played in post-hardcore bands before becoming a DJ superstar, heard something he liked in Zedd.

Remember that Zedd doesn’t even turn 25 until September. He really broke into the EDM scene in 2010 after sending a message (on Myspace!) to Skrillex, whose robot-sex dubstep is the kind of metal machine music most pop fans can’t understand. Deadmau5, another antidote to EDM ballad overload, also loves Zedd and what he represents.

And like Deadmau5, Zedd speaks his mind. During Electric Daisy Carnival weekend in Vegas last year, Zedd, who skipped the festival, didn’t exactly buy into EDC founder Pasquale Rotella’s “you are the headliner” mantra.

“The real headliner is MONEY. And that is the truth,” Zedd tweeted.

The DJ had a civil Twitter exchange with Rotella afterward, but it’s clear that his attitude is more rock ’n’ roll than most resident DJs at, say, Steve Wynn’s clubs, where he’s signed a deal for 2014.

Zedd is, after all, the DJ who once got onstage with Skrillex and played “my favorite song in the world. It’s ‘Levels’ by Swedish House Mafia”—taking the piss out of Avicii, SHM and the countless remixes of their songs with one smartass remark. (Avicii and SHM’s Steve Angello are also Wynn regulars this year.)

Zedd at Daylight

Zedd just gets it. He knows he’s capable of making any kind of music, but he sees that the money and fame that allow you to take control of your life and ultimately do what you want is now in pop-laden EDM. He knows that the rock industry is dying, and post-hardcore as a career path was never going to work out. EDM is Zedd’s current startup of choice, but you get the feeling this guy’s going to be a serial entrepreneur.

So, yeah, he’s writing ballads that bubble over with the kind of pop that make the judges of The Voice swoon, songs that go down smoothly and offer just enough clarity for you to make it back to your hotel room, ecstatic after a long night of raging.

“Stay the Night” is a collaboration with Paramore’s Hayley Williams, another sharp young artist who’s long understood how to cross genres to stay relevant. Paramore is a pretty straightforward rock band, but when Williams works with B.o.B or Zedd, she takes her craft to a different level—that just happens to be what it takes to have an enduring hit single today.

If you want to see the best example of how rock has turned into EDM, though, check out the video for the acoustic version of Krewella’s “Alive.” Guitarist Rain Man sits and strums calmly while Jahan and Yasmine Yousaf bounce around in their chairs and sing and swoon and build crescendos and tension and confusion and love with nothing but their powerful voices. Watching this, you think, Wow, they’re such a rock band—a poppy one, no doubt, but one that knows how to use words and melody and arrangements to tell a simple, universal story.

The thing is, Krewella isn’t a rock band. They went all-in on EDM and now they’re dance-music royalty, DJing at Light on New Year’s Eve while millions of viewers nationwide watched on Fox. Making music for the clubs is as solid a road to success for artists as any.

Krewella, former Marquee regulars now signed with Light, and Zedd are two of the brightest stars in the musical-chairs DJ war being fought by the hottest Vegas clubs, a war that now involves the top of the charts so much that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have booked dates with Wynn. But Zedd has booked more: It was huge news in the nightlife world when he ditched Light to headline at XS, Encore Beach Club and Surrender.

Stay the night? Zedd’s going to be here all year—with his own hits, on his own path, with the talent and perspective to adjust as necessary. #Wynning indeed.

Zedd February 22, 10 p.m., $30 men, $20 women. XS, 770-0097.

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