UPDATE: as there are remarks in the comments on how this post missed to cover recent developments: please note that this article has been written in 2012!
“Who’d have thought three little letters could make dance music look so wanky?”, fellow blogger Clive from UK-based music blog Electronic Rumors asked on Twitter a few months ago. “What’s happened to dance music?”, Haezer asks his fans on Facebook. London music blog Too Many Sebastians recently declared the beginning of EDMageddon on Twitter.
In the meantime, Tiesto is still touring US universities for his Club Life College Invasion tour, Steve Aoki is still surfing underage crowds on an inflatable raft and David Guetta is still selling out every single show he plays. Skrillex and Avicii can still be heard blasting out of every kid’s iPod, the top ten tracks for electro house on Beatport still have cheesy trance vocals and synths in the breaks and Rihanna or Pitbull’s songs still sound like big-room club anthems. Madonna still keeps appearing at Avicii’s shows. Sebastian Ingrosso of Swedish House Mafia still thinks SHM are the new Beatles. And above all, Paris Hilton still thinks she’s a DJ now. What has electronic dance music become? Or is EDM just electronic dance music for douchebags?
After an entire summer spent traveling from one EDM festival to another, I obviously could go on for hours here, but let’s just forget about all that for a second and step back to take a closer look at this thing called EDM. A few years ago, EDM had been a collective term for all kinds of electronic dance music (rather than a genre on its own), ranging from techno over house to drum&bass, and all other kinds of music created on computers and synthesizers with the purpose of making people dance. Except for some new genres (like dubstep or moombahton) that have recently joined the family, EDM is still the catch-all term for electronic dance music. So what exactly has changed, and why are so many people (including me) so upset about it?
“EDM has become an entire generation’s pop music.”
If you ask someone what kind of music they enjoy and the answer is rock, you can go on asking which kinds of rock music, and you would probably get stoner rock, indie rock, hard rock or any other kind of music with guitars as an answer. If you ask today’s average EDM fan the same question, they will most probably have a hard time naming you three sub-genres of EDM they’re into. If you don’t believe me, go check the line-ups of dance events a few years ago: never before have artists such as Tiesto, John Dahlbäck, Richie Hawtin and Steve Aoki constantly shared stages, because each of them represented a different style (trance, house, techno, electro, etc.) back then, with completely different crowds. Today, it’s all just EDM. For a large number of (young) listeners (mainly in the US), EDM has become a new genre, it seems. A genre characterized by simple melodies that immediately get stuck in your head and catchy vocals that you can sing along to after the first listen (wait, isn’t that pretty much a definition of pop music?). Add a big drop with lots of bass, gritty synths and white noise to that, and you’ve got a pocket definition of 2012’s idea of EDM. I recently asked on Twitter “What has dance music become?”, and one answer I got was from Andrew of Harder Blogger Faster: “One word: predictable.” I couldn’t agree more with this, remembering Skrillex joking about one of his fans commenting “Nice song, but where’s the drop” after the prince of dubstep posted a video of Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker on Facebook.
How could it have come to this, though? For years now, electronic dance music has been growing bigger and bigger, finally making the jump from music made for clubs to receiving attention on mainstream radio – outside of clubs. This process was sort of kickstarted between 2006 and 2008 when some emerging artists managed to build a big hype and make electronic music “socially acceptable” for people who have never been into dance music before: somewhere between alternative rock (which was huge back then) and dance music, indie dance was born. Think of: Justice’s remix for Simian’s We Are Your Friends, the early days of The Hype Machine, blog house, Kitsuné, the Ed Banger generation, Crookers, MGMT’s Kids (Soulwax Remix). In fact though, this process has been going on for much longer, though: electronic music has always been drawing influences from other genres – think Bloody Beetroots collaborating with hardcore punk bands such as Refused. After this big hype back in 2006 – 2008 though, it started actually influencing other genres itself. For years now, electronic dance music has been influencing mainstream pop music – I don’t think I need to give examples for that.
Today however, the situation has changed. Electronic dance music is no longer influencing mainstream pop music. EDM has become mainstream pop music.
Underground music has been influencing mainstream music for as long as music exists, probably. When underground music actually becomes mainstream music, though, some problems arise: long-time members of the original scene will feel irritated with lots of new people suddenly claiming to be part of the movement when they obviously have no idea what this scene is really about. What better example than old-school house legend Mark Farina being removed from the decks in Vegas after the club received complaints from its bottle-service VIP crowd for “too much house music”? Or deadmau5 ranting about Madonna, and his “we all hit play” statement, and Boys Noize tweeting “if you see a dj that uses a mic and screams ‘put your hands up’ throw a banana at him”. Furthermore, artists who used to define and shape the scene for long years will start to “sell out” because of the big money that suddenly can be made when a genre blows up. These problems and others are of course typical side effects of a genre’s commercialization, and no EDM-specific phenomenon.
EDM in the USA – a booming industry.
With the hype exploding and still growing, EDM has evolved from an underground movement to a big target market for all kinds of enterprises, attracting the attention of big companies who started pouring lots of money into the scene, hosting bigger, louder, crazier festivals all over the world (think Holy Ship, Ultra, EDC, Tomorrowland etc.). “It’s just a marketing term to sell various genres of dance music to the US.”, Clive of Electronic Rumors once tweeted, and he’s totally right about that. With the massive marketing firepower of the entire event industry as a strong tailwind, EDM is getting bigger and bigger. In fact, the bigger it gets, the bigger it gets – a vicious circle.
Obviously what I’m talking about here is largely a US-based phenomenon. Of course it’s swapping over to Europe, but the real big hype hasn’t actually arrived yet (and I’m not sure if it ever will): even at European mainstream EDM festival like Tomorrowland you will meet more North and South Americans than Europeans combined. This is due to a strong, independent scene and a long tradition of electronic dance music in Europe: French house in, well, France, drum & bass and dubstep in the UK, techno and deep house in Berlin – just to name a few examples. There are lots of big artists in Europe who firmly stand against the EDM hype, who have always chosen quality electronic dance music over cheap music for the masses. I’m not going to do some namedropping here – if you’ve been following this blog for some time chances are that you already know who the good guys are. After being asked in an interview why Europe seems to be constantly ahead of the US when it comes to electronic dance music, techno legend Richie Hawtin explains that the club scene in Europe has not only a much longer tradition than it has in the States, but also complains about the mentality of the US scene: “I think music in America, and this emanates across the world, everybody wants to be a superstar. Everybody wants to actually cut themselves off from people. Everybody wants to be on a pedestal. […] It’s a little bit disappointing how that’s happened in America. It’s really like the whole rock star, hip-hop mentality. You know, these unreachable people.”
Having said that, EDM’s poster boys are of course in no way inferior when it comes to producing and DJing (except for some of the obvious douchebags), in fact I have all the respect in the world for artists like David Guetta: every single piece of music this man touches immediately turns into solid earworm gold. Also, he’s French, so obviously I’m not just hating on the US music scene here, just to be clear about that too. The US music scene is clearly breaking new grounds with EDM at the moment, so obviously there are lots of people who are new to electronic dance music – and of course they can’t be expected to immediately know and appreciate the more elaborate and sophisticated facets of electronic music, as Hawtin explains: “If you just got into Calvin Harris or you just got into Afrojack, great. You’ve stepped through the door, but there’s so much more to learn.”
This is the end?
However, at some point in the near future the EDM hype will probably collapse, as new (or old) genres will eventually start replacing it again. I remember asking Olle of Dada Life in an interview I did with them back in 2009 if he thought that electronic dance music would ever become as popular as indie rock, and he answered: “It already is, in some ways. On a regular weekend more people are partying to house and electro than rock. They just don’t know what they’re hearing at the club. I don’t think that will change, but that’s fine!” Obviously it did change, so why shouldn’t it change again? Hopefully for the better, this time.
In my opinion, while quickly gaining lots of fans, electronic dance music has become less credible in the course of this big EDM hype. The (bigger part of the) underground clubbing scene (where it has been all about the music) has turned into a commercial hype focusing on festivals, fireworks and rockstar personality cult rather than on the music itself. It has become harder to spot the most interesting artists, and it has become harder for talented artists to reach an audience if their music is not big-room compatible. While introducing massive crowds to electronic music, this thing called EDM has been a major setback for electronic dance music, as it has changed the public’s perception of dance music to something that dance music never wanted to represent.
Having said that, the scene has always been sort of re-inventing itself – and the bigger EDM becomes, the more up and coming artists start rejecting the hunt for the hardest drop, slowly developing a fresh underground scene, where it’s all about the music again – for example the future techno movement. Facing the rapid commercialization of mainstream dance music, these small underground scenes are rapidly gaining fans who are fed up with the EDM hype. So let’s all just sit back and wait for this whole thing to repeat itself again in a few years. Eurodance, EDM – I wonder what they will call it the next time.
Photo credits: Drew Ressler, rukes.com.