Point Electronic Dance Music
by Natalie Turner
Counterpoint Electronically Damaged Music
by Ernesto D. Collins
With the Electronic Dance Music scene exploding in recent years, the debate over whether electronic music is a legitimate genre of music is raised time and time again. As a very involved and informed member of the electronic music scene, I can state with complete confidence that it is indeed a legitimate genre of music that has a rich history and culture—just like every other genre of music.
What I love most about electronic music is the vast amount of subgenres it encompasses: house, techno, trance, and dubstep are some of the biggest branches and within these categories there are numerous subgenres that comprise the overarching style of music. Each subgenre has its own unique history and characteristics that distinguish it from others under the same branch. For example, house music originated in Chicago in the 1980s alongside techno music, which began in Detroit during the same time. Both house and techno are derivatives of disco music, which was a leading musical genre in America in the 1970s. Dubstep comes from dub music—a genre that grew from reggae music in the 1960s. And with every genre comes iconic figures: rock and roll has The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, pop has Michael Jackson and Madonna, and house and techno have Kraftwerk and Daft Punk, who innovatively pushed the electronic music genre into the mainstream.
Many people who don’t care for electronic music assume that the genre came out of absolutely nowhere, but this is as true as telling children that babies are dropped off by a stork. Electronic music has been influenced by previous musical genres that were popular during different decades across the globe. And just like other genres, electronic music involves instruments. Though some may claim that drum machines, synthesizers, mixers, and turn tables aren’t legitimate instruments, I can attest as a student currently using these instruments in a DJ class that they are as much instruments as a piano or guitar. These complex pieces of electronic equipment have unlimited ways of creating an original piece of music and learning how to use the equipment requires incredible patience and practice. As with all other ‘traditional’ instruments, some individuals are simply more gifted than others—mastering the skills of producing electronic music. These individuals are the producer-turned-DJs that have been flooding the airwaves and selling out the biggest venues in the world for the past few years.
A common conversation I have had with people who don’t appreciate electronic music surrounds statements such as, “every song sounds the same” or “DJs are just on stage pushing buttons.” What bothers me about these arbitrary assumptions is that the people making these claims don’t take the time to research electronic music and the amount of creativity it offers. Electronic music is now automatically attached to big names like Avicii and Afrojack, who are producers that I wouldn’t even label as the leaders of the industry. There is a difference between being marketable and being innovative, and there are producers that fall in both categories. Pioneering producers/DJs like Richie Hawtin and Deadmau5 were not only ground-breaking in their respective genres when they first began making music years ago, but they are currently developing new software and hardware technology that is leading the electronic music movement forward at an unprecedented speed. So many producers today are touring around the world and DJing for thousands of fans every night, but their passion remains in creating music, not exploiting it. On the other hand, I am not blinded by the growing number of DJs touring the globe for the sole purpose of making their name a brand (in my opinion this is especially for big names such as David Guetta). However, it would be ignorant of me not to credit Guetta for bringing EDM to America from Europe and making it known to the masses. Today, Guetta is collaborating with the biggest artists in pop and hip-hop such as Nicki Minaj, Usher, and Rihanna. Although this is a major step for EDM, it has become apparent that Guetta no longer puts his soul into DJing the same way he used to. However, other producers who are collaborating with other huge names, like Skrillex and The Doors, still maintain integrity and originality while playing live sets.
Another common connotation pinned on the EDM scene is that it perpetuates an excessive use of drugs. The first question that comes to mind when this issue is raised is: can you name a single musical movement over the past century that didn’t have a drug associated with it. There is a reason that acid rock was given its name and why so many iconic musical figures have tragically died from drug-related incidents. Drug culture is simply attached to music, and EDM does not transcend that reality. A crucial point to understand is that the EDM scene is associated with drugs—not the music. People of all ages and backgrounds enjoy electronic music. What makes music so special is that it is universal, and electronic music is no exception. It will continue to grow, evolve, and change over time, and I am incredibly excited for its promising future.
Just so we’re clear, Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is a legitimate genre of music—“are a genre of music” is probably more accurate. To argue anything different is absurd. In the post-Postmodernist period (or is it the post-post-Postmodernist period?) there can be no such thing as the Art Police. Over a century of experimentation across mediums has made it abundantly, and often obnoxiously, clear that anything can be art, even the ear-splitting wobble-whomp of robots having seizures. And good. In the past, capital “A” Art has always been elitist and exclusionary. It still is, but with the access provided by the Internet and the critical space opened up by the integration of wave after wave of one-time-marginalized artistic camps, exposure is free and artists and art form, are myriad.
That little survey might have seemed digressive, but it is actually important for context. Because while EDM is a trendy genre of music, it is, more importantly, indicative of a greater overall trend, not just in music, or art, but in information itself. That is the strongest complement I am capable of attaching to it—and also the strongest indictment.
A cursory glance at the present state of Greater Electronica will make two things abundantly clear. One, it is a young person thing. DJs like Fatboy Slim and Tiesto, 49 and 43 respectively, are the equivalent of dinosaurs in a circuit whose overwhelming majority of artists are in their 20s or younger. Influential pioneers like Afrojack (1988), Deadmau5 (’81), and Skrillex (’87), are practically veteran journeymen in the industry. And then there are the fans. The recent explosion of EDM (in the States) is due in large part to its popularity among college students. At shows, it’s difficult to tell whether the dude in the corner with glow sticks and a light-up pacifier is a baby-faced eighteen-year-old “rolling” on MDMA or a mid-pubescent teen who hasn’t finished teething and came to play hoolah-hoop and watch the pretty lights.
The second thing to notice about EDM is the extent to which it is tied to technology. With some exceptions—crossover group Big Gigantic comes to mind—Electric Dance Music is produced exclusively using electronics (duh), electronic vocal sampling, and more recently, highly advanced computer software. Music, which once consisted of banging, strumming, blowing or otherwise compressing an instrument (vocal chords included), can now be made by pushing buttons on a keyboard. Understand, that does not mean, as some people might like it to, that DJ/producers aren’t musicians—at its highest levels, the job combines dynamic creativity and compositional mastery with the stage presence of any performance art. But it does represent a radical shift in degree, if not theory. Because whatever talent is involved in producing it, EDM inherently lends itself to reproduction.
The ability to digitally manipulate pre-existing sound makes it possible to be a highly successful EDM artist without putting out a single “Original Mix.” The best in the business, of course, carry entire sets without relying on another artist’s music, but there are still plenty of prominent DJs who tour clubs and concert venues showcasing “remixes” of other people’s work, or in a shockingly high number of cases, doing little more than adding effects on shiny equipment and looking good in whatever the eccentric hairstyle of the month happens to be. There is an argument to be made that all art consists of re-appropriating the work of others, but once again, the difference between that and the remix is one of degree.
All pleasure from music involves establishing expectations and then either defying, or fulfilling them. What EDM does is codify this governing principle into a standardized (albeit flexible) structure, centered around a “build” and a “drop” (the regular, predictable pattern of this structure is responsible for the overstated claim that all electronic music is identical). EDM is not unique in the importance it places culturally on drugs, but it does rely on a uniquely amplified (natural) drug effect. The art of good EDM, essentially, is in bottling and selling audio-induced highs.
On the levels of both substance and structure, EDM is fundamentally a digital phenomenon. From Facebook, Twitter, and the Blogosphere (still the primary mediums through which EDM exists) we receive flashy, highly packaged information designed to be both intensely gratifying and instantly recognizable. To reach a young audience hyper-sensitized to stimulus, EDM bombards the emotional and perceptual centers of the mind with lights, colors, strange sounds, and thumping bass. In a world where memes and trends flare up almost as suddenly as they expire, EDM sub-genres grow from the dank, dark corners of the Internet, decaying just as quietly, like so many digital fungi. Advertisers understand this intimately, which is why it took a matter of months for EDM to jump from the newest underground craze in Europe to hipster America to one of the most heavily used vehicles of advertising on display. In conclusion, is EDM a legitimate genre of music? Yes. In the same way Frankenstein is a legitimate form of sentient life.
About the Issue
Point author: Natalie Turner is a senior concentrating in Screen Arts and Cultures seeking to combine her passion for music with her love of film.
Counterpoint author: Ernesto David Collins is an Irish Jew born and raised in Argentina. On his iTunes you can find sounds of air conditioning and thunderstorms.
Edited by: Lauren Opatowski, Rachel Blanzy, and Derek Wolfe
Cover by: Abijah Simon