Retro Electro

Just like Samson, Peaches gets power from her hair; it's just that hers is shorter and curlier.

Witness her self-directed video for "Set It Off," which opens with the rapper (a ringer for Carla from Cheers) perched on a urinal in pink undies and cheapo aviator sunglasses. She chants the song from the confines of the stall, occasionally lurching down at the floor-level camera. As the clapping preset drum sounds from her groovebox fade into their conclusion, a few pubes escape from the edges of her bikini and begin crawling up her tummy and down her legs, like moss on a wet rock. By the end, her bush has reforested half her body. Peaches may be like many other coochie rappers, but hers is on the offensive -- poised to colonize the world.

Now compare that image with Brooklyn-based promoter, DJ and label owner Larry Tee's description of the New York club scene's previous dilettantes: the "paunchy, middle-aged, wide-assed English DJs with receding hairlines" who got paid to cue up records in the shadows. That's the choice Tee is offering clubbers with the little experiment he started two years ago. Do you want your beats served up by colossal nobodies (the DJs) or turbocharged freaks like Peaches, dripping with ambiguous sexuality?

Tee, a veteran scenester who, at 42, has seen more New York nightlife than probably anyone should, one day realized he was profoundly bored with it all. So, in the tradition of Malcolm McLaren and his Sex Pistols, Tee decided to engineer a social movement to keep himself and the rest of us entertained. He called it electroclash, and it was fun. But he pushed it out into the world so abruptly that many are wondering if it can stand on its shaky legs without him. The number of artists associated with the term who are already disavowing it raises some doubt.

According to Tee, the producer-driven, DJ-fronted way of doing electronic music has failed. The remedy? A crop of "really fuckable stars," he suggests from his office in Williamsburg. The candidates he has in mind choreograph stage routines, don self-made costumes, devote at least as much time to crafting their images as punching buttons in the studio, and -- most important -- actually sing.

Tee scoured the nocturnal backwaters of New York and Europe and cobbled together an assortment of bands and figures that could fill his motley bill. Sharing a fetish for punk rock's disregard of technique and the drama of the synth-fueled '80s, the acts that caught his eye had been lurking about for a few years, mostly unnoticed, under the nebulous "electro" rubric. He liked the woman-deadpanning-over-drum-machine duos of Adult., Crossover, Hong Kong Counterfeit and Miss Kittin & the Hacker. Peaches and the art school, laptop feminists known as Chicks on Speed came out of the German scene. More in the new-wave band vein were New York's Soviet and A.R.E. Weapons. But epitomizing the aesthetic that Tee wanted to champion was Fischerspooner, a gender-twisting performance art/electro music troupe that dresses in catsuits, vulture feathers and Grace Jones eye makeup.

Some of these groups held cult status in Europe, thanks to the endorsement of German tastemaker DJ Hell, owner of the über-trendy International Deejay Gigolos label, but Tee saw in them a much broader appeal. He promptly appointed himself their pimp and began the often not-so-delicate task of introducing his stable to the mainstream. The consummate media manipulator, he understood that for his product to penetrate the market, it needed a brand name. "I just named it so it'd be more convenient for people to write about it," he says. "So it wouldn't dry up." Publications, catching the whiff of something happening, acquiesced and began covering it.

Electroclash's coming-out party was a three-day festival of the same name, thrown by Tee and DJ Hell in New York in October 2001. Attended by approximately 6,000 people and headlined by saucy bass crooners Detroit Grand Pubahs, Peaches and Chicks on Speed, the festival landed the bespectacled Larry Tee and his zoo in the pages of just about every style mag on the racks. He says he lost $60,000 in the process, but he couldn't have made a better investment. He debuted his studio-hatched sex kitten trio Whatever It Takes at the fest, and the group went on to grace the covers of Billboard and The Fader without even releasing any product. He also helped Fischerspooner ink a deal with British club culture proselytizers Ministry of Sound for what was initially reported to be $2 million, although group member Warren Spooner later suggested he inflated the sum to toy with journalists. Vanity Fair dubbed Tee the "P.T. Barnum of New York nightlife" for conjuring this spectacle out of thin air.

Electro, before Tee rediscovered it, was a fairly bizarre enclave, a last refuge for producers looking to make dark, unsettling dance music outside the shopping mall that electronica was becoming. So it's to be expected that there would be resistance to Tee, whose plan for marketing electroclash is explicitly modeled on the grunge explosion. The backlash to the fledgling movement has been severe and extraordinarily swift. Soon after the festival, he and DJ Hell parted ways, with Hell telling Tee, "Larry, you put on a good drag show, but this music is important."

Miss Kittin bristles when electroclash is mentioned in interviews; Adam Miller of Adult. (who played the first festival) described his feeling toward the word as "hate"; and Alex Murray-Leslie of Chicks on Speed said in an online interview that her group's intention was to avoid being "locked into that dreaded shoe box of electroclash hell!" One New York scenester proclaimed on his Web site, "Larry Tee's 'electroclash' is phony rebel posturing at its worst; he and his puppet acts would like nothing more than for 'electroclash' to go mainstream."

Besides Tee's McLaren-like zeal to take fringe culture to the bank, other criticisms that dog electroclash are that it's mere re-enactment of a not particularly substantive decade and that its vaunting of style over content makes for disposable product. Indeed, electroclash is not music that requires headphones -- the sounds are thin, the production values are often rather Fisher-Price, and the singing is best digested without too much scrutiny.

But Tee has a spin for every barb. According to him, the music's immediacy is its greatest asset. "Electroclash, by its nature, is really democratic," he says. "Anybody can be an electroclash star -- you just get a rhythm box, have some stage presence and some good new ideas, and people will clear out of your way and allow you to express yourself however the fuck you want to."

As to the depth of some of its lyrics -- take Miss Kittin's "Suck my dick, lick my ass" chorus from "Frank Sinatra" as an example -- Tee agrees that it can be a little shallow, but responds, "The next wave of artists coming up looks to be pretty musical and with some content that makes you stop and think." He points to his latest recruits, Mount Sims, Bis and Whatever It Takes, as examples of electroclash acts moving beyond the first generation's two-dimensionality.

"I'm really excited about where it's headed. Yeah, not everyone's going to buy it, and that's good, too," he says. "I don't want everybody to like this music. It already has so many appealing factors that if everybody liked it, it's doomed. And it's doomed anyway."

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Darren Keast