Live Review, 6/28/12: Avicii at Bill Graham Civic: This Is Why America Likes EDM
Christopher Victorio Avicii at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium last night.
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Better than: Dancing in a small, dark basement with people who obsess over rare music. Ha! No, it wasn't better than that at all.
Up at the top of a very large model of the human head, just inside what would be the scalp, 22-year-old Swedish house producer Avicii is grinning like a kid who just hit his first home run. Bouncing around inside his perch, he looks like a goofy little boy inside a man, wearing a plain gray T-shirt and backwards baseball cap, waving one arm in the air. Below him, the giant head sits like a sentinel, unmoving except for the patterns of light shined on it. These patterns shift in lockstep with the music, a crisp guttural throb that sends palpitations through every surface in the room, including one's own chest.
The big head is stunningly appropriate, because everything that's happening -- from the tectonic bass to the aurora-shaming ejaculations of neon light -- is on a superhuman scale: So big, so bright, so smoothly relentless. The only thing is to surrender. And that is what 8,000 people are doing, to varying degrees: Twirling, shimmying, swaying, but mostly bouncing up and down with one or both hands in the air, smiling. Many are in various states of near-nudity. Who knows what they're on.
This, right here, is what the American music machine is hungry for right now: Gatherings of massive size centered around dazzling visuals and what is awkwardly but now commonly referred to as electronic dance music. EDM draws shitloads of people and earns ludicrous sums of money. It has been a big story in every music magazine that could reasonably lay claim to it, and also in a few other magazines that couldn't. It is the underpinning for a great majority of the pop hits of the last few years. It made it to the Grammys. And it's still cool.
As to be expected, though, the American EDM boom isn't approved of by some dance music purists and club-culture intelligentsia. These elites have a litany of complaints about the increasingly mainstream scene, which include:
- It's exactly the same music they and in-the-know Euros were dancing to in the '90s.
- Popularity is going to take the soul out of dance music.
- These EDM "producers" aren't doing anything onstage except pressing play on their laptop, unlike a legit DJ that would spend hours crafting a careful set, while actually moving records or CDs on and off, mixing them together, tweaking their sound, etc.
- The new mainstream EDM is just bad.
Back up on his big head, Avicii manipulates the room like he's holding the remote control to a small town's worth of people. Whatever he's doing up there (we can't really see), the music moves in a predictable pattern: Calmer sounds linger for a few moments, then begin to build. A synth sample speeds up into a low buzz, then a higher buzz, then a hyperactive-fly-next-to-your-ear buzz, a rush of snare clicks hits, and suddenly, just when the tension becomes unbearable, the air becomes a percussive pulse, tangibly violent, driving, totally invigorating. Release: The synths tout some anthemic major-key arpeggio as the room submits to another Whomp. Whomp. Whomp. Whomp. Whomp. Whomp. Whomp, the old, mechanical yet strangely liberating four-on-the-floor house beat. The stage-width screen behind the big head is a solid flash of blinding white, like a nuclear detonation, purple lasers dart over our heads, and this cavernous room is now a vast sea of bouncing torsos and arms waving in the shimmering light. The huge face stares back indifferent, its surface a bright mosaic of colorful shapes.
This process repeats itself dozens of times, each build and climax slightly different, but all drawing the same reaction: a sense of falling off a cliff into an ocean of ecstasy. Of reaching the top of the rollercoaster and feeling your stomach hit your throat as you roll off into the fall. Of getting in a fight and winning. Of fucking. Tension, release. Tension, release. Sure, it's banal, but we're all programmed to respond to it. There's no intellectualizing required: The lizard brain inside your human one will like this feeling forever.
Just look at tonight's crowd, which could be a stock photo illustrating "all walks of life": It skews young, of course -- plenty of nubile flesh, furry booties, light-up glasses, and dudes with glow gloves giving friends of Molly a show. The tight pecadillo count is huge -- there may be more shirtless guys than girls in bikinis. But there are also dorky kids, hood types in baggy white T-shirts and long shorts, investment bankers, and rock refugees. When Avicii drops a few seconds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' 2000 hit "Otherside," the entire room seems to sing along. So basically this is a cross-section of concert-going America, bouncing up and down to the buzzes and oonce-oonces of our stupidly grinning Swedish tour guide.
In general, America is a country that likes big, shiny, loud, bold, simplistic things. In 2012, mainstream America likes EDM -- or a version of it that is often big, shiny, loud, bold, and simplistic. But why now for the American EDM boom? Because it's more pure fun than anything else out there. Because it's emphatically positive, with bottomless energy and a utopian message. ("We're gonna save the world tonight" was just one of many assuredly upbeat vocal lines repeated last night.) Because in a world that is constantly shouting for one's attention, glossy EDM is big enough, bright enough, loud enough, and busy enough to block everything else out and let people be totally overwhelmed for a few hours. It's a better bet than a rock show, where the band might be drunk or tired, or the sound might suck, or you might not hear the song you like most. EDM works at or near peak level all the time. The only pauses are in service of gratification; sets like Avicii's are thoroughly engineered to dazzle our little human brains. And in 2012, lots of people need to be dazzled by something big and bright and shiny, to forget the cold, drab, bill-collecting world lurking outside. Cerebral arguments that people were dancing to similar music 20 years ago, or that this isn't "real DJing," are never going to take away the joyful rush of that beat pummeling out of a huge sound system.
Toward the end of his show, the scalp of the big head that is Avicii's DJ booth detaches from the rest of the head, slowly rises into the air, and then glides out over the crowd. With him perched over center of the room, we can see that Avicii only rarely dons his headphones. Once, he even moves away from his console, out of view, for what feels like a minute or two. All of this probably indicates that he's more or less just pressing play up there, giving us a show with his big grin and his backwards baseball cap and his hand in the air. That he's only barely mixing or tweaking the actual music. Dozens of feet below Avicii's levitating scalp, a floor full of sweaty EDM fans looks up at the young Swede. They're waiting for the next rush to arrive. They don't really care how it gets made.
Personal bias: While I think I understand its appeal, I have to admit that this stuff doesn't really do it for me. Maybe I'm defective -- I'm clearly at least in the minority -- but the funk-less four-on-the-floor as practiced by artists like Avicii only barely registers as danceable to these bones. The energy at a show like this, though, is insanely infectious.