Genre(s) of the Week: Electro

Electro is one of those strange nebulous genres that seems to mean different things to different people. Sometimes, it seems as if people are actually talking about completely different genres.

Perhaps that is because they are.

This is an article that I originally wrote for the webzine of a Swedish music festival, which in turn is based on an episode of my now-defunct student radio show. It appears here translated and in slightly modified form.

Throw together a hip-hopper, an indie fan and a house devotee in a room and ask them to name their favourite electro tracks and you'll get wildly diverging answers. The hip-hopper will talk about Afrika Bambaata and Egyptian Lover. The indie guy about The Knife or (if he's Swedish) Familjen. The house lover David Guetta or Bodyrox.

You might imagine this is because Electro is one of those nebulously vague genres that don't mean anything specific, really. But it's actually a fair bit more complicated than that - the three are actually taking about different genres, all of which happen to be called electro. To stir up even more confusion there's at least another three genres called electro as well.

But let's go through it from the beginning. The word "electro" as an obvious short form for electronic has existed at least since the thirties, when the Westinghouse robot Elektro amused the crowds at the 1939 New York world fair. The first style of music that was called electro-something was probably electro-acoustic music from the mid-fifties, but music that we could possibly think of today as electro only starts appearing in the mid to late seventies. The genre that appears then, early synth pop with a strong sense of the robotic and dystopian in its aesthetics, was usually called "techno pop" or "synth pop" but those terms have obviously disappeared as they've come to be applied to other music. The one term that remains from that era is electro pop, which is interesting for our discussion but not quite yet the first electro.

No, the first genre whose name is just "electro" is a Kraftwerk- and YMO-inspired old school hip-hop subgenre that appears in New York in 1982 and dissapears as the winds of fashion change around 1987. At first it was called electro funk, in accordance with the naming principle of electro pop, but the suffix disappeared fairly quickly.

Electro names appeared in rock as well. Laisons Dangereuses, the german EBM band, called their music electro punk for example. The next genre to abbreviate itself electro (or rather elektro, I guess to be different) is the fairly obscure genre of electro-industrial music at the end of the eighties, succeeded in short order by electro #3, dark electro, which at least to me sounds fairly similar to its immediate predecessor.

The current electro trend can be traced back to the mid nineties, when bands like Dopplereffect in Detroit (a city with a long electro tradition) together with Anthony Rother in Germany revived the hip-hoppy electro genre while focusing on its most futuristic qualities. One offshoot of this "electro revival" was the fairly similar genre of French electro (electro #4!) with hitmaker Mr Oizo at the spearhead. A few years later there was also a reborn interest in electro pop (spawned by, among other things, wonderful home brewed bootleg mix CDs) which became the fashionable genre electroclash. That in turn is the basis of today's indie-subgenre electro (#5!).

The last piece of the puzzle is electro house, which inevitably is also called (say it with me...) electro. The most obvious precedent electro here is the French one, sharing similar snaky analogue bass lines. That genre, of course, has also kept on growing and developed towards a mode of expression that most of all resembles electric boogie form the early eighties.

None of these genres have much more in common than their electronic nature, and perhaps a slight fascination with science fiction and the eighties. That simple, appealing definition and the looseness of the term practically ensures that there will be even more electros in the future. In Belem in Brazil, for instance, a new hard style is growing out of the local pop genre tecnobrega. And that too, of course, is called... electro.


Anonymous said...

thats funny you made a point about familijen being swedish since the knife is too.

Birdseed said...

But they're internationally well known. Familjen, at least at the time I wrote this, aren't/weren't.