A single word flashed behind a lonely caped figure on-stage at a giant warehouse in far south Brooklyn: UTOPIA. It struck me as funny at first. After standing in line for nearly 40 minutes and receiving two wristbands (linking one of them to a credit card with the aid of a wall-mounted tablet), I was surrounded by hippie-venture-capitalist-types with waving LED hula hoops in the air, gurning as a one-time EDM festival headliner took the stage to the sounds of fractured digitalist ephemera. The opening moments of Porter Robinson’s first live show under the name Virtual Self weren’t exactly my vision of bliss—but big-tent electronic music in the States never really has been, catering as it often does to tank-topped bros and MDMA casualties with hyper-aggro dynamics.
In a way, though, Robinson’s music has always existed as a rebuke of that world, even as he inhabits its outskirts. Years ago, while still enjoying the benefits of a regular gig at a Vegas megaclub, he denounced the hypercommercial forms of the genre his hi-def maximalism has often been lumped in with. Growing up on the digital fantasies offered in Japanese RPGs and anime, the Worlds that the title of his breakthrough record referred to were inner spaces, insular journeys through the daydreams of a young loner-romantic. He wrote songs for sad machines, but somehow the music still resonated on a level that allowed him to play big festivals slots, nestling him uncomfortably onstage in front of tens of thousands of people who—young and dumb and (occasionally) full of drugs—maybe didn’t pick up on the nuances that separated his swooning emotion from Borgore’s bass-dropping hedonism.
Such out-of-placeness was an accident of unfortunate branding, most likely (though for all Robinson’s protestation, his soaring sonics do share mainstream EDM’s penchant for unrepentant over-the-topness). But watching Robinson onstage in Brooklyn, the problem of that awkward positioning was both underscored—there was some amount fist-pumping during the show’s more uptempo moments—and finally reconciled. Despite the fact that the environment was a little strange, he pulled the audience into the unsettled world that his late November EP Virtual Self promised, interrogating questions of personhood in the modern era and cashing in on real dopamine bliss through towering trance synths and abstract visuals that occasionally flashed suggestive existential like: “HOLY PARTICLE,” “AM I ETERNAL?,” “WILL YOU FORGET YOUR SOUL’S REFLEX?,” “THE ABYSS IS SACRED.”
Much of the Virtual Self EP is reliant on steamrolling breakbeats and candy-floss synth work, which can sound sorta chintzy to the uninitiated (more than one friend of mine has compared it to Dance Dance Revolution, which is clearly no accident). But it works as an extension of the emotive yearning that Robinson’s put at the forefront of his music since the Worlds era. It engages your emotions directly; as brittle piano parts build gradually, it feels like the way tears well up, pressure building slowly until Robinson makes them rain down in shimmering neon.
There’s few legible words on the EP, but the moods it conveys are clear: sadness, abjection, existential anxiety. These themes have not traditionally been explored on American electronic music’s biggest stages in the post-millennial era, but Robinson has become increasingly adept at evoking these feelings on a grand scale. He’s able to pull people back into the introversion that birthed this music, even as they’re surrounded by thousands of people, some of whom are white people with dreads and rave gloves.
As much as Robinson’s Virtual Self work is the culmination of years of trudging this solitary, emotional path, its emergence at the end of 2017 also highlighted that a lot of EDM’s best minds have moved in that direction too. After years of celebrating unrestrained joy and pure pleasure, dance music’s Dorian Gray types have chosen to reckon with the comedown. Part of that is economic, certainly—there’s been no shortage of reporting over the past few years about EDM’s fizzling as a commercial behemoth—but as critics have observed, the post-boom era has allowed for an auteurist’s take on the genre’s super-Windexed sounds, one that’s often smaller, weirder, and more unafraid to explore less party-friendly headspaces.
In an article that the critic Ezra Marcus wrote about this new wave of producers earlier this year, he pointed to an interview he’d done with Slushii, a former Best Buy employee from suburban New Jersey turned Skrillex acolyte, as one of the great summations of this nebulous new scene. Slushii explained that his colorful but sad sound clicked into place when he first heard Skrillex’s 2010 remix of the La Roux hit “In For the Kill,” an emotional ballad turned to a big-screen psychodrama with the aid of some kaleidoscopic synth work. Slushii described it as having a “feelsy, ‘we’ve been there too’ vibe,” which is a pretty fitting—if kinda cutesy—way of describing all the music he’s made under the moniker.
His 2017 record Out of Light trades in the icy sweetness that his name implies, pitch-bending glowstick synth sounds around yearning vocals and frigid ambience. These songs are sad and slow, with kaleidoscoping drops that function more as exclamation points on the emotional outpourings than invitations to rage. Tracks like “Fly High”—an uncanny ballad about the humanity’s smallness—share a little bit of anxious DNA with Robinson’s music, though the drops are a little more conventional and a little more sugary. There’s something interesting in that dissonance—a recognizance that grappling with these sorts of questions is important, but it doesn’t have to be the totality of existence.
The Los Angeles producer Mija came into her own this year, grappling with a similar range of themes. She said it pretty plainly in VICE’s Music issue: “"I've always been into super upbeat, cute, uplifting progressions, but at the same time, I'm also a very dark person," she said. "I really like both sides, and I feel like I'm always trying to find some middle ground with music, or style, or anything that I do."
Last month, she released “Bad for You,” a gleaming, downtempo ballad that feels descendent from both dark ambient and Massive Attack and explores these themes head-on. The musician Kelli Schaefer assesses the state of things (“This world is bad for you, and it's bad for me too”) as Mija’s anxious synthesizer swells squirm underneath.
On Time Stops, an EP she put out earlier this year that’s meant as a soundtrack for a yet-to-be released short film, she applies similar tactics, more subtly, imbuing techno mutations and digitalist voices with an unreality that makes even their relative pleasures feel distant and unattainable. The title track is upbeat and colorful, trumpeting the feelings at first gasping breath of a new relationship (“Time stops when I’m with you”), but even this track’s glimmering synths have an undercurrent of cold distance. It’s love mediated through a blistering technological void—an attempt at making hardcore unhappy.
This doubling down on unsettled emotions reverberated out to all corners of the industry. In the underground of this sort of high-gloss sound, people like Shawn Wasabi, Ducky, and Qrion pushed out from the unapologetic ecstasy of earlier work for more complicated sounds. Even Wasabi, whose music is often interpreted as pure bliss, has a sense of strain to it, like a smile you’ve plastered on your face for fear of letting your true feelings seep out. Taken in darker moments, the surreal bubbliness of his single “Otter Pop” has a dark undertone, its joyful lyrical smattering of sugary foodstuffs feels like an impossible binge, like Candyland’s Gloppy coming to swallow you whole.
This extends upward to the highest rungs of this loosely defined genre. Even Skrillex, stalwart party-starter, dug further into the insularity that some of his recent production work. Like the distant yearning of his Hundred Waters remix last year, his collaboration with fellow Justin Bieber accomplice Poo Bear “Would You Ever” is a similar humid downer disguised by a breezy beat. The song’s centered around a series of questions beginning with the track’s title (Would you ever hope for a new beginning? / Would you ever promise not to break?), but they go unanswered, echoing into the sunny afternoon. The track swells weightlessly, providing little grounding for this lyrical uncertainty. It is almost certainly no coincidence that he returned to his erstwhile screamy post-hardcore band From First to Last this year to yell the words “love gore.” As the man himself once famously quoth, “Yeah I’m EMO who fuckin cares.”
There is, of course, the question of how much this music—twisted and openhearted as it is—bears any relation to the music that made “EDM” a buzzword in the first place. Mija has made it clear that the music she’s working on now, using her own vocals and playing piano, “isn't even dance music.” Nor is Skrillex, who spent much of this year digging deep into pop rap and reggae production, not to mention working with alt-radio mainstays Incubus and the indie traditionalists in Spoon. Robinson, true to his continued disavowal of his more bombastic work, has drawn a strict line between his Virtual Self material and that which he produces under his own name, even as he’s booked to play some of the central events in the EDM world and puts together light shows befitting its biggest stages. You have to hope the kandi kids at Ultra are ready to cry.
None of this will mean much to the nerds who remain put off by the un-self-conscious gleam of the genre’s music—that sound remains largely in vogue. But just when the kids stopped bobbing along to the drops, EDM took a chance to get a little weird, express themes a little more complicated than the elementary party-rock that came with the genre’s first wave. Maybe it’s cause for concern that the soundtrack of choice for hedonists has turned grim and cold, too. But it’s at least an honest depiction of the world around us, and an exciting path forward for a group of producers not content to be pigeonholed by outsiders ideas of genre. And it’s a reminder, of course, that it’s lonely way up there on the main stage.
Colin Joyce is in the back at the big EDM fest and on Twitter.