From being very much a minority taste, the beat-laden, drug-fueled behemoth of electronic dance music is now the USA’s mainstream entertainment, with the repercussions of its infiltration into American culture yet to become manifest. EDM’s explosion is a fascinating phenomenon for seasoned observers of the dance-music scene. At last year’s Ultra Music Festival in Miami I felt as though I were stepping back in time, reminded of Edinburgh’s Rezerection raves in the 1990s. The exception being, of course, that the seminaked people were dancing under a blistering sun rather than turning blue from exposure.
I’ve been attending raves (now a taboo word, replaced by the prosaic title “dance-music festivals”) all over America for 20 years, mainly in the house-music stronghold of California but also everywhere from Chicago to New Orleans to New York City. At events like Ultra and Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, the crowd is, in the old British parlance, “mad for it,” and for crusty veterans like myself there is something both uplifting and oddly disquieting about this. It would be nonsense to claim that the modern dance-music experience is inferior to the old-school one just because my 50-something legs and constitution mean I’m pretty much done with all-nighter-all-dayers and the chemicals that fuel them. That would be like a recently castrated eunuch arguing that they don’t make orgies like they used to. But we wanted dance music to take over the world, and now it has pretty much happened. So why all the skepticism? After all, dance music, or house or techno, lest we forget, is not strictly a European invention. It might have been redefined for mass consumption in the Old World, but it’s as American as apple pie, forged in the great musical cities of Chicago, Detroit and New York. Only now it has been successfully rebranded for the American mainstream.
If you like spectacle, EDM is hard to beat, taking the traditional rave staples of eye-popping lasers, brain-frying strobes, mind-blowing lights and cyber projections to new levels. As the doyen of U.K. dance-music commentators Simon Reynolds observed in a recent Guardian feature: “This AV glitz-blitz costs a lot, but then artists at the Deadmau5 level earn a lot, as much as $1 million for a festival appearance, while hardest-gigging man in EDM Skrillex is reportedly worth $15 million. With day tickets selling at around $125 and well over 300,000 attending over three days, the Las Vegas Electric Daisy Carnival must have grossed in the region of $40 million. The big money is attracting even bigger money: The mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman declared his intent to spend $1 billion acquiring companies in the EDM field, while Live Nation, America’s leading concert promotions company, recently purchased outright Hard Events.”
Therein lies the rub: Acts are now defined purely in terms of their commercial success; depending on which article you read you’ll find Skrillex, Deadmau5 or Tïesto touted as the biggest/most lucrative/highest-earning act in EDM. The music seems to be posted missing in all of this. Was Derrick May’s business portfolio ever compared with that of Frankie Knuckles?
The new EDM artists are no longer old-school DJs responding to changes in the mood of the crowd, leading the party from the front. As a breed they are generally straight, business-oriented music producers who preprogram their sets to tie in with the mind-boggling visual and lighting systems. The comment made by Deadmau5 that today’s EDM stars basically just press play caused some hackles to rise, but it was an honest statement. Deadmau5 contends that the real artistry is in the recording studio, not in the performance.
Perhaps old dogs like myself need to get real about EDM. After all, Simon Cowell’s overproduced throwaways sell more than the hip young guitar bands of the day, just as a Jerry Bruckheimer production will generally have more viewers than the coolest HBO drama. It was always thus. Perhaps we just take EDM a bit too seriously. So then why does its popularity explosion fill so many old house-heads with concern? To answer this question, we need to consider where the scene started, and where it’s ended up. •
It’s hard to think of two more divergent landscapes than the glitzy playground of Las Vegas, rising out of the desert, and the “magic island” of Ibiza, Europe’s house-music capital. I wasn’t introduced to house music and ecstasy at either. That moment took place in the more prosaic surrounds of an Edinburgh city council works Christmas party. I reluctantly popped a pill, gun-shy of all drugs due to previous bad form with heroin. To my surprise, I found that I couldn’t listen to Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody.” I craved the beats of house music while I was on ecstasy, just as much as I’d been ambivalent to them while on alcohol. I was delighted when my friend Susan, who had given me the pill, suggested we move on to Edinburgh’s legendary Pure club. I got it. I was a convert. It was year zero.
Ibiza came later, those hedonistic summers of supreme decadence culminating in my gig deejaying to 10,000 crazed ravers in the Balearic institution that is the club night Manumission. I wasn’t a great DJ, but it didn’t matter. I had the tunes in my bag and everybody was mashed out of their heads on E and adrenaline, so the place went crazy. So did I. I had immersed myself in a scene that was just sheer, rapturous, euphoric enjoyment. I’d been in London as a teenager when punk was at its height and had supposed that was my zenith. It had been only the warm-up act. Yes, it also had its downside—drugs and intoxication generally do—but I wouldn’t have missed it for the universe.
Now it’s strange to think of Vegas, which I associate with Tom Jones and boxing, in the same way as those old days in Ibiza. Yet the isolation and anything-goes ethos the two places share have made Vegas the perfect site as the dance-music center of the Americas. Even the suited Talibanites of the Christian fundamentalist right tacitly accept that monument to capitalist excess, though perhaps with the old caveat “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
Spring break in America, no longer limited to spring or to college kids, provided the mainstream cultural raison d’être for EDM by throwing a lot of bodies together under a four-by-four beat and a strobe light. For some time the young (and the not so young) have been flooding spots like Las Vegas and Miami Beach, looking for the party. With the staple acts long in the tooth and as stale as old bread, and the audience either dying, incontinent or suffering foreclosure, the gap in the Vegas market was yawning. And this party also had to be about more than being in a club or bar, listening to the latest mainstream pop records given the four-by-four treatment. It’s hard to see youth flocking to these spots to enjoy the Cowell-esque conveyor belt of bland, disposable flunkies or synthetic “country” and teen stars. There’s not a whole lot of fun in that game once puberty kicks in.
The issue of how to get young people, who will spend money whether they have it or not, into city stadiums and parks has been an ongoing one. What will they come for? EDM has provided the spectacle. It’s undeniably crass to say that EDM equals house and techno plus spring-break culture, but the first two brought the beat, the other the bodies in search of fun. And they have quite possibly revitalized Las Vegas.
More crucially, the internet has demolished the old walls between cultures, ending the time lag that prevented the North American spread of U.K.-based dance genres such as jungle. By the time U.S. DJs got their hands on the latest U.K. sounds as imports, they were out of date and no longer essential. Now dubstep, the original completely networked dance scene, enjoys global synchronization, with a relatively free trade in sound files and new track edits of DJ mixes on pirate radio stations, which fans then post on YouTube. EDM spread like a virus once major acts began to tour U.S. soil, and it wasn’t long before American producers got in on the act, both at home and abroad.
The genesis of this rise can arguably be charted through American R&B and hip-hop acts going to Ibiza, doing pills, discovering David Guetta and his Fuck Me I’m Famous party, and being moved to collaborate with him to make big club and pop hits. Acts such as P. Diddy, Chris Brown, the Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West then made dance music cool in America by marginalizing the gay factor. This, Boston-born dance-music luminary Arthur Baker argues, paved the way for the takeover of Las Vegas by dance giants “like Paul Oakenfold, who upped things through his touring with Madonna, and then the new-school homegrown acts such as Deadmau5 and Skrillex, who gave the kids their own stars.”
Indivisible from the artistic side of the equation is the scene’s commercial rebranding. This was basically about finding a new terminology to disassociate raves and house and techno music from the traditional concerns authorities and parents had about them, with their sexy vibe of near-naked bodies and, most of all, almost every participant on mind-bending chemicals. The game changer was the 2010 Electric Daisy Carnival at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Advertising rave culture as EDM is one thing, but the past wasn’t so easily airbrushed. A 15-year-old girl who managed to bypass the event’s age restrictions and gain entry became the scene’s first high-profile ecstasy-associated fatality.
The justifiable outcry that followed this tragedy might have been a blow but in fact became a huge leg up for EDM in America. Electric Daisy Carnival was forced out of Los Angeles but, fortuitously for the burgeoning scene, relocated to Las Vegas. Moreover, the incident advertised the fact that such huge events actually did exist in the States. • What we traditionally know as raves appeal not just to the public but also to entertainment entrepreneurs. Cheaper to put on than rock-and-roll festivals, they involve fewer people to deal with and less equipment to worry about. Ironically, due to ecstasy (now also rebranded as the powdered “molly”) the crowds are generally far better behaved than at alcohol-soaked rock-and-roll festivals. And then there is the one thing America has in spades: space. Huge parking lots and giant sports stadiums abound, along with a ready-made events culture of people who are accustomed to filling them. The biggest factor quite possibly lies in those three little letters: EDM. Americans are not the most difficult people in the world to market things to—that’s what comes of being the oldest mass consumer society on the planet. It’s an unwritten law that for any big participatory event to be successful, it must, like the USA, be hung on three letters: UFC, NBA, NFL, MLB, etc. Thus, EDM.
Driving EDM to the musical mainstream requires financial viability, meaning electronic music on this side of the Atlantic has to pitch to the masses, and the ubiquitous four-four beats of house music need to infect almost every stream of popular music. The problem with this lowest-common-denominator effect is that it can often mean that much of the music isn’t very good (“soulless shit,” in Baker’s words). It’s hard to escape the contention that EDM is catering largely to people who simply want entertainment and have minimal immersion or emotional investment in the scene. When The Wall Street Journal is moved to complain about “The Dumbing Down of Electronic Dance Music,” something is clearly awry.
Yet a counterargument runs that the older rave generations are on shaky ground complaining about the commercialization of dance music. We were the ones, after all, who, having had our fill of cold fields and disused factories, started to pine for proper toilets and bars. You can’t have enough in the capitalist world of entertainment, only too much. So then came the VIP lounge and the velvet ropes of the superclub, another precedent of EDM.
The good and bad aspects of EDM were summed up by Chicago house legend and articulate observer of the American dance-music scene Tommie Sunshine: “I love the fact that this music is where it is. If you say differently, you’re either lying or you never got it in the first place. House music to me was always inclusive: I always wanted everyone to come to the party. We lost a lot of that inclusiveness when the whole bottle-service and dickhead-doorman thing became a cliché. But this subculture wasn’t made up of people playing by the rules. And now people want to put rules on it. It’s showbiz, and the love of music has been tragically lost.”
Kids need their heroes, and as an old anti-house purist who grumbled about DJs stealing music before I succumbed to the power of the beat (and the pill), I’m in no position to bemoan the rise of musicianship and technological spectacle over DJ performance in dance music. But I also want people to know about the history and spirit of the rave. As Baker says, “No one is educating the kids on its underground ethnic roots, the forefathers of the old school, the gay DJs who were wiped out by AIDS. The cycle of history on dance music is about five to 10 years—before that the kids are clueless for the most part.”
Here in America, Larry Levan is long gone, but some of the giants of techno and house such as Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and Frankie Knuckles are still strutting their stuff. It would be great if today’s EDM kids were checking them out. If you are investing heavily in something in terms of your time, money and social life, you should know about it. Why? Because it’s yours: It’s your culture and your history. If you don’t, you’re just another passive consumer in the supermarket line, waiting for the next tune before doing the hamster-on-the-wheel routine. And yes, since we put our own spin on it over in Europe, I also want people to know about Shoom, the Haçienda, Ibiza and the free party scene, culminating in Castlemorton and the Blackburn arrests.
Worryingly, there are signs of an imminent U.S. crackdown. The swaggering machismo of spring-break frat-boy culture has moved dubstep toward the harder sound of “brostep,” which has been embraced in the States. There’s no doubt the EDM experience is heavily packaged, less about music or even dancing than just about being a face in this huge extravaganza, partying hard and getting as fucked-up as possible. Another element of contemporary American EDM, one it shares with some of the harsher European techno scenes, is that under the veil of celebration there is often a tangible sense of anger and alienation. Members of the EDM generation are the first Americans who will be poorer than their parents, and they often carry a palpable sense of frustration associated with that status.
While the tragic ecstasy-related death of the teenager in 2010 illustrates that the scene perversely grows on notoriety, in the long run such incidents can only make it more visible to the authorities. The event illustrated the unavoidably symbiotic link between EDM and ecstasy. The Los Angeles Times, reporting on the Electric Daisy Carnival, stated that “about 120 attendees were taken to hospitals, mostly for drug intoxication.”
There are only so many ways you can sanitize an experience that is, in essence, largely about the interface between a sound and a drug, whether you are celebrating or hiding by doing so. There will be people who say that drugs are irrelevant, that it’s all about the music and they can dance themselves into a transcendental state. But with a few new-age nerdish or rehab-case exceptions, this is bullshit. If there’s a party in the penthouse of a tower block, 90 percent of people, or more, will opt for the express elevator rather than 60 flights of stairs. Ecstasy, by increasing sensitivity to light, touch and above all beat, made the U.K. and European rave explosion, just as a more generic cocktail of drugs, led by MDMA, is now doing for dance music in America.
As I write this, there are moves by the city of Miami to restrict the Ultra festival, a magnificent three-day party that turns a sterile downtown into a tropical carnival. Inevitably drug use has been cited. Never mind that every single weekend, in every city in America, just as many drugs will be consumed by unsupervised people who will then likely come into contact with sober citizens going about their business. An EDM festival packed with dancing, drug-fueled, sexually liberated youth is a soft target for a reactionary politician trying to hog headlines.
So, sadly, EDM seems almost custom-made to be shunted into the firing line, contested in an America increasingly divided by age and ideology. The threat to Ultra shows that right-wing, Tea Party–driven legislators, with their seemingly relentless quest to control the uterus and to proscribe through certification where the penis can and cannot be inserted, now have such events conclusively on their radar. EDM has changed America and is changing it still. Hang on tight; it could be a bumpy ride.