Sunday, April 15, 2012
Why EDM matters
Before reading this post, please go and read "The Trancecracker" cartoon, from which the above picture is taken. Not only did it popularise the brilliant term "trancecracker", it also is seriously funny and contains a bit of truth that is relevant for what is being discussed here.
The whole "Electronic Dance Music" (EDM) phenomenon crept up on me. Perhaps Japan has been a bit more insulated from it here, I am not sure. But it is only just recently that I have come to learn about who Skrillex is, exactly how big a chump that David Guetta is (how do you become such a famous DJ without even having basic DJ skills?), who the #asianjesus hashtag refers to, and what "molly" is. And the more I have learned about the EDM, the more I am simultaneously shocked and amazed. It is kind of like seeing a guy suck his own cock - you can't help but be impressed at what he has achieved, while still finding it super nasty. If you haven't heard it, I really encourage you to listen to Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites", which at the time of posting has been listened to on youtube more than 77 million times and is kind of like the musical equivalent of a guy sucking himself off:
I think for most of us something like this instinctively offends us, and our immediate reaction is just to say "this is fucking shit" and go back to ignoring EDM. But I am coming to the opinion that we may have to seriously engage with EDM, for better and worse. Whether we like it or not, it is people like Skrillex and Deadmau5 that have become the flag bearers of electronic music in popular culture today. And I think the potentially negative ramifications of this are far greater than simply a lot of people listening to shitty music after having had too many shitty energy drinks.
Perhaps the most obvious problem is the way EDM has taken, and essentially re-appropriated, fundamental aspects of dance / rave culture. One example is the way '90s rave culture - the glowsticks, the fluro, the lollypops and so on - have all been resurrected in a way that looks like it is a joke but actually seems to be genuine. While they have taken the trappings of the rave era, certainly many of the worthwhile ideals and ethos are missing. I always found the whole PLUR and TAZ stuff pretty bullshit, but in certain contexts there was - and still can be - a kind of powerful communal feeling that can be shared. What I find interesting, and troubling, is how deeply individualistic these EDM events seem to be, perhaps best symbolised in the figure of the DJ placed high above everybody else. In a strange way it seems that EDM simultaneously raises the position of the DJ to some kind of superstar god, while at the same stage completely devaluing and removing the art of DJ'ing. When you check these guys on youtube it is amazing that most of them can barely even mix - at best it is a crossfade, at worst a proper trainwreck, or some choose the Peter Hook route of letting the CD do the mixing for them. For one example, look at the video above of David Guetta in action. That is truly amazing. Try not to think about how much he is being paid to suck that bad. For another example, check this horrible track by Steve Aoki and Laidback Luke (this one has been viewed only 15 million times). If you can get over (a) how bad the music is, (b) what complete douches they are, and (c) how cheap their tacky dress up costumes are, try to focus on the way the CDJs and mixer have essentially become little more than props. They aren't even plugged in for most of the clip! On a side note, I find it interesting that most of these artists use CDJs - is it perhaps because the computer doesn't look as cool?
The larger point is that these people are presenting a very different image of what a DJ is, and should be. To take another example - in the video below, shot at the recent Ultra Music festival, Steve Aoki throws cakes at people in the crowd during his performance. I mean, what the fuck? I honestly have no idea why the fuck this dude is throwing cakes at people in the crowd while he is supposed to be playing, and understand even less why the people in the crowd seem to think it is a great idea. And with EDM moving into the mainstream this is the image of the DJ that is being transferred and promoted in the public realm, which is something I find rather disturbing and problematic.
But even if these complaints are valid, so what? We are living in a post-modern world and the way EDM reappropriates elements of 'traditional' electronic music fits within that. Complaining that "this is not what a DJ is" or "that is not how a DJ should act" might simply be a bit anachronistic. Cultural artifacts being taken, changed and used or interpreted in a new or different way is something that is constantly occurring, this just happens to be a case that rubs me - and presumably many of you - the wrong way. Where I do think there is potentially a serious problem, however, is some of the consequences that may come from mainstream culture and society taking EDM - a horribly superficial and banal phenomenon - to be representative of what electronic music is. While most of us prefer the "underground" locale of our music, it does create problems and it does make the scene vulnerable.
One issue that we don't discuss enough is space. One of the great threats to our music is the space that we need disappearing. Gentrification is the hidden killer of techno music. The spaces where we can listen, dance and enjoy music are slowly being eaten away. Clubs are disappearing as more and more apartment blocks and shops appear everywhere. More noise complaints, stricter licensing laws, property developers - these are things that will be taking away our places to dance and share the music we love. So what exactly does this have to do with EDM? I want to suggest there are two main ways that EDM can negatively impact upon this dynamic. The first is the point I suggested above - that EDM is becoming taken to be representative of what electronic music is, which I think most of us would agree is a deeply misleading situation, one that further increases misunderstanding and miscomprehension over what electronic music is and how it operates. If people think that electronic music equals Steve Aoki, it is hard to mount a convincing argument for why it is something that should be respected, funded, supported and granted social space for. The second aspect is that from what I can tell is that these EDM events - like this god awful Ultra music festival the clips are from - are presented primarily in the form of festivals. These are big events, the club is removed from the equation. Instead these EDM acts are in the form of spectacles - huge stages, enormous lighting rigs, massive video screens, even fireworks. If mainstream society comes to understand electronic music as taking place in this format, there is the danger that there might be even less patience and space for clubs. Meanwhile these festivals will lack security and continuity - each year they have to apply for all the necessary licenses and permits. Look at the history of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival for an example of this. And these large festivals are parasitic - they do not build or maintain scenes, they are not there every week providing space and opportunities for locals and up and coming artists. Either you've made it or you are in the audience. Not much space in between for these mega-events. Perhaps I am wrong, but I am concerned that if mainstream society does come to understand electronic music has taking place largely in the format of festivals, it could have seriously damaging consequences. This problem of gentrification is one that we will be increasingly having to deal with. It is worth thinking about it now, before the spaces disappear.
Maybe this is all just a case of me being overly precious. I must admit that I do hate the idea of somebody thinking that what I am listening and going to is this. But beyond this, I have a serious concern with EDM coming to represent a much greater, deeper and more significant cultural phenomenon, something with far greater value and depth than this garbage. And if EDM does come to represent and speak for other forms of electronic music, not only is it all a big embarrassing for us, it makes it even harder to make the very valid argument that there are serious, valuable forms of electronic music that deserve to be supported and given space in our societies.