By Sean Philip Cotter
The inevitable path rock took to shutting the fuck up and loving electronic dance music.
In early summer 2011, I heard the song “Sail” by AWOLNATION on the radio, and was blown away. Not because I liked it—although I did like the song very much—but rather because I’d never really heard anything like it before. Especially not on the radio.
It was obviously a rock song, with Aaron Bruno’s edgy vocals pouring out some good old fashioned angst over a slow beat. But it was also electronic in a way I wasn’t used to, with the deep sustained bass and “plucked strings” (read: synth) over it. It was different, for some inexplicable reason. Other radio listeners agreed. After I heard it on the radio another time that summer, the DJ said whenever he plays it a flood of people call in, asking, “What the hell was that song?”
What it was was the opening electronic music needed to break its way into the rock scene. “Sail” made it as a crossover hit not only to rock radio, but all the way over to pop stations. Since neither rock nor anything electronic outside of the glammiest of pop gets massive mainstream airplay, it seemed to be a great fit for everybody. And this trend has continued in the year and a half since then, with rock and electronic music—especially dubstep—joining forces in increasing amounts. As you can see in this post’s featured image at the top, some lunatic probably went a little bit overly literal with this idea.
Let’s pause our digitally-pirated single here for a second and rewind our CDs, cassettes, 8-tracks, and records back to the start of rock ‘n roll, because it’s not like we haven’t heard elements of electronic music in rock before. Keyboards and synthesizers have a rich history in the genre. Just listen to “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, from 1964, or “Light My Fire” by the Doors, from 1967, to harken back to the era when every psychedelic rock band worth its salt had some weirdo riffing away on a keyboard. That went out of style for a little while in the 1970s before coming roaring back in the ’80s, when it apparently became impossible to write any song without cranking a synth to the cheesiest sound imaginable and letting some mulletted asshole loose on it, as seen in 1984’s “It’s My Life” by Talk Talk. This trend wormed its way into the rock world, too. Even when there was no mulletted asshole playing the synth, the mulletted assholes playing guitar and bass used absurd effects to cheesify their sound, as you can hear in the start of Van Halen’s ’84 classic, “Jump.”
And just as quickly, grunge’s early ’90s breakthrough silenced the synths, relegating them to the bottom of the pop barrel. And that’s where electronic music stayed. The Daft Punk-led techno fanbase was rabid, but not mainstream apart from the occasional crossover hit or that-song-everybody-knows-but-doesn’t-know-how type deal. Until the last few years.
Indie rock, looking for a new sound that wasn’t like the post-grunge, Nickelbacky brand of rock that dominated rock radio, took the reins. Bands like MGMT, Passion Pit, and of Montreal led the way in the mid-to-late 2000s. It’s from these bands that AWOLNATION and “Sail” sprung. It was only a matter of time until one of these songs was radio-friendly enough that the hipsters discarded it and it moved to the mainstream. But that’s only half the story — something else happened.
Something called “dubstep.”
This (relatively) new genre is characterized by a “wobbly” bass, syncopation by way of triplets, and the tendency to build by progressively cutting the beat in half (something like this: wub. wub. wub. wub. wub wub wub wub wubwubwubwubwub). It’s also known for heavy (I believe the scientific terms include “face-meltingly” or “pants-shittingly” heavy) drops and shriller scratchy noises. It’s risen to popularity in recent years on the backs of DJs like Skrillex.
After it dominated dance clubs for a while, some of those bands that are always “ahead of the curve“—or at least so they claim to all the alleged haters out there—began incorporating elements of into their own sound. Radiohead’s critic-approved but normal-people-ignored latest album, 2011’s King of Limbs, was awash with (boring) bass-wobbles and dubstep beats. When Coldplay got in on the act by throwing some wobbles onto the bass in “Paradise,” we knew shit was getting real. And then the dubstep/rock combo had its “Sail” moment: “Too Close” by Alex Claire, a song that features full-on dubstep background, with soul rock vocals. It was propelled to the big-time by fucking Microsoft, of all organizations, which chose it to feature in the ad for Internet Explorer 8 in March 2012.
This song ended up peaking at no. 7 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It also opened up the floodgates for all the other rock artists who had dubstep projects in the works. Nu metal band Korn had made Skrillex their latest freak on a leash in 2011 as they teamed up to create “Get Up,” which got good rotation on rock radio in summer 2012. Skrillex wasn’t done yet with rock, though—he even did shit with the (surviving) members of the Doors. While all this was going on, alt/prog rockers Muse went to see Skrillex in concert in London in 2011, and apparently fucking loved it. Then, according to that article, they decided to recreate dubstep sounds on their latest album with normal instruments. And they did.
The ties make sense. Skrillex—then called by his given name, Sonny Moore—began his music career fronting a moderately successful emo/metal band. Many in both genres have drawn comparisons between dubstep and metal. For both, it’s all about the drop. It’s always about the drop. And it’ll continue being about the drop, as the two genres keep blurring their lines.