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Skrillex’s Set at Sónar Was Depressingly Generic

If any festival would provide a space for a mainstream artist to let his freak flag fly, it would be Sónar. Sadly, that didn't happen.
June 23, 2015, 6:30pm
Ariel Martini/Sónar

From his signature triple-lined logo pulsing red on the big screen to the chainsaw dubstep drop that boomed through a venue the size of an airplane hangar, the first chords of Skrillex's headlining performance on Friday night at Sónar in Barcelona was straight out of an EDM festival playbook. As the lights flooded Sonny Moore's face in front of a crowd measuring in the tens of thousands, there was no doubt from the outset that even the experimental imprimatur of an event like Sónar wasn't enough to tone down Skrillex's bombastic stage show.

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There were Terminator skulls. Billowing smoke shrouding fire visuals. Skrillex climbing onto the table to yell "let me see those hands!" while reaching backwards to tweak some faders before jumping back to his perch behind the booth. Also: a brief Jesus pose.

Most intriguing, a UFO visual shot yellow and green lasers onto the crowd, echoing the Jamaican flag earlier on display as a disembodied West Indian voice intoned "I am from Kingston." The reference might have been lost on the polyglot Euro crowd, but it was a clear nod to the genre that Moore made famous.

After all, the pre-chainsaw dubstep that percolated in the London underground relied heavily on Jamaican vocals, and this is still the artist who name-checked Croydon—the working-class south London neighborhood that gave birth to dubstep—in his Grammy acceptance speech. I kept expecting cartoon Major Lazer to burst through the Sónar screen and command us all to wine down, dancehall speak for turn up. While Trinidadian producer Jillionaire currently occupies the Major Lazer co-pilot seat alongside Diplo and Walshy Fire, the group's dancehall-cum-dance-music concept initially included UK's Switch. It's a modus operandi that Diplo employed again when he teamed up with Skrillex to release the debut Jack Ü album this year.

Photo via Ariel Martini/Sónar

The second single from that album, the Justin Bieber breakup crooner "Where Are Ü Now," closed out Skrillex's set while confetti rained down on the hundreds of fans invited to party on stage with their hero. Debates rage about how much of a role Skrillex played in the album. Did über-producer Diplo hitch his wagon to the EDM star's outsized profile but do the heavy lifting behind the console, especially as Bieber's PR machine casually claims Justin "wrote this song in the studio one night just vibin out"?

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I don't know and I kind of don't care, because as insipid as the lyrics may be, the instrumental is the most hauntingly beautiful sound I've heard in years to come out of a stereo tuned to Top 40 radio. It carries the ghostly presence of vintage dubstep, when it was close cousins with garage and 2step, without veering into pure nostalgia. The EDM build-up wisely shows restraint by never dropping into overblown excess, instead diverting back into the infectiously dubbed out riddim. It may be the best pure instrumental Wesley Pentz has composed since "Diplo Riddim" from way back in 2004.

"Where Are Ü Now" was an aural orgasm on the SónarClub stage's zillion watt sound system, but unfortunately the rest of Skrillex's 90-minute set leading up to that point mostly worked the levers of international pop hits to appeal to a global crowd.

Photo via Ariel Martini/Sónar

A "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" remix of the Eurythmics 80s staple led to a crowd singalong. The chorus of "We Are Your Friends," the Justice vs. Simian smash hit popped up twice, much to the delight of an audience that surely remembers bouncing around to the indie electro banger nearly a decade ago. (Its second coming during the set brushed up against the arena-rave synths of "Everybody Dance Now," making for a doubled-up trip down memory lane.)

Back in the present, Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" lent the night a moody edge while Calvin Harris' "Summer" kicked off the season's arrival. A rock interlude then segued into "Turn Down For What," the same track that got Diplo and Skrillex booed off the stage of a Burning Man art car last year. Here it showed up to less critical disapproval, quickly swallowed by the DJ's command to "scream for Simba" as he lurched into a pitched-down remix of the Lion King theme song, a trick that also landed in his legendary b2b set with Four Tet in March.

Read: "Justin Bieber and Skrillex Broke the Internet with Their Surprise Ultra Performance"

But cycling through more hip-pop hits like DJ Khaled's "All I Do is Win" and Mims' "This Is Why I'm Hot" rendered the set depressingly generic. Throwing in a "Macarena" remix was hardly enough irony in the face of earlier acts that night like SOPHIE or Die Antwoord, whose arty hijinks led to far more difficult questions.

Die Antwoord (Photo via Ariel Martini/Sónar)

For example, the South African group's Yo-Landi Vi$er decided that her set needed a (direct quote) "big juicy African ass" followed by a black dancer in a matching gold lame bikini and lucha libre mask who delivered as promised without ever showing anything but her rear end. Grappling with the racial politics of that was a lot more challenging for the crowd than deciding whether we should feel self-conscious about retreading the Macarena dance.

Skrillex wound down by egging the crowd into soccer-esque chants of "olé, olé, olé" and yelled out "Barcelona tienes mi corazón" (Barcelona you have my heart)—passable Spanish that failed to recognize, like most tourists, that Catalan is the native tongue of Sónar's home city. (To his credit, Skrillex did project the Catalonia flag and wear an FC Barcelona jersey during his 2013 Sónar set.)

With 100,000 people coming from all over Europe to throng the Sónar venues, it's probably too much to ask to expect a set of thoughtful bass music that sounds more like a FWD>> club night than the EDC sound that was on full blast half a world away. But with such a storied experimental reputation, I thought if any festival would provide a space for a mainstream artist to let his freak flag fly, it would be Sónar. His Skrillness didn't deliver on that count for me, but then the rapturous crowd suggested I was one of very few who would have been content to hear the "Where Are Ü Now" instrumental looped all night.

Greg Scruggs is a freelance writer on music, culture, and cities with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow him on Twitter.