This summer, Toronto is hosting the most EDM-saturated, Skrillex-ified festival circuit it has ever seen. The turnout at HARDToronto Saturday (an extention of L.A.’s HARDfest feat. Justice and M83) was impressive – still in the thousands – considering we had the choice of Osheaga and Deadmau5-headlined Veld festivals on that same night.
Like never before, big festivals like these are propping up electronic acts on huge stages like rock stars, and there’s been backlash. I can see why: DJs and producers, accustomed to playing the dark corners of clubs, are sometimes not comfortable handling stadium-sized crowds. I’ve seen stage setups with little or no visuals to entertain, except the DJ/producer bopping around, head down. Fans salute and make devil horns as if they’ve just finished a masturbatory guitar solo, despite the fact he/she’s simply played the part of the track where the bass drops. Mostly the DJs aren’t really DJing; they’re live mixing, adding layers, turning knobs. But can most people can tell when they’re witnessing talent, when they’re simply hearing the preprogrammed base track, or if the performers aren’t actually doing anything? Add to that, the idea of putting the producer in front and center of the party, whether their set is live mixed or not, is a concern even for popular electronic acts. Why? Because it is electronic dance music: You’re not supposed to be staring at the stage, you’re supposed to be dancing.
Yet in the case of the French electro-duo Justice on Saturday, I found the DJ=rockstar=popstar spectacle to work, and the French embrace of the cheesiest parts of rock n’ roll can teach us how to put on a good show. Rock fans know very well that much of the live show is posturing. You might get off on seeing Angus Young do his hammer-ons and pull-offs at the beginning ofThunderstruck, but in truth, an amateur guitarist can play that riff. It’s not about talent in that moment either. He’s pretty much “pressing play,” or at least on autopilot.
As an EDM act, Justice aren’t simply pressing play, but are embracing theatrics via hair metal posturing: stadium shows, Marshall stacks, leather jackets, chain smoking, and a slew of groupies. “You guys ROCK!” fans shout, meaning it literally, and their latest 70’s prog-rock-influenced album Audio Video Discogoes further with that epic sound on record. On stage, regardless of what they’re actually doing with that giant modular synthesizer, Justice are performing. They’re absolutely cocky on stage. Xavier de Rosnay got out from behind the decks and stood infront of the cross, arms raised in power pose, for a full unflinching minute. Fans worshiped.
Right before Justice were to hit the stage, we’d endured a torrential downpour (with appropriately hard hits of lightning) for half an hour. The rain stopped, the Justice Cross lit up, and we were suddenly at a drenched disco version of an AC/DC concert. Thunderstruck.
I’ve resigned to the fact that this is dance music in pop form, and that it’s okay. And if you’re going to perform it, do it with swagger. Or at least some epic visuals. I believe this stadium EDM can exist concurrently with small club gigs, but I prefer the latter, where you’re not there for the spectacle up front, you’re there to party with the people. You’re facing the front of the room, but not fixated on what the performer is technically doing. It’s dark, it’s distorted, you’re dancing, and the “DJ” is doing his/her job – not impressing you with stage antics, but modifying his set to keep you moving.