Essay

Is Festival EDM Dying, Or Is It Just Getting Interesting?

Chris DeVille | July 2, 2014 - 3:42 pm

If you perform with a giant light-up mouse helmet on your head, chances are you understand how to grab people’s attention. Whether Twitter-feuding with Arcade Fire, describing a rival DJ/producer as “McDonald’s,” or admitting that entertainers like himself mostly just press play on stage, Joel Thomas Zimmerman has repeatedly proven to be a natural born lightning rod. As Deadmau5, Zimmerman was one of the iconic figures in electronic dance music’s rise to become this decade’s defining musical movement so far. When the Grammys needed DJs to indicate their grand institutional anointment of EDM in 2012, it was Deadmau5 (and Euro-Muppet David Guetta) who ended up on stage clusterfucking it up with Foo Fighters, Chris Brown, and Lil Wayne. So although you have to take everything Deadmau5 says with a glacier of salt — incidentally, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him performing atop a glacier of salt — you also have to pay the guy some mind. He’s been instrumental in EDM’s build, and now he says the drop is coming.

In a recent London Evening Standard feature, Deadmau5 declared that the EDM bubble is going to burst, and that when the end comes it’s going to be even swifter and more merciless than disco’s sudden demise. We’re talking Electric Forest gone Game Of Thrones — although we probably won’t see the equivalent of Disco Demolition Night since you can’t detonate a SoundCloud page. “Disco had a longer run than EDM has, to be honest about it, and that died in a fucking hurry,” Deadmau5 told the Standard. “EDM is way more susceptible because that was in a time when they didn’t have mass social media and all that shit. It’s not gonna be me saying, ‘OK, EDM’s done,’ and the whole thing falls apart, but I think it’ll eventually fuck itself so hard.” He also swore off music festivals, the EDM boom’s cultural Petri dish, claiming they are stealing brand-thunder from musicians by making the festival experience the main attraction. And he made sure to point out, with extreme derisiveness, that his new while(1<2) is “not just ‘dance’ music.”

EDM as we know it — by which I mean the euphoric drug-and-bass culture parodied in SNL’s recent “When Will The Bass Drop?” sketch, not the vast spectrum that is electronic dance music in general — is still a thriving, lucrative entity. I can assure you from personal experience that the DJ-centric Sahara Tent was Coachella’s biggest draw this year, and Calvin Harris, who helped shepherd the current wave of EDM into the mainstream with Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and his own “Feel So Close” among other hits, attracted the largest mass of humanity at the main stage all weekend. In terms of festivals where EDM is explicitly the main course, the fourth annual Las Vegas edition Electric Daisy Carnival, was the most profitable yet, bringing 400,000 people and $322.3 million to Sin City. Vegas in particular has developed an elaborate ecosystem of clubs striving to recreate that euphoric festival experience on a nightly basis, though even a year ago promoters were wondering how long the craze could last.

Like disco before it, EDM culture’s hedonistic tendencies are taking a toll, with unusually high numbers of fans ending up in the hospital or worse. But beyond the risk of physical burnout for those who rage is a more universal sense among EDM partisans and haters alike that it’s time to move on. Even a relatively narrow definition of “festival EDM” would have to include everything from the starry-eyed trance-pop sounds of Guetta, Harris, and Zedd to the booming trap-rave of Baauer, RL Grime, and TNGHT. Yet all for all the innovation and microevolution within the EDM milieu, a feeling of stasis has crept in. One leading figure inside the scene, 21-year-old former child prodigy Porter Robinson, told Reddit users he feels constrained by his genre’s formulaic requirements: “there are moves you HAVE to do in an ‘EDM’ track to make it work.” Even those who haven’t spent the past decade readily subjecting themselves to what Robinson described as “main-stage, 128 BPM, 1-2-3 JUMP banger type stuff” have been inundated by the sounds of festival EDM at every turn. It’s been two years since the likes of Taylor Swift and Alex Clare were lacing their folk-pop hits with dubstep drops. Since then we’ve seen Avicii hybridize in the opposite direction, weaving folk sounds into his glowstick-waving club tracks. Everyone from Korn to Kanye has dabbled in dubstep. Skrillex presided over a Bonnaroo superjam. And again, even the fucking Grammys decided this stuff was cool more than two years ago. At this point, it’s almost more surprising when music in the pop sphere doesn’t bear the marks of EDM. Like jazz, rock, and hip-hop before it, it is the air we breathe.

Yet the mainstream is bound to react against a sound that has been so pervasive for so long. As The Guardian pointed out a couple years back, this decade’s EDM movement is more widespread than the ’90s Big Beat trend, the last time electronic music was supposedly taking over forever. The current strain of dance music has become such a cultural landmark that it seems far more likely to evolve than to die. The mere existence of the SNL parody indicates the genre’s endurance, yet it also suggests a level of saturation that almost demands a backlash. You could argue (as I did two years ago) that the Mumford-folk thing emerged as a conscious alternative to EDM, but within mainstream dance music, the EDM backlash began in earnest last year. Surprisingly, it was spearheaded by Daft Punk, the French robot-men whose wildly successful pyramid stage show helped inspire the EDM craze in the first place. Random Access Memories famously attempted to “Give Life Back To Music” via retro disco sounds created largely with live instruments. Together with aging pop singers like Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and Katy Perry, they helped launch a disco revival that cast dance music as something more lighthearted — and more palatable to older generations — than dunderheaded so-called “brostep.” Meanwhile, Disclosure and Duke Dumont helped bring classic house sounds back into the mainstream as well, a movement that started in the UK and is now seeping into the US thanks to the late-breaking stateside success of Disclosure’s “Latch.”

Like the disco revival, retro house music appeals to a broader contingent than just the youth brigade that comprises EDM’s core audience in part because it is inherently lighter, happier, and more approachable than aggro bass drops and in-your-face synth melodies, but also because it’s older and therefore more familiar. That’s been the case with all the culturally resonant alternatives to EDM so far. Part of the reason EDM took off is because it presented something truly new that a generation could call its own. It was the sound of genuine innovation, and it inspired all kinds of exciting (if often ugly) experiments. But everything calcifies eventually. Although that Transformers computerized bass sound is probably never going to disappear entirely from the pop music vocabulary, my first reaction upon hearing it in the decent new Keyshia Cole single was how dated it sounded — as played out as the Transformers franchise itself. When Skrillex, the perfecter of the gnarly digitized drop and the face of brostep, released his perfectly serviceable debut album Recess at long last this year, the prevailing feeling was that it had arrived too late. Whereas EPs such as 2010’s Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites and 2011’s Bangarang scanned as bold, zeitgeist-grabbing gestures, a record embodying Skrillex’s admittedly diverse signature sound now felt like a relic even coming from Skrillex himself. We’ve been there, we’ve done that. It’s time to branch out, and we’re seeing those kinds of signs from EDM’s major players and newcomers alike.

Disco didn’t die at the dawn of the ’80s so much as it dispersed, going back underground via rave culture and mutating into new strains like techno, house, and Italo disco while Michael Jackson ushered the sounds of disco out into pop music at large. In the same way, we’ve already witnessed ’10s EDM augmented and splintering away from the stereotypical untz-untz wub-wub-wub. Guys like Deadmau5 and Robinson are building massive stage shows to take the spectacle of big-budget EDM productions to their logical prog-rock extremes, though Robinson’s M83-influenced Worlds (which The Fader described as “post-EDM”) captures prog’s breathless scope, whereas Deadmau5’s new while(1<2) mostly just meanders like an overlong Rick Wakeman solo. And just as punk rock emerged partly in response to prog excess, Rolling Stone recently heralded the dawn of “EDM’s punk phase” as radio programmers embrace even more aggressive dance tracks like DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s #4 smash “Turn Down For What” in response to social media. Bassnectar hasn’t cracked the upper reaches of the pop charts yet, but his own new album Noise Vs. Beauty continues his reign as EDM’s preeminent rock ‘n’ roller.

It’s not just that EDM is dividing into a prog side versus a punk side. Global dance music scouting services such as Diplo’s Mad Decent and A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold are always digging up exciting new mutations, and now they’ve got a bigger platform than ever to foist them on the world. DJ Dodger Stadium is about to drop an entire album of crushing yet melancholy techno, and their Body High scene remains a boiling cauldron of ideas. Pitchfork praised Rustie’s new “Raptor” as the birth of “happy trap,” excitedly proclaiming that the song “would rather soundtrack a kid’s bouncy-castle birthday than any sort of bro-down.” Meanwhile, critical darlings like Zola Jesus and Caribou, both of whom have found fertile creative outposts on the fringes of pop and experimental electronica, are moving toward the center with songs (“Dangerous Days” and “Can’t Do Without You,” respectively) that could feasibly fit into the EDM-informed top 40 landscape with the right marketing push. These are just a few of the many new sounds that are moving festival EDM beyond your basic “1-2-3 JUMP” template, and who knows which SoundCloud upstart is about to revolutionize the form or how many micro-scenes around the world are about to burst into the global consciousness.

So is EDM going to bottom out like Deadmau5 says? If he means the build-drop formula will lose its cultural currency and events like Ultra will go the way of the sock-hop, sure. These formats will become passé soon enough, and someday they’ll be the go-to shorthand for movie directors looking to evoke this time in history. The many, many second-tier festival DJs are bound for extinction, their dopey grins and hands-in-the-air gestures already a cliché. EDM’s initial “OH MY GOD!” rush is passing away, with only the distant promise of nostalgia to brighten the future. But the advancement Deadmau5 sees in his own music is actually happening across the board, and much of it is better than what he has to offer. Essentially we have an “EDM is dead/ Long live EDM” situation. We’ve felt the splash; now we get to sit back and enjoy the ripples.