How EDM Conquered the World
by Philip Sherburne | August 27, 2012
As you will no doubt have noticed, electronic dance music seems to be enjoying record levels of popularity lately. This is true worldwide, but that rising profile is especially notable in the United States, where dance music has been marginalized for three decades, ever since disco burned out in a blaze of sequins and spandex. It's hardly marginal now: As evidenced by over-the-top events like Electric Daisy Carnival (plus the burgeoning dance tents at Coachella and Lollapalooza), EDM has become a full-blown youth phenomenon, complete with new subgenres, new chemicals (or new names for them, anyway), and new T-shirt slogans ("Sex Drugs & Dubstep").
This explosion has attracted a deluge of mainstream media attention, much of it wondering just where all these brightly garbed beat-freaks came from. It has also been greeted with truckloads of money -- witness the $1 billion that entertainment mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman wants to spend on buying up regional promoters as he assembles a dance-music behemoth to rival Live Nation. All that money helps explain the journalistic interest here, especially since entertainment writing and business reporting have become largely synonymous. Thus, even Forbes recently cast its speculating eye upon the suddenly, shockingly profitable world of dance music, compiling a list of the world's 10 most highly paid DJs, from the seven-million-dollar man Avicii all the way up to Tiësto, who reportedly rakes in $22 million a year.
(What Forbes failed to note was that most DJs and producers, like the rest of us, are just struggling to get by. And maybe it's just the Fugazi fan in me, but I'd note that most of the best music is coming out of dance music's DIY sector -- though I realize that's a matter of taste, and of my own anti-corporate prejudice.)
As to where all these new dance-music fans came from, the answer isn't that hard to figure out, really. Mainstream pop music has been adopting dance music's form for several years now, after an initial push club-ward by artists from Lady Gaga to the David Guetta-produced Black Eyed Peas; hip-hop (which is also a kind of "electronic dance music," even though no one classifies it as such) has been borrowing from dance music since crunk blazed onto the scene, obliterating soulfully dusty boom-bap with thunderbolts of Eurotrance synth riffage. And indie rock's ongoing dalliance with dance music goes all the way back to the turn of the millennium, with electroclash's louche affect and DFA's introduction of Daft Punk to the rock kids.
But there's also something else. I'll just go out on a limb and venture that kids these days -- and, judging from the audiences I've seen at overground massives like Electric Daisy Carnival, the audience for mainstream dance music skews young -- have a less partisan attitude toward genre than many generations before them. They certainly have a less conflicted attitude toward technology than the rockers of the '90s, for whom computers (and artifice in general) were often viewed as anathema. (In the mid-'90s, I remember an indie-type acquaintance chiding me for emailing a long-distance girlfriend instead of writing letters -- scrawled in my own blood, presumably, on handmade paper and affixed with organic twine to the legs of carrier pigeons. Because, you know, that would have been more real.)
No, today's 18-year-olds -- who were born, we might note, after the death of Kurt Cobain -- have grown up surrounded by computer games, mobile phones, digital music-production software and other electronic accoutrements that were rare or nonexistent just a decade ago. They've gained their musical education not via a record collection assembled one paltry disc at a time, paid for with paper-route money, but through P2P networks and YouTube and, bless 'em, Rhapsody. Where scarcity once dictated our listening habits, now it's a vast, immediate surplus that does -- instantly accessible and, crucially, ahistorical.
Just consider Sonny Moore, who sang for the screamo band From First to Last before trading punk angst for electro thrills and rechristening himself Skrillex. When I interviewed him for SPIN magazine last year, I asked how he had made the conversion from alt rock to dance music. "It wasn't really a conversion," he told me, "because I've been making electronic music since I was 14, on Reason and Fruity Loops ... I was doing two things and I decided to drop one and continue the other, you know what I mean? It wasn't like some big switch."
But it's important to remember that electronic dance music never went away -- a point that tends to be forgotten in MSM coverage of "EDM." In Europe and the U.K., dance music has been a constant presence in youth culture (and even in the pop charts) since the early '90s. And even here in North America, strong local and regional pockets of dance music have survived mainstream culture's indifference (and outright antipathy), from Detroit and Chicago's original techno and house communities through '90s rave culture and on to long-running, self-sustaining scenes in cities like San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Miami.
Much of the mainstream coverage of the current dance-music explosion has pointed to social media's role in helping the spread of a genre that got little radio play and didn't easily fit America's touring infrastructure. But electronic music culture isn't just some free-floating meme disseminated via ADSL; even today, it remains deeply rooted in local communities and border-hopping exchanges, whether that means the Berlin/Detroit techno alliance of the early '90s or the translation of New Jersey garage to U.K. garage -- two different sounds, two different scenes, bound by a shared lineage that goes back to New York's legendary discotheque, the Paradise Garage. The history of electronic dance music is also an atlas, and every pin on the map -- Paris, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, São Paulo, Ibiza, Minneapolis -- represents a crucial point of difference, a point where the continuum kinked up and sent shockwaves back into the data stream.
This is the other thing that tends to get forgotten in the broadsheets' treatment of electronic dance music: There really is no single category that sums it all up. That's why I get especially sad when a forum commenter dismisses all dance music outright as all sounding the same; it's why I tie myself up in knots trying to explain something like the State of Electronic Dance Music. I feel like I might as well be attempting to explain the State of the Amazon's Ecosystem, or the State of the Earth's Atmosphere.
Conventional wisdom often has it that electronic music is needlessly bifurcated. But all those scenes and sounds and subgenres and tempos and technologies help bring meaning to the music. Dance music can be as expressive as any other musical form -- but sometimes, what's being expressed isn't just about an emotion and a moment in time, it's about a vast continuum of cultural memory and shared experience. I've often thought that dance music works like folk music in this way.
Despite the distrustful attitude that says that technology leads to streamlined, pernicious efficiencies, electronic dance music culture is the opposite of a monoculture. And that's one of the things I love about it. I've been following this stuff in a personal and professional capacity for nearly 20 years, and every day I learn something new about it -- its present, its history, its future, sometimes all three at once. I get bummed out by the amount of dreck that's out there, whether we're talking about corporate-sponsored dance pop or interchangeable, ostensibly "underground" tech house, but I'm sure I'd feel that way about indie rock or hip-hop or metal if any of those genres were my chosen passion.
Part of what keeps me coming back is the constant surprise. And an even bigger part of what keeps me coming back is the sense of interconnectedness running through it all -- and dance music, with the DJ at its center, is all about interconnectedness, whether we mean between tracks (and artists and eras and genres) or between the DJ and a room full of dancers.
For Rhapsody's 2012 Dance-Music Spectacular, we've tried to highlight that sense of interconnectedness. It would be an impossible task to spotlight every important sound, scene, niche and era, so we've erred on the side of synecdoche, with a selection of features that run from the canonical -- Detroit techno, Chicago house -- to more overlooked corners of the dance-music continuum, like the Minneapolis rave scene of the '90s or the curious case of Vancouver, B.C., way out there past the Rockies. Piecing all these micro- and not-so-micro-scenes together, we can get a sense of how we arrived at this bewildering, exhilarating point, and where we might go from here.