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.
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