It's techno night at Metropol, just after midnight. The DJ is spinning a show tune - Madonna's "Don't Cry For Me Argentina. " The club mix. It's not much. Just Madonna, some keyboards, a sample or two, and the beat. Nothing tricky. A straightforward disco beat. Four-on-the-floor, only louder. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM-BOOM. BOOM. OK, take it up a hair. You've got it.
On the dance floor, not quite overflowing at 150 to 200 people, a man in his 30s (or is it his 40s?) is strutting his stuff to the beat. He's not wearing a shirt.
On the platforms for featured performers, two women in latex are grinding and rubbing each other across from two dancers clad only in underwear - one male, one female. It's that kind of night. And if all goes according to hype, the few hundred who come out each Thursday to check out the techno may one day be fighting for floor space.
With record sales leveling off after years of Nirvana-inspired nirvana, insiders are looking to techno to save what remains of the day the way "Smells Like Teen Spirit" did back in the earlier part of the decade. Again, it's a case of the industry raiding an alien subculture, looking for heroes.
Earlier this year, the British group Prodigy signed with Madonna-owned Maverick Records, a deal that could bring the band $5 million. More recently, Chemical Brothers were given the lead review in both Spin and the far more conservative pages of Rolling Stone. And leading the mainstream invasion? Last fall, MTV began programming Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Orbital videos into its regular daily rotation while introducing a one-hour program called "Amp," with a focus on techno.
Is mainstream America ready to face and embrace an electronic musical future? "It's already there," says Brian Long, who long ago founded the techno/electronic Astralwerks label, home to those block-rockin' Chemical Brothers. "It's been there a long time. It's just that the gatekeepers to the mainstream are now ready for it".
Long is at Geffen now, looking to sign some fresh new electronic talent. That's Geffen, the label that brought you Nirvana. As Long says, "There are five of us on the A&R staff here at Geffen who are just obsessed with electronic music, by the very virtue that we're all very passionate music fans and this is the most exciting and continually developing style of music out there. "
One of the hotter commodities sparking a bidding war now is the British group Underworld, having already slipped into the spotlight last year when "Born Slippy" popped up on the "Trainspotting" soundtrack. "Whether or not it's going to be the savior of alternative rock? I don't think so," says Long. "But it's now legitimately another menu choice in the pie of popular music for programmers as well as consumers beyond just the fanatical rave crowd. "
Though raves are where techno exploded, electronic music is older than grunge, dating back to the '70s ambient soundscapes of Eno and Staukhausen-fueled electronic adventures of groundbreaking German acts Can and Kraftwerk.
The term "techno" came into play in the mid-'80s, used to describe the electronic dance music rocking the clubs of Detroit. As themusic evolved in the '90s, it splintered off into a still-growing army of subgenres: ambient, house, electronica, trance, breakbeat,drum-and-bass, trip-hop, jungle, rave and any number of other distinctions that most likely don't mean a thing to the typical mainstream pop music enthusiast.
Techno crossed over last year on the pop charts when Everything But The Girl put a drum-and-bass beat to its Top 10 single, "Missing. " The latest releases from U2 and David Bowie have both taken techno to heart. Even Slowhand himself, Eric Clapton, has tried it, assuming the name "x-sample" on T.D.F.'s tedious techno-dabbling "Retail Therapy. "
Any successful invasion of mainstream American culture, from Elvis to flannel, has had its own face. But techno has yet to produce one. Until now, that is.
There are those in the know who feel Keith Flint of Prodigy - he of the multiple piercings and Bozo hair - could be the music's saving face. "Prodigy is the one that everyone's saying could do it, and yeah, they probably are the ones," says Long, "because there's a face there with Keith. It's very cartoon-like imaging, and they put on an incredible show. "
It's doubtful they'll have the emotional impact Nirvana had, though. He may well be the face of a new generation, but Flint is no voice.
"Like Bob Dylan, like the Beatles, there was something about Kurt Cobain's soul and the expression of his soul through his music," says Long. "He had that incredible emotional X-factor. And by virtue of the majority of this kind of music not being textually based and the soul that is being expressed in this music not being the kind of soul that our culture instinctively understands, I don't think there's going to be an artist who's going to tap America the way Nirvana did for a while. It'll happen.There will be someone who will come along who will just combine everything and mean everything to everybody. "
For now, sales are up at the National Record Mart chain on releases by Chemical Brothers and Prodigy.
Speaking three days after "Dig Your Own Hole" hit the streets, John Artale, a buyer at Record Mart, says, "(The new Chemical Brothers) was treated like it was a major release. We had to make sure and get it in in time and everything. "
"That album should debut in our Top 15," he says. "So that's impressive. Tricky did not debut that high. Moby did not debut that high. Now, it's starting to happen. "
"I think it's a combination," Artale says. "People were waiting for this record because they did have a really strong single. And it doesn't hurt that they were given major review status in Spin and Rolling Stone. So there's the clue to people that this is an important record. People are curious. "
Now, whether or not they like it, Artale suggests, may be reflected in sales of the upcoming Prodigy full-length disc, due May 20.
As techno becomes a more viable part of the mainstream, it's hard to say what will become of the genre distinctions that carry such meaning in underground circles. Will phrases like trip-hop or jungle affect the way techno is sold to the mall crawlers?
Not unless Billy "Piano Man" Joel cashes in on the trend with "It's Still Drum-and-Bass to Me. "
"When you're talking an Astralwerks level which is all about selling 10,000 to 20,000 copies, yes," says Long. "You're selling tothe underground, and the underground is extremely obsessed with genres, because they're the ones who define it. At a major label, no, because the goal is not to sell to those kids. It's a much larger audience, people who don't understand and don't care about the many genres of electronica. "
The challenge in bringing the mainstream around to the techno invasion at this point is that, unlike punk or Nirvana, electronicmusic represents a break with the rock tradition.
"That's the problem at record companies," Long says. "They don't understand this. They don't have any instinctive relationship to this music. It's not song-based. It's not text-based. It's about beats. And beats have arisen out of hip-hop culture and out of (groups like) Kraftwerk. And understanding beats is something that is pretty much the domain of people under 25. "
Unlike grunge, this latest next big thing is dance-floor music, nurtured in clubs and at underground raves.
"Every city in America has a really good underground dance scene," Long says. "I know just from experience that there are good parties that have happened in and around Pittsburgh for years, which most people in your town probably aren't aware of. "
The Pittsburgh dance club Metropol started its techno night two years ago, and attendance since then has been steady - a few hundred people each Thursday.
"There are peaks and valleys, you know, through the different seasons, but we keep an update on all the music," says Metropol advertising and entertainment assistant Michelle Tucci. "We get a lot of really good underground stuff that nobody else in this cityis really playing. "
She isn't anticipating a surge in attendance anytime soon, despite all the hype.
"I think right now it's more niche-specific," she says. "I know in a lot of other cities, it's got better legs than it does here - the big cities, L.A., New York. "
Part of the problem, says Tucci, is air play.
"A lot of what I would consider electronic or techno music really hasn't hit the airwaves much here. I know there's, like, one little underground pirate station on the South Side that you can get on a really clear night, but as far as commercial radio is concerned, it hasn't really hit that market here, and a lot of people's tastes are driven by that. "
They've added some techno on Pittsburgh's commercial alternative outlet, WXDX-FM (105.9, the X). Both Chemical Brothers and Prodigy made it as far as regular rotation, and music director Lenny Diana points out that they've played cuts from Orb, Orbital, Spring Heel Jack and Daft Punk on specialty shows like "Edge of the X. "
"Whether this music really becomes mainstream, I don't know," Diana says. "I don't personally feel like there's a song that's come along yet that is just so amazing people are really going to click onto it. "
And when they play techno, the caller response isn't what you'd consider a rave.
"We asked people what they thought of the song," he says, "and the majority of the people just called up and said they didn't really care for it. "
From the beginning, techno primarily has been an instrumental medium. And yet, all but one of the radio hits have had vocals, from Prodigy actually singing (or sneering) on "Firestarter" to Chemical Brothers sampling Schooly D on "Block Rockin' Beats. " The lone exception has been the ambient single, "The Box," by Orbital.
One of the reasons so many insiders are pinning their hopes on Prodigy's Flint is the fact that a record like "Firestarter" doesn't necessarily call for a musical leap of faith on the part of the modern rock radio audience. In fact, it could pass for an old Public Image LTD single.
Chemical Brothers may be a more difficult sell.
But as Long says, "They'll do more for real electronica than Prodigy will, if only because they are two guys behind banks of machines, when they play live, and they retain the anonymous factor of a DJ, which is the heart and soul of dance music. "
National Record Mart's Artale is hoping the labels will learn from mistakes that were made in the wake of Nirvana's success.
"They signed too many bands," he says. "So yeah, a lot of bands fell by the wayside. And they did the worst thing you could do for any type of music - they chased the hit single. "
With techno, they may not be able to chase the hit single. Though Prodigy did go Top 40 with "Firestarter," it could be a while before labels and modern rock programmers figure out what makes a single a hit in this brave new electronic world.
And that only adds to the music's appeal for ravers.
"It's music that parents don't understand," says Long, "which is always a great thing. That's what Elvis was. That's what the Beatles were. Led Zeppelin. There's more anti-parental sentiment embodied in this music than in grunge. It's not angry; it's just music that people in their 40s or 50s don't understand. "