The Electronic New Age Acid Test

Director Amir Bar-Lev

Last week in Austin, TX, I sat down for coffee and brunch with Amir Bar-Lev, director of the documentary Re:Generation Music. The documentary follows five DJs–Skrillex, Pretty Lights, Mark Ronson, Crystal Method and DJ Premier–tasked with producing a track within a certain genre.

It was Sunday morning at the SXSW festival when I went to the Four Seasons hotel to meet Bar-Lev. I had spent Saturday night getting to know every bar on Austin’s legendary 6th St. I had slept all of two hours that night and was going into the interview wildly under-prepared. Nervous, tired, and hungover, I arrived a few minutes early hoping to review my notes from his film before speaking with him. When I showed up, however, Bar-Lev was finishing an interview with a reporter from the USA Today, and asked me to join the two of them while they wrapped up. I was annoyed at the time, but the gesture ended up salvaging what would have likely been a disaster of an interview.

As they ended their conversation, Bar-Lev dropped a subtle Grateful Dead reference (something to do with China Cat Sunflower). The USA Today reporter seemed not to notice (or understand). He shook Amir’s hand and left. Eager to pick his brain about a band I’m interested in, I forwent my prepared questions and launched into conversation before I even thought to turn on my recorder. We talked in length about the Dead (I soon remembered to hit “record”) as well as the electronica scene permeating every aspect of pop music today. After more than half an hour, we arrived at an interesting conclusion: both musical scenes are essentially the same. Our talk went something like this:

Since Jerry Garcia died in 1995, countless bands have been labeled “the next Grateful Dead.” Every jam band, it seems, wants to fill the void left by one of history’s greatest touring acts. Phish is commonly referred to as having filled that gap (much to the chagrin of both diehard Phish and Dead fans). Other bands like moe. and Widespread Panic have earned similar reputations as the torchbearers of the Dead flame. Such jam band shows are infused with similar music, drugs, people and overall scenes as those of the Grateful Dead.

But most people are looking at the situation all wrong. Rather than focus on the structure of the music and concerts or the clothes the fans wear, we should focus on the reason and meaning behind the scene and what draws the people together. When you take away all the bongs, bumper stickers and hemp necklaces, the scene that most closely resembles that of the Dead is electronic dance music.

Both scenes revolve around a drug culture espoused by young people and the live shows are a unique experiential phenomenon. The music typically takes a back seat to the experience of the event. The Dead’s live performances in the 60s were often terrible, since they were tripping face most of the time–often they forgot lyrics or would only play for 10 or 15 minutes. Fans danced around and did drugs into all hours of the night, regardless of what the music sounded like. Electronica music is really no different. Ecstasy-ridden teens show up in wild outfits and costumes to dance along with an endless series of same-sounding songs. The music–and even the DJ–is mostly irrelevant. Those who have never been to an electronica show cannot understand it, and those who have been cannot explain it. It’s all about the experience.

Electronica is this generation’s subcultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, in a world dominated by marketing geniuses, it’s already being exploited and distributed into mainstream music. Additionally, the Internet has allowed the scene to transcend place. The Dead’s initial popularity was relegated to San Francisco because that was the only place the music could be heard. Electronic music spread worldwide like a virus. It’s a lifestyle seeping into most aspects of every day life. While the Dead scene popularized tye-dyed shirts and long hair, electronica is pushing plastic sunglasses and Converse sneakers back into our social consciousness.

Musical merit seems irrelevant in such subcultural fads. It’s about style, experience and community. The Grateful Dead did it with acid and poorly-rehearsed music. Skrillex and Pretty Lights do it with Molly and mash-ups of other artists’ music. The mentality behind both, is essentially the same.

Bar-Lev and I decided to both look further into the similarities and distinctions between the two. Who knows, maybe there’s another documentary in the making somewhere down the line.