With grunge on life support and sales flatlining, the music biz is looking to spark a rebirth with electronica. But can you dance to it?

In an editing studio in midtown Manhattan, Todd Mueller is programming the future, and it’s not a pretty sight. Mueller, the producer of MTV’s weekly electronic music show, Amp, is trying to edit down the video for the band Juno Reactor’s ”Feel the Universe.” The music is the common throbbing computer pulse of techno, and, like many videos of the genre, this one doesn’t bother picturing the performers; instead, it’s footage of Ku Klux Klan rallies, flowers, sunsets, and some sort of Japanese royal coronation. It all looks like it’s meant to signify a sense of information overload, if not some sort of systems crash.

Not that the frantic jumble of sound and vision in the Juno Reactor clip is necessarily intended as ominous. Here, in this cultish pocket of the pop-music world, future shock carries uniformly cheerful connotations. ”Techno embraces technology and encourages the fusion of man and machine,” says Mueller, 28, whose boyish visage, glasses, and beanie make him look like Jon Cryer after a particularly long rave. ”It says, ‘Don’t be a Luddite!’ That should be our bumper sticker. We’re at the dawn of the 21st century; it’s logical that technology would be part of everyone’s mind-set.”

Suddenly, it’s an especially large part of the collective mind-set of the music biz, which could stand a movement to be bullish about. The bloom is certainly off the alternative-rock rose that Nirvana pollinated in 1991. ”To some extent, that revolution has become everything it set out to cure,” says Reprise Records president Howie Klein. ”What we have now is alternative corporate rock, practically.” Points out Mercury president Danny Goldberg, ”The energy that emanated from Seattle in the late ’80s, early ’90s is obviously a five-year-old energy — and in rock & roll, five years is a generation.” Executives humbled by 1996’s flat sales and youthful yawns are eager to spot any popular uprising that might replace the increasingly outre strains of guitar grunge and jangle angst. The ska, alt-country, lounge, and Latin rock scenes all hold promise but have apparent ceilings on their appeal.

Will the industry techno for an answer?

The answer seems to be a very qualified yes. The movement’s leading British band, Prodigy, is widely expected to establish a commercial beachhead here with the May 20 release of their first album since Madonna’s Maverick label signed them to a rumored $5 million contract. Big heat surrounds the Chemical Brothers’ April 8 release, Dig Your Own Hole, as well. And even if techno in its purest form never does go mainstream, some of the remaining superstars of alt-rock — notably, U2 and the Smashing Pumpkins — are already busy co-opting the stylistic tenets of electronic pop and beating their Stratocaster swords into digital plowshares. Roll over, Leo Fender, and tell Yngwie Malmsteen the news: In one form or another, ”electronica” is coming.

Most of the major labels have either made distribution deals with electronically oriented indie companies or started signing techno acts directly. Geffen Records, for one, has done both. ”I was just in England,” says label president Bill Bennett, ”where they think we’re nuts: ‘Oh, you’re just discovering techno music?’ I think it’s gonna be big here.” Geffen was one of several companies that got into a bidding war late last year for Prodigy. But Bennett acknowledges that the payoff may not be as quick in the U.S. as it has been in Europe: ”I don’t know if it’s gonna be defined by radio like most pop music is — certainly not in its early stages. The commercial possibilities at some time will catch up to the talent, so you’re kind of investing in the future.”

For David Bowie, it’s all about the here and now. “There’s a freneticism that I find very pertinent to the way we live in the late 20th century. It just seems to be the dialogue that is valuable,” says Bowie, who borrows liberally from jungle’s rhythmic vocabulary on his new Earthling. It’s a mutual admiration society, of course: “My ear has always been attuned to that brand of chaos,” he notes, and the daring electronic albums he and Brian Eno made in the ’70s indelibly influenced waves of young tech-heads. “Everybody knew something was going to come out of Britain, but it’s almost like the Blur/Pulp/Oasis thing was kind of treading water. The real valuable music is coming from dance bands.”

Not everyone is quite so eager to speed toward the millennium, if this is the soundtrack. For years mainstream rock fans have watched with some suspicion as bin cards heralding exotic subgenres like “drum-and-bass,” “illbient,” and “trance” popped up in more progressive record outlets. Any threat seemed remote; these were typically import compilations spotlighting no-name British dance acts, relegated to lesser, scarier corners of the store. But the years of containment are coming to an end.

Leading the charge into the mainstream, U2 jettisoned their old “three chords and the truth” credo for half a dozen samples and a sense of cheek in key tracks—like the hit “Discotheque”—on their just-released Pop album. The Pumpkins are at work on an electronically tempered album, a preview of which might be found in the drum-machine-fueled ballad Billy Corgan contributed to the new Lost Highway soundtrack. Even guitar god Eric Clapton has recorded an electronic album (Retail Therapy), under the pseudonym x-sample, as a member of the group T.D.F. Several upcoming film soundtracks are thick with the stuff, starting with such mainstream Hollywood fare as The Saint. Clearly, all this electro-juice isn’t just for breakbeat anymore.

Backlash, anyone? Before these brave new sounds have even filtered down to most Americans, “Techno sucks” is becoming a counter-mantra. Isn’t ambient really just elevator music for cybergeeks? Isn’t the rave-readier stuff disco all over again? Where are the songs? Faceless dance music, computer sequencers, prog-rock flourishes, all-powerful production geniuses…aren’t these the elements God sent punk to save us from?

Aw, contraire, say the true believers: Techno is the new punk, if its do-it-yourself ethos counts as a benchmark. The shrinking cost of drum-machine and sampler technology is a prime factor in the appeal to the DIY underground—along with the fact that today’s pierced collegiates, unlike their safety-pinned predecessors, were weaned on PCs. “I’m in my 40s, and I hated dance music growing up,” says Bennett, “but I don’t equate this with dance music. You know what it is? Any 19-year-old can be a producer now, as opposed to Giorgio Moroder, and that’s what excites me.”

It’s every man a king on the dance floor as well as in the studio. “At a rave, as opposed to a concert, it’s very empowering. The energy is dispersed over the whole crowd,” says Jason Bentley, a movement maven who DJs on L.A.’s top alternative and public radio stations as well as handling A&R for Island’s Quango label. “It’s democratic; it isn’t like you’re sitting watching a pop star. You are empowered to involve yourself with the music, or walk around or talk—it isn’t focused on the stage.”

Richard James, the one-man band who bills himself as the Aphex Twin, makes an almost perverse point of shrouding himself in a nearly opaque DJ booth on stage. “I think one of the advantages to electronic music is that it’s faceless—the personality doesn’t get in the way,” he says. “There’ve been songs I liked for years; then I see who did them and say ‘Look at that prat,’ and it’s spoiled it for me.”

The lack of celebrity focus represents a fundamental paradigm shift for pop fans. But if you’re looking to fix your sights on an electronic star, check out Prodigy. After their last album, in 1995, the formerly faceless group hired Keith Flint, a spiky-haired frontman who is what you either love or hate about the band’s “Firestarter” video—eschewed by MTV’s Amp programmers as too “pop” for their hip late-night viewers, but already among the first real techno videos in prime-time Buzz Bin rotation. Unlike most electronic bands, they use live guitars and even—God forbid—tour.

“It’s about time,” says an unlikely fan, Beck, enthusing over Prodigy’s burgeoning Stateside presence. “I’ve been watching them in Europe for a while and wondering when the kids here would figure that out, because once they do it’ll be all over. We played festivals with Prodigy in Europe and saw 50,000 kids going insane. The spirit of their music isn’t self-glorifying, really—it’s a release thing for people, catharsis without the cliche. They’re harnessing the same energy Jerry Lee Lewis harnessed in the ’50s—and there’s a sense of humor with it. I think it’s cool; I condone.”

Beck himself hardly counts as a techno-cian. But one of the godfathers of the genre, Moby, pointedly prefers Beck’s revolutionary brand of electronically enhanced hip-hop-rock over the massive wave of dance music he helped inspire.

“All the journalists who are getting excited about this ‘electronica’ revolution, I feel they missed the boat,” sniffs Moby, who’s done his small part to buck the tide by going back to guitars on his latest album, Animal Rights. “The stuff that’s going on now is a real pale imitation of what was happening five years ago. It would be like people declaring a punk-rock revolution in 1985.” The future, Moby claims, is in hybrids: “There are great electronic records and great rock records. The thing that interests me is people combining the two—Beck being a good example, someone who basically made an electronic record but sang on top of it.”

Behind Beck’s cut-and-paste pop are producers du jour the Dust Brothers, two guys from Silverlake, Calif., who made computers in rock & roll cool with the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique in 1989 and cooler still with last year’s most acclaimed album, Beck’s Odelay. The key difference between techno and what these new Mac daddies pull off is that their work is willfully backward-looking.

“We try and stay away from drum machines,” emphasizes Dust Brother Mike Simpson, who says the approach he and his partner, John King, take to computer sampling is closer to Trent Reznor’s neo-industrial loops than to the new dance acts. Their rubber-soul sonic collages typically rely on drums sampled from ’70s R&B records and early ’80s rap singles, a funky, repetitive bed for all sorts of live effects up top. “I kind of feel like we’ve just been imitating the Beatles the whole time,” says Simpson. “Everything we do sounds like it could have been on Sgt. Pepper.”

No wonder that no less pre-electronica an act than the Rolling Stones have enlisted the Dusties to produce several tracks for their next album. “The first demo that Mick played us sounded like we had already produced it,” Simpson says. “He did do his homework.” In other words, yes, the Stones will be using some computer-sampled rhythms. Be afraid, Charlie Watts, be very afraid.

Those of us who aren’t drummers have little to fear from the electronic revolution—or so we’re assured. The movement shouldn’t divide rock enthusiasts into hostile camps, insists the Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons. “It’s not pretty music we make; it’s quite rough and abrasive,” he says. “In that way, it is kind of dance music for rock fans. If you buy one of our records, it doesn’t mean you have to go and burn all your Offspring CDs.” Maybe, in fact, that’s where the premillennial party lies: moshers mixing it up with the raving mad.

(Additional reporting by David Browne, Rob Brunner, Jeff Gordinier, and Tom Sinclair)