Nod Your Head is a recurring column from CoS News Editor Chris Coplan allowing a space to expand on topics that he encounters beyond the quick news post. In this edition, he tackles EDM from an outsiders perspective that many rock fans can relate to.
If there’s an upside to having a really old dad (and trust me, there are plenty of downsides), it’s that he has loads of stories about rock ‘n’ roll’s early days with which to regale his music-loving son. Since he was born in 1946, that puts him dead center during the rise of revolutionary acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, a young dude with a front-row seat as an entire cultural universe exploded into existence from the granite of blues and folk music.
But my favorite story has nothing to do with watching Ed Sullivan or throngs of screaming girls or even an acid freak-out at Woodstock. No, instead, it has to do with the less glorious sides, the really gritty beginnings. Case in point: when my dad grew his hair out like Mick Jagger for the first time, my grandpa chased him around the yard with a brick. That says volumes about the ascension of rock and roll: Before it ever changed the world, it had to face and overcome mounds and mounds of pre-conceived notions about everything from gender and sexuality to the length of one’s pants. Luckily, and I hope I’m not spoiling this, everything turned out more or less OK for rock music.
Still, the rise of rock ‘n’ roll isn’t a unique story. There were similar growing pains for the realm of hip-hop, a juggernaut that had the added bonus of having its long, painful adolescence, one full of racial tensions, inner city violence, and cultural supremacy, occur during the rise of the World Wide Web. Even rock offshoots like punk and disco had some issues to struggle with before their eventual emergence into our cultural hive-mind. Sure, one could argue rap is still settling in, but there’s one genre that is right on the cusp of what I like to call its great transcendence.
Call electronic, EDM, dance music, a thousand or so random sub-genres (or, as my father so eloquently calls it, that “robotic uhn-tiss shit”), but the whole genre/culture has reached a critical point. Does it become a full-fledged cultural artifact, or does it stagnate and wind up in the “fad pile” alongside Crystal Pepsi and low-rider jeans.
There’s evidence to indicate that EDM (let’s just use that blanket term for general ease) is ready to take that final step into true, wide-scale ascendance. It’s hard to argue with its potency when pop stars ape the scene for hits, it’s a target for satire on SNL, little Billy and Susie can play Skrillex during their next visit to the park, and the industry itself is worth more than some Fortune 500 companies. EDM is on the tongues of every burn-out college student and soccer mom from Simi Valley to Singapore, and in a few more years, even those who make fun of it won’t be able to deny its presence. Because, yes, even my grandfather eventually bought a Stones record. For himself.
Of course, that’s not to say that EDM has had a smooth and carefree ascension. If anything, EDM may have had more struggles and more of a reason to be generally disliked by those outside of its core supporters. In the last few months alone, there’s been at least three deaths at EDM-related music festivals, not to mention what medical experts called a “mass casualty event” at a recent Avicii concert. Those sort of events are more than just tragic; they offer parents, cultural pundits, lawmakers, and those folks who already have something against EDM the kind of ammunition that causes wide-scale harm.
For the most part, those in the EDM scene have tried to get ahead of the bad publicity by enacting a few different “policy” decisions. For instance, Electric Zoo has already banned CamelBaks and will make future attendees watch an anti-drug PSA before gaining admittance. They’re good moves no doubt, but when you’ve got a Chicago venue outright banning EDM shows, it might be a little too late.
So, then, the question must be asked: what can EDM do to avoid, as much as humanly possible, future tragedies and calamities; generate some sense of sympathy (or perhaps, slightly more impossibly, some interest) from its detractors; maintain some semblance of sustainable security and integrity; and take the final steps to cement its place within the great cultural pantheon? Well, I am so glad you asked.
WARNING: Though I’m not as well-versed in EDM as, say, my colleague Derek Staples (seriously, read The Drop whenever it comes out), I do have at least one advantage. I neither hate nor particularly love the entire scene, and that I think is a key credential. If you hate something, you easily finds its flaws, or even make them up. There’s a kind of inverse reaction if you happen to be a supporter, as if you can’t find a flaw though there may be several right in front of you. (Same thing happens to me with Glenn Danzig.) Rather, I’m just a guy who likes the occasional track by Zedd or Wolfgang Voigt, and I pay attention to what comes out of the mouths of both camps.
So, here’s my five-step plan for EDM. It’s not listed in any particular order, though I’d imagine the faster each action is taken, the better things will be overall.
1) Please just admit already that anyone can make EDM: A few years back, deadmau5 caused quite the uproar when he admitted that almost anyone can make EDM. Seriously, he said that anyone with a working knowledge of Ableton and some free time could be a world-class DJ. Is the Canadian DJ trying to say that EDM is less creatively meaningful or fulfilling because your next-door neighbor can do it?
No, just that, almost like punk rock before it, there are other facets that outweigh the technical aspect (for instance, style, attitude, general succinctness, etc.) Essentially, how you get across an idea doesn’t have to impact or influence the quality of that idea. Plus, the whole notion that the genre isn’t for the musically gifted but for those who have a gift to give with their music. Ugh, can’t believe I wrote that.
Still, it’s true: EDM is the music for the people; maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s the sort of arena where anyone with a song in their heart can slap together a few minutes of bass and wubs and random studio noise and impact people. Whether you use that momentum to bring people together, share a specific ideology, or just to give them background noise to their dry-humping and cocaine bumps, that’s totally your call. EDM is what the creators make of it, and that is a crucial point to get across.
Elitism, niches, sub-cultures, allies, teams … all that junk is meant to be non-existent in the face of a massive dance party. And with the roles between producer and audience so easily blurred, that communal element is all the more prevalent. There’s a certain kind of freedom and appeal to that notion, and the whole movement would be better in readily sharing that potentially embarrassing-but-totally-revelatory bit of news.
Now, I’m sure most of you are thinking, “Hey, Chris is encouraging shitty people to make music as long as they have a song in their heart.” And, yes, in a way I am, but I have a slightly larger point in mind. Anyone who wants to say something with emotional value can belt it from the rooftop. But if you suck and can’t carry a tune, people won’t listen, and your chances of making music vanish.
My point is that anyone can make EDM, not all of it or even a decent majority of it will be good enough, but fans and musicians should celebrate the inclusive nature of it. Fly the flag that this is a music that eschews technical skills and lets you (and I’m over-simplifying the crap out of this) slap around an MPC and make something you can call a song. That’s what’s romantic: that the expression of human spirit forged through the fires of individualism and self-reliance, even if its one no one wants to hear the end result, is what makes EDM so very unique. Sure, lots of people can try their hand at rap or industrial or whatever, but EDM’s core, as far as this writer’s experience, is all about creating a world with your own two hands and sharing it with others. You may hate dubstep, but you can’t deny the globs of inspirational power that accompany that very lefty notion.
2) Just come clean to the recreational drug use: Hey, know why everyone thinks people at EDM festivals do drugs? Because everyone at EDM festivals does drugs.
OK, that’s not exactly fair; it’s probably closer to 90%. But whatever the actual numbers are, there is no denying that drug use is a prevalent aspect of the EDM community. Is that a terrible thing? All depends on your stance on recreational drug use (and, by extension, which side of the 1990s you were undoubtedly born on.) Could it also be a good thing? Yeah, as someone who has experimented with drugs, I can attest that music and drugs can be totally fun together. If you’re responsible about it, that is.
Yet, from what I’ve seen in talking to devotees of EDM, there seems to be a general kind of split: 1) complete and total admission of drug use or 2) outright denial of any of that ever happening anywhere. Yes, obviously there are people who fall right in between, and arguably that’s the majority, but the fact that there’s such a sense of decisiveness is harmful in the first place.
Does anybody know why the the War on Drugs has always and will always be a failure? Because people totally love drugs and no amount of PSAs or legal consequences or bad press will ever quench our insatiable curiosity (and no, that’s not a metaphor for cocaine use). People will always use drugs, and they will always sneak them into concerts. That doesn’t mean we should just let people do what they want free of any consequences. It’s the job of police and festival organizers to continue to try and stem the problem as much as they can with arrests and various other tools. But they should also realize that they too are playing a game they can never truly win. So, that to me says there needs to be more work done to encourage safety.
You’ll never stop the bros from Lambda Epsilon Omega from sneaking in cheap Molly, but maybe there is a way to try and teach them “responsible” drug use. You know, like being aware of potential health effects beforehand, doing it in a group setting, being cognizant of the substance’s origins, hydration, and diet, etc. It’s like those parents who let their kids drink at home: you can’t ever stop them, so you might as well make sure they don’t kill themselves or anyone else.
Of course, I also realize that’s not necessarily the responsibility of festivals or even EDM acts. But I think it speaks to a larger case for understanding your audience and what they take away from the experience. It’s not about giving them what they want, but understanding that you can’t control or dictate their takeaway from all of this. Consider it part of an umbrella concept of covering your bases.
(Read: Why MDMA Is Destroying EDM)
3) The whole of EDM needs some sort of representation: Tell me what all these names have in common: Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Johnny Rotten, Chuck D, Kathleen Hanna, Eddie Vedder, Courtney Love, and Jack White. If you say, “They’re all famous!”, I think you’re missing the point. More so, they’ve all served, to one degree or another, as representatives of their various genres, cultures, aesthetics, etc.
Now, find me someone who sort of encapsulates that very notion for EDM. You might toss out names like Skrillex or Diplo, and I would say those are only really examples of the most famous acts. I’m talking specifically about someone who carries the EDM flag around, sets people straight in interviews, drops truth bombs, and generally offers a reasonable defense or explanation for the music and behavior of the scene as a collective whole. EDM doesn’t really have that PR Superman going, and that’s going to hurt everyone affiliated in the long run.
I’d like to quickly explain that I’m also not brushing off the capabilities of either Skrillex or Diplo. Whether you like them or not, and not all electronic music fans do, there’s no arguing their inherent star power. My main concern is that while they seem to be the scene’s biggest stars, neither really take advantage of that notoriety. What I think EDM needs is someone like a Jello Biafra: when you think of punk elders, the name inevitably comes up in the first few instances. More so, he’s taken his inherent fame and spoken out about a number of socio-political issues, using his fame/infamy as a springboard into bigger things for himself, his culture, and the world at large.
Now, I’m not saying EDM needs a presence in the nation’s political forum, but there has to be someone who does stuff other than be famous and live the life. Someone who can spin the adulation of others into something of meaning, even if it’s just someone who embraces their status as a god amongst men. It’s as much an issue of charisma than anything else, having that bright, shining star with which to pin the community’s hopes and dreams and aspirations. A figurehead, if you will, who can be used in debates and discussions about the merits or downfalls of EDM. Skrillex and Diplo are close, but I think there needs to be conscious effort on said figurehead for their to be actual merit and value.
By having that one definitive voice, there are all sorts of really great upsides. When people (i.e., the media) have questions, you have someone that the scene can trust to give the straight talk. Similarly, if people are pissed or have some sort of agenda, you also have a handy-dandy scapegoat. Think about what it was like when the Stones were accused of basically apeing American blues; it fell to Jagger to defend all of those early rock bands. Whether anyone liked the conclusion, that the Stones and similar acts are just an expansion on the work started by the likes of Robert Johnson, a solid and clear-cut argument was established.
That’s the great thing about having someone the rest of the world understands and is almost drawn to: concepts, opinions, and definitive stances become established. Money and influence are great and all, but the real path to legitimacy for any musical sub-culture is to be able to defend why you’re a legitimate construct and not a bunch of dudes hitting space bar. If you have 100 different people screaming even slightly nuanced arguments, which is often the case with so many “big-name” DJs, it’s hard to take anyone seriously. People may or may not love John Lennon, but his words and quotes helped to define rock’s mid-century revolution.
4) Learn from the genres, scenes, and “revolutions” that came before you: I’d like to think that if musical genres were people, they’d get together once a month. For coffee maybe. During that time, they all talk about what they’ve got going on. Rock music is the old man, complaining about the weather; pop music is too busy tweeting and taking selfies; rap music is talking about dividends; and, like, polka music is alone in the corner. So, where is EDM and electronic in all of this? Because of its age and overall experience, EDM would actually be a middle-aged dude. But because of “his” general lack of cultural reach and relative freshness in the global market, he doesn’t have a lot of experience going on. (I’m sort of thinking a la The 40-Year-Old Virgin.)
So, how does someone with all the right tools, the potential, and a generally malleable status learn to make a bigger impact at that illustrious table? Learn from the folks who have been where you’re at. If you learn nothing else from this column, it’s that, for better or worse, I believe that EDM has the power to be as important and, in its own way, influential as pure rock music. Still, as I’ve tried to get across, I think it’s going to take time and effort before most everyone agrees with me to the level that they might when it comes to, say, rap.
However, because the whole scene is basically “coming of age” in 2014, it has the added benefit of seeing what other genres and scenes did right and wrong. Does that mean that EDM needs a Beatles-esque group? Or perhaps a litigious back-and-forth about content with Al and Tipper Gore? Some bi-coastal, interpersonal conflict like East Coast Vs. West Coast? Perhaps a scandal involving nudity or drugs or racism? Although I can’t say any of those will or won’t further bolster interest/credibility, I’m talking less specifics and more a general path.
There are ups and downs, good and bad, victories to celebrate and bruises to deal with; basically, for any real good to come, there has to be that back-and-forth, that ebb and flow. An occurrence where things come together only to fall apart, at which point we all learn something and everything is gravy. It might be nice to follow someone else’s map, but I don’t think life works that way.
The bulk of it lies in generalities, an understanding that revolutions tend to leave plenty of broken eggs. Part of what makes at least rock interesting are those battle scars, the bumps it’s taken over the years having proven that even when it’s at its most corporate, rock still stands at least somewhat for rebellion and youth. Devotees of electronic/EDM music need to wear the shiners and bumps from the world with pride.
5) Take this to heart posthaste — you’re always going to be music’s redheaded stepchild: As an extension of the rule above, might as well take the first bump right on the ol’ kisser. No matter what EDM/electronic fans and producers and the like ever do, no matter the albums sold or the arenas filled with fans or the endless domination of every radio channel, the whole scene will always be music’s bastard son/daughter. That doesn’t mean success is out of the picture, just that there will always be a cross section of people you can never win over. No matter the accolades or the argument, they’ll never accept it as anything legitimate.
Even still, more “established” genres like rock and rap still deal with such insecurities. So, rather than trying to beat people who have accepted the fact that they’ve already won, deal with the idea that there’s always going to be a disparity. It seems obvious, but I don’t think enough people, musicians or otherwise, account for the freeing power of accepting one’s “haters.” Not in the smug, “I’m a douche ’cause I say I love my haters” kind of way, but in that you can be open and respectful and yet still save your energies for people who may actually be interested in what you have going on.
In a way, knowing people will always hate you regardless of actions or behavior makes you worry less about pandering or playing to an audience you’ll never have. It keeps you focused on making only the right people happy, the ones who will actually care about what you do in the first place. So, being an outlier is good, but only if you accept that it’s a natural part of people’s preferences. If you think they’re just the crazy ones, then you’re sort of missing the whole point of hatred and apathy as a tool for good.
So, there are my five (not so) easy steps for EDM’s transition into a certifiable cultural juggernaut. Again, I stress I am in no way an expert, and may, in fact, be totally full of piping hot marshmallow fluff. If nothing else, this was all just an extended thought experiment, one to get folks on either side of the EDM aisle to do a little contemplating. I am of the opinion that most of us consider large-scale cultural movements like rap or EDM to be these giant, living organisms, who sort of explode from speakers and onto the world with a mind all their own. As grand and lucrative and powerful and influential as these constructs may be, they can still be guided by the thoughts and whims of mere mortals. If people put good things into the world, like rap’s capability as an agent for socioeconomic awareness, then positive things can occur.
If enough people walk around thinking rock music is the gateway to Satanism, then that has an impact on everyone. It’s not necessarily a case of us shaping culture and then culture serving as some kind of credo or guiding force; we’re always going to have to fine tune the balance of music, politics, economics, gender, etc. Otherwise, what seems like a force for real good can blow up in our faces. We should all be cognizant of the relationship between people and a culture and recognize all of our choices matter. EDM serves as a fresh reminder of this fact, and depending upon how supporters and detractors behave and interact, there’s no telling the kind of influence this undulating mass can have.
So, before you slap on your furry boots and neon tank, think about your responsibility to the music and society and about the kind of lasting impact you want to make as a devotee. Then, rage your little butts off.