“Where Are Ü Now": On the New York Times and Knowing When to Take EDM Seriously


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“Where Are Ü Now": On the New York Times and Knowing When to Take EDM Seriously

The New York Times just devoted 1600 words to a Justin Bieber track, and rightly so.

Head to the arts section of the New York Times right now, and you will find no less than an eight minute video feature, a fourteen minute podcast, and a 1600 word written feature on the Skrillex, Diplo, Bieber mega-hit, "Where Are Ü Now". The features unpack the track with seriousness and sincerity, interviewing the key players in the production and chronicling a blow-by-blow account of the song, from genesis to completion. It is the sort of treatment countless publications have given to every track of Sgt Pepper, Autobahn, and Dark Side of the Moon, yet in this instance, the coverage has been dedicated to a composition that at best should have been a schlocky dose of basic, big-drop-induced pop. Something sellable, but not memorable.


It was this assumption that meant I didn't actually listen to "Where Are Ü Now" for a good couple of weeks after it first dropping. Not down to any piety as to "proper music", more a basic confidence that the song bore no relevance to me, or any sizeable significance to pop culture as a whole. Skrillex and Diplo, (Jack Ü) are the sort of artists who release collaborative efforts, weird remixes, and one-off b-sides with reliable regularity, and there was no reason to suggest that "Where Are Ü Now" would be any different. Yet as the track built more and more buzz, I eventually listened, and was honestly very surprised.

That isn't to say I was immediately all "shit this is actually a banger", but for a four minute track from artists most critics would presume to "know what to expect from", "Where Are Ü Now" in fact proved itself to be a devious and intelligent piece of pop music. From Bieber's immediately comfortable falsetto refrains, to the rattling tabla beat, all the way through to that chirpy flute noise (which, by the way, is actually Bieber's voice torn and twisted beyond recognition), the track didn't bear the hallmarks of the massive EDM we're all supposed to hate so much. Instead, it managed to behave like a huge pop song, while remaining, on some level, weird.

It's strange, and possibly for the massive anti-EDM contingent a bit galling, that the New York Times has decided this is the musical moment in 2015 to dedicate unprecedented coverage to. And the coverage absolutely is noteworthy. Not just in volume, but also in tone, treating the track as a cultural landmark — not receding into condescending commentary on EDM, 'Molly', or Justin Bieber's illustrious drag racing career. Instead the features focus on production, how the artists came together, and what it is that has made the track so ubiquitous and pervading this year.


Much of this is placed on the the disparate identities of the collaborators, marking the track as a pop-breakthrough for Skrillex, and a moment when Justin Bieber became a viable recording artist for an EDM audience who would have otherwise dismissed him. Yet, on a somewhat meta level, the features themselves contribute another tier to this impact, providing a rare instance of a genre that is largely derided as infantile or derivative being legitimised. While there are some potentially laughable moments (every time Bieber says "Pooh Bear", or his references to "expensive sounds" for example), it is hard not to watch the collected articles and admire the work and ingenuity that went into the track — taking an acapella recording and converting it into a weird and wild hit through the maxims of modern music technology. The New York Times is taking EDM seriously.

There is, of course, still a desire to insist that the track sucks. Deadmau5 has been leading the fight against "Where Are Ü Now" since it's release, having uploaded a spoof version of it to his Soundcloud, as well as posting a derisory Instagram video in response to the New York Times feature. Maybe it's funny if that's what you're into, but increasingly his swipes at the track come off as pissing in the wind against a piece of music that, like it or not, has managed to meld divergent corners of mainstream American music while preserving enough distinct character to interest critics.


Deadmau5's trolling is a staple part of the conversation surrounding the world of Skrillex and Diplo. He, and countless other DJs and producers, enjoy taking down the dumb productions, huge budgets, and everything else they perceive to be a gratuitous betrayal of dance music's rich heritage. Personally, I've never really understood why Deadmau5 is such a vocal opponent of a genre it is relatively hard to distinguish his own work from, yet more to the point, the success of "Where Are Ü Now" strikes a massive blow to his cause. Despite wishing it to be basic, or regressive, the music and the responses to it have been measured and nuanced — something very little of his work has enjoyed.

Of course it is a pop record, and this isn't a call to hold the track in the same esteem as Alcachofa or whatever, but we now very much exist in a culture that is prepared to intellectually value pop music more than ever before. If you are comparing "Where Are Ü Now" to Autechre, then maybe it's not being made for you. The extended gesture of the New York Times feature, and similar pieces such as this interview with Skrillex from earlier in the year, is in taking EDM seriously as pop music — a perspective that has been long overdue, and is something EDM's opponents could learn from. Perhaps the ongoing vitriol against the movement has continued because its critics are trying desperately to compare it to something completely different — riling against what are essentially hybridised, and highly synthesised, pop songs with lamenting references to acid house or techno. If posited as pop music, as "Where Are Ü Now" is so candidly in its extensive spread, perhaps the genre would a lot more sense to the beleaguered and zealous 'heads' that hate it so much.


That isn't to say EDM gets a free "oh it's just pop music" pass. David Guetta going from DJing in Ibiza at the start of his career to chucking out remixes of "If You're Happy and You Know It", is pretty terrible whatever label you give it. Yet watching and reading the commentary around Driplox and Bieber's hit, it is hard not to come away with the conclusion that the producers, Skrillex in particular, are artists playing a noteworthy role in the innovation in pop music.

Ultimately, it is an exercise that proves often the greatest guile is in simplest task. The New York Times' pieces challenge us as to how seriously we are prepared to take music that isn't ostensibly academic. It is one thing to produce elaborate ambience, shattering, hammering techno, or abrasive concept-led noise — yet it is another, arguably even harder, task to condense an idea into its most simple, "pop" form. It is a process that relies on the innate and the artist's ability to connect with an massive audience without losing the personality to reach individuals. To do that, and to go platinum in six countries by making Justin Bieber sound like a dolphin playing a flute, is surely something that deserves to be taken seriously.

Skrillex closes the video feature by saying, "To me it's so cool that we're in an era where people think you have no talent if you make computer music. I think that's awesome, it shows how young it still is and how relevant it's going to be for a long time." Considering this perspective, and the success of "Where Are Ü Now", the march against EDM is sounding more stale than ever.

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