‘Stop Calling It EDM’ (Part 2)

Arguments against the latest mass dance music phenomenon in the United States, with Skrillex and deadmau5 as its stars

We return to one of the most controversial phenomena (and tags) of the year: EDM (Electronic Dance Music), or, the new rise of rave in the United States with traces of the worst superstar DJ era in Europe. We explore the origins of this reality and come up with reasons to be against it.

In the first part of the article, published yesterday, we learned about a disturbing phenomenon: EDM. Ridiculous a label if ever there was one (it stands for Electronic Dance Music, a mix between trance, rave and populist dance music), defining the present state of things on the American electronic mainstream. It suggests a DJ star system is in the making, a whole industry, and a panorama quite similar to that in Europe at the end of the 90s, with the explosion of the superstar DJs (Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, Nick Warren and John Digweed, later replaced with Ferry Corsten, Tiësto and Armin Van Buuren). We said yesterday we would talk about the music today rather than the context, and we will. But first, a digression.

Digression 1: the Aoki issue. Steve Aoki is a key name in this whole EDM affair. Why? Basically, because of the show. A club set by Aoki features two culminating moments: his stage diving with an inflatable dinghy, and the throwing of a cake. It's all about the show (so far removed from the almost surgeon-like seriousness of a DJ like Marcel Dettmann), and also about the pure energy - and what the LA DJ usually plays is ultra filtered, turned-up and grotesque flashes of fidget house. In the booth there's alcohol, Jesus Christ poses to receive the love from the masses, finished off with the excursion over the first rows in the aforementioned dinghy. And, of course, the cake requested in his rider to throw at those same first rows, the finishing touch in pure white trash/frat party fashion, with girls showing their boobs everywhere you look.

"Aoki is purely a mainstream product and his ethics can be resumed in brief concepts like champagne, luxury and models"

Besides all that, Aoki is purely a mainstream product. His album from earlier this year, “Wonderland” (a very raver-like concept, wonderland, accessible through chemistry, wonderfully naïve), mixes house and hip-hop, thick beats with abundant drops, cut-up vocals and razor-sharp frequencies. His label, Dim Mak Records, however, is a veteran and much respected brand, which helped put bands on the American market like Pretty Girls Make Graves, and The Kills. It brought nu rave to California, though in recent years the label has mainly been interested in projects like Mustard Pimp, Laidback Luke, and The Bloody Beetroots. In any case, his ethics can be resumed in brief concepts like champagne, luxury and models.

1. EDM as a genre

Going back to EDM: it's obvious that it's a bastard and unstructured phenomenon which is only measured by levels of popularity. Those who use the EDM tag refer to Kaskade's epic house and Skrillex' wobbly sounds (and, by extension, to tracks by Justin Bieber and Britney Spears that feature a strategically placed drop in the song's bridge. The drop, for those who don't know, is that moment of collapse in a dance tune, the anti-crescendo where everything is accumulated, not because of the speed but because of the feeling of chaos, like gravity dragging the whole piece towards a vortex). Specifying further, you could say that EDM can mean both a Calvin Harris production for Rihanna and a remix by David Guetta (or, even worse, Swedish House Mafia). It's what the kids like; instantly gratifying dance music, easily marketable as pop, easy to push on music video channels, with images of - and invitations to - a life of luxury. Its effect is double edged: it's created a 'scene' that's not going to deactivate (it will rather only get bigger), which at the same time has a harmful effect on the better part of the hip-hop mainstream, and it has reactivated the old alliance between house and rap from the late 80s (which formally had Todd Terry and Jungle Brothers at the forefront; now, the agents are Flo.Rida and Afrojack, an unmistakable sign of degradation). Another digression: let's go.

Digression 2: the Guetta issue. In recent times, the hit formula in pop has been house beats (productions by David Guetta or Stargate) + R&B divas or pop idols like Lady Gaga. A hysterical brand of pop fed by a relentless beat, than an epic change, like “Only Girl (In The World)” and “We Found Love”, the two songs that got Rihanna's career going again, bringing her to the top of the stadium filling mainstream. All that isn't exactly EDM, but it shares with it a space and an audience, and most of all it has paved the way for histrionic house on the difficult American market, where so many ambitious European stars crash over and over.

"Consumer pop with beats taken from screeching big-breasted bimbo dance"

That it's David Guetta who's capitalising on all that scene is logical in a way: educated in the late 80s in hip-hop and converted to house in the 90s, he is the epigone of the French touch as promoted by Daft Punk and Étienne de Crecy, rapidly turning to an Ibiza that found an escape from the excesses of trance and progressive house with a carefree attitude in his F**k Me I’m Famous parties. But Guetta has always been one to take the easy way out; using minimal resources, playing party sets that go down well and leave no deep impression on the ears of the not all too demanding audience. His buddy-buddy attitude helped him to get into pop, offering his services as a producer, until he found the hit (remix) formula. Now, he's a plague, worse than the clap.

Summing up, once again: this alliance between house and hip-hop is spurious, pure opportunism (it's a cash cow show, it's being milked to death), and it will be around until it's no longer profitable. Returning to the parallels with the past, this is the American version of the Euro-trance fever of the early 00s: consumer pop with beats taken from screeching big-breasted bimbo dance, with a large dose of euphoria and a side order of love and liberation. And, in order to not break with tradition, before we pick up the thread, a new digression.

Digression 3: the Skrillex issue. The transformation of Sonny Moore allows for drawing another parallel with another (former) party music idol. He is the Fatboy Slim (former bassist in pop band The Housemartins) of this generation, only with a past in From First To Last, a melodic hard-core band with traces of emo, where he was the singer. While in the 90s it wasn't uncommon to find indie-rock bands and artists moving on to psychedelic electronica (Underworld, The Chemical Brothers), Skrillex symbolises the switch between two teen hit formulas, between MTV-style emo and the new electronica sound for rave kids who just discovered XTC, sex and emancipation. Skrillex is a producer who goes by his basic instincts (heavy bass, a catastrophic drop, like an earthquake; a very rock, almost metal-like structure), who, as a DJ, has taken the industrial dubstep of Rusko and Caspa to even more exaggerated territory (something a thinker like Baudrillard would call 'a fatal strategy': extremely escapist, extremely hedonistic, extremely energetic, looking for the limits and collapse) and suddenly found a direct response from an audience in need of intense stimulation. Just when new heroes were needed, in an impasse that takes us to dance from rock, rejecting any kind of nuance, he stepped in to become the hero of a generation.

Note, however, that there's a lot of talk about Skrillex, about his private life (his recent engagement to Ellie Goulding) and his troubled past (he was a victim of bullies at school), but not about his music. Can anyone name the title of his biggest hit? I thought not. It's the brand, not the music.

2. EDM as the context

While Euro-dance came in a time of economic wealth (the euro was introduced, it was a time of living above our possibilities and capitalist excess), in the United States, EDM is happening while there's a recession going on – economic recovery is on its way, but it's certainly not a time of great luxury. Why now? Maybe this is what people need right now: a spark of liberation and excess after years of continued recession (in the USA it's not only been the crisis started by the fall of Lehman Brothers; you'd have to go back even further, to the brutal devaluation of the dollar after 9/11 and the spiral of war the country has entered since then), a scream for help after living so far removed from the promise of paradise for such a long time. Although this clashes with the generational issue: the 18-year olds flooding the dance floor when Bassnectar, deadmau5 and Kaskade are playing aren’t suffering from unemployment and lack of income, they’re suffering from hormones being all over the place. What they want is to get wasted, not employed.

"It could be a good argument for those who see an inexorable decadence in the West"

Furthermore, in the USA the rave phenomenon has extended among the middle and upper classes (mostly a white audience, no longer looking for college radio indie bands but for clubs where they can be seen and drink, like in so many scene of the faux reality show “The Hills”). It's not a working class thing (like what happened in England in 1989), which could lead to the opposite theory: instead of a symptom of spirit recovery, a scream of liberation after an especially rough patch (like a few years ago with the popularisation of house in Eastern Europe, especially Russia and Rumania, after their introduction into capitalism and the payment of extremely high fees to animate the clubs frequented by the young rich kids), it could also be the process every civilisation on the verge of collapsing goes through: turning to extreme diversion after losing all hope, denying the problems through forgetting, assuming there is no future by living the present in the fast lane. That's how the great empires fell apart: the Roman empire by boredom, the serene republic of Venice by carelessness, both societies dedicated to games, sex and idleness. It could be a good argument for those who see an inexorable decadence in the West. EDM as collapse, as the ultimate degradation of culture.

3. EDM as redundancy

Returning to EDM, its very name indicates its banality: if Nirvana-style rock returned and someone called it RWG ('Rock With Guitars'; it could happen, in seven or eight years) instead of grunge, the man would be vilified, perhaps sent to jail. Not so in the United States: the word EDM, far from provoking rejection as absurd, is being used more and more, adopted simultaneously by Rolling Stone (this month running a deadmau5 cover story) and Jay-Z, who obviously couldn't care less about music but is smelling the business like a shark smells blood from miles away at sea. There are no stylistic rules defining the music: it's based on radio-friendly melodies for spinning class (an example: Benni Bennassi's productions for Madonna's latest album), the exaggerated drop with the short circuit effect (example: Skrillex' productions), house and trance beats for R&B divas (example: any single from Nicki Minaj's album). In the meantime, there's an underground beneath it that beats not with the same force, but with some artistic results worthy of deeper analysis - from the works of Actress in the margins of techno, to the new post-dubstep generation brought on by the R&S label. Of this particular iceberg, the top is irrelevant, and the bottom, deeply submerged, is crucial.

"This music is unbearably obvious and obscene"

It's no surprise voices have risen denouncing that, parallel to the popular expansion of a certain kind of dance music, dance music itself is becoming more and more profoundly stupid. If the old Dutch trance was bad, this is worse. If releases from Rusko and the Dub Police label already sound like sell-out dubstep, Skrillex is the bottom of the garbage bin. And so on. Save the odd moment in deadmau5's music (who isn't the same deadmau5 of 2007 and 2008 anymore, of the Beatport top sales and of “Random Album Title”, the populist version of the elegant prog-house of Border Community), this music is unbearably obvious and obscene. However, the problem isn't the musicians, but the symptom of decadence that implies a kind of dubstep that would have been radically experimental ten years ago. Today, the Skrillex fans claim true dubstep to themselves and their hero, going as far as saying that Burial isn't dubstep because there's no drop in his productions. The world upside down.

The arrogance with which many of those artists want to erase the past and dictate what dance music is and should be. In a way, this happens every year in hip-hop, further and further removed from its origins. Just like it would be absurd to talk to a New Orleans bounce rapper about the capital importance of Run DMC or De La Soul, it's quite possible that a producer of EDM ditties has never heard of Detroit techno and that he has never experienced one of Joey Beltram's cluster bombs. This division between the old and the new generation is summed up in the exchange of insults a few days ago, between deadmau5 (the new mainstream) and A Guy Called Gerald (a legend of acid and British techno, former member of 808 State, in the bizz since the mid-80s); deadmau5 attacked David Guetta and Skrillex for using just “two iPods and a mixer [simply playing] tracks” during their live sets (“ I’m just pushing a lot more buttons,” he added), to which Gerald Simpson answered with “the only button you and people like you are interested in pushing is a nuke for the Palestinians,” then called him a on artist and a “greedy rat head fuck”. deadmau5's comeback was equally bitter: “i dont (sic) give a fuck. esp with the anti-sematic (sic) statement about 'nuking palestine' ??? what an ignorant fuck. im (sic) not going to even give him the time of day. waste of time. let him go back to being no longer relevant.” Pure Jerry Springer. And the generational fracture is impossible to repair, too.

"Electronic music is full of ridiculous tags, but none more sad, ugly and disparaging than this one"

Let's pick up the thread again. Save the odd hit - like Rihanna's screaming - the house-R&B crossover leads to trash which, as Jacques Lu Cont says, will have no place in pop (even though it will leave a couple of million dollars on David Guetta's Swiss bank account). To let oneself be blinded by the numbers (the fees, the numbers of people at raves) is to not see the reality, which is that history is repeating. It’s on a different continent and with different names, but it’s a repetition of the historical superstar DJ era in Europe, which, with its bling and sparkles contributed to hiding the true forces of progression on the underground. Paul Oakenfold made the world oblivious to 2step (today, he's in his mansion, rich but forgotten by dance music; 2step is back with a vengeance), and today, Guetta is putting the mutant post-dubstep and new techno, looking for new and positive forms for experimental dance music, in the shadows.

For all those reasons, and many more, the idea of this popular movement called EDM alone is a distortion (and sometimes an aberration) that will pass like Atilla and his hordes, keeping the grass from growing wherever it goes. Fortunately, there are enough seeds in the underground, protected from the masses. Like Jackmaster said, “stop calling it EDM”. Electronic music is full of ridiculous tags, but none more sad, ugly and disparaging than this one. We'll have to accept it, because we have no other option, but we'll do like Socrates, taking one for the team.

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