This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2002 Week continues here with a retrospective on the sub-genre that reached its artistic zenith before burning out — but not before fostering an inclusive community, breaking down the barriers of sexual freedom, and changing the face of pop, dance and punk music.
Sitting on a beach in Mexico, Casey Spooner is taking in the fresh air and the good times. “If you’re gonna be anywhere for World War III, this isn’t a bad spot on the beach,” he says, smiling over a Zoom call. When asked where exactly in Mexico he is, though, Spooner is suddenly hesitant to say. “Everyone’s freaking out because it’s becoming popular really fast. People are worried that it’s gonna get ruined.”
Spooner knows a thing or two about things that get very popular, very fast before vanishing. As a founding member of early-’00s electronic duo Fischerspooner (alongside his creative partner Warren Fischer), Spooner was one of the few artists standing at the forefront of the electroclash movement. The underground sub-genre, which found its way from the clubs of Munich, New York and Paris to peak international mainstream recognition in 2002, combined new-wave aesthetics, the sonics of synth-pop, techno and punk, and the drama of performance art into a singular explosion of musical entertainment.
The origins of electroclash have been murky for years — the general consensus on the matter is that the genre was brought into existence thanks to the work of pioneering German producer DJ Hell, whose label International DeeJay Gigolos housed some of the earliest adopters of the genre, including Fischerspooner, Miss Kittin & The Hacker and many others. Meanwhile, the spread and popularity of electroclash, especially in the United States, is often credited to club promoter and superstar producer Larry Tee, who coined the genre’s very name.
For JD Samson, who took over as a member of the electroclash-adjacent group Le Tigre in 2000, the genre was simply born out of a generation in desperate need of some new music. “This was a movement that was more about a collective consciousness than I think a lot of people are willing to admit of people who grew up in the early ’90s,” she says, “That particular generation of people was going to raves, and was listening to punk music, and was looking for a way — especially women and queers — to kind of flip the script and make their own music.”
Peaches, one of the brightest stars of the electroclash movement, agrees with Samson — after spending most of her musical career performing in folk band Mermaid Café, before briefly forming a more experimental group called The Shit, Peaches found a sense of liberation in the DIY aesthetic of electroclash, and her ability to take a Roland MC-505 groovebox and make whatever kind of sound she felt like.
“I just started screwing around, like, ‘I could be the drummer, I could be the keyboard player, I could be the bass player, I could make weird sounds,” she says. “It was so awesome because it was all these women leading a f–king revolution of saying, ‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to play electronic music, and you can infuse your badass femininity and your badass queerness and make cool music the way you want to.”
Back in 2002, mainstream tastes we skewing towards sounds that were largely unchallenging and inoffensive — R&B stars like Ashanti, radio-friendly rock bands like Nickelback, nu-metal groups like Linkin Park and alt-pop up-and-comers like Avril Lavigne dominated the charts. Hip-hop had grown to become the most-relevant cultural genre of the day, but was still run, with very few exceptions, by straight men.
Amidst the humdrum, electroclash made its mark. The Teaches of Peaches, the first solo album from Peaches, got a re-release from XL Recordings, introducing now-classic electroclash singles like “Fuck the Pain Away” and “AA XXX” to wider audiences. Fischerspooner’s “Emerge” began to take hold, before being picked up by Capitol Records and making its way to the top 20 of Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart in 2003. Le Tigre’s second album Feminist Sweepstakes polarized critics but sent a strong political message. Bands like Chicks on Speed, Scissor Sisters, ADULT. and Ladytron began to rise to larger cultural recognition.
“Initially, I was just happy to have publicity period,” Spooner says with a chuckle. “There were times when audiences would be divided in real time in front of you; there would be some people that were really into it, and some people that really weren’t. I always felt like I was doing something right if half the room was confused or angry.”
Samson has spent plenty of time looking back on the peak years of electroclash, and says that amongst other things, the pure theatricality of the genre and its blurring of lines between performance art and music lent itself to being adopted so quickly by queer performers — as opposed to other, straighter groups that capitalized on the sound but not the showmanship. “There were bands like The Rapture and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs that weren’t really part of that world, even though they were coming up at the same time and using electronics,” she says. “There was like an element of humor and element of performance where I could imagine it happening at Joe’s Pub [a mainstay in New York’s experimental theater scene] almost more than at a punk bar.”
In that same vein, Peaches contends that, especially in a dance landscape where there was a lot of self-seriousness being pushed to the forefront, electroclash offered a bit of resistance by bringing joy and irreverence to the party, which in and of itself was a queer mindset. “It wasn’t trying to follow any kind of musical line that was there,” she says. “I’m not saying it was sophisticated, but that was cool, too! It wasn’t taking itself so seriously, but it was seriously fun.”
Spooner, meanwhile, struggles with why exactly electroclash became a central hub of queerness in the early ’00s. “Maybe it’s just like the relationship to club culture and dance music and transformation?” he wonders. “Maybe because it was like a space where you could wear anything that you wanted and not really be judged? Honestly, I don’t know.”
What he does, know, however, is what ultimately killed the genre — the label of “electroclash” itself. “Honestly, the naming of it kind of killed it in a weird way,” he says. “Once it becomes named and genre-fied, then it gets lumped in with other things. And then other people start to emulate it, which then starts to water down the impulses.”
Over the course of the next five years, Peaches watched as electroclash gave birth to new-rave, which took “all the elements of electroclash and then turned it into f–king boy band s–t.” New rave ultimately collapsed, and EDM began its rise to current cultural dominance. “It took away the queerness from the space,” she says with a sigh. “It was like, ‘Now let’s make it more like if The Strokes would do electroclash,’ or something. So then it became more heteronormative, actually.”
Electroclash may be gone, but its influence over the musical zeitgeist 20 years ago created reverberations that are still felt in the music scene today. A key example is hyperpop, the rising sub-genre born out of the electronic pop experimentation of the late producer SOPHIE and A.G. Cook’s PC Music colllective. Hyperpop has gone on to share some of electroclash’s defining characteristics, including the fusion of multiple mainstream genres, performative artistic output and a bevy of LGBTQ performers blazing the trail forward for the new musical movement.
When Samson looks at the hyperpop movement happening in today’s music scene, she sees the same thing she saw back when electroclash began its rise — a microgenre defined by what the younger generation grew up listening to. It’s just that, this time, that generation heard electroclash while growing up. The difference today, she points out, is access.
“Everyone having their own DAW and their own soft-synth and their own ability to make whatever they want on their computer in front of them is really different than let sitting in a room with an eight track and a sh–ty sampler that wasn’t digital, you know? ” she says, adding that the tone has also shifted with the times. “I think it’s also a direct response to a lot of what’s happening in pop music and what’s happening in the world — it’s kind of angry again.”
Spooner doesn’t have a lot of hope for the future of Top 40 pop music. “It may not be possible for pop to be progressive,” he says, citing his own experiences at a major label. But seeing production stars like Arca and Ssion begin to take their place in the cultural mainstream is what tells Spooner that he was a part of something that helped create positive change for today. “It’s the imaging and the whole persona, that feels like definite part of the legacy [of electroclash],” he says.
Peaches, meanwhile, says that she’s been well aware of the impact electroclash left behind. She’s heard from edgy, ‘oos-minted pop stars like P!nk, Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga, all of whom told her that, “‘you influenced me,'” she says. Seeing “Fuck the Pain Away” still get massive syncs in film and television, and still meeting fans who’ve just heard her seminal album for the first time are all reasons why she’s currently prepping for a 20th anniversary tour for The Teaches of Peaches starting this May. “I’m feeling really excited that people are so excited,” she says. “We’re gonna f–king party.”
In retrospect, all three artists agree — electroclash was a genre that was ahead of its time, not just in bringing new sounds, but in spotlighting avant-garde, LGBTQ performers that would have otherwise been dismissed by the industry at large. “The idea of movement and taking up space is huge,” Samson says. “There wasn’t a ton of opportunities to do that back then. Taking up as much space as a warehouse was just perfect for allowing yourself to feel free and be as big as you wanted to be.”