…will still be worth going to. Electronic dance music predates the superstar deejay and will outlive him
It seems the era of the ‘superstar deejay’ is upon us, to quote that ode to the 90s, Hey Boy Hey Girl by The Chemical Brothers. In 2013, deejays filled stadiums and superclubs in Vegas, Ibiza and Buenos Aires. According to Forbes, Tiesto made about $32 million last year (not as much as the Kardashians possibly, but who’s counting with that lot) and he still didn’t make the top spot. That went to a certain Scottish gent named Calvin Harris, who took home a whopping $46 million this year, thanks to collaborations with Rihanna and LMFAO. Skrillex won three Grammies, same as he did last year (not that that means much in the age of Miley Cyrus). And Deadmau5, with his Mickey Mouse headgear, became a new signpost for cultural iconography, a bit like the music world’s Banksy.
Pop is now so electro that to have a separate genre for electronica seems a bit ridiculous. From dubious chart toppers such as Lady Gaga and Kanye West, to critics’ darlings Daft Punk, to Robin Thicke and Pharrell William’s ‘song of the summer’ Blurred Lines, with its gently ripped off Marvin Gaye hook—they’ve all got smooth electronic grooves. So smooth, they’re practically flat. So smooth, they don’t stick.
The Vengaboyz started this when they decided to go to Ibiza. Back in school, I was surprised to hear my classmates singing inanely to the most horrible tune I had ever heard: “We’re going to eat pizza.” Why? Was this a song? Was it a metaphor? I gave up, put my headphones back on, and cranked up Use Your Illusion II.
What we call Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is now squarely in the realm of the commercially successful, the very antithesis of cool—let’s hear it for a gentleman who calls himself Pitbull. Forget dropping the bass, this sounds more like dropping the ball. Ubiquity is dilution rather than assimilation.
Combining the obscure with the populist is not new. When done well, it can be rather good. Exhibit A: The Beatles—light pop harmonies, a bit of blues in the vocals, some psychedelia and viola, you have The White Album, a masterpiece by any standard.
And then we have Bollywood, which went techno a long time ago. Wasn’t it Himesh Reshammiya who did us some nice clubby anthems?
I love EDM. I really do. It changed my life—a little while after Roadhouse Blues by The Doors did, but anyway. The Prodigy, Apollo Four Forty and Leftfield set the stage for my appreciation of synthetic sound (so long as it wasn’t The Vengaboyz). A dude behind a stack of speakers twiddling a set of knobs gets me as excited as Keith Richards wielding his guitar circa 1976.
Like many urban Indians of my generation, my late adolescence was mind-blasted by that wonderful phenomenon known as psytrance. I spent a good part of my youth bobbing along frantically at various farmhouses littered around the outskirts of Delhi, and trying to find my brains on the beaches of Goa.
The psytrance experience led to personal discoveries of sublime, surreal arrangements of noise one would never have thought possible, such as the obscure and weirdly wonderful Finnish Suomisound, the aggressively groovy tongue-in-cheek artistes like Texas Faggot and MandalaVandalz, and the heavy industrial crunches, cranks and moans of Sprillianz and Wizzy Noise. These primordial/post-apocalyptic collisions of sound made Nine Inch Nails sound a bit like, well, The Vengaboyz.
Deconstructing EDM starts simply. First, it is electronic music generated by synthesisers and constructed by a deejay. I don’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence, but this explanation is crucial to get to the heart of it all, which is, in a word, innovation. Innovation and the amazing ability to use technology to fashion what is, at its best, an ultimate reflection of human creativity and resourcefulness.
Synthesised music has been mainstream (ish) for a while. The seminal, genre-pushing Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield released in 1973—you might find the intro familiar from its use in The Exorcist. Better known is Pink Floyd’s concept album released that year, Dark Side of the Moon. Jean Michel Jarre’s wholly electronic album Oxygène, recorded in a makeshift studio at his home, sold an estimated 12 million copies in 1976. Brian Eno’s wonderfully experimental Music For Airports followed in 1978.
Taking a long step back, Disco is clearly the musical grandmamma of EDM, defined as it is by reverberating vocals and syncopated bass lines, laid down to a 4/4 beat in the studio, using complex layering and orchestration, with as many at 64 tracks of vocals and instruments. Donna Summer’s 1977 hit, I Feel Love—produced by EDM guru Giorgio Moroder, who also produced Blondie’s Call Me—was well ahead of its time, and the first hit of the genre to have a completely synthesised backing track.
Whither the deejay in all this? While Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and Lee Radziwell were having a grand old time at Studio 54, the ghettos of South Bronx became block parties with DJ Kool Herc and MC Afrika Bambaataa plugging amps and speakers into lampposts, mixing and sampling records while rapping. Taking inspiration from African roots and Jamaican dancehalls, these were modern day urban griots, turntabling their way out of the ghetto into cultural significance and musical revolution. As with Disco, technology was crucial, with sampling and drum-machines creating home ‘music production centres’, which became the sonic building blocks of the global phenomenon called Hip-Hop, a precursor of which was disco darling Debbie Harry of Blondie rapping in 1981’s Rapture.
All of these were baby steps to a wholly electronic form of music generation.
A pioneering new sound came out of Chicago in the early 80s, in the form of the very first House music productions. Around the same time came the Detroit techno scene. Inspired in part by the automotive industry, this sound was characterised by hard bass lines that were meant to sound futuristic. Like the Chicago scene, this sound crossed the Atlantic to fuel Britain’s House movement. The mid-1988 UK release of Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit saw for the first time the use of the word ‘Techno’ to describe this new genre, setting it apart from House.
At the same time, New Beat appeared in Belgium. MTV Europe got going in the summer of 1987, bringing the term to the UK. Acid House, with its fat squelching sound, had by then made its way into mainstream music and popular culture in Britain. London’s club Shoom opened in November 1987, bringing in the so-called ‘second summer of love’ and its association of smiley faces, ridiculous clothing and E-tardism. The rest, as they say, is history.
At its best, EDM brings people together into a single seething entity, a delightful individual and collective pleasure. Perhaps that is why commercial pop music has so easily and overwhelmingly co-opted electronically generated musical sounds.
Sadly, the spirit of original invention that drove the beginnings and defined the pinnacle of this movement seems to have left the house, at least in terms of our vanguard of superstar deejays. I can’t think of a single Tiesto song that makes me want to dance like no one’s watching—not before half a dozen Jaeger-bombs at any rate. That said, I am sure there are underground sub-genres standing right now in mute counterpoint to the Electro-pop/Techno gods that represent EDM today.
The finest aural pleasure of electronica is that it allows the listener to generate her own associations with the soundscapes it creates. The absence of lyrics lends itself to creative engagement with musical structures without the rigidity that language imposes. This was made obvious to me when I played my favourite Jalebee Cartel song, 33 beyond a Hundred, to my dub-step-loving friends in England. I said it brought to mind tropical beaches and dancing by the seaside; they said it was more like the soundtrack to a drug deal gone wrong in Eastern Europe.
Whatever you make of EDM, it’s here to stay. And thank heavens for that, as it is the soundtrack to parties everywhere, past, present and future. To get a party started, there’s nothing like a bit of disco from the 70s (anything but ABBA), followed by a bit of 80s synth indulgence, rounded off with solid 90s techno—Pump Up The Jam anyone?
So long as the beat goes on, tomorrow’s parties will be worth going to. Even if the knob-twiddling superstar isn’t invited.