Buy the Hype: Why Electronic Dance Music Really Could Be the New Rock

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.

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Deadmau5 performs in Ottawa in February. (Reuters)

"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.

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.

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.

The "drop" has become an indicator of crass vulgarity, both in the sense of being commercially popular and in the sense of being something for the unwashed masses. The class connotations of this criticism are both inescapable and depressingly familiar: The early criticisms of jazz, rock, and hip-hop were couched in precisely the same terms—crass, vulgar, commercial, populist—by self-appointed arbiters of taste. Today, the drifting or blissful or spiky pleasures of don't-call-it-IDM are designed to appeal to the same graduate students, media industry professionals, and cultivated music junkies who champion indie rock or modern classical. Meanwhile, EDM's forcefulness and emphasis on movement is pitched at a broader audience more interested in using music as an aid to dancing (or, when rhythm is taken away, to losing their shit) than in analyzing it.

Stupidity can be a virtue, especially in pop. Think of the brazen, visceral dumbness in a garage-rock classic like "Louie Louie," or in the entire catalog of the Ramones. The critic and musician Norman Brannon recently noted that the new EDM populists play short sets of two hours or less, as opposed to traditional electronic DJs, whose sets could stretch to 26 hours or longer in extended cycles of build, peak, release, ebb, and build again. "Could anyone listen to 26 hours of Skrillex? Would that even be mentally possible?" he wondered, which is a bit like a critic in the '50s grumbling that Little Richard's go-for-the-jugular performances had less stamina than the extended explorations of John Coltrane. And again the specter of class is raised: Working people don't have 26 hours to spend at a rave.

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And just because the music bypasses the higher reasoning processes doesn't mean its fans are as stupid as some critics would like to believe. The derision towards the genre is typified for me in one of those screenshots that get passed around on Tumblr: Skrillex had posted a song by legendary British experimentalist Aphex Twin on his Facebook page, and the reactions from his young fans, as recorded in the screenshot, were variants on "cool music... but where's the drop?" Hand-wringing over the ignorance of the youth of America proceeded apace, but several people actually visited the Facebook page in question and noticed that the composer of the "screenshot" had actually edited out all the many enthusiastic fan reactions that didn't conform to the "kids are ignorant" narrative.

You might still be wondering what the fuss is about—hasn't electronic dance music been hugely popular, both commercially and critically, in a wide variety of forms, for almost four decades now? And of course you'd be right. Electronic music has evolved and fragmented since the days of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, and Giorgio Moroder in the 1970s, and has come to encompass everything from disco and synth pop to drum 'n' bass, jungle, and trip-hop. And electronic dance music did flirt with the U.S. mainstream in the unsettled late '90s, when a handful of British artists like Fatboy Slim and the Prodigy rode big, obvious grooves to alt-rock success.

Indeed, Skrillex and his peers freely admit to not having invented the building blocks of EDM's sound. But of course nothing ever was truly new. Syncopation had existed for centuries before jazz, and New Orleans musicians in the late 19th century simply applied the harmonic scale of the blues to the rhythm of ragtime via the medium of the marching band. Rock and roll was merely the lively step of Appalachian country given electric instrumentation and a blues structure. Hip-hop was simply funk built from records instead of live bands, with hype-men talking in rhythm over the beat, a novelty staple from vaudeville and Broadway. What all of these explanations leave out, of course, is the cultural context: the specific milieus that created, disseminated, and popularized each genre.

So it is with the current wave of EDM, which could be thumbnailed, back-of-envelope style, as being to hip-hop generally what rock and roll was to jazz: not a total overthrow of the dominant musical paradigm (though it was often billed as such at the time), but a paring down of ideas that had been present in the music from the beginning. When hip-hop challenged rock's dominance in the U.S. in the late '80s and '90s, it intersected with electronic dance music only tangentially, even though the same production methods and techniques are widely used in both musics, and they share a common source in disco. It wasn't until the turn of the millennium that entirely electronically programmed productions of hip-hop music became seen as the norm; for much of its history, rap's emphasis on streetwise realness and on sampling was paired with beats built from existing live-drumming breaks rather than those that were created electronically. But as the lines between dance-pop, synthesized R&B, and hip-hop blurred in the 2000s, the popularity of electronic dance music that featured the raw aggressiveness of hip-hop, but detached from rapping or break-beat syncopation, increased.

Besides, every grass-roots youth-based musical movement claims the fundamental right of refusing to acknowledge history. "No future," bellowed Johnny Rotten in 1977, the Year of Punk; but what punk really meant to its devoted fanbase was "No past"—a clean break with the traditions and mystifications of '60s and '70s rock mythology, the destruction of the old gods and an installation of a new pantheon for a new generation. The same is true for a teenage Skrillex, or even Ke$ha, fan.

Music journalists are only just now beginning to grapple with how EDM seemingly sneaked up on them unawares. The narrative of new music has so often been one of building from a despised underground after years of struggle, rip-off, and hustle to mass popularity. But EDM came in by no back door but right through the front gate, with Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" in late 2008. The sound didn't take long to spread: the takeover was complete by the time Ke$ha's unutterably dumb and technologically astute "TiK ToK" began 2010 at the top of the charts. Gaga and Ke$ha, of course, are pop stars, and "TiK ToK" was co-written with Max Martin, who engineered Britney Spears's career 15 years ago: It applies the sound structural principles of popcraft to the aggressive forward momentum of EDM, and features a pure-pop bridge where Skrillex fans might expect a drop. But only year later, Britney's "Hold It Against Me" (also with Martin and Dr. Luke) had a gloriously scuzzy drop in place of a bridge, and ever since, the "dubstep bridge" has become practically synonymous with pop radio; if "TiK ToK" was written today, it would almost certainly have one.

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EDM is still only a small part of modern music, of course. Rock survives as big business in concert arenas, hip-hop remains a vital and explanatory force for millions of Americans, and even jazz, institutionalized as the music of classiness and music-education curricula, retains a great deal of power in the modern imagination.

Youth are always a minority constituency and never speak with one voice anyway. For every teenager entranced by EDM, there are two who loathe it and seven indifferent to or unaware of its existence. This was always the case: Going strictly by sales figures, "The Ballad of the Green Berets," "My Way," and the The Sound of Music were the true soundtrack to rock's high-water mark as a youth movement in the 1960s, and the true boom genre of the 1990s was neither alternative rock nor gangsta rap but adult contemporary.

Like the teenage girl looking for Skrillex and Deadmau5 albums in a public library, most people, young or old, are less interested in being part of a dedicated movement than in liking what they hear. Which is what continues to make EDM such a flashpoint: "How can anyone like that?" grumble parents in bedrooms and rock fans on message boards, echoing the complaints of generations before them. "It's just... just noise."