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.