Okay, so the name is bullshit. “EDM” (short for “Electronic Dance Music”) is condescending, exclusionary, and just kinda stupid. It’s a strictly American term, one used to describe the type of bleepy bloopy music that, until a few years ago, you would probably hear on some dancefloor in Europe. It’s also meant to delineate between the type of electronic music that’s “okay” to like (read: generally any producer who takes time in their sets to acknowledge that hip-hop is a thing that exists), and the type that is not.
Here is a totally valid criticism of EDM, one that no defending will explain away. Classically, EDM has been the music of the leisure class. If you’re going to a cool club and hear a good DJ, you’re going to have to pay a lot of money for a cover, and then you’re going to have to pay a lot of money for drinks, and if you want to do drugs, you’re going to have to pay out the ass for those, too. Oh, and there’s usually a dress code, so if you come to the door looking bummy, you’re fucked in that department (compare this to a hardcore matinee, which is dirt cheap and you can probably find cheap drugs in the parking lot). While this is true and will always be true, somehow, the warped logic of the flaming disaster that is the current music industry has laid down the infrastructure for EDM to become the hugely popular monster that it is.
Think about the way you interact with music now. In all likelihood, you either just straight-up don’t pay for music (shout outs to what.cd, y’all), or you buy select singles on iTunes. The golden standard for whether or not a record was successful or not was if it sold a million copies. Now, “success” means something closer to 300k. Clearly, the “album” as a concept is in something of a popular trough, and we’ve returned to a time where singles reign supreme. Fortunately enough for EDM, this has always been the case—you buy the single so that you can play it when you DJ, or you just buy the single because the song you want is only available in single form. There’s even Beatport, a platform more or less devoted to digitally selling EDM singles, which in addition to showing you how closed-off from the rest of music EDM can be, demonstrates the genre’s singles-driven nature. Popular DJs often go years without releasing albums, which in addition to privileging the single, helps foreground the live show as one of EDM’s premier products.
And, hey! EDM shows are pretty cool! Especially if you can catch one in a venue that isn’t a mega-expensive club! This year, I have attended indie rock concerts, punk shows, metal shows, myriad rap shows, concerts by Phish, Creed, Nickelback, and Skrillex. I attended Skrillex alone and was completely sober. Call it Florence Nightenskrill syndrome, but Skrillex was the best fucking show I’ve been to all year. There was a projection screen depicting .gifs of the earth exploding, amongst videogame footage and various distortions that would put the iTunes visualizer to the utmost shame. The bass wasn’t just dominant, it was palpable. I felt the floor move every time he let loose with one of his cavernous drops, these gigantic “WOWOWOWOWOW”-sounding things that caused the entire audience to freak. You don’t need a background in EDM to freak. You just need to be there, and the music will wash over you with the same subtlety you’d find by sitting in the middle of a whitewater rapid.
Still, Skrillex is something of an anomaly, a gateway into the land of EDM. Skrill Dawg used to be the lead singer of a screamo band (From First to Last, they were actually pretty good), and tends to approach making dance music from the same perspective many approach rock music, which makes his language a bit more comprehensible for the uninitiated. Going to a non-Skrillex EDM show blind can be something of a disorienting experience. First, within the confines of dance music there are myriad genre tags that denote tempos and instrumentation, the differences between which are nigh-incomprehensible even to people who sort of know what they’re talking about. This is the problem with genre—in order to enjoy the music, you have to destroy the term. The difference between EDM as you think of it and a piece of music that has been created electronically for the purpose of dancing, is just as real as the difference between “indie” and “mainstream,” i.e., there is no difference and everybody needs to shut up and chill out.
Think of A-Trak, the head of Fool’s Gold Records, or TNGHT, the new (excellent) collaboration between Hudson Mohawke and Lunice—they’re already really popular amongst fashionable circles in America, and they share many signifiers with “EDM,” mainly that they make music to dance to using electronic instruments. In Europe, they play the same clubs that EDM DJs do. But we don’t refer to them as EDM artists, because we like them. Meanwhile, Steve Aoki, who was once a straight-edge punk and accidentally became a cornball DJ, is “EDM,” maybe because Pitchfork once gave Aoki’s remix album a shit score. They’re using the same processes to achieve similar ends, but we deem one shitty, so he gets a different term. But it doesn’t work like that—either it’s all EDM, or nothing is.
It is perhaps Pitchfork that can prove the ultimate equalizer here. Site founder Ryan Schreiber came out of nowhere to reward Avicii’s “Silhouettes” with a “Best New Track” tag, writing a track review justifying the choice that is nearly as long as this piece you’re reading right now. To summarize his argument, he more or less said that “Silhouettes” sounded like things that he already liked (Swedish dance-pop like Robyn and Little Dragon), so therefore it was okay to like “Silhouettes.” The track review has ultimately proven a red herring for Pitchfork, who has not followed through on the its statement-length, scene-affirming scree by posting more tracks that fit under the conventional EDM tent. Instead, the isolated EDM praise from P4k seems to signal that liking certain tracks from EDM artists is “sort of okay,” as long as you pick and choose from the heap as carefully as you can. No disrespect to Schrieber, but he’s wrong on this one. No gods. No masters. No genres. No EDM.