Deadmau5 performs at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
The collaborative performance for dance music on Sunday night's Grammy telecast, featuring electronic music superstars David Guetta and Deadmau5, was a confused, if well-meaning, picture of dance music's place and influence in current pop. The two heavyweight DJs were joined onstage by a broad array of artists, including rockers Foo Fighters, rapper Lil' Wayne, and R&B singer Chris Brown.
A relative newcomer to the Grammy's, with two major categories less than a decade old, the dance music performance was a necessary addition to the show in a year when dance music culture swept across American radio, festivals, clubs and the Internet. The genre has come a long way since progenitors Daft Punk, Moby and Fatboy Slim put this music into the mainstream. Even recently, however, mainstream artists like Britney Spears, Lady Gag and Justin Timberlake have won the dance categories and the dance performance was relegated to the telecast's back bench.
No more. The Grammys would have been remiss not to put the faces and sound of dance music — defined recently by strong four-on-the-floor beats, sultry vocals and skittish digital editing tricks — center stage at this year's ceremony. But the collaboration showed just how complex the genre's relationship to pop — and to the Grammy establishment — still remains.
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The traits that Grammy voters often reward in artists like superstar Adele — big record sales and nods to vintage aesthetics — are at odds with the virtues of today's fast-moving electronica artists. A producer like Skrillex, nominated for best new artist and winner of three dance awards, thrives in live settings and his album sales are, if not an afterthought, also not really the point.
But dance sounds were so potent and ubiquitous among younger audiences (not to mention a boon for the live-concert business: Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival outdrew Coachella day-to-day last year) that a prime acknowledgment was a must.
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The gesture didn't go unnoticed from dance artists.
"That the Grammys have acknowledged our music is a very proud moment for us. It won't change how our culture exists, but it's always nice to be respected," said Guetta, who was nominated for both major dance awards, in an email just before the Sunday ceremony.
Guetta saw the collaborative Grammys performance not as a hat-tip to an isolated sound, but a long-due recognition that younger audiences pay less attention to genre today, a movement reflected in dance music's inherent inclusiveness and sonic possibilities (this is the cuture that popularized the remix, after all).
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"Dance music for me has always symbolized unity and the breaking down of barriers. On a dancefloor that's people from every creed, culture, age and sexuality becoming one," Guetta said. "The divisions between genres are breaking down too, and this performance shows how its all just about great music."
But good intentions and melting barriers can still read strangely in live performance. Kicking off with Chris Brown, whose "F.A.M.E." album incorporates many dance music strains and features Italian DJ Benny Benassi on "Beautiful People," the Sunday night performance was still a head-scratcher. Folding in rapper Lil Wayne and the Foo Fighters, whose straight-up guitar rock stands in opposition to electronica (frontman Dave Grohl affirmed as much in one of the band's Grammy speeches, belittling music made "in a computer"), the performance was more successful as commentary than as performance. In a notable exclusion, several pop stars who've brought dance music into the limelight, such asLady Gaga, weren't part of the performance.
Guetta's colleague in the collaboration, the Toronto producer Joel Zimmerman, was up for dance awards as well as best remixed recording, non-classical for his edit of Foo Fighters' "Rope," under his alias Deadmau5. He closed out the performance Sunday night with plenty of Ibiza-worthy bass drops.
Zimmerman, whose own shows are an audio-visual melange of original music and live editing, viewed his turn on the Grammy stage as less an acknowledgement from the music establishment that he's joined their club, and more as a platform to further explore and popularize his longstanding goals of inventive, provocative electronica.
"I've never been on a crusade to get respect for dance music, and for a long time I felt like I was the only guy who wasn't," Zimmerman said. But at the same time, he did want to take the Grammy occasion to "expose the craft to more people. There's not a single dude out there who doesn't want to be heard. This was a genre that was cultivated by weirdos, and (the Grammy nod) is certainly good for our careers."
For a genre that's thrived outside of the music establishment for decades, it remains to be seen whether its turn in the Grammy spotlight is a statement of mainstream viability, or just the latest attempt from the Recording Academy to catch up to a changing landscape.
But even after the ceremony, the genre's influence reigned. One of Grammy night's biggest afterparties was Jay-Z's imprint Roc Nation's benefit for the Childrens' Orthopedic Center and Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles at the House of Blues. It starred Rihanna, new superstar house producers Calvin Harris and Sebastian Ingrosso, and a headline turn from Deadmau5.