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My Totally Obscure Dub-Glitch-Tech-Bahton is Better Than Your [Insert Mainstream Subgenre]: Elitism in EDM

We’ve all been on both ends of music elitism – and not just in the electronic dance music community.

For those of us interested in electronic music and have been at least a casual fan, there likely has been at least one instance in which you likely witnessed someone tell you, “But isn’t that thumpa-thumpa-thumpa just someone pushing a button? That’s not really music – it’s not like they play guitar or anything.”

For the casual fan to the listener who’s tried his hand at producing, electronic music gives you an appreciation for creating a song without traditional acoustic instruments. A track even pulled from any mainstream progressive house offering may be as rich and complex as any classical music score, while presenting something that appeals to the masses and getting you up out of your seat more than a high-brow critiquing (or nitpicking) inner circle: “But that crescendo in measure 20 wasn’t executed as well in this performance as it was in such and such 1970s recording!”

This approach of picking apart a piece – listening to something good and then having a mass of wannabe-critics attack it and tear it to bits like buzzards descending on a carcass to find the bone marrow and push aside everything else – eventually repelled me from classical music, after studying it for a number of years. It’s the type of snobbery that makes me want to take a lighter to every copy of String magazine, as you know some editors are sitting in a building somewhere pretentiously debating not about the quality of the performance or the artist’s overall ability but the slightly sharp nature of an arpeggiated run that occurred at three minutes and 23 seconds into a recording and nowhere else.

You might as well look at a Monet and stare at some minute spec in the left corner and rant about how lopsided it makes the entire painting appear.

Unfortunately this pedigree of snobbery isn’t restricted to the cloistered classical music world (and if it were, we could all just close the door to the surrounding wall and forget about it entirely).

Instead, the antithesis of studying classical music for me was going to clubs where “darker” electronic music was played – in the early ‘00s, this was the “Goth” and “alternative” venues in Philadelphia and Boston that added industrial and synthpop DJs, each one to a room. Synthpop fans scoffed when some newer industrial band attempted to cover New Order – because no one messes around with the classics – while industrial fans, with their glow sticks and matching dreads resulting in the name of “gravers,” stayed away from the seemingly-lightweight, old school fluff.

But when a DJ attempted to make a J. Lo song sound electro, the dance floor cleared, no matter who was on it.

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2014 so far appears to be the year electronic dance music’s global scene confronts the snob – and there’s not just one. Mixmag depicts a high-brow clubber refusing to party with certain low-class crowds, while Magnetic Mag highlighted the European vs. American EDM debate – whether having a seemingly-unified or subgenre-fractured mainstream scene is actually “better.” Then, Deadmau5 criticized the bottle-service culture of certain American clubs that puts the wealthy but totally bored patrons at the front and everyone else in the back, while Australian singer/songwriter Lee Safar put out a letter not addressed to anyone in particular about how dance music fans all of a sudden disown a performer who hits the mainstream.

It’s a lot to digest, so where do we start?

Bias Against the Music or the Fans?

Within the dance music community, “It’s so mainstream” acts as a quick dismissal of anyone who says they like Avicii or enjoyed watching David Guetta live two years ago (now, if you saw him perform with Barbara Tucker in 2003, on the under hand…). But what’s so “mainstream” about it? That the big synth chords just trample over the beat? That the vocalist is high in the mix? That it blends in with everything else in the Beatport top 10?

The thing is, while all of these characterize an Avicii or Guetta track (or these days, even something from a DJ who became successful before 2010), they also characterize plenty of second-tier progressive house producers and stuff from underground artists that we don’t always hear on SiriusXM.

Dance music – and any genre, really – is just like film: Sometimes that indie flick turns into an Oscar winner, and other times, it’s a B-movie from The Asylum starring Judd Nelson, C. Thomas Howell, and amateurishly-designed CGI aliens. Being something so experimental that it only sold five records and inspires hipsters to get out to that Bushwick rave isn’t indicative of quality and innovation, nor is it deserved of admiration for being so obscure and new that no one else is doing it.

And sometimes with mainstream EDM, a track’s like a Martin Scorsese film, and other times, it’s as if you gave Michael Bay Ableton Live and some plugins and told him, “Go right ahead.”

While criticizing production, really, can’t be divided along subgenre lines, perception of fans appears to be at the root of at fraction of it.

Mixmag’s February 2014 editorial targets the crowd – sometimes divided by subgenre within the U.K.’s dance music culture, but also, here, of social class and location. Mixmag claims such attitudes date back to disco, but these days, it’s reflected in how modern dance music perceives hardstyle and its imminent ascent in the U.S.

VICE’s THUMP channel has been observing its rise, from a concentrated Dutch subculture to one permeating the U.S. through mainstream music and events like TomorrowWorld. But their word choice directly and indirectly shows why hardstyle ends up the bastard stepchild of the global dance music community: fast, hard-hitting percussive tracks, ridiculously bright (and Hot Topic-influenced) stage visuals, the shuffling, JNCO-style pants, and producer names like Headhunterz and Wildstylez. THUMP even goes to the point of saying the subgenre “blatant

[ly] appeal[s] to the lowest common denominator,” making it sound like the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo of the dance music world.

It’s one thing to criticize the scantily-clad coeds in YOLO-printed neon shirts populating Ultra, only there for the drugs and partying but not necessarily for the music; it’s another to dismiss a scene entirely based on how fans are perceived. Because even when the hot party girls move onto the next thing (hip-hop a decade ago, EDM now, who-knows-what by 2020), classist monikers and perceptions for sub-subgenres, be it overt revulsion to hardstyle, scoffing at Hi-NRG/Eurodance’s lower-class European audience, or making up distinctions like “clownstep” and “brostep,” stay around by evolving into something else.

Money and Fame

But one of the problems with mainstream dance music not just in the U.S. but globally is the attitude toward a producer who suddenly becomes well-known, even with one track (see AFTER Las Vegas’s “douche” remark to Martin Garrix as one example). Although certain artists’ sounds do change (listen to any pre-2008 record from David Guetta as an example), so does allegiance from listeners within the genre.

Australian artist Lee Safar published a letter titled “An Open Letter to the Dance Music Scene or EDM Scene, or Whatever the Least Offensive Term is Today!” about this sudden change:

“In a genre whose roots are deeply embedded in the PLUR (Peace Love Unity Respect) idealism, why is it that when an artist creates a track that makes our music accessible to a wider community, we outcast that artist rather than support them for pushing the boundaries? Why aren’t we as a genre, advocating that the music that invokes such emotional and euphoric responses from out current audiences, have the wings to fly as far and wide as it can without being criticized by our peers for seeking such success? As a scene, why are we so scared of commercial success outside of our clique, as though being recognized by a greater audience would mean we’re not making real music?’”

Backlash against an artist going mainstream is just one of the several EDM wars that make the genre seem like it’s chasing its own tail back into obscurity.

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, talking about music snobbery in general, summarizes why this happens: The seeming elite (or those who want to seem elite) only like something that 50 percent of listeners can’t identify, that was released before the artist became “famous,” or that’s only ironic:

“It’s simple, really–if people think you ‘get’ something that they don’t, you will immediately seem more knowledgeable than them. Anybody can like The Beatles, but enjoying the newest progressive art-rock/noise-pop quartet from Eastern Europe isn’t so easy. Of course, nobody really likes the shit, but if you say you do, and come up with some intelligent sounding but nonsensical reasoning, you’ll put yourself at the forefront of a new movement, and the lemmings will follow.”

Within the dance music community, however, there’s an added dimension: More vocals and mainstream radio play for an Avicii song also mean the bottle-service customers come to a gig. It’s as if, as Deadmau5 once posted to social media in response to a Miami gig, that getting well-known all of a sudden means the non-fans flood the area in front of the stage, taking up space and acting as a block against truly enjoying the music.

In this sense, “elitism” just means those with money going for the mainstream club culture get first dibs, while the actual listeners get sidelined. And when this happens, it’s fairly easy, as a “true” dance music fan, to start putting on airs about how you heard of Deadmau5 before “Strobe” came out or that you’re such a hardcore listener that you saw him play at Movement in Detroit so many years ago – extra EDM points because Detroit.

But is this “elitism” or just fan posturing when a subgenre suddenly goes mainstream? It’s easy to put up a wall when you know the bottle-servicers will move on in a few years to something different, but with those long-time electronic music fans? Mixmag’s critique sums it up perfectly: “Everyone’s involved, which is why we should be celebrating commonality rather than creating divisions.”

By | 2016-12-02T14:45:14+00:00 March 24, 2014|News, Opinion|3 Comments
  • dadarkman

    A lot of truth and great points in this article. “extra EDM points because Detroit.’ lol!! Some of the newest entries: “Armin’s ‘This Is What It Feels Like’ is not Trance” and subsequently Armin is being labeled a “Sell Out”. “Oh! Steve Angello sounded great this year at Ultra… You know, it wasn’t Swedish House Mafia”, “Techno is not part of EDM”.
    The unfortunate truth is that elitism/bashing/side-taking will always exist and will get worser as EDM gets more mainstream. After all these people who always have to criticize every single bit of EDM tracks, make a funny Meme, track the artists and their every moves in and out of a studio, would have an empty space in their not-so-happy life 🙂

  • hurf

    i don’t really see anything that points towards people disliking music because it gets popular, rather it’s that things that blow up tend to be… well, shit. lowest common denominator, as you say. cheese can’t be sustained, it’s just not interesting.
    if the discussion is that people with bottle service get too good a view then the very discussion itself shows exactly what’s wrong, a proper club doesn’t have bottle service, period.
    a lot people tend to want to do the activities they enjoy with other people who actually know how it’s done, whether it’s playing sports, working, discussing politics or clubbing. if a bunch of people who only ever play pickup show up at an actual football game then well, that will be massively annoying for everyone else and that’s hardly elitist – why is clubbing different?

    • The Ricker

      There is no good argument here and I don’t know anything. Artists stopped applying their talents to music and started doing what they thought fans want. Fans want to see their favorite DJ so if the labels have the DJ play the same music, the fans think its cool and they’ll all go to EDC thinking they’re all unique, when they are all spinning the same music. A label will always sign an artist that sounds like another artist on another label just to get those sales. DJ’s are now button pushers where once stood musical scientists.

      What does the fan know any better for if their favorite DJ is playing the same music as the other DJ’s? They don’t and they won’t. They’ll all think that the music they are hearing is awesome because everyone else is playing it.

      Listening is a lost art.