Words By Jeb Gavin, Photos By Peter Nguyen
The first thing I noticed, the first thing everyone noticed was the smile. LED screens on baffling right up front meant to look like Feed Me’s Droid logo by way of and even more demonic version of American McGee’s Cheshire Cat. Narrow scalene triangles tipped on their sides formed eyes, flanking the DJ standing above the expansive grimace on stage at the 9:30 Club Friday night. It’s fascinating to see in person, particularly as photos never quite do it justice. But isn’t that the problem with modern EDM- if you don’t experience it live, all you get is a pale facsimile?
Prior to the show, I was reading an interview Vice did with Jon Gooch, the DJ and visual artist better known as electro DJ Feed Me. Vice’s headline for the interview was a single quote from the DJ about how EDM bores him now. It’s only slightly misleading, as the interview itself is about how EDM visuals have become boring, thus the live shows are boring. Gooch goes on to explain how every track he creates has the visuals and cues written for it at the time of composition. The visuals, he espouses, must match the music, but also rise and fall with the mood of the show. Otherwise you’re just blasting people with LEDs while the bass pumps. What’s worrisome is EDM is music (has it right in the initials.) And while music can have visual aspects and be cued to visuals, it’s supposed to be enjoyed aurally.
This speaks to a much larger problem about EDM today: there’s so much emphasis on the live show, few people are making amazing EDM records. I say few because it’s stupid to make a blanket statement like all, and because off the top of my head I can think of a few very good tracks, even one or two amazing albums in the past year. But more and more the focus of studio effort sounds like blueprints- what used to be called demos, now basic enough that they can be mixed with ease live, or endlessly remixed. It’s not a matter of polishing a track and organizing a few of them into a coherent work. DJs are looking for fill a toolbox to perform for a crowd, rather than making something the crowd can appreciate at their own leisure, in their own time and space.
To hamfistedly bring this back around to the show at hand, Feed Me is about performance. He’s a great DJ- attentive to the crowd, capable of moving the pace of the party without scrambling from drop to drop. It shows in the crowd’s creation to every extended break, every diversion. But it’s still a show. This isn’t recorded so that you can listen to it at the gym or in the car or lying on the carpet in the basement with the lights off. For a Friday night, a dance party with brilliant video cues is absolutely called for, but there’s no transference of art. Either you’re there, or you miss out. Sure, you can show people shaky YouTube clips and tell them about it, but we’re talking the difference between shadows on the wall and stepping outside the cave.
Ultimately that’s why I worry about EDM. Feed Me’s pronouncement that EDM is boring is more about the visuals being boring. As though DJs are supposed to now be musicians AND publicists AND promoters AND Nam June Paik. But as this is about the music, they’re not being very good musicians. They’re not spending time crafting music in a studio (or hell, anywhere these days so long as thought goes in to how the record will sound playing in your car at dawn driving home from the party.) This isn’t a matter of “those damn kids don’t know how to make music anymore,” this is an issue of a medium and genre and industry built up to vestigialize its own heart- MUSIC.
Sometime last weekend a writer I respect linked to an article about Sam Smith’s sudden rise. While the comments on the writer’s Facebook page focused on Smith’s album not being terrific, they also missed a larger trend: we live in an age with fabulous singers. The industry, the medium now has more people schooled in electronic music than ever before- producers, DJs, even actual musicians and vocalists. AND it’s never been easier to collaborate, to bring people together and make something wonderful in this medium. But possibly owing to audience demand, the focus is on providing an experience- partying like a rock star in a club, or a unique festival experience. As such, we are fascinated with the artifice aspect of the art, rather than the artifact. Artifice lives on only in the minds of the people who experience it. Artifact exists independent of the audience, and because music can and now is almost always digital, the artifact can exist indefinitely. For Feed Me as a visual artist, the live show is where it’s at. Nothing wrong with mixed media, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. But for so many other non-visual EDM artists and DJs these days their “music” is all about what happens live. Like the Cheshire Cat’s ear to ear grin, it may linger but it won’t last.