Why Do Americans Need Our Electronic Musicians to Look Like Cartoon Characters?

As plenty of commentators (including Flavorwire) have pointed out, Daft Punk’s sudden rise into the commercial stratosphere coincided with the adoption of their now-iconic robot personas. Their journey from being middle-ranking producers with a flair for the crossover market to globe-conquering fauxbotic superstars started the minute they decided to grab a pair of converted motorcycle helmets and pretend to be androids. Why is it, though, that the US market seems to need its electronic music to be made by people with such strong visual identities? Why do we need our producers to have gimmicks and wear masks?

Whatever the reason for this phenomenon, Daft Punk were either very astute in capitalizing on it or just in the right masks at the right time. They’re not the first electronic artists to cultivate a strong visual identity, of course — The Prodigy were trailblazers in this respect, their commercial breakout coming when previously benign long-haired dancer Keith Flint shaved off most of his hair, got his tongue pierced, grabbed the mic, and transformed himself into the scourge of law-abiding grandmothers the world over. Suddenly the band members — previously well-respected but hardly chart-destroying rave scene personalities — were global stars.

It was a lesson that Daft Punk clearly looked at and learned well, because as soon as they donned their helmets, they weren’t just two scruffy French dudes producing electronic music anymore; they had a gimmick, an image, a selling point. And, as the hype around Random Access Memories demonstrates only too well, it worked a treat. Prior to its release, they hadn’t put out a decent album in over a decade (and, well, they still haven’t), and yet they’re strong contenders for the title of the biggest electronic act in the world.

It’s instructive to note that their competitors for this title have very much followed their lead in creating a strong visual identity: Skrillex has a haircut so iconic it’s been named after him. Tiësto and Avicii have the sort of Teutonic good looks that can command magazine covers and lengthy GQ profiles. Deadmau5 doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter because he wears a giant mouse head on stage. Even the less über-commercial likes of The Knife and Aphex Twin have set themselves apart from their peers with strong visual aesthetics. For some reason, it seems to be something we want from our electronic artists — and particularly here in the US, where electronic music has never had the commercial success it has elsewhere.

The more interesting question is why this might be. Rock ‘n’ roll has its fair share of flamboyance too, of course — look no further than the likes of KISS, Slipknot, GWAR, countless other metal bands, and any other group that has put on a stage show that requires a multitude of trucks to hoist it from location to location. But equally, there are plenty of determinedly dull guitar-wielders who have done very well indeed for themselves. That’s rarely the case with electronic musicians.

One of the accusations often thrown at electronic musicians is that they “just stand there” or “just twiddle knobs.” And indeed, one of the differences between playing an analog instrument and creating electronic music is that the former requires creating sound through some sort of physical action — strumming a guitar, blowing a wind instrument, hitting a drum. As such, it’s inherently a more demonstrative and theatrical act than tweaking a fader or triggering a sample, something can generally indeed be accomplished by just standing there and twiddling a knob.

As such, then, you can see why its exponents might decide that the show needs some sort of visual aspect. But it wasn’t always thus. The first wave of superstar DJs in the 1990s were generally dudes just standing there twiddling knobs (or, more likely, mixing vinyl.) Sure, some had their visual motifs — Tom Rowlands’ long hair and trademark yellow sunglasses, Fatboy Slim’s Hawaiian shirts, Carl Cox’s generally imposing nature — but there wasn’t a giant mouse head or robot helmet to be seen anywhere. It sounds like an awful cliché, but it really was all about the music, man.

Indeed, the quotidian appeal of those DJs was part of what made them who they were — they were products of the scene to which they were playing, and it was easy to imagine that it could just as easily be you up there dropping tunes. Even now, I’d probably pass Sasha or John Digweed on the street and not recognize them. They were just regular dudes.

But then, ultimately, that’s all they remained; for all that these artists could command six- or seven-figure fees and get flown around the world to play at massive clubs, they never quite became household names the way that, say, Skrillex has. They also never really cracked the US market — their popularity was confined to the UK and Europe, places where electronic music had already crossed over into the public consciousness via the success of rave culture (another phenomenon that took a far longer time to break in the US than it did across the Atlantic).

It seems that the US really needs its big bands to put on a show. We’re the world’s leading consumers of glitz and glamor, from the Super Bowl to the Grammys, from the Oscars to the presidential inauguration. And it’s when electronic music has bought into this that it’s succeeded here. The earliest artists to elevate the act of DJing beyond simply playing one record after another were certainly larger-than-life personalities — the pioneers of Jamaican music, for instance, who would toast over the dubplates they were playing, wind tracks back at the insistence of the crowd, and compete with one another as to who could turn up with the biggest and most powerful sound system.

This idea of providing impromptu vocals for instrumental tracks was one of the earliest influences of what we’d eventually come to call hip hop, with Jamaican expats like Kool Herc reinventing the sound for the US with the aid of the simplest tools of electronic music: two turntables and a microphone. And, well, hip hop has done well for itself, hasn’t it?

Later producers, by contrast, were less given to imposing their personalities directly on the music: the house DJs of Chicago and Detroit, for instance, tended to let the music express itself, sampling vocals from other sources and often working under several different pseudonyms. And sure enough, their music remained constrained to a niche, albeit a relatively large and influential one, while hip hop — the electronic genre spawned by Kool Herc’s turntable experiments — went on to become the most successful genre in the US and the world, thanks in no small part to the flamboyant personality of its exponents.

It’s only recently that electronic music has begun to catch up on these shores, with artists working within the newly minted EDM genre descriptor achieving the sort of commercial success that their predecessors could only have dreamed about. Can Skrillex’s success be attributed entirely to his haircut? No, of course not. But one thing’s for sure: if you want to be the biggest DJ in the world, you sure as hell better have some sort of visual gimmick to back up your ability to drop the beat.