Will Marshmello Save EDM?
The bucket-headed producer is unsettling mainstream electronic music with a bracing jolt of energy.
Photo courtesy of Cindy Ord.
Last Friday I watched Marshmello play an hour-long show in Youtube Space NY, a film studio and performance space on the fifth floor of Google's Manhattan offices in the Chelsea Market complex. The EDM sensation—wearing his standard uniform of white pants, a white long-sleeve shirt, and a white bucket on his head with Xs for eyes—gamely spun his tunes and jumped up and down while a few dozen fans crowded around and stuck their phones in his face. The show was thrown by SiriusXM, and the audience was made up of fans who'd won a contest thrown by the radio station.
Demographically and sartorially speaking, they looked about like what you'd get if you dragged a net through Times Square. Half the people there seemed to be chaperoning the experience in some way; publicists hovered around the edges room with iPads, and Sirius staff walked around purposefully. Lights remained fully lit throughout the set; nobody danced. I felt like an extra in a Ryan Trecartin performance piece.
So, why did I choose to endure this surreal new media spectacle? Because I love the hell out of Marshmello, that's why. It's been a journey—when I first noticed him appearing on festival lineups last year, I wrote him off as another cookie-cutter EDM upstart with a dumb mask. As a marketing ploy, the mask has been overused to within an inch of its life. And Marshmello's looks so childish that it almost seems like a mockery of our willingness to buy into these types of gimmicks. But over the last year, my derision of his music shifted to obsession; which is to say, I actually listened to it, and found myself completely hooked.
Marshmello isn't quite famous, but he's not not famous, either. Your cool cousin at Wesleyan might not know who he is, but your fun cousin at Syracuse probably does.
Marshmello isn't quite famous, but he's not not famous, either. Your cool cousin at Wesleyan might not know who he is, but your fun cousin at Syracuse probably does. He's ridden a deadly combination of goofy visual shtick and killer tunes to the cusp of stardom. 2016 was his breakout year—on January 8, he self-released Joytime on his label Joytime Collective, a 10-song burst of candy-apple synths and surprisingly inventive drum programming, coupled with the same earworm vocal manipulation found on Major Lazer's "Lean On" and The Chainsmokers' "Closer."
Marshmello's music builds connective tissue between the emotional heat of trance and the radical spirit of early 10s maximalists like Unicorn Kid, Rustie, and Girl Unit. Maybe you don't believe me about the latter; how could the arch Night Slugs prince have anything in common with a guy who plays Ultra Music Festival, bottle service clubs, and corporate radio shows in the Meatpacking district? But while his fanbase skews closer to David Guetta than NTS, Marshmello's music itself bubbles over with infectious joi de vivre, reinforced by surprisingly experimental production choices.
Listen to his biggest 2016 hit "Alone," which has 30 million Spotify plays, back to back with Girl Unit's 2012 stomper "Club Rez," and you'll see what I mean. The latter merges the stargate lift of trance with the dark propulsion of modern club music, combining synths that wouldn't sound out of place during an uplifting Ferry Corsten set at Electric Daisy Carnival with pounding, staccato percussion. On "Alone," Marshmello employs a similar toolbox of trance and club sounds, although the mood he creates feels closer to the cheerful kaleidoscopic overload of Speed Racer than Girl Unit's sleek chrome vision.
From the jump, Marshmello cranks the song's emotional register into the red with a pitched-up vocal sample and synths seemingly ripped from a lost DDR anthem. Everything feels coated in slick digital gloss. The song marches unceasingly toward its peak around two minutes in; when the drop finally comes, the results are astonishing. Rather than overload his gorgeous palette with squeaky Afrojack synths or a whomping Flosstradamus trap drop, Marshmello cuts the vocals, lets the drums off the leash and gets out of the way. The unrelenting groove reminds me more of Jimmy Edgar and Brodinski's crisp electro weapons than typical EDM cheese—and beneath its campy surface of high-pitched vocals and synths, the song's strong rhythmic spine lends it a delirious, romantic glow. When he dropped "Alone" at the Youtube show I felt myself transported to a dizzy cartoon landscape, somewhere far away.
After a half-decade of bloated festivals and recycled tunes, many hardcore electronic music fans steer clear of EDM on principle. They're not without reason—much of the music hasn't changed substantially since 2012, while the culture surrounding it often radiates toxic masculinity. But as artists like Marshmello, Flume, Nero, Mija, Porter Robinson, and Skrillex bridge the gap between the underground and overground with experimental, sensitive, and downright beautiful dance-pop, open-minded listeners across the spectrum will hopefully realize there's never been a better time to tune in.
After Marshmello's show, Sirius employees announced that Marshmello would stick around for photos. They asked fans to line up around the space and wait for their chance to be snapped by a team of hired photographers. A few minutes into the process, I watched five, beefy, 20-something men surround the DJ. "We're gonna dab!" they crowed, jockeying for position around the stationary star: right arms pointing skywards, with left arms bent across their chests, heads tucked into elbows. Later that night, I heard one of them say, they'd be going to Lavo to see Marshmello play again.
Marshmello seemed to hesitate for a second; it was impossible to perceive his facial expression under the bucket, but I couldn't help picturing him with a look of grim determination as he raised his arms and lowered his neck. For now, these are the tolls of Marshmello's EDM success. Maybe his future will be an interminable grind of corporate performances and fan meet-and-greets; maybe it won't. The camera flashed, the men scampered off, and another group of people stepped up for their photo.