The state of popular music is constantly in flux, with often diametric narratives competing to control how we view and remember music, artists, and even entire movements. Did disco suck or did it ignite a generation and give voice to an entire culture? Did Elvis invent rock ‘n’ roll or is that a lie we tell in the constant whitewashing of musical history? Was hip-hop actually invented by Kool Herc in the Bronx or do people just like origin stories and that seemed like a convenient genesis point? The answers to all of these questions lie somewhere in the middle and differ depending upon who’s asking.
Which brings us to EDM, the maybe-it’s-a-genre, maybe-it’s-nothing name that stands for “Electronic Dance Music” and is a loose Island of Misfit Toys upon which such stylistically disparate artists as Deadmau5, Diplo, and Datsik might at times hypothetically reside. To label an artist or song as “EDM” carries with it certain connotations, ones that depending on who’s doing the branding can be negative or positive.
How do we define “genre” in terms of music? The repository for the totality of human knowledge (Wikipedia) states that a musical genre is “a conventional category that identifies pieces of music as belonging to a shared tradition or set of conventions,” noting that a genre is different from a musical style (more specific) or a musical form (more of a structural thing). Basically, if you can place a piece of music onto a common narrative thread, then it fits inside that genre. But who’s placing pieces of music on a timeline, and who gets to determine the parameters of the timeline at all? The artists, the audience, or the critics?
That’s the thing about genres: they’re all kind of bullshit. As Kool A.D. of Das Racist once wrote, “Concepts like ‘periods’ and even ‘genre’ are loose collections of tropes that have no inherent meaning but rather contextual meanings that are only useful to the extent to which they can help organize texts. The point at which they actually serve to define texts is when they can enter a lens of scrutiny so intense as to render them meaningless,” later adding, “The study of genre is largely the study of marketing.” This is, of course, true. We’d never group Steely Dan and Deafheaven together, except if we were working in a Best Buy, then those two go in the same section because they both fall nominally under the extremely loose genre “Rock.” And then we have subgenres, which come closer to actually explaining what artists sound like. Indie rock. Progressive metal. Twee. Crunk. Still, these names exist with a tacit undercurrent of supply and demand. If you enjoy an artist who might fit under a certain genre tag, then you have a supposed demand for more music that kinda sounds like it. We look to the that genre tag, and we find the supply of more artists you might like. The effective erosion of album sales throws something of a monkey wrench into this equation, but not really if you look at the “product” being sold as the live show, rather than the music itself, which is relegated to the position of commercial for the product.
It is through this lens that we can really attack EDM from a critical standpoint. It seems clinically designed for a post-album sales era, a rebranding of sorts that communicates with it an entire new template for commerce, the single providing a much lower barrier to entry to getting to the actual music, serving as a much more baldly obvious commercial for the live show, which is the overt crux of the EDM experience. And in a world where record sales seem to be dipping by the day, it’s fairly clear why pushing a completely new category of music would be tempting for record executives looking to keep the lights on. But when does commerce necessitate new ways to categorize art? It can be argued—somewhat correctly—that executives are attempting to capitalize off of pop’s trending electronically by cordoning it off in a single rebranded category that carries with it new commercial expectations.
However, there has always been a rich tradition of DJs, clubs, and amazing dance music in America, but for whatever reason it’s taken until now for the public to pay attention to it. And how does “EDM” fit in with dance music’s past? When I interviewed the prodigiously talented Zedd nearly a year ago, he admitted to me that before he’d started producing the one electronic act he’d really been familiar with was Daft Punk. Similarly, Skrillex likes to tell a story somewhat resembling a vision quest that he had alone at a Daft Punk concert, where he was inspired to try to communicate the same sense of ecstatic release that a couple of French dudes pretending to be robots imparted unto him. It’s safe to say that to many casual music listeners under 25 in America, the primary dance music touchstones of their youth are Daft Punk and probably Aphex Twin. (This is also why Random Access Memories is going to sell like hotcakes once it comes out) To take music that is created ahistorically and presented to an audience who consumes it ahistorically and try to position it within a narrative that it does not particularly care for seems unfair, so in this way EDM is a completely valid term to describe a certain wave of dance music, that it might be grouped as to separate itself from such historically conscious dance music as juke and UK Funky.
But then again, saying that someone isn’t allowed in the guild even though they use the same tools and make largely the same products is a stodgy stance at best and dangerously conservative at worst. But when you look at its structure and function, EDM differs greatly from dance music’s past. The point of a DJ such as Skrillex is the all-encompassing drop—‚the manipulation of tension and release (in whatever form, not just the WOWOWOW that’s so indicative of dubstep) is foregrounded. Contrast this with the slow, deliberate burn of minimal, or the ecstatic expression of Chicago house. If we look at Avicii’s performance at this year’s massive EDM fest Ultra, we can find proof that this is a hard cut from dance music’s past. In a move that was something of the inverse of Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Avicii played with a traditional DJ setup for a nominal amount of time, left then stage, then returned with a full band featuring, among others, members of Incubus as well as the singer Aloe Blacc. Avicii and the band then proceeded to play his new record, a Mumford and Sons-style acoustic album whose only structural similarity to anything else that Avicii had ever recorded was that it featured the live instrument approximation of drops. This calls into question the actual function of the drop itself—does it hold ties to dance music’s past, or is it simply the next generation of the guitar solo? And if EDM can be EDM by virtue of its context (a rave festival) and practitioners (Avicii, surely one of the titans of EDM) rather than its actual sonics, then is “Electronic Dance Music” even a fitting term to describe this new type of music?
It is this sense of absolute newness and downright confusion to EDM that makes it so exciting to so many. It’s bursting with a distinct rip-it-up-and-start-again energy that is not dissimilar to that of punk. But unlike punk, the commercial prospects for this music are limitless. It remains to be seen whether or not history will be kind to (or even acknowledge) EDM, as that’s largely contingent upon who’s writing said history. One thing is certain, however, and that’s that right now, EDM is enough of a thing for us to be having this discussion, and that’s notable in its own right.
Drew Millard is a rock; he does not wobble. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard