Two decades after its emergence, electronic music has taken North America by storm. The question is, why now?
It was a decade ago that electronic music was declared dead — considered anathema by mainstream music marketers.
Case in point: When the Lollapalooza festival relaunched with a rock-heavy lineup in 2003 after a five-year hiatus, organizers blamed the break (and lack of profit) on an “over-reliance on electronica-heavy headliners” in 1997, according to the festival website. Their hate-on for the genre followed popular sentiment of the time that largely relegated electronica to something of a joke, characterized by rapper Eminem’s declaration “Nobody listens to techno” in his 2002 hit Without Me.
Today, Slim Shady has likely eaten those words, along with the Lolla crew, who featured electronic acts like DJ Steve Aoki, Hot Chip, Crystal Castles and Ellie Goulding in prominent position in this year’s lineup, keeping with the trend sweeping populist music festivals across the U.S. and Canada.
At the same time, investors are clamouring to pump money into multi-million-dollar multiday festivals dedicated to Electronic Dance Music, as the genre’s now called, with events such as the roving Electric Daisy Carnival springing up across North America with the frequency of Day-Glo dandelions.
“Suffice to say that it’s exploded to such a degree that it’s now permeating everything,” explains Paul Runnals, executive producer of the Squamish Valley Music Festival. “You can’t not have heard of electronic music, and you can’t not have heard of some of these big DJs if you’re a music fan at all.”
Even five years ago, DJs were largely considered an afterthought for the after-party. Today, Runnals says, it is impossible for bookers and programmers to ignore their growing clout as a legitimate force in popular music.
Squamish Valley has had an electronic contingent since its inception in 2010, Runnals added, although the prominence of those acts has been increasing in accordance with audience appetite. This weekend’s festival will see headlining sets by rockers Queens of the Stoneage and Vampire Weekend, deliberately feeding into end-of-night dance parties presided over by American DJ Pretty Lights and French up-and-comer Madeon. (Vancouver’s The Funk Hunters and DJ K-Tel, Calgary’s Smalltown DJs, and Ottawa’s A Tribe Called Red are among the homegrown electronic acts.)
Meanwhile over in Salmo, the Shambhala Festival heads into its 16th year, having grown from a 500-person boutique festival to a 10,000-person blowout with a lineup that ranges from the obscure to the mainstream.
There is no denying electronic music is at the centre of a sea-change in popular taste. But Runnals, like many industry experts, is at loss as to why, 20 years after the emergence of rave culture, the music is only now truly conquering North America.
“I’m not really sure what’s fuelled that in the sense that, how did it all of a sudden start to resonate with much larger audiences here?”
American sociologist Tammy Anderson has a theory.
A professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, Anderson, author of the book Rave Culture, spent years investigating why electronic dance music floundered in North America while flourishing in Europe.
Much of the phenomenon comes down to timing, she says, arguing it is no coincidence that rave culture’s resurgence has occurred during the Obama administration and a return to liberal thinking in North America following the Bush years.
After taking hold as a subcultural force during the Clinton-era ’90s, Anderson attributes the death of first-wave rave to the law-and-order agenda rekindled under Bush.
“Raves became the next battle for the war on drugs after the crack-cocaine epidemic laws (of the ’80s),” she explains.
The association between ecstasy and electronic music made it the perfect symbol for the effort. In 2003, the passage of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, formerly the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy, or RAVE Act, in the U.S. meant property owners could face up to 20 years in jail if drug activity was found to occur at raves, clubs or dance parties.
“It exacted a chill factor on the whole industry,” Anderson says. “Clubs didn’t want to put the event on because they were afraid that if they fliered the event and said that they were having a techno DJ, that they’d get busted.”
It’s an unfair rap, Anderson contends, since the association between recreational drugs and popular music predates the speakeasies of the 1920s Jazz Age, a sentiment with which Runnals agreed. Still, it seriously affected the commercial viability of the music in North America and cast a shadow that continues to hang over the genre.
In Europe, on the other hand, more liberal governments, less punitive drug laws and a culture that doesn’t regard clubbing as strictly youth-oriented activity provided more fertile ground for dance music to develop and mature along with its original audience, and allowed a new generation to age in — something that didn’t happen in the U.S.
Today’s emergence of commercial EDM is due in large part to European DJs tailoring their sound to an American audience in the form of remixes, Anderson says.
“Those DJs got smart,” she says, citing French DJ David Guetta and Dutch DJ Tiesto as some of the first to begin adding lyrics featuring popular vocalists such as Rihanna, Lil Wayne and Madonna to their music.
“Americans like to have lyrics — they want stories to be told,” Anderson explains, noting the phenomenon paved the way for the likes of Avicii, Skrillex and Diplo to find widespread popular audiences with their pop-based crossover hits.
It’s a money-maker for sure, but Anderson is skeptical that mainstream success is good for the genre. The watered-down pop songs lack artistic integrity, she says, possibly condemning the art form to obscurity once again when the bubble inevitably bursts. Meanwhile, the corporate interest in what she terms “rave-like” events has commodified the ethos of Peace, Love, Unity and Respect, that was a tenet of the original underground scenes.
But not everyone feels EDM as an art form will be slayed by success.
Malcolm Levy, director of Vancouver’s New Forms Festival, an annual showcase of electronic music and visual art, said the decline of electronic music in popular culture a decade ago spurred some of the most innovative leaps in its production as it retreated deeper into the underground.
“At the same time that (rave culture disappeared) there was a constant progression in electronic music in North America in many, many places that carried on outside of that,” he says.
The intervening years have seen dedication to the genre — and all its many sub-genres — grow steadily among serious music fans, with DJs now respected as legitimate artists within highbrow circles and bands increasingly adopting electronic production. New Forms, for instance, presents the music in its most experimental and cutting-edge incarnations for sophisticated audiences who strive for an intelligent dance party.
“What you have had in Vancouver is this really interesting bubbling of different curators, audiences and scenes to the point now where people are often very surprised and impressed by the numbers we get to events,” Levy said.
The ubiquity of technology and ease of file-sharing means producers from smaller outposts, such as Vancouver, are able to find a global audience, Levy says, noting that some of the most interesting music hails from unlikely places, such as Minneapolis or Bristol. Locally, labels and collectives including Lighta!, Mood Hut, Green Burrito and Hybridity, are making inroads internationally with Vancouver artists such as Calamalka and Humans.
At the same time, many of the original ravers didn’t flame out or fade away, as the war-on-drugs rhetoric warned. Levy notes they have grown up with, not out of, the scene. A maturing audience has spurred the rise of family-friendly EDM events, such as the Special Summer Series put on by the Vancouver Urban Spaces Initiative at Crab Park and New Brighton Park.
“There will likely be, when we’re of that age, electronic music played in nursing homes,” Levy says.
“Electronic music isn’t going anywhere.”
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