On the surface, Skrillex’s two-year sweep of The Grammys’ dance/electronic categories is a stunning victory for a deserving and unlikely star.
In last night’s “pre-tel” ceremony (aka before the telecast), the 25-year-old California native picked up Grammys for Best Remix Non-Classical, for his and Nero’s remix of the U.K. band’s own “Promises”; Best Dance Song for “Bangarang”; and Best Dance/Electronic Album for the “Bangarang” EP.
The three-gramophone haul made him one of the top winners of the night; the most honored one to not be featured on the telecast itself. It brings his two-year career tally to six, topping past Grammy electronic favorites like Chemical Brothers (four), Daft Punk, David Guetta and Jacques Lu Cont (two each), and tying iconic bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Police and The Eagles.
Skrillex is a music-focused artist whose drop-rocking dubstep has indeed changed the landscape over the past two years, driving the “EDM” youth movement and affecting the sound of pop music, right down to commercials. So after years of heaping dance awards on vacationing pop stars (Madonna, Rihanna) and one-off wedding DJ hits (Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out”), Grammy got that part right.
But Skrillex is not the only DJ/producer to make popular, game-changing dance music during this, the genre’s most explosive period ever Stateside. And while it’s commercially successful, the style of EDM he represents is also the most sonically challenging -- something Grammy, at least consciously, doesn’t go out of its way to support.
Sure, The Academy is an old organization, and EDM is a new sound (at least this current incarnation). But more importantly, it’s a niche, running parallel to the Mumfords and Black Keys and Gotyes that dominate NARAS’s view. When it comes time to make a choice, voting members of the Academy are probably not weighing whether the lush melodies of Kaskade bested the electro-rock of Steve Aoki this year. They’re going on what little they know about the nominees.
Despite his worthiness, Skrillex’s wins are more a product of his brand than his music. And it’s not just a Dance/Electronic issue: Check wins for icon Bonnie Raitt (Best Americana Album) and opera diva Renee Fleming (Best Classical Vocal Solo) in other “pre-tel” categories. Their work was surely deserving, but their famous names could only have helped. Adrift in a sea of unfamiliar names, Academy voters use anything to guide their choices: The first and most effective is basic recognition. With his thick-framed glasses and side-shave haircut, Skrillex is unmissable, and his name lines up with his look: That “X,” the onomatopoeia of “Skrill” against his stuttering synths. It all fits. Deadmau5 might have the mousehead, but it would take dedication for a novice to separate Calvin Harris from the Swedish House Mafia boys from Avicii from Joel Zimmerman -- the mouse man unsheathed.
The next indicator: The implication of dominance. For the past two years, Skrillex has been nominated in all three categories, a feat that might be more difficult than winning them. As an uninitiated voter, it would be easy to see that, say, “Well, this is the guy then,” and tick the appropriate boxes.
And the label: Skrillex is on a major (Big Beat/Atlantic) while most of his competitors are on dance-focused imprints. Not a must-have, by any means, but an extra blanket of validation for voters, solidifying the idea that Skrillex is indeed bigger than his scene alone. All of that is not to say that Skrillex is anything less than the perfect Grammy winner; he’sm an ideal EDM emissary to the musical overworld. There is no one who better captures the scrappiness, innovation, heart and community spirit that defines the best parts of the electronic music scene.
Skrillex accepted both “Bangarang” awards with Sirah, the young rapper whose spitfire verses gave the song and collection their hookiest moments, selflessly sharing the spotlight and changing her from a faceless, often-thought-to-be-male voice to a new star in one swoop. “I was living in a loft with holes in the ceiling,” she said in a red carpet interview, about the period during which much of “Bangarang” was recorded.
For “Bangarang’s” Best Album win, he brought his entire extended team onto the stage to accept with him: Manager Tim Smith of Blood Company; booking agent Lee Anderson of AM Only; Kathryn Frazier of Biz3, which manages his PR and his digital-only label, OWSLA; artists 12th Planet and Kill The Noise; even Interscope A&R Dave Rene, who was an early friend to the young star, despite him being signed to Atlantic. “Thanks for letting me do things the weird way,” he said to the group, no doubt referring to, at least in part, dropping “Bangarang” two days before Christmas in 2011, with little warning and no promotion. In a way, the Grammys are rewarding an artist who has never shown an interest in hit-making or playing by the music industry rules -- a covert win for independence.
But if Skrillex releases an album or EP by September of this year -- and it’s rumored that he will -- this hat trick could be repeated again next year. And that wouldn’t be good for anyone, including Skrillex, if things remain as they currently are.
Between then and now, EDM artists can take some steps to support their own causes (and their scene at large), beyond changing their names and getting crazy haircuts. Join The Academy: Anyone with a certain list of credentials can do it. Genre-educated voting members are the best antidotes for name-based wins. Use Grammy365, the online community for Academy members that snagged Al Walser his Best Dance Song nod this year. If he can lobby, so can you. Press the flesh at industry events. Become a face as well as a name.
That’s all assuming that artists want that golden gramophone, that they think a Grammy means something, and that they don’t associate it with a mainstream-obsessed industry that doesn’t really care about them. But the beauty of NARAS is that it’s a democracy, in service to the industry. You can change it, just by getting involved. If EDM is going to remain a force in music, it has to become more of one in the music business.
Then, if Skrillex releases his “White Album” this year, and takes Best Dance/Electronic Album again in 2014, we can all feel unapologetically good about it -- and a part of it.