I vividly remember the first time I became aware of Electronica. I was 11 and a budding music obsessive, I watched MTV religiously. Sitting in the living room, my parents paying attention to other things, the video for The Prodigy’s “Breathe” came on. I still remember Maxim’s tattooed and painted body gliding towards me. It felt like some kind of disneyland horror ride, but with better music. Keith Flint sealed the deal - these were guys to freak out your parents, the popular kids, you name it.
For this article, assume “Electronica” by its American definition - a catch-all for all electronic music that hit mainstream between 1995 - 2000. It did this by positioning certain figures as rock stars (tellingly, The Prodigy’s breakthrough happened after Keith Flint and Maxim emerged as punky frontmen), and playing up its role as the “future of music”. While Electronica encompassed a number of genres - Daft Punk’s French Touch, Sneaker Pimps’ Trip Hop - Big Beat was clearly the leader.
Electronica also coincided with the most lucrative historical period for the recording industry - as such, artists who had just a few months ago been living check-to-check suddenly had high-budget videos commissioned. This is a celebration of those videos - narrowed down to one song per act, because people got things to do.
The Prodigy - “Breathe"
Choosing just one Prodigy video is hard - and it was tempting to either go with “Firestarter”, the coming out party for Keith Flint as our very own Johnny Rotten, or “Smack My Bitch Up”, with its controversial debauchery (which was great PR for The Prodigy, of course). But “Breathe” is where it all gelled (and where we could all see it, unlike the aforementioned “Smack” video). Just watching this video makes me remember the Sam Goody at the mall where I used to hang out. The Prodigy are clearly a group, presented like a band with two flamboyant frontmen. A far cry from the happy dancing in videos like “Everybody is in the Place” (which never broke in the US, for obvious reasons).
Chemical Brothers - “Block Rockin’ Beats"
Like with The Prodigy, it’s tough to pick just one Chemical Brothers video. Next to The Prodigy, they were hands down the biggest success to come from Electronica, and one of the longest lasting (again, along with The Prodigy). But “Block Rockin’ Beats” was the monster - the one that got insecure proto-gay boys like myself to actually share with friends that I’d been watching a video in which the samples were narrated by a man in lipstick. A few years later, the club scene in the first Matrix film (more on that later) felt like it owed more than a bit of a debt to this video. Spike Jonze directed the next one, “Elektrobank”, and despite an, uh, floor routine performance from his then-wife Sophia Coppola, the wink-wink irony failed to catch on the same way action movie shots did for “Block Rockin’ Beats” and its predecessor, “Setting Sun”.
The Crystal Method & Filter - “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do"
Essentially a vocal edit of the song of same name on The Crystal Method’s debut album, Vegas, “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do” illustrates two important factors to the success of Electronica: 1) established rock bands - often from industrial backgrounds - lending credibility, and 2) movie soundtracks - often sci-fi or thriller. This one comes from the Spawn soundtrack - others, such as Trainspotting, Hackers, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Matrix, were all instrumental in spreading Electronica.
It’s also worth noting that The Crystal Method were one of the few in the Electronica crop who hailed from the US. Mostly, Electronica was about selling something exotic and foreign - another reason why it was doomed to fail as a flash in the pan. Moby, until then the closest thing to a mainstream star in American electronic music, picked the electronica moment to take a vacation from dance music and record a punk album, career nadir Animal Rights. More on him later.
Daft Punk - “Around the World"
Back in the days when MTV actually broke artists, “Buzzworthy” was the ultimate form of praise; Michel Gondry secured this trophy with his video for Daft Punk’s “Around the World”. The idea is so simple it’s brilliant: each musical part of the track is represented by a group of dancers. Stiff-moving spacemen for the drums, swimsuits going up and down the stairs for the lead synth, etc. And so was a funky acid house track sold to the masses in the US, and received like an old-timey novelty. While “Da Funk” also made enough of a splash, the legend of Daft Punk the non-novelty wasn’t really written in the US until the the neon filter-house of 2001’s Discovery.
Fatboy Slim - “Praise You"
It’s tempting to go with the Christopher Walken-starring “Weapon of Choice” here, but this is where Fatboy Slim broke through to ubiquity in the US, and the video played a huge role. Low budget footage of director Spike Jonze in a mall with a community dance troupe beat viewers over the head with the quirkiness and simple joy of the track - and of the accompanying album, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Less than two years later, “Praise You” would be used as a campaign rally song for Al Gore, an interesting nod to the present compared to Clinton’s 96 boomer-bait, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”.
Moby - “Bodyrock"
Meta-humor was in for many of these videos - just see examples from Fatboy Slim and Wink elsewhere in this article. In 1999, Moby could certainly have used a sense of humor in his public image. Having last flamed out with the the super-serious rock crossover mess of Animal Rights, Moby came back with the perfect track: infectious, loose, and with nary a watered-down punk vocal in sight. The accompanying album, Play, would go on to define Moby, relaunching his career and leading to commercial licensing deals for each of its 18 tracks. But it all started with the introduction to Moby mk2, in this video.
Wink ft. The Interpreters - “Simple Man"
The prevalence of live electronic and DJ groups - especially at festivals - didn’t thrill everyone. Henry Rollins famously ranted that sampling amounted to musical thievery, a refuge of the lazy and untalented. There was also the distrust of of Electronica is an attempt to shove wimpy European culture down the throats of Americans, who liked their rock stars masculine and wild. Then, there were those who complained that electronic music was simply a collection of cacophonous bleeps and blips, in contrast to rock music played on “real” instruments.
All of which made a perfect opportunity for Philadelphian Josh Wink, by then established for his acid breaks, to star in a video as a handler for a boombox who becomes a sensation, embraces debauchery, and survives an O.D. (complete with a fake MTV news break from Kurt Loder), only to do a comeback show in which a triggered fire alarm becomes his “new hit single”. It’s a brilliant send up, from an artist who likely knew that he would never again have the opportunity to spend this much on a video.
Madonna - “Ray of Light"
By the release of 1998’s Ray of Light album, Madonna had already established her as the queen of reinvention - from downtown NYC club kid to naughty pop star to spiritual artist to fetish dom to Eva Perón. Credit her with going for new avenues - and as cynical as one can be about the creation of “Ray of Light”, it’s still a great song (and Ray of Light remains a high point for Madonna, in a career full of them). If only all pop-Electronica pairings could have been as fruitful as Madonna and William Ørbit…and if only Madonna could have show the same savvy for MDNA, her try-hard overture to EDM.
Underworld - “Born Slippy .NUXX"
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in the hypothetical meeting pitching for a push to American audiences. “We’ve got this song about heroin addiction; well, it’s really not a song so much as a half-sung poem over a stadium techno track; well it’s really not so much a track as some chords and a pounding drum loop, which are mostly playing in isolation from one another.” Such was the power of Trainspotting that this one gave Underworld their first US due. “Cowboy” also appeared in Hackers, but “Born Slippy” was the breakthrough. Subsequently, 1999’s Beaucoup Fish became Underworld’s best selling to date. Here’s just smiling at you, boyyyyyy.
Propellerheads - “Spybreak"
You’ll notice that’s not an official music video, but rather a clip from a film. In 1999, the soundtrack to The Matrix rode heavily on the overwhelming popularity of the film. And no song stuck out more than Propellerheads’ “Spybreak”, used for the impeccably choreographed and insanely violent shootout in the lobby of the Agents’ stronghold. Why would Propellerheads pay to make a music video, when the Wachowskis already did it for them?
(Another fun bit of Propellerheads placement trivia - its “Take California” appeared in the first ever TV ad for the iPod)
Aphex Twin - “Come to Daddy"
Generally, there are a few rules for an independent artist who suddenly has the budget for a video - 1) make it memorable, and 2) make it representative of your general sound so that your audience won’t just sell back your release and hate you for it. Chris Cunningham’s video for “Come to Daddy” is nothing if not memorable - an elderly woman is chased by mischievous children in realistic Aphex Twin Masks - but “Come to Daddy” itself is hardly representative of Aphex Twin. In fact, it was pretty clearly done as a pisstake on The Prodigy’s equally dark and metal-esque singles “Firestarter” and “Breathe”. Regardless, “Come to Daddy" was an incredible advertisement for Aphex Twin, the guy who makes mindfuck music. And, whether you loved or hated it, you damn well remembered it.
Björk - “All is Full of Love"
Another winner from Chris Cunningham - two robot Björks are assembled in some distant future, and learn to love (awwww - but really, it’s quite something, watch it). So, a sapphic robotic love story got airplay on MTV. How?
Björk was something of an outlier for Electronica. Having initially impressed as something of a techno-hippie pixie - thanks in large part to incredible videos like “It’s Oh So Quiet” and “Army of Me” - she set a much angrier and more mature tone on 1997’s Homogenic. Reeling in part from a new level of fame and its trappings (since her last album, 1995’s Post, she’d made headlines for having attacked a reporter in Thailand, and for narrowly missing an acid bomb mailed to her by an obsessive and suicidal fan).
Compared to the dopey good times to be had on most big beat records - and, had it come out a year or two later, “Army of Me” would have fit right in - Björk made something intimate and challenging. That singles like “Hunter” and “All is Full of Love” still crossed over is a testament to 1) Björk’s talent and enigmatic personality, and 2) the extent to which Electronica was the thing in 1997. It’s worth noting that the video version of “All is Full of Love” did make one concession - toning down the floating ambience of the album version and adding a gently distorted trip-hop beat.
Portishead - “Only You"
Another Chris Cunningham masterpiece, featuring actors filmed underwater, then placed in a back alley - the drowning metaphor is no less beautiful for being obvious. For its self-titled second album, Portishead accomplished the dubiously impressive feat of making a collection of songs even more miserable and hopeless than their debut, Dummy. Portishead were part of that “authentic” trip-hop class - along with Tricky and Massive Attack - for whom being real needed to come before accessibility or moving units (at least according to their images). But Electronica was that magical time when anything electronic had the allure of the future (being English didn’t hurt, either).
On a personal note, “Only You” was my own introduction to Portishead, watching the band’s performance on Saturday Night Live. I was intrigued by the overwhelming seriousness and sadness - even the DJ scratched out “it’s like that”, with oppressive finality. Naturally, I needed to hear more of this depressing beauty.
Sneaker Pimps - “6 Underground"
It’d be unfair to simply dismiss Sneaker Pimps as a more accessible version of Portishead - “6 Underground” is a fun track with godfather Nellee Hooper on the remix, there’s no shame in leaning towards pop, and regardless, Portishead sold over three million copies of Dummy. That said, Sneaker Pimps represent an era when new trip-hop groups actually became comfortable with the term. With its multiple vignettes, the “6 Underground” video plays like PG-13 version of the avant garde nightmare hotel from Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma”.
Bush - “The Chemicals Between Us"
And here we have it, the inevitable end to any musical trend - haphazard cooption from artists who are otherwise getting long in the tooth. Having first ridden on the way of “bubble grunge”, Bush faced 1999 with the option to either stay the course (basically, become what Nickleback is today), or try something to reach the new teenagers. Of course, like most rock cooptions of electronica, the filtered drum loops, treated guitars, and assorted synth bubbles sounded inevitably cynical - more a grab for authenticity than genuine curiosity or desire for reinvention.
With “The Chemicals Between Us”, Bush had a video to perfectly match their new rocktronica sound. White voids, urban futuristic decay, martial arts, Asian stereotypes - it’s all not too far away from The Matrix, and certainly from the shaky Super 8 “realness” of “Glycerine”. It’s hardly surprising that the rock currents shifted massively to nostalgic “return of rock” bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes by 2001.
Afterward - EDM: Electronica pt. 2?
Every so often, you hear someone say that a particular moment in culture “will never happen like this again”. In 2001, with the “return of rock” in full swing and hip-hop retreating from Timbaland’s Electronica-tinged beats to the pitched-up soul of Kanye West and Just BlazeRegarding popularity (it would be a few years yet until Kanye became an EDM touchstone), it was easy to look at the failures of Electronica tours (Lollapalooza 97, anyone?) and declare that the US just wasn’t a market for electronic music.
EDM, of course, proved that wrong, and its biggest acts have far eclipsed the heights of the mid-late 90s - not to mention carried a few stars over with it, such as The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy.
Video-wise, the delivery method has changed - YouTube/Instagram/Snapchat being the more valuable channels - but there are plenty of quirky videos - Skrillex’s “First of the Year (Equinox)” (clearly influenced by Chris Cunningham), Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor”, Deadmau5’s “Ghosts N Stuff" - that could have easily been Buzzworthy back in the days of MTV rule. Viral spread is all about word-of-mouth and the specific platform used - gone are the old TV and radio strategies of old. So, no, EDM isn’t Electronica, and EDM has proved to have far greater saturation and longevity than Electronica. Already, its absorbed its first backlash, as bro-step has given way to watered-down deep house, keeping in line with an aging audience. Whatever the next big thing is, EDM's breakthrough was to make electronic dance music a part of the core American mainstream lexicon. It’s not separate from the American mainstream any more, and thus, no longer exotic or outside - and, navel-gazing as it sounds, I kind of miss that.