Of mic3 and men: deadmau5 and the rise of trancepop

deadmau5 lead

Check this pic I found online of a guy hanging out with / doing his best to be Pikachu.

Look familiar? He's the Canadian dance music producer Joel Zimmerman, more popularly known as deadmau5. His CV is even longer than those Jnco’s are wide: he produced the most mindblowing concert experience I've ever had, he's obsessed with cats and Diablo, he signed Skrillex, and he has his own record label and Minecraft server. Not bad lines of work if you can get them. During all that working / having fun he's also passively evolving the English language to fit more easily into its new home somewhere between real life and IP life. Although he may be straight chillin’ at all times, deadmau5 is the premier evangelist of Internet Esperanto to the masses.

Before we sit down and talk about that, though, let’s make sure you’re primed to learn more about deadmau5. To do that, we’ll step back to the root of emotional communication in all modern music, Fleetwood Mac.

A brief history of the long and winding emotional journey between Fleetwood Mac, Aphex Twin, and deadmau5

Fleetwood Mac songs deliver their message primarily through exquisitely-crafted sentences, evoking intense "I know exactly how you feel" sentiments. They are wonderful for hard emotional extremities: listening to "Sara" can stake a newly-loved one indefinitely in your soul; "Go Your Own Way" can help you deal with prying the stake out as the relationship crumbles. By the early 90’s synthesizers had evolved to become so expressive that their sounds were more evocative than the words of the humans that made them: µ-ziq’s "Lunatic Harness" and Aphex Twin’s "I Care Because You Do" were my daily bread. There was no other place I could get the emotions those songs exuded, and I was addicted to them. Heartbreakingly simple and beautiful melodies were carved out of impossibly complex sounds bearing otherworldly futures that were exciting, inviting, and stress-free. Despite their syntheticity, they were positively human, or at least born of a race sympathetic to human emotion. Trackers and drum machines spoke to me in a way no person ever could — these songs, sometimes called "headphone music" or "bedroom music" were produced and enjoyed primarily by males, alone in their bedrooms, reflecting the very personal nature of the emotions they elicited.

Nearly two decades later, electronic dance music has finally entwined itself inextricably into American pop music. EDM (or Electronic Dance Music, as it’s less-frequently called), a nebulous genre label that encompass all arena-filling DJ-producer types, is a very funny term to those of us who grew up on Warp Records in the 90’s. That label’s influential output was called, to everyone’s chagrin, intelligent dance music, or IDM. There’s a lot of pretension hung up in calling a type of music "intelligent." Many fans of IDM (or whatever they called it) look at EDM with the confused expression of a veteran NYC resident wondering if the yuppies of 2012 have any idea how much they owe those settlers of the desolate East Village in the 70’s and 80’s. Contemporary American bro-ravers are enjoying the emotional complexity of IDM and the slutty drip of Ibizan sex-rave, whether they know it or not.

Electronic producers historically maintained an aura of mystery around their personal selves, but the combined forces of social media and the democratization of electronic production tools have forced them out of their once-protected worlds. Deadmau5 has never been a subtle character, a fact belied by that Pikachu number up there.

>Bro-ravers are enjoying the emotional complexity of IDM and the slutty drip of Ibizan sex-rave, whether they know it or not

As a human, Joel Zimmerman epitomizes the "celebs: they’re just like us!" ethos. Fans are treated to rambling, very-unedited, "lol" and emoticon-laced posts on Facebook and Twitter. His face is an angular vessel of pure emotion, nearly always dominated by an ear-to-ear grin that communicates just as much as the words that come out of it, another testament to context bringing more to the table than words. His body, a lanky vessel clad in the t-shirts, baggy pants, and ballcaps of the masses, is covered in nerdy tattoos (Space Invader, Zelda hearts, Cthulhu, Mario Boo ghost); he needn’t do more than walk into a room to tell you what his deal is. But when he transforms into deadmau5, his presentation is stripped of nearly all words.

After the mask is donned, the language that remains is sparse. The bulk of his productions are the very definition of mini-maximalism: hard beats form the foundation upon which carefully-sculpted sounds unfold sequentially until they climax in emotional explosions meant to send audiences over the edge again and again — by taking the most evocative parts of both IDM (alien melodies) and EDM (the builds and the drops), he compresses more meaning into a smaller amount of time than any of his predecessors.

To get started on a deeper dive into Zimmerman's communication evolution we need look no further than the cover of his new record album title goes here. Zimmermann, like the Aphex Twin Richard D. James, places his emotionally-ambiguous performance smile on the cover of his records, and the new one is a wacky iteration of the mau5head with a super-cute tuxedo cat breaking through. WHAT does it MEAN??? Probably nothing, but it works: it's a fucking LOLcat; if you need any more explanation you should probably hang out in some other dimension. The titles, also like James', are pulled out of thin air. "Fn Pigs," "Maths," and "There Might Be Coffee," the most evocative instrumentals on the record, might have origins in something meaningful, but they're probably just phrases that randomly associated their ways into filenames at some point in their production.

Lyrics do show up on ‘Album Title Goes Here’ but they are all blank slates; emotional containers that listeners can't drink from, but can certainly fill with as much meaning as is swimming in their own heads. Cypress Hill guests on the tech-hop "Failbait," dropping blank verses that don't say much more than "This is a Cypress Hill on a deadmau5 track." Chris James delicately sings futuristic warm-and-fuzzies all over "The Veldt," and Imogen Heap emotionally free-associates on "Telemiscommunications." Gerard Way of the post-goth Hot Topic band My Chemical Romance scream-sings on the lead single "Professional Griefers" for a sped-up and more vapid Marilyn Manson effect. Zimmerman layers Way into the song in anti-Fleetwood Mac effect, taking lyrics at face value; the human voice masquerading as another finely-honed synthesizer of emotion with no solid core lying within: "Morning Sickness / XYZ / Teenage Girls with ESP / Self correction / Mass dissection / Girls with guns on LSD," etc. And just LOOK at this video. Come on.

Photo courtesy of www.rukes.com

There’s a lot of crossover between deadmau5 and and his alter ego: although Joel Zimmerman can certainly overshare at times (just like us!), rodential linguistics inevitably inform his human communications. My personal favorite is a Facebook album called "a day with the kats :D," which was the big public reveal of his new relationship with celeb tattoo star Kat Von D playing with his cats. That openmouth smiley at the end might as well be a photograph of his face when he thought that jewel up. Then there was the time he pulled the greatest prank in the history of EDM when he wore Skrillex's phone number on his t-shirt at the Grammys; I can’t think of a joke that said more with less, leveraging the instant universal omniscience of media events that the internet has brought us.

The most complete mau5ian expression is, for sure, the live show. Nestled in an LED-coated family of cubes and lasers, deadmau5 conducts a symphony of light, color, and sound that takes performance art to its logical and populistic extremes. Imagery evolves into and out of existence as organically as it can in an extremely synthetic environment: high-budget After Effects, produced by Possible Productions (other clients include Senator Barbara Boxer, Cadillac, and Paul McCartney), embody the sentiment of the music in a way no music video ever could. Joel Zimmerman has made a point of explaining that very little of the program is actually performance; it’s much more of a high-quality recording played back at full volume on a system custom-built to communicate something that hasn’t been communicated before. The signature mau5hat, as we’ll call it, is central to the show: a full-head mask/helmet-screen that has at its core an emotionless half-smile, something between :D and :-|, with the mouth changing shape to give life to reflect the music being pumped out of a finely-tuned and appropriately loud sound system. As melodies shift from major to minor keys, most memorably in "Maths," the gaping mouth shifts to a menacing frown; the sentiment isn’t as threatening as it is inspirational. Again, words are few and far between.

Photos courtesy of www.rukes.com and www.arminphoto.com

Artificial landscapes constantly unfold on the series of cubes surrounding the mau5, a kaleidoscopic collage drawing from all sectors of the nerd entertainment universe. Like his body art, it’s always nerdy and frequently referential: the opening visual is, perfectly, a Rubik’s cube, solving and unsolving itself across a series of perfectly aligned cubic displays. A hyperreal cthulhu closeup unfolds into its iconic symbol, but a mau5 head sits amongst the tentacles in place of the traditional octopus face; a mau5-ified Super Mario World mod unfolds in 3D around the geometric screens, eventually collecting enough points to achieve INFINITE MAU5, the text placed on top of the iconic Matrix falling green characters. The only unifying quality amongst the visuals is high entertainment for the sake of high entertainment, and it is awesome.

The most evocative track of a deadmau5 show is the still-officially-unreleased track "To Play Us Out / WTF." Here, the visuals, propagating from a single point at the bottom of the central cube, consist only of the word "WHAT" and, eventually "WTF,"" a nonsensical question-statement in a fabricated world that is never actually answered. Only upon further googling will the viewer find that the sampled "what the fuck" vocal loop and song title are derived from Bill O’Reilly’s infamous 1990 Inside Edition freak-out. Political? WTF knows, but probably not: it’s just a great sample lifted from another media titan wielding his axe in the best way he knows how.

"WTF" is usually the most important question in an information-hypersaturated media landscape where everyone alternately thinks they know what’s going on or don’t have any idea what’s going on. This sentiment is rarely expressed on a broad scale, precisely because it’s hard to find an artist in 2012 who admits he has more questions than answers. "Rumours" is full of explorations and partial answers, but its universe is limited to the personal politics of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham; its lyrics are borne out of a very, very small universe. At his best, and at his most mini-maximalist, deadmau5 is asking the big questions. They have answers, but he asks them in ways that are more important than the end result. The point of dance music is to enjoy right now: with production at the scale deadmau5 and Possible Productions are pulling off, enjoying right now comes very easily.

>the full-head mask/helmet-screen has at its core an emotionless half-smile

Photo courtesy of Drew Ressler

The dead mau5 and the great temporal-emotional heat sink

>He is a man in a mouse costume entertaining his audience with repetitive music and blinking lights

The emergence of American EDM, fueled by youth, drugs, and alcohol, is not without its downsides. Big light and sound shows burn a ton of fossil fuels; they also sink a huge amount of resources into creating the drugs, Bud Light, and port-a-potties their audiences demand. And as with anything, people can get stuck in a K-hole, become Ecstasy-snarfing wastes of space, and ruin their finances and families on Stubhub and $19 cocktails. Meowingtons Hax 2k11 rockuments the first-ever concert by a Canadian artist to sell out Toronto’s Rogers Center; its co-stars are 20,000 teenagers raving and rolling their brains out in the now-standard uniform of neon tube tops, Skrillex (formerly Buddy Holly) lensless frames, and glowstick mau5 ears. If you sit close enough to the screen you can almost smell their brain cells burning out one by one. But American teens have been blowing their heads on music for decades. Instead of relying on the destructive antics of his arena rock forefathers (Hendrix’s burning guitar, Ozzy’s bat sacrifice, Nirvana’s gear demolition) Zimmermann doesn’t pretend that he’s rocking out for any nefarious cause. He is, very simply, a man in a mouse costume entertaining his audience with repetitive music and blinking lights. Something tells me the kids at these shows will have a more positive outlook — and quicker recovery from their teenage years — than those who rocked before them. (While we’re on the subject, I’d just like to note that all of you aspiring documentarians are really missing the point if you’re not already shooting EDM Parking Lot.)

>like midnight basketball, it keeps them in shape and out of trouble

Joel Zimmerman is not leading the world into some great revolution of art, thought, or commerce. He is simply leveraging his fortunate position on the timelines of communication, entertainment, and technology to manufacture a universe of pleasure for an audience that is expanding exponentially. His fans exert their energy on something that, for whatever reason, has meaning within itself; like midnight basketball, it keeps them in shape and out of trouble (for the most part). Deadmau5 is something to LOL with your friends about, to anticipate giddily, and to be inspired by. Like many great pop artists, Zimmermann loads his work with possibly-referential structures that pseudo-intellectuals will pore over. Just sit any Masonic conspiracy theorist down in front of Meowingtons Hax and watch their heads explode with the recognition of the Soma-tic concepts these masses are wilfully ignoring: un-avoidable Disney parallels, geometric and numeric structures to decode, and participation in an uncanny Canadian pop phenom that probably holds more meaning than the average music fan is willing to examine.

Unlike painting or sculpture, recorded music is a time-based medium that can be repeated indefinitely; the seamless transitions of a master DJ mix serve many purposes; the most important is always to suspend reality by maintaining the flow of good music. It’s a sort of dark art that is critically underappreciated in 2012: now that the human race has, for the most part, cleared the time-consuming hurdles of sustenance farming, the masses require more involved entertainment. Kings, who cleared those hurdles long before the masses did, used to rely on jesters to occupy their mind’s time. If it weren’t for entertainment, they’d have (and sometimes did) let their minds wander to kingdom expansion, a superset of rape, pillage, and genocide. Zimmerman seems to realize that the masses now have way more free time than they know what to do with: his funhou5e, like Second Life, a country club, or a good arcade, is a great place to spend time in. Fans who don’t want to think at all sink their spare temporal and emotional cycles into something provocative and artful; just as importantly, those who like to spend their cycles thinking (and writing) far too much are sated by the very act of contemplating what may or may not be going on behind the mask — like m3.

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