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More Than The Lowest Common Denominator: Making Electronic Dance Music Seem Less “Dumb”

It’s easy to dismiss James Murphy, formerly of LCD Soundsystem and now a solo act, producer, and DJ, as a hipster who never grew up. But despite ties to Brooklyn and producing Arcade Fire’s latest album, Murphy has some cogent observations about dance music and DJing that all performers – from the underground to Las Vegas – ought to take note of.

Specifically, when Murphy spoke at the Red Bull Music Academy Couch Sessions at III Points Festival earlier in October, he compared DJing to making a sandwich — therefore, watching him do a set is like seeing him make “200 sandwiches” on stage, he explained – and that the format of modern dance music appeals only to those with short attention spans.

EDM-saved-my-lifeMurphy’s somewhat right in both regards, but he’s not the first one to come out and express these notions. Simian Mobile Disco called electronic music the lowest common denominator for focusing on just one style within a rock concert format, while Boys Noize, in an interview with Gawker last year, described the genre as “dumb” for regularly recycling sounds.

So, even with the producers calling dance music “dumb” and mainstream U.S. news outlets dismissing it as something frat boys have an affinity for, how can the genre appeal to a more intelligent crowd?

More Emphasis on the Music

These days, ragging on the visual aspects of dance music festivals and club shows is easy, especially as every performer seems to come with some sort of display.

Although flashing lights and bright colors might make David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia sound better than they actually are, part of Murphy’s discussion at the Red Bull Music Academy Couch Sessions focused on the pacing. Specifically, DJs these days go through everything too fast, and the audience in response expects one buildup to a drop after another – there’s not an opportunity to actually linger. Murphy told the crowd:

“Because we’re in a time now, with dance music especially, people are being treated as if they’re really dumb and have incredibly gnat-like attention spans and need to just be tickled all the time. The music’s just like, ‘It’s exciting! It’s exciting! It’s exciting! It’s exciting! It’s exciting! Oh, it stopped! It stopped! It stopped! What’s going to happen?! What’s going to happen?! What’s going to happen?! Oh, it’s really quiet! It’s really quiet! It’s really quiet! It’s exciting! It’s exciting! It’s exciting again! They’re jumping up and down. And I’m watching. And it looks like there’s a lot of energy in the room.”

That’s not to say that DJs don’t pace themselves well; the phenomenon is primarily heard in the hour-long festival sets where DJs attempt to get through several tracks and keep the crowd entertained. Instead of hearing the sounds and feeling the changes between beats, listening to a festival set (or even a two-hour club set) feels like a frenetic aural assault. And when a night opens with a traditional DJ, such as Carl Kennedy at All Mixed Up last year, the difference between a DJ gradually progressing through the sounds, carefully considering the builds, and viewing the three-plus hours of organically-moving electronic beats, glitches, and melodies contrasts starkly with the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am of the under two-hour festival set.

dunce-capOf course, the “get the crowd excited and get it over with” trend extends to visuals – and you can’t deny it. This is partially why Simian Mobile Disco called out Steve Aoki in their 2012 DIY interview: “And it’s just, literally, lowest common denominator stuff. The thing that scares me is that it pushes just one way of appreciating dance music, and that’s as you would a rock concert, but for me that’s missing a lot of the point.”

As Aoki these days is known more for his cake-throwing at shows than actual music and DJing skills (really, if spend your set tossing sheet cakes into the audience, do you have time to beat-match?), Simian Mobile Disco does have a point. But while making a spectacle and a mess has served Aoki well, his antics as a mainstream performer give the vibe that all electronic dance music is about is throwing a party – actual sounds be damned.

Simian Mobile Disco’s solution, according to statements made in their interview, is going back to a show format in which the DJ’s not the entire focus – just the music: “The way a lot of European clubs and festivals operate, where the DJ isn’t necessarily the focus – he could be off in the corner somewhere – it’s more about the music and the communal experience, usually over a longer period of time as well.”

Push Originality

The faster pace of DJ sets gets mirrored in production: With so many tools and plug-ins at a producer’s fingertips, a song – and one that’s possibly a hit – doesn’t require as much effort as it used to. Now that analog gear and sessions musicians aren’t entirely in the picture, all a producer just needs is his computer.

As we observe here, trends for electronic music quickly come and go. According to a piece about retro revival in Attack Magazine, the speed isn’t solely due to the internet and social media’s influence on EDM. Instead, because production goes in cycles, newer generations of producers discover the older sounds, attempt to replicate them, and then may or may not continue from there. In many cases, this gives rise to new sub-subgenres, which quickly disappear when producers move on.

“The cycle for a new sub-genre – or whatever you wanna call them – is so short nowadays because everyone has the capability to replicate it, sometimes in a sub-standard way, so it dies in a matter of months,” explained producer Eats Everything. “Because of the internet and software and stuff, up and coming producers of the day can almost perfectly replicate what their heroes are making, and so real creativity is forever diminishing. It’s easy to become a producer these days, but I think it takes years to become an artist.”

The result, however, of this “bang it out with existing tools” approach is that a good deal of EDM does sound the same, especially a fair amount of hit-making material.

When producing loops back around to DJing, higher-profile performers get caught in the rut of catering to promoters, who expect the hits to be played. “Now it’s at the point where promoters are playing it super safe,” DJ Brandon Moeller told Attack Magazine. “I’ve been asked a number of times, ‘What the f–k are you doing? Can you play some tech house?’ Promoters are not afraid to do that. I’ve heard DJs of significant power being told what to do and this doesn’t help

[engender creativity].”

EDM-electronicdancemusic
Boys Noize was a bit more blunt when speaking with Gawker: Intelligence correlates with experimentation, and when you stick with the same groups of sounds, dance music ends up sounding dumb: “I think the intellectual aspect is in finding good sounds. Look at the Top 10 Dance Music chart. All of those sounds are really not exciting to me. Those sounds you can find in a plugin – they’re preset sounds. That’s what I’ve been missing a lot recently in the so-to-say EDM world.”

Don’t Dismiss or Elevate Certain Genres

One of the major issues in electronic music is how certain subgenres get elevated more than others. Daft Punk’s disco-lite hit, “Get Lucky,” supposedly made without computers, gave them the status of “electronic music’s saviors” over this past summer, when, really, all they did was rehash some old sounds and spend a bit more time in the studio with session musicians.

On the other hand, VICE’s Thump put out a piece recently calling hardstyle, a trend about to take off in the U.S., the “lowest common denominator” for electronic music. The article took shots at the genre’s working-class origins, repetitiveness, and even associated clothing style and intense global subculture.

Similarly, one of Mixmag’s editors targeted the ubiquity of tech-house in underground and mainstream electronic music. While tech-house and hardstyle might not be your cup of tea, painting an entire sub-subgenre with a broad brush without considering individual producers and tracks – Mixmag, in fact, didn’t cite a single example and instead spent more time going after the genre’s aviator-wearing listeners – doesn’t do any favors. It’s the equivalent of an alternative rock listener, circa 1997, saying, “But all dance music is just repetitive!” after hearing a Digweed and Sasha mix.

On the other hand, the pretentiousness of intelligent dance music, or IDM, alienates listeners and performers. While artists associated with this label, like Aphex Twin, The Orb, and Autechre, might be more experimental, it still implies that some forms of EDM get designated for frat boys and drug users and others for analyzing and close listening, as if it were classical music.

When dance music still gets discounted as the backing instrumentation of a Rihanna song (and, mainstream wise, that’s often the best it can do), dismissing certain sounds and sub-subgenres just creates divisions.

From not being as quick to dismiss certain subgenres to focusing on experimentation and variety, rather than just a “push through it and get it out there” approach of creating tracks and DJ sets, there’s no single solution for making EDM seem less “dumb.” Beyond these points, what else do you think could be done?

By | 2016-12-02T14:46:19+00:00 November 18, 2013|Opinion|2 Comments
  • Nice article.

  • Thanks for the article. Made me feel better about myself… 🙂
    I thing the shortening of attention spans (and the response of making everything more in your face) is a challenge in all of art. And probably education and other fields as well. I’m not sure what will come of it, but it’s fascinating to see it unfolding.