Bright lights, big budgets: What dance music did next

For the 90,000 punters who braved the rain-soaked final day of Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park last August, the final hours presented a choice. At one end of the sodden field were the Foo Fighters tearing through a 20-song set-list of no-frills rock. A black-clad and bedraggled Dave Grohl stood behind the foldback speakers, flanked by amps and hot white lights. “You know what I like?” he barked mid-set. “I like when rock ‘n roll bands come on stage and don’t use fucking computers to play their music!”

For the 20,000-odd people not thrashing around in anticipation of Everlong, the second mainstage was lit up by Deadmau5: a headliner with a very different approach to putting on a show. For a Foo Fighters fan stranded at the wrong end of the festival, it’d be a confusing sight: the entire stage a delirium of streaking, spinning colours with a shadowy figure in a luminescent mouse helmet at the centre of it all.

Lollapalooza was the first run of the newly jacked-up Deadmau5 show, which added three video cubes encircling the central podium, a towering screen as a backdrop and four LED-lined scaffolds for extra retina-burning. Months of development led up to that Grant Park performance, with live production team Bionic League and visual artists POSSIBLE working alongside the man in the mouse helmet, Joel Zimmerman.

As elaborate as the end result was, it wasn’t even running at full capacity in the downpour. For Deadmau5, though, Lollapalooza was mission accomplished: proof that an electronic artist could close a festival steeped in rock lore. Over at the Foo Fighters, the spartan stage with its racks of guitars and raised drum kit was almost aggressively ordinary: no “fucking computers” to be seen. Deadmau5, on the on the other hand, keeps his gear hidden inside the Rubik’s Cube. It’s the spectacle that matters.

In several of the tetchy interviews Zimmerman has given in the last few years, he returns to a familiar point. The latest airing came on Last Call With Carson Daly in the days after the well-meaning-but-awkward onstage pairing of Deadmau5 and the Foo Fighters at the Grammys.

“Now EDM is all about coming together and seeing everyone’s contraptions and show concepts, which is a great thing for electronic music,” he tells Daly in the TV spot. “Previously it was a dude on a black-covered picnic table with two CD players, playing other people’s shit and doing this…” He does the DJ fist-pump for the camera. “But now we’ve accepted a big stage production as the thing to go see.” Only moments later, he mentions the flipside to this new status quo: that some of dance music’s grit and mystery – the “coolness”, as he puts it – gets lost in this procession of shiny new stage shows. (Of course the people who still get down in close-quarters clubs and skip the stadium dance shows might argue the coolness is still there.)

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