The Return of Electroclash

After it surged from the keyboards of amateur musicians in the late-1990s to rule over the late-2000s pop queendom, a third wave of electroclash is upon us.

Music Features Scene Report
The Return of Electroclash

It’s 2024, and the roughly 20-year nostalgia cycle that governs trends in fashion, music and culture at-large has brought us back to the mid-2000s. Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, the original purveyors of Juicy Couture velour tracksuits, revived them for a SKIMS collection. 2000s staple Von Dutch, whose iconic trucker hats were seen on the heads of everyone from Jay-Z to Britney Spears, has been brought back into the spotlight by Gen-Z shoppers after a long period of dormancy.

The Von Dutch renaissance hasn’t only occurred in the realm of fashion, though. On February 22nd, Charli XCX packed 400 of her most loyal fans into a Bushwick warehouse—along with staples of 2020s celebrity culture like Julia Fox and Addison Rae—for a delirious, sweaty rave hosted by Boiler Room. The fashion of the attendees was as omnivorous as one would expect from a Brooklyn crowd these days, but it was nonetheless marked by plenty of 2000s staples: wraparound sunglasses, t-shirts plastered with bold slogans (see: Charli’s CULT CLASSIC t-shirt) and many, many Von Dutch trucker hats. “Von dutch” also happens to be the title of the visceral, exhilarating lead single of Charli’s upcoming sixth studio album, Brat, which was birthed in the clubs and has been said to draw heavy inspiration from the club classics of Charli’s youth.

“Von dutch” is a sucker punch of a track: its kinetic, pounding beat and buzzing synth line are intoxicating, and its songwriting is remarkably efficient, even for Charli’s standards—there’s only one 4-bar verse, and the rest of the song punches you around between hook after hook. Charli sing-raps the track’s brash lyrics with a bratty attitude fed through hard Auto-Tune to a delirious effect. Stylistically and thematically, the song caricatures the club classics of Charli’s youth: the bratty vocals recall Kesha, Lady Gaga and Robyn circa-2010, and the winking lyrics about being the object of a culture’s obsession and derision recall Britney Spears’ Blackout.

The tabloid culture of the 2000s was notoriously vicious—stars were born from scandal just as quickly as they could be extinguished from it. In 2007, after experiencing relentlessly frenzied hounding by the media and suffering a very public mental breakdown, Spears shunned the world’s desire for any insight into her personal life and released Blackout. Any references that Spears does make to her controversial public image find her simply reveling in it (see: “Piece of Me”), and the rest of the gleefully hedonistic record is firmly preoccupied with partying and pleasure. The way Spears placed an impenetrable distance between herself as an artist and herself as a person would influence how some other pop stars would choose to handle their celebrity, but the actual sound of Blackout would come to define an entire era of pop.

Blackout’s thumping, four-on-the-floor beats, distorted, buzzy synths, sleazy lyrics and ultra-processed, robotic vocals didn’t come out of nowhere, though—even at its most mainstream, pop is always in conversation with the underground. The sonic identities that it adopts and then sheds often reflect sounds that have bubbled up in other spaces in years prior. Around the turn of the century, the 2-step rhythm snuck its way out of the UK garage scene to grab a foothold onto pop, even making its way onto Spears’ “That’s Where You Take Me.” At the same time, the slyly futuristic, jittery production of hip-hop and R&B stalwarts like Pharrell and Timbaland formed the bedrock of chart-topping singles like Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.”

Likewise, many of Blackout’s distinctive traits were first assembled in the late ‘90s, when a disparate group of often amateur musicians from New York, Detroit, Germany and the Netherlands began to shape what would later be recognized as the electroclash scene. Electroclash itself was heavily recycled: its raw synth lines were pulled from ‘80s electro and synth-pop, and its abrasive, distorted edges were inspired by early synth-punk. Its minimally arranged percussion drew heavy influence from contemporary techno, despite the fact that the scene’s trademark sense of trashy humor and showmanship arose as a reaction to techno’s perceived rigidity. Its aesthetics and emphasis on performance art also drew inspiration from the past: 1982 sci-fi cult classic film Liquid Sky is often cited as being one of the scene’s primary visual influences. The film’s vibrant, avant-garde depiction of New York’s underground culture—achieved using outlandish, DIY costumes, vivid bursts of color and androgynous stylings—resonated with the rebellious, countercultural ethos of the electroclash scene.

What felt most novel about the genre were the vocals. Electroclash artists often straddled the line between speaking and singing, and their monotonous delivery through a range of vocoders stood in stark contrast to their much sillier lyrics. The lyrical content of most early electroclash songs is concerned with two things: explicitly sexual references and satirizing the lives of the rich and famous. The result is far removed from what anyone would call good taste—these songs are trashy, sleazy and not meant to be taken seriously. “Frank Sinatra” by Miss Kittin, an early electroclash classic, starts with: “Every night with my star friends / We eat caviar and drink champagne / Sniffing in the VIP area / We talk about Frank Sinatra / You know Frank Sinatra? / He’s dead.” With all due respect to Miss Kittin and other electroclash acts, they were far from being celebrities. The irreverent satirizing of celebrity culture that was so common on electroclash songs was rooted in an outsider’s perspective, and so when artists from this scene, such as Fischerspooner and Goldfrapp, did find wider success, most ended up shedding the electroclash sound altogether.

By 2005, the original wave of electroclash was essentially over, but it had seeped into other sounds that dominated the bloghouse scene, such as new rave and electro house. Artists like Justice and Soulwax took its 80s electro-influenced synths and blew the sound up to new proportions, taking it to new heights of popularity in the European club circuit and readying the foundations of its arrival into mainstream pop. The prologue to electroclash’s eventual grasp on pop music happened concurrently with its dominance of the underground. Madonna was the first major pop artist to incorporate the genre’s influences into her work, but her forays into it ended up as an anomaly within the rest of her discography and pop music at large. 2000’s Music and 2003’s American Life, made in collaboration with French producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï, are electropop albums at their core, but they pulled in a diverse array of influences, including funk, house, country, folk and electroclash-influenced buzzing synths and the occasional half-spoken, half-sung verse (see: the title track of American Life).

The experimental direction that these albums took was beguiling, and the odd sound and clunkiness of some of the lyrics on American Life led to it being critically panned and rejected by the general public, who were perhaps not yet ready for electroclash’s entrance into the mainstream. Rolling Stone opened their review of the record by saying, “American Life, her tenth album, isn’t much as a work of music — diluted Eurotechno from her producer Mirwais, built around acoustic-guitar vamps that are either her own or about on her level — but it is a certain marker in popular culture.” The criticism around the album’s perceived lack of musicality misses the mark—Madonna and Mirwais weren’t diluting Eurotechno and they weren’t limited by any lack of talent, they were just embracing a novel sound.

After Timbaland signaled his interest in dance by incorporating grainy synth grooves and club-ready beats into hits like Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and his own “The Way I Are,” the release of Blackout precipitated a wide-scale shift of pop towards the sleaze of electroclash. In the years following Blackout’s release, stars including Kesha, the Black Eyed Peas, Rihanna and Lady Gaga all released era-defining pop records featuring compressed, busy undercurrents, pulsating, dancefloor-ready beats, and raunchy lyrics. From 2007 through 2010, as pop became more and more occupied with revelry in excess, the echoes of electroclash ruled the charts.

Out of this era’s crop of newly minted pop stars, Lady Gaga most embodied the spirit of electroclash. Her notoriously avant-garde fashion choices used latex, metals and even meat to blend bold futurism with visual references to ‘70s and ‘80s glam icons like David Bowie. Gaga’s striking music videos—whose edgy glamor and provocative sexuality often coexisted with stark, futuristic settings—reflected a visual identity that, at times, approached performance art. Musically, Gaga’s work was even more reminiscent of the scene. Her 2008 debut album The Fame and its 2009 follow-up The Fame Monster featured processed, often robotic vocals, throbbing beats, sharp, distorted synths and frequently half-sung, half-spoken verses. In addition to the obvious sonic similarities to electroclash on display, Gaga’s lyrics explored the darker side of fame (this time, from the perspective of an actual celebrity) and sexual desire and identity with unabashed openness and biting irony. Gaga’s visionary fashion, elaborate visuals, stage performances, and playful lyrics all placed her love for the theatrical on full display. Her fusion of the avant-garde with pure pop bliss played a pivotal role in integrating electroclash’s aesthetics into the mainstream and making pop at large a lot more weird, progressive, and exciting.

At the same time, Crystal Castles were hard at work incorporating the same influences into indie electronic music. Both members of the duo came from punk backgrounds, and their work was decidedly disorienting. The music was incredibly innovative, fusing in-your-face synth leads and dance grooves with expressive yet buried vocals to create minimal, disarming yet catchy bangers. Like the pop stars of the late 2000s, they also adopted the sleaziness of early electroclash music, but took it in a far less ostentatious and more underground direction. Unfortunately, the band’s legacy is tainted by physical, psychological, and sexual abuse allegations that songwriter and vocalist Alice Glass made against her producer counterpart Ethan Kath. Glass was able to escape Kath’s chokehold in 2014 upon leaving the duo, but her horrific treatment persisted for an unimaginable amount of time and should forever be a part of the Crystal Castles conversation.

By the end of 2011, electroclash had vanished from the mainstream, usurped by more drop-oriented EDM. Spears released Femme Fatale, whose dubstep breakdowns (see: lead single “Hold It Against Me”) made it among the first releases in a wave of pop music that would feed off of Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, the producer’s 2010 debut and the beginnings of the “bro-ification” of dubstep. On the flipside of the same coin, Rihanna and Calvin Harris released “We Found Love,” whose cresting waves of EDM beat drops signaled the impending dominance of festival-ready, progressive house hooks in pop music throughout the first half of the 2010s (think Avicii, Zedd and Martin Garrix). These influences had their day in the sun, followed by trap dominating the second half of the decade, with rattling hi-hats and 808s seeping into every corner of pop music. Electroclash remained untouched all the while, still too recent a phenomenon to warrant any sort of revival. Now, on the heels of a pervasive Y2K resurgence, the time has come.

Electroclash is in the air. It’s a nostalgic return to messy, trashy aesthetics being brought to life by the generation that learned to party in its heyday. One prime example is the up-and-coming, Detroit-based duo Snow Strippers, made up of producer Graham Perez and vocalist Tatiana Schwaniger. Their music places those familiar distorted, grainy synth leads atop driving techno beats. It’s lo-fi, raw and a bit sloppy, with instruments bleeding into each other in many of the dizzying mixes. Their embrace of messiness is in true electroclash spirit, as are the frequently robotic vocals. Snow Strippers’ music videos also make many references to the 2000s. When asked about this aesthetic, Perez commented, “I don’t think it’s a conscious thing when we do it. I think it’s just what we grew up with.” Whether intentional or not, the duo is a key player in the sleaze resurgence. They also have their own label, Nice Bass Bro, and will hopefully platform more similar artists in the future.

Another new act participating in this revival is the NYC-based sibling duo Frost Children. Their 2023 record SPEED RUN is a whirlwind of basslines and synthesizers, topped with tacky, blunt lyrics that park it firmly in electroclash territory. It’s more rave-influenced than many of its hyperpop predecessors, and slightly refines the duo’s rough, sloppy production style—just enough to clean up the production without losing that key messy feeling. Frost Children discussed the similarities between this project and bloghouse music in an interview with Last Donut of the Night, confirming the influence. Angel stated, “That’s one of the better reads of the SPEED RUN record. Simple, saw-y bassline music with a club beat. Bloghouse was extremely influential on us.” That said, the band’s subsequent record, Hearth Room, was far less dancey and more influenced by indie music. Frost Children might be helping revive electroclash, but they’re also doing their own thing.

The style is even making its way into hip-hop. After taking to Snow Stripper’s calculated chaos, Lil Uzi Vert reached out and crafted a remix for their song “It’s A Dream.” The unlikely crossover didn’t stop there, as Snow Strippers worked on “Fire Alarm” from Uzi’s 2023 album Pink Tape soon after. It’s a bold experiment, combining the frantic synths in Justice’s “Stress” with sleazy spoken vocals to complete an off the wall hip house banger. And Uzi isn’t the only rapper experimenting with these influences. “Modern Jam,” off Travis Scott’s latest release Utopia, features bursts of fuzzy digital textures over an unrelenting, rigid dance beat, and Yeat’s newest project, 2093, features electro-influenced synths on “Breathe” and is complete with a Crystal Castles sample on “ILUV.” It’s a wild track, flipping the explosive synths and choppy vocal sample on “Fleece” and turning them into an electroclash rage-rap anthem.

So it has returned. The clothes are back—not yet with the prominence they reached in their 2000s peak, but the revival is still in its infancy. Bloghouse titans Justice are also releasing their first project in eight years, titled Hyperdrama, on April 26th. While they’ve hinted that there will be a lot of genre variation both across and within songs, singles “Generator” and “Incognito” feature classic electro-house grooves; I’m sure we’ll hear more in the same vein on the full project. And on the world stage, Charli XCX seems to be entering a full blown electroclash era of her own. She hinted at this stylistic pivot with “Speed Drive,” her infectious contribution to the Barbie soundtrack, and more recently has been wholeheartedly embracing trashy club aesthetics in her album rollout. It’s called Brat. What a perfect word. Upon its release this summer, it may well become the first massive electroclash-influenced pop album in over a decade, and it will likely accelerate the sleaze revival. So dust off your Von Dutch hats and ready your synthesizers: Electroclash is rising from its slumber.

Check out a playlist of electroclash essentials, compiled by authors David Feigelson and Sha Frasier, below.

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