At the risk of making a gross understatement, times are good for 24-year-old Sonny Moore, a.k.a. Skrillex, the producer and DJ who’s become the figurehead of pummeling, high-energy American dance music. He has yet to release a full-length album, but he’s already racked up a career’s worth of music-industry honors and gushing media coverage. In February, he was awarded three Grammys, and while he didn’t win out in the Best New Artist category, The Recording Academy saw fit to put him in the company of music’s brightest young stars, including Bon Iver, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, and The Band Perry. In the past month, he’s been the subject of a fawning Rolling Stone profile, a laudatory Pitchfork interview, and a complimentary write-up by Stereogum. (That’s in addition to recent coverage by The Village Voice and New York magazine, and an appearance on the cover of Spin last fall.) In the coming months, he’ll be a featured artist at a series of music festivals, including Bamboozle and Bonnaroo.
There are people who hate Skrillex’s music, of course. Lots of people. He’s been criticized by other artists in his genre, inspired anti-Skrillex fan pages on Facebook, and any article about him is bound to attract scores of vitriolic comments. (From the A.V. Club’s review of Skrillex’s Bangarang EP: “Mother of God, it’s all toilet sounds!”) In many ways, this adverse reaction has come to define Skrillex. “Around certain corners of the Internet, the comments section of this site often included, Skrillex is an instant punchline,” Stereogum’s Tom Breihan wrote in his “In Defense Of Skrillex” piece, before standing up for Moore’s “goofy name,” his “goofy haircut,” and the “simple, serrated bass drop” that’s became his signature musical flourish. Breihan, who wrote about Skrillex after seeing him perform at South By Southwest last month, was attempting to make a case for an artist that’s been mocked by a vocal part of his readership. But after looking at the totality of Skrillex’s career at the moment, he hardly seems in need of defending.
In fact, Moore has worked hard to become a front-runner, and obtained significant, and traditional, advantages from the music industry in securing that position. Moore made his name by following the most trusted blueprint for building a career as a pop star in the 21st century: He’s toured constantly (playing 300 shows a year) and aggressively utilized social media (he has more than 1 million Twitter followers, and more than 4.8 million likes on his Facebook page). In the process, he’s become a reliable live draw, a guaranteed sell-out who packs them in at increasingly larger venues all over the country. No wonder powerful music-industry insiders are already giving him awards: In a business where young, bankable talent always seems to be in short supply, Skrillex appears to be a brand name with a future.
Make no mistake: That name is being pushed hard these days. And the media, it appears, is finally on board. I don’t mean to question the enthusiasm that many music critics have for Skrillex, or what he represents for the future of pop and rock music. I don’t doubt that it’s sincere, though it does seem, at times, to be a little much. Check out this passage from Neil Strauss’ Rolling Stone story:
He joined his first indie and punk bands when he was 12, toured the world fronting the Top 40 screamo band From First To Last at 16, and signed a solo deal with Atlantic Records the year he turned old enough to legally go to the clubs he’d been performing at. Now, at 24, he’s … playing the most noncommercial music of his career—his tonally dirty, dynamically aggressive brand of bass-rattling dubstep—and to everyone’s surprise, most of all his own, he has become the most exciting thing happening in popular music this moment … And everyone is blowing up his phone, from Dr. Dre to Kanye West, who took Skrillex to Vegas in his private jet, watched him DJ and then invited him to his hotel room to cut some tracks.
I should probably state now, for the record, that Skrillex’s music fills me with indifference. I appreciate the physicality of it, the way it hits the chest when played at full volume, letting loose an infusion of endorphins into your bloodstream like a firehose blasting out Jolt Cola. But his music in no way speaks to my heart or my brain. I can feel it when it hits me, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. The best (or worst) I can say about Skrillex is that his music reminds me of the “intense,” heart-racing Muzak you hear in energy-drink commercials. It bulldozes, but it doesn’t leave a mark.
So, I guess you could call me a Skrillex skeptic. Not a hater (I like Jolt sometimes), just a shoulder-shrugger. I don’t mind that Skrillex exists, but I wouldn’t care if he started selling shoes tomorrow. Which is why I’m intrigued by the idea that Moore “has become the most exciting thing happening in popular music this moment.”
In order to believe this, you have to buy into a familiar narrative that’s at least as old as Elvis: Moore has been positioned as the latest upstart with a “new” sound, threatening The Way Things Are by offending the sensibilities of out-of-it, stick-in-the-mud fussbudgets (commonly described as “old,” “white,” “rockist,” and/or “establishment” people). This narrative is inherent to much of the pro-Skrillex coverage of recent months, the idea that the forcefully rousing dubstep he’s popularized represents the future, and that it will act as a cleansing agent for the most tired forms of pop (namely radio-dominant rock) that everybody agrees is terrible and yet won’t go away already. It helps that Moore sort of looks like what we imagine the future to be, with his Mad Max clothes and haircut and music that sounds like androids having violent sex in the back of a space cruiser. I have little doubt that he’ll be the first pop star to tour in a flying bus.
There are a few problems with this “upstart” narrative, starting with what I’ve already alluded to: Skrillex is the sweetheart of the music-industry establishment. After breaking out as a solo artist five years ago, Moore made three albums’ worth of music that his label, Atlantic Records, opted not to release. It was a frustrating period for Moore, who was inspired to invent the Skrillex moniker and post his first EP, My Name Is Skrillex, as a free download in 2010. But Atlantic never gave up on him, sticking with an artist it apparently believed in enough to give ample space to evolve rather dramatically—from emo kid to dubstep kingpin—over the course of several years. (Even if Atlantic reportedly wasn't immediately on-board with Moore's Skrillex experiment, as detailed in Strauss' story, it certainly didn't dump him.) Once Moore started gaining some traction, The Recording Academy (the epitome of “old” and “establishment” if there ever was one) rushed to legitimize him by handing him multiple Grammys. That kind of corporate support makes Skrillex as much of an industry upstart as the iPhone 4.
Moore, in his wisdom, has downplayed this as much as possible. In his interview with Pitchfork, he says he was invited to perform on the Grammys telecast, but declined, because, “That’s not what I do. I don’t play on TV.” Moore added that he likes to cater his sets to the venue and the crowd, which is obviously impossible for a television audience. But not playing the Grammys also was a savvy career move. The mashup of electronic artists David Guetta and Deadmau5 with R&B singer Chris Brown and the decidedly rave-unfriendly rock band Foo Fighters was a widely derided trainwreck. Moore, meanwhile, was spared the embarrassment (and potential overexposure) of participating. He was like Orson Welles in The Third Man, looming large over the proceedings by being both present (he accepted his awards in a pre-show ceremony) and off-camera. Not doing the Grammys somehow made Moore seem like an even bigger star.
For the “upstart” narrative to work, Skrillex needs an opposing force to play off of. And that’s the other problem here: His opposition is a rather weak, harmless lot that clearly hasn’t impacted his career in any real way. The “torrent of scorn” that Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal describes being directed at Skrillex comes mostly from an amorphous group of Internet trolls. Yes, people say mean things about Skrillex online. You know what else is (to borrow Breihan’s phrase) “an instant punchline” on the Internet? Everything that’s ever existed. The more successful you are IRL, the more hate you attract URL. And Moore is highly successful in both realms.
At the very least, saying that Skrillex is “playing the most noncommercial music of his career” and jet-setting with Kanye West in the same breath is patently absurd. Moore may very well be the next big thing, and his music could signal a sea change in popular music. But there’s another narrative about Moore with just as much truth to it: He was groomed to be a pop star, he was given the industry and media support to make it happen, and now it’s finally happening. This is also a familiar story, though it’s less romantic than the upstart narrative: The powerful set to out win, and they do.