The rave phenomenon has risen once more in the USA in 2012, and it's summed up in one controversial idea / genre: EDM (Electronic Dance Music). We explore the origins of this reality and come up with arguments against it.
Not long ago, Jackmaster tweeted four words. Four dry words that expressed anger rather than bitterness: “stop calling it EDM”. It was only four words, but he spat them out, virtually, that is. And the Scot has many reasons to be upset. EDM is a concept that has been popping up this year in the lingo of the music journo - especially in the United States, thanks to people like Skrillex, Kaskade, and Steve Aoki breaking through to a mass audience - and once it's clear what the acronym stands for (which is much less complicated than labels like brostep, or fidget house) it turns out we're dealing with one of the stupidest tags in the history of music tagging: Electronic Dance Music. Gone is the nuance, all music made with software and that you can dance to, lumped together. How did it come to this?
1. The American way of rave
EDM: the tag derives from a lazy description of a reality, because in the United States, rave culture has grown bigger than ever in the last year, with the entrance of an adolescent audience that (as usually happens with adolescents) demands its own experience and its own idols. They don't want rock, not even dance-rock, nor do they want their parents' has-beens or their older brothers' Jack Whites and James Murphys. Electronic music today recycles the energy of a few years ago (the riffs and the screams) with noisy digital crescendos and LED light attacks. EDM, in short, is the reactivation and mass popularisation of the rave culture for the Justin Bieber generation.
The rave phenomenon isn't new in American music culture; it's been there for twenty years. Back in the early 90s there were hard-core events like NASA in New York (the first crack through which drum'n'bass would filter into the North American underground), and the Drop Bass Network parties on the outskirts of Detroit, bursting with acid and thunderous techno. But the growth of rave culture has been slow and intermittent, with long phases of stagnation, and an obvious gap compared to Europe - where the raves peaked in 1994 and were subsequently gobbled up by the festivals, where the idea of raves (which isn't the same as a free party) has been living a secondary, more discreet life ever since.
"The ferocious recycling of pop stars has now gotten to the DJs, and where there is a person worthy of an important cash injection, there are big business opportunities"
American rave culture has been explored in a number of films, including “Groove” (which revolves around the organisation of an illegal party in an abandoned industrial warehouse, with an unbearably naïve plot about an ecstasy baptism, including a cameo by John Digweed), and documentaries like “Better Living Through Circuitry”, and “Rise. The Story Of Rave Outlaw Disco Donnie”, which pointed at the continuity in time of open-air parties in the Californian desert and the South of the United States. However, all those movements on the underground were buried by the true nature of entertainment and the ways of the American industry: a well-oiled pop and hip-hop star making machine, a huge economic and cultural power in the mainstream (that concept described so well by Brett Easton Ellis, with one word: Empire). Particularly with events like the Grammys, which didn't concede an award for 'best dance/electronica album' until 2005; a sign that dance music had reached thousands of people nationwide, but never millions.
Since then - and parallel to the popularisation of events like Ultra Festival and the recreation and business week that is the Miami Winter Conference, where the industry decided what poly-tone trash it's going to sell us during the summer - that particular Grammy, far from being prestigious, has been won by the likes of Basement Jaxx, The Chemical Brothers, Madonna, Daft Punk, Lady Gaga, La Roux, and Skrillex. Save a few exceptions, all of them pure entertainment.
The truth is that if dance music has become more popular in the USA, becoming 'EDM', it's not out of genuine interest in the language of electronic music. The increasing sales figures of import vinyl aren't taken into account, nor does anyone in the industry care about any new intelligent techno or deep-house colony, apart from the ones already known, in Los Angeles, Miami, Brooklyn, and Detroit (however, data about increased consumption of ecstasy and derivatives, the cheap synthetic drugs that usually surface in times of crisis, and which are so closely linked to the EDM boom, what with all the lights, high frequencies and climaxes, are registered).
All this is due to the fact that the American industry, which, until recently, imported French and British stars (The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Justice have their own genre in the American record stores, simply called 'electronica'; among the few DJs who managed to do coast to coast tours in the country we find Sasha and John Digweed, as documented in the tour film “Delta Heavy”, which followed the couple on their way from Florida to California, in an expensive tour bus), has been manufacturing its own darlings for some time now. That's what the American industry has been working on hard: promoting and/or fabricating its own generation of idols, looking for people who can connect with the new audience from high schools and early university years, eager to enjoy the best years of their lives. The ferocious recycling of pop stars has now gotten to the DJs, and where there is a person worthy of an important cash injection, there are big business opportunities.
It's no coincidence that the (now online) magazine that has always paid attention to quality electronic music, XLR8R, hasn't jumped on the EDM bandwagon; instead focusing on juke, trap and all things post-dubstep. It was a rockist landmark like Spin - which, when talking about the dance phenomenon, never got any further than psychedelic trance and superstar DJs like the late DJ AM - that first acknowledged a new episode in the evolution and popular implementation of club music, when it put Skrillex on the cover last autumn. It found in him what it needed: a good name, a recognisable face, a distinctive look and a sound that is a dance version of the crescendo driven energy of hard-core bands (the kind played during the transitions of MTV's reality shows). The impossible link between dubstep and Green Day.
After that cover (the symbolic starting point of this phenomenon, after which came cover stories in Rolling Stone and pieces in other nationwide magazines, proportionate to the man's revenues during the past year: 15 million dollars, a spot in the Forbes top 100 of best-selling musicians), everything was ready for dance music to enter a new stage in history. A repeated history (hello Pete Tong et al), but with the bright shine of the American way of life.
2. Skrillex, Guetta, Aoki and other average DJs
When the idea is put forward that electronic music is infiltrating the mainstream, it should be done with caution, because the false impression could be given that that's a valuable fact in itself. But it's rather the opposite: it's very worrying. In any case, what the youth in the United States is living right now (that same youth to which every rave weekend is like a 48-hour Spring Break, those who are flooding events like Coachella), is the same honeymoon and money-shower period that came over Europe between 1998 and 2006, the golden age of the superstar DJ (a phenomenon about which so many books have been written, which have their yearly supplement in DJ Mag's top 100 ranking in November). It had previously only manifested itself on American territory in isolated cases – for example with British ex-pats with a mansion in the hills, like Paul Oakenfold - but in Europe has been ever present in enclaves like Ibiza.
Granted, the global economic crisis (and certain saturation with the public) has made the shine of DJ booth divas like Paul Van Dyk, Armin Van Buuren, and Ferry Corsten somewhat less bright. They are not what they used to be in 2004. Tiësto - who would fill the Ajax stadium in Amsterdam with 20,000 people at the blink of an eye, and who achieved the sting of the century by playing a pre-recorded set at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in 2008 - isn't as famous as he used to be. He has now turned into (in spite of his attempts at sounding more underground) the last survivor of throw-away trance. Even so, they still earn elevated wages on Ibiza, where every year a bidding war takes place, comparable only to the world of professional football.
It would be easy to look at what's happening in the United States from a European viewpoint, somewhat condescendingly. If deadmau5 manages to attract 20,000 people at a rave in Las Vegas (doing the same kind of show for sensitive and impressionable eyes as, for example, Cirque du Soleil), we have to remember that there's nothing new about it. Tiësto and Armin Van Buuren had already filled up football stadiums. Maybe the latter pair offered a somewhat more raw sound (the nuances are very fine), but they were equally profitable, and with the same rock star-like peripheral phenomena (the magazine covers, the newspaper coverage, the TV interviews, the fan clubs, the massive votes for the aforementioned DJ Mag top 100). In fact, the popularity of the idea of the DJ in the United States is decisively associated with the unbearable lightness of being (a celebrity): Paris Hilton is a DJ, Steve Aoki is a DJ (and the brother of a model), Lindsay Lohan dated a DJ, and so on. And we haven't even spoken about the music yet. We'll do that tomorrow, promise.
[to be continued]