Rock is dead...long live electronica?! |


Rock is dead...long live electronica?!

With grunge on life support and sales flatlining, the music biz is looking to spark a rebirth with electronica. But can you dance to it?

In an editing studio in midtown Manhattan, Todd Mueller is programming the future, and it’s not a pretty sight. Mueller, the producer of MTV’s weekly electronic music show, Amp, is trying to edit down the video for the band Juno Reactor’s ”Feel the Universe.” The music is the common throbbing computer pulse of techno, and, like many videos of the genre, this one doesn’t bother picturing the performers; instead, it’s footage of Ku Klux Klan rallies, flowers, sunsets, and some sort of Japanese royal coronation. It all looks like it’s meant to signify a sense of information overload, if not some sort of systems crash.

Not that the frantic jumble of sound and vision in the Juno Reactor clip is necessarily intended as ominous. Here, in this cultish pocket of the pop-music world, future shock carries uniformly cheerful connotations. ”Techno embraces technology and encourages the fusion of man and machine,” says Mueller, 28, whose boyish visage, glasses, and beanie make him look like Jon Cryer after a particularly long rave. ”It says, ‘Don’t be a Luddite!’ That should be our bumper sticker. We’re at the dawn of the 21st century; it’s logical that technology would be part of everyone’s mind-set.”

Suddenly, it’s an especially large part of the collective mind-set of the music biz, which could stand a movement to be bullish about. The bloom is certainly off the alternative-rock rose that Nirvana pollinated in 1991. ”To some extent, that revolution has become everything it set out to cure,” says Reprise Records president Howie Klein. ”What we have now is alternative corporate rock, practically.” Points out Mercury president Danny Goldberg, ”The energy that emanated from Seattle in the late ’80s, early ’90s is obviously a five-year-old energy — and in rock & roll, five years is a generation.” Executives humbled by 1996’s flat sales and youthful yawns are eager to spot any popular uprising that might replace the increasingly outre strains of guitar grunge and jangle angst. The ska, alt-country, lounge, and Latin rock scenes all hold promise but have apparent ceilings on their appeal.

Will the industry techno for an answer?

The answer seems to be a very qualified yes. The movement’s leading British band, Prodigy, is widely expected to establish a commercial beachhead here with the May 20 release of their first album since Madonna’s Maverick label signed them to a rumored $5 million contract. Big heat surrounds the Chemical Brothers’ April 8 release, Dig Your Own Hole, as well. And even if techno in its purest form never does go mainstream, some of the remaining superstars of alt-rock — notably, U2 and the Smashing Pumpkins — are already busy co-opting the stylistic tenets of electronic pop and beating their Stratocaster swords into digital plowshares. Roll over, Leo Fender, and tell Yngwie Malmsteen the news: In one form or another, ”electronica” is coming.

Most of the major labels have either made distribution deals with electronically oriented indie companies or started signing techno acts directly. Geffen Records, for one, has done both. ”I was just in England,” says label president Bill Bennett, ”where they think we’re nuts: ‘Oh, you’re just discovering techno music?’ I think it’s gonna be big here.” Geffen was one of several companies that got into a bidding war late last year for Prodigy. But Bennett acknowledges that the payoff may not be as quick in the U.S. as it has been in Europe: ”I don’t know if it’s gonna be defined by radio like most pop music is — certainly not in its early stages. The commercial possibilities at some time will catch up to the talent, so you’re kind of investing in the future.”