Things Music Critics Hate: Skrillex
Music criticism is as much an affliction as an occupation -- especially these days, it's far more reliable as a sickness than a paycheck. Things Music Critics Hate is an occasional series that will attempt to diagnose and explain the broadly shared beliefs and biases that shape the landscape of music criticism -- and also to discover what qualities (if any) professional observers generally agree make music good.
Many people love Skrillex, who in real life is 23-year-old Sonny Moore, onetime S.F. resident and former screamo bandleader. In less than two years, he's gone from virtual unknown to landing songs on charts worldwide. He's nominated for five Grammy awards this year. He draws sprawling crowds in San Francisco and at festivals like Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival. Last year, he even made the cover of SPIN. That pale countenance belonging to Sonny Moore is pretty much the face of America's newfound obsession with electronic dance music.
A smaller, but no less vociferous crowd hates Skrillex and the mechanical bass detonations of his sound. Among music aficionados and many professional critics, Skrillex might as well be Satan's spawn, a strange-looking little demon who likes Korn and aims to spoil the precious soul of dance with a wobblestorm of hyperactive farting.
The U.K. Guardian interviewed Skrillex last year and headlined the story, "Is Skrillex the Most Hated Man in Dubstep?" (Conclusion: Yes, but he's really happy.) Nitush Abebe wrote a thoughtful piece called "Why Does America Love Skrillex" for Vulture and decided that Skrillex's violent bricolage of high-pitched vocal samples, subterranean low frequencies, and metallic clatter was thrilling in a different way -- and appealing to a different crowd -- than the more subtle, soulful stuff many serious electronic dance music fans regard as good. (It definitely did not amount to a defense.) And even the San Francisco Chronicle found objectionable the way Skrillex's lurching rhythms forced a particular movement on dancers at a live show, rather than allowing them to find their own kinetic response to the beat. (Which, yeah -- how you're supposed to dance to this is lost on us.)
The disdain for Skrillex is different, too, from the "you-really-get-paid-this-much-to-filter-sweep" way that EDM aficionados regard douchey Euro DJs like David Guetta and Tiësto. Those folks make boring, predictable, transparently manipulative dance music, but what they do isn't particularly offensive. It's just bad. But to its detractors, the music of Skrillex amounts to a sonic abomination that's also deeply angering.
Let's deal first with the aesthetic argument against Skrillex. At his most ornery, in songs like "Right In" and "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," Skrillex sounds like what would happen if you took a heap of scrap metal, shoved it in an industrial-sized clothes dryer, and then amplified the resulting sound during a major earthquake, with attendant screaming from terrified disaster victims. But you'd have to watch that disaster on fast-forward, because Skrillex's sonic assault is always -- always -- anxiously shifting. While much dance music works through subtle changes to a repetitive rhythm, Skrillex tracks are always churning out new elements in a hyperactive attempt to dazzle and overwhelm. That willingness to play to his audience's ever-shrinking attention span is key to his success. And while many electronic artists aim to capture every drop of humanity from their MPCs and Ableton setups, Skrillex's machines sound as big, shiny, and mechanical as possible.