American-style EDM makes inroads at Sonar and in Ibiza
In case you thought the whole EDM-as-pop-on-steroids thing was a uniquely North American phenomenon, think again: Dance music's mainstream U.S. breakout is also changing the shape of the scene in Europe — even in Spain, a country whose fans traditionally have shown a preference for harder, more uncompromising, and more underground sounds (and where, it must be said, dance music has been more or less mainstream, anyway).
The first sign of the shift was David Guetta's appearance last summer at Monegros, a desert festival that has served as a showcase for techno at its toughest. (Despite a vocal contingent of disgruntled ticketholders who set up a Facebook group in protest — some even threatened to throw tomatoes — the set apparently went off without the world coming to an end.) This year, I'm seeing bookings at Spanish clubs and festivals that would have been virtually unthinkable just a few years ago. The most notable being Deadmau5, who played at the 19th edition of Barcelona's celebrated Sónar festival this past weekend.
Sónar has never shied away from pop artists with plenty of crossover appeal, like Björk, the Beastie Boys, and even Roxy Music. But the presence of North America's biggest electronic-music star was unusual in the context of a festival that has tended to prefer its dance music either left-of-center or, in the case of regular returnees like Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin, pummelingly classicist. Deadmau5 is neither, but that clearly didn't matter to the Saturday night crowd at Sónar, according to the critic Javier Blánquez, writing in El Mundo:
"[Deadmau5] is not popular in Spain, but in the United States he is to live electronic music as Cirque du Soleil is to acrobatics. Deadmau5, the man with the mouse head, filled the colossal Sónar Club all by himself, garbed in his rodent costume and wrapped in LEDs, with his mixer glimmering and his procession of hymns tinged with progressive; [his music] was celebrated as if it represented the reinvention of the dance-music wheel — which, in fact, for 20-somethings, it does."
Deadmau5 wasn't the only representative of North America's big-tent EDM scene courting new fans in Barcelona this past weekend. The East Ender Festival, organized by promoters with a long history of throwing beachside parties geared to European tech-house tastes, mostly stuck with the program this year, but you could sense a shift in the winds: Alongside the usual four-to-the-floor foot soldiers (Loco Dice, Marco Carola, Sven Väth, Davide Squillace, Ellen Allien) were "dirty Dutch" electro-house star Chuckie and the pie-throwing, crowd-surfing gadabout Steve Aoki. (Dubfire sparked a minor twit-fit when he posted a photo with the caption, "Steve Aoki and Richie Hawtin B2B," only to reassure his followers that it was just a joke. Maybe, but when Hawtin posted a photo of himself mugging with Aoki on a Barcelona street, many commenters didn't seem to find anything funny in that collision of two worlds.)
This summer, Ibiza, long considered an underground stronghold, becomes a proving ground for mainstream EDM's viability as a tourist draw. Exhibit one: Ushuaïa, the luxury hotel and beachside entertainment complex, has granted residencies to David Guetta and his entrepreneurial wife Cathy, Swedish House Mafia, and Avicii — a fact all the more notable given Ushuaïa's history as a chiringuito that hosted epic afternoon sessions from the likes of Luciano and Ricardo Villalobos. (That Luciano also has a residency this year says more about his own transformation into a pop-dance go-between than the venue's commitment to grassroots house and techno.) Exhibit two: July's Ibiza123 Rocktronic Festival, a co-venture between Live Nation Spain and the Ibiza International Music Summit, has adopted a something-for-everyone approach with a bill split between main-stage EDM (David Guetta, Tiësto, Chase & Status), indie dance (M83, Azari & III, Nicolas Jaar) and genuinely ginormous names like Sting and Elton John. Luciano will be here, too, performing alongside Lenny Kravitz. Is Ibiza gonna go their way?
Of course, Ibiza isn't really "underground" — there's too much money at stake for that — and it has never wanted for spectacle and excess. Nevertheless, an underground ethos (or mythos) has reigned supreme for the past decade, as parties like Circo Loco, We Love… Space, and Sven Väth's Amnesia extravaganzas have provided a headquarters for the diehard faction of the EasyJet set. That's not going away any time soon; in fact, Sankeys' new club on the White Isle offers still more choices for committed clubbers with true-school tastes, while Hawtin is launching Enter, his first party series on the island, with a focus on "music, technology and sake." But some Ibiza promoters, like their Vegas protégés, are clearly betting on a public that doesn't know its rental villa from its Ricardo Villalobos, and simply wants to dance to familiar refrains in a high-energy setting.
Monegros, for its part, seems to have backed away from Guettamania for this year's edition. The biggest stars to visit the desert this year will be the Prodigy and Paul Kalkbrenner, artists far more in keeping with the festival's meat-and-potatoes aesthetic. The third top-billed act is, in fact, an outlier of a sort, and representative of a sound also made popular in America. But if anyone's going to be throwing tomatoes, they'd better do it Shaolin style: Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck with.