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.
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.