The emergence of EDM—the youth-music movement of the moment—resembles the arrivals of jazz, rock, and hip-hop in a few key ways, from its backlash to its lineage to its mass appeal.
"Excuse me," said the teenage girl approaching the circulation desk at the public library. "Do you have any dubstep? Like Skrillex?"
Normally that would have been my cue to go to the catalog and show her how to look it up herself, but as an occasional music writer, I happened to know the answer off the top of my head.
"We don't have Skrillex. He doesn't have any physical albums out yet."
"Okay, how about Dead Mouse?"
There I did have to check the catalog; we had had some Deadmau5 albums in, but they were all checked out. "I can put them on hold for you if you'd like."
"No, that's OK." As she left the library with her friend, who had been stifling laughter while she spoke to me, she shrugged. "I guess I'll just torrent it."
That was almost two years ago. As anyone who follows pop music knows, those two years have seen Skrillex, Deadmau5, and peers like Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, and more rise to celebrity status on a tidal wave of brutally physical, subtlety-free dance music that's come to be called EDM (electronic dance music) by the press and fans alike. The industrial-siren, incessantly pounding sounds of EDM have also been popularized on Top 40 radio by superstar producers like David Guetta, RedOne, Dr. Luke, and Calvin Harris, but the music's real home, according to its youthful fanbase, is in warehouse raves, DJ sets at not-particularly-upscale clubs, and increasingly at live festivals, where both attendance and excitement has been upending the previous two decades' conventional wisdom about the preference of American youth for rock, hip-hop, or country.
EDM could be thumbnailed as being to hip-hop what rock was to jazz: not a total overthrow, but a paring down of ideas that had been present from the beginning.
Like anything new or perceived to be new in popular music, the rhetoric around EDM has quickly gotten overheated. The New York Times recently quoted a concert promoter as saying, "If you're 15 to 25 years old now, this is your rock 'n' roll," and breathless profiles in even the nostalgia-peddling Rolling Stone have encouraged that identification. Meanwhile, the chorus of voices declaring that EDM is the worst musical movement in history, the ultimate proof of the decadent know-nothingness of American youth, and the end of culture itself, has only grown—especially online. A lot of that, of course, is the usual grumbling of 30-and-older-somethings that music has changed since they were 15 to 25. But even better-informed arguments that it's all been done before, and that the new crop of EDM superstars don't measure up to the past glories of electronic rave, sound familiar. The cultural arguments over the meaning and value of EDM, in fact, mirror those of previous generations in pop music, from jazz to rock and roll to hip-hop—suggesting that perhaps we really have entered a new era.
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A pocket history of American popular music in the 20th century might go something like this: Parlor music and polite operetta predominate for two decades, then are challenged in the 1920s by a syncopated improvisational music called jazz, which becomes the sound of modern life in the 1930s and splinters into factions (bop, cool, Dixieland, etc.) in the 1940s, then is challenged in the 1950s by a electric backbeat-driven music called rock and roll, which becomes the sound of modern life in the 1960s, and splinters into factions (prog, punk, metal, etc.) in the 1970s, then is challenged in the 1980s by a sample-constructed, rhythmically forceful music called hip-hop, which becomes the sound of modern life in the 1990s, and splinters into factions (crunk, backpacker, coke-rap, etc.) in the 2000s.
Of course, like any grand unified theory of inexorable 30-year cycles, there are plenty of holes that can be poked in that pocket history, and plenty of territory left uncovered. (Where does country music fit, for example?) I don't want to insist too dogmatically that the current EDM movement fits into this model—even according to the 30-year theory, we're so early in the beginning of a new cycle that it's impossible to judge—but looking at past musical insurgencies helps to make sense of what's happening right now in nightclubs, in festival audiences, and on the radio.
The most obvious point of comparison, to anyone who has spent much time poking around in the unfettered Internet id of comment sections, Facebook status updates, and Twitter conversations, is how this new movement has been received by the majority of people who consider themselves possessed of good taste. In the 1920s, jazz was preached against from pulpits and editorial pages as the devil's music, its crazy rhythms jangling the nerves, speeding the degeneracy of American civilization, and responsible in part for the ongoing failure of the temperance movement. In the 1950s, rock and roll was sneered at as jungle music, provoking lascivious displays unfit for the Ed Sullivan Show as well as responsible for juvenile delinquency and reefer madness. In the 1980s and '90s, rap music was censured as violent thuggery, non-music responsible for everything from urban blight and teenage pregnancy to the crack epidemic and school shootings.
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There have been plenty of moral panics about electronic dance music, from the homophobic anti-disco movement of the late '70s to fretting about ecstasy, the ravers' drug of choice, in the '90s. And of course from the '20s to the '50s to today, parents have worried about kids staying out all night dancing to loud music while under the influence of controlled substances. But most of the current non-parental criticisms of EDM are made in purely aesthetic or culturally derogatory terms: Dismissive, class-based coinages like "brostep" (which is supposed to mean "dubstep for uncultured mooks") are employed to wall off "real" electronic music as the preserve of the specialists. The music that was first called dubstep, created around 2005 in London's underground-dance scene, was just that kind of specialist music: thoughtful sound-sculpture stuff of fragile beauty and subterranean pleasures, music for opiates rather than stimulants.
Fifteen years ago that kind of dubstep would have been called IDM (intelligent dance music), a label with a dismissal built into it: Music made for physical release, for dancing rather than chin-stroking, is assumed to be stupid. And EDM is nothing if not physical. Skrillex shows are sensorily assaultive, the bass so loud it rattles not just the stomach but the ribcage. The structural feature around which much modern EDM is built—the "drop," a series of fritzing, tempo-shifted noises that seem to stretch the surrounding music like warm molasses, often characterized in Internet slang as WUB WUB WUB—can, at sufficient decibel levels, scramble the synapses of even the most sober audience member.