The Tragedy of Electronic Music

Future Sounds, a new book on the history of machine-made pop and classical songs, suggests that the radical power of the synthetic has largely been forgotten.

The electronic band Kraftwerk performs in 2016.
The electronic band Kraftwerk performs in 2016. (Ints Kalnins / Reuters)

David Stubbs’s new book, Future Sounds: The Story of Electronic Music From Stockhausen to Skrillex, depicts the electrification of music as a radical project—even a happily destructive one. The Italian Futurists, those haters of classicism and cheerleaders of fascism, invented one of the first noisemaking devices, with its creator, Luigi Russolo, writing that he was “fed up” not only with Beethoven but with the quietude of nature itself. Brian Eno’s ambient works in the 1970s suggested sonic “subtraction” as remedy to more-is-more consumerism. The eyeliner and synth-pop of the early 1980s New Romantic scene offered a utopian vision: a “celebration of free play in a post-industrial world in which there was no work to be done,” Stubbs writes.

Today, though, the term electronic music has been rendered nearly redundant. What new song isn’t software-tweaked, synthesizer-fortified, or at least digitally transmitted? This fact might seem to mean that the revolution is won. But Stubbs isn’t triumphal. He thinks the potential of electric sound—ideological and aesthetic—has largely been squandered in the mainstream. As he dispiritedly surveys the recent pop charts, he writes, “There is no ridiculous, no sublime either, merely an efficient, faultlessly studio-conceived conveyance of tunes meticulously designed to converge on the predictable from the outset.” But though machines are often blamed for Chainsmokers-style blandness, “The problem is not the technology itself … It’s the conservatism and timidity and pragmatism of those using it.”

An idiosyncratic polemic as much as it is a history, Future Sounds will frustrate those looking for a technical timeline ticking through 808s and Ableton (to be fair, there is a bare-bones timeline in the appendix). But regarding the art itself, the book’s a feast: Karlheinz Stockhausen’s clattering symphonies and Beyoncé’s mass-market confessionals alike get dissected and contextualized in poetic, acerbic fashion. A veteran U.K. rock critic, Stubbs isn’t shy about his particular tastes and encounters (he devotes pages, for example, to describing worshipping Frank Zappa in high school, but thinking him overrated in adulthood). The approach sometimes scans as blinkered or biased, but it dovetails remarkably well with his deeper argument about electronic music and humankind: At its best, as Stubbs writes when describing Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, “machinery multiplies rather than destroys soul.”

That same conviction united many of the visionaries behind synthetic sound-making’s evolution. “In their wildest dreams,” such pioneers “truly believed that electronic music could soundtrack, or even by some occult means be the source of, an expansion of mankind’s capabilities,” Stubbs writes. Pierre Schaeffer, the experimental composer, observed that through crying, laughing, groaning, and the like, “a lone man possesses considerably more than the 12 notes of the pitched voice”—a capability that the piano could not match but that an electronic machine could. Daphne Oram, the co-founder of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, suspected that physical healing could be accomplished through sound. Wonder used synthesizers to evoke sensations that, as a blind man, he felt were previously uncapturable.

Bound up in the bionic idealism was a social project: grasping toward a tomorrow of new freedoms. The book’s preface warps back to the sci-fi excitement of the year 1977, when Star Wars was playing in multiplexes and the Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer single “I Feel Love”—“pure, silver, shimmering, arcing, perfectly puttering hover-car brilliance,” Stubbs writes—was revolutionizing dance floors. Much as the Italian Futurists had agitated for a new canon in the early 20th century, and as the hippies’ rock and roll drowned out their parents’ sing-alongs, electronic music helped turn an entire culture toward wondering, What’s next? David Bowie, Kraftwerk, and others tried to answer the question with still-staggering inventiveness.

The tragedy, as Stubbs tells it, is that giddy anticipation of a paradigm shift ran up against the political regressions of the Reagan and Thatcher eras—and their accompanying oversaturated consumer culture. Even great breakthroughs got hijacked to dreary effect. “When the sampler became an affordable and ubiquitous piece of kit in the mid-1980s, it proved to be as enslaving as it was liberating,” he writes. “Rather than opening up multiple textural potentialities it degenerated into a box of tropes and tics and habits. The same stuttering effects, the same incredibly narrow pool of source material.”

At one point, he recalls a 1998 interview in which Suicide’s Alan Vega shook his head at the hipsters participating in the rock revival that closed the millennium. “For him, the 1960s and ’70s were a vivid, thick but distant memory, times from which you were supposed to catapult into the future,” Stubbs surmises. “These callow kids, with their guitar cases and faded post-Britpop retro cords, seemed bent on somehow wormholing back to those decades.” A trippy question is implied here. Who’s more retrograde: the pure nostalgists, or the kind who pine for the good old days of longing for the future?

Happily, though, Stubbs’s elegies for lost potential are buttressed with tributes to the true innovators. Some of his judgment calls are straightforward (yes, the Beastie Boys created greatness with the same methods that enabled the schmaltz of Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”) while others are argument-starters. Devilishly, after devoting paragraphs to rehabilitating the much-mocked Gary Numan, he expresses mystification at synth-pop’s most enduring mascot, Depeche Mode: “They felt like the sort of group that if they did not exist, it would not be necessary to invent them.” The general criteria by which he seems to be scoring are about an artist’s orientation toward history. Are they venturing forward? Are they smartly reconstituting the past? Or are they just killing time?

His verdict on how those questions apply to today’s electronic musicians is a confusingly mixed one. “The twenty-first century is not, thus far, the age of Big Things,” he writes. Its “music aspires not to achieve some new alchemy of sound, fresh, youthful purpose and progress—the ‘wake-up call’—but instead embraces fragmentation, decay, disintegration, breakdown, the submerged and dormant past.” It’s easy to see how this observation fits with the likes of Burial, the U.K. dubstep god whose compositions feel like shadowy séances for dead ravers. But it’s not clear how it squares with Stubbs’s investigation into bludgeoning festival EDM, nor with his assertion that the newer generation isn’t “looking wistfully over its shoulder” and have created a “culture in which, like smartphone upgrades, all that really counts is the last few months or so.”

Future Sounds might have arrived at a more coherent appraisal of the present had it given better consideration to hip-hop, the engine of pop’s innovation for some time now. Rap’s early, sample-heavy days are discussed as “a sort of African American revenge, a form of plundering and looting after years, decades of black musicians being routinely ripped off,” and the aughts beatmaker J Dilla gets a nice section. But there’s no treatment of, say, Kanye West, whose 2013 salvo Yeezus was an extreme showcase of electronic power—and an employment of historical sampling for futuristic ends. The fertile soil of bedroom beat-making enabled in the past few years by SoundCloud isn’t tilled either.

The New York Times has been running a fascinating video series showing the songwriting process behind recent trending hits, and for a confirmation of Stubbs’s sadder points on what electronic music’s ubiquity has wrought, there’s the explainer on Zedd and Maren Morris’s “The Middle”: a factory-precise piece of pap assembled via text message. But there’s also the video about Sheck Wes’s “Mo Bamba,” a viral rap track made by young unknowns screwing around on analog synths. The results are, contrary to Stubbs’s verdict on the recent radio landscape, ridiculous, sublime, and far from faultless, thereby offending slick hacks such as Zedd. The dichotomy is a reminder that if electronic tools can create stultifying order, they can also upend it—less through sweeping revolutions than through the small rebellions of lives lived creatively, assisted by machines.