The strange triumph of electronic music

It may not be on the radio, but it's the most influential -- and unifying -- force in pop music today.

Published June 19, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

In 1997, at the height of the so-called big beat invasion, I walked into a Foot Locker store in Beverly Hills to buy a new pair of shoes. I may have been looking for some Air Max 95s. At some point, house music came thundering over the in-store sound system and strobes began to flash. I dropped whatever sneaker I was holding and waited for smoke to billow into the room while everyone pumped their fists in the air and danced.

Instead, everyone kept shopping.

Five years later, the big beat invasion is a distant, failed media meme. As exemplified in the work of Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers, big beat was electronic music squeezed into the familiar, easily digestible song structures of rock music. The DJs knew how to party and some of them even looked like rock stars, like Keith Flint from the Prodigy (you know, the "Firestarter guy," the one with the weird mohawk?).

No single genre of electronic music since has received that kind of mainstream attention. Apart from a handful of anomalous acts with catchy signature sounds, like the Chemical Brothers or Moby, both of whom appear to have broken through for good, you won't find electronic music on American charts and you won't see electronic music videos on MTV.

Madonna just doesn't count.

For the past decade, the mainstream and electronic music industries have tried to turn electronic music into a pan-cultural worldwide phenomenon. Globally, this effort has been indisputably successful. Electronic music is pop music in Europe. Kids play with Roland Grooveboxes, not Stratocasters, and dream of being the next Paul Oakenfold, not the next Paul McCartney.

But not in the States, even though house and techno were of course invented in Chicago and Detroit. Electronic music -- dance music -- did have its moment in the mid '90s. And American record companies signed acts, MTV aired some Chemical Brothers videos and Billboard created a dance music chart.

But then the commercial prospects seemed to fizzle all at once. Serious electronic music fans turned against the acts that were promoted to major label status. And at the same time, the record-buying populace decided that they preferred teen pop, jiggy hop and nu metal. How definitive was the flop? On his current single, the biggest-selling act in pop music, Eminem, slams Moby and points out that no one listens to techno.

He's wrong, not just because the techno underground flourishes, but because while no one was listening, electronic music truly attained commercial success in America -- TV commercial success. And soundtrack success. Indeed, you can't turn on the television or go to the theater without hearing electronic music.

Famously, every song from Moby's last album, "Play," was licensed for commercials or soundtracks or both. The French post-house duo Daft Punk act as shills for Palm computing and the Gap. And although you couldn't name a track by the house act Dirty Vegas, you've probably heard their music in a commercial for Mitsubishi automobiles.

Meanwhile, every weekend, thousands of kids across the U.S. strap on leg-swallowing JNCO raver gear, pull on fuzzy backpacks, adorn themselves with kiddy candy jewelry and head to sports arena massives -- giant raves featuring dozens of DJs and sometimes as many as 50,000 partiers. In some parts of the country raving has become as much a rite of passage for teens as high school football games and trying to get laid at the prom. Consequently, an entire generation of Americans has grown up dancing all night and hugging strangers.

Substantial, globally influential electronic music scenes flourish in New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. Many feel the latter city has become the epicenter of the electronic music universe because of its proximity to the mainstream music industry and because of its proliferation of clubs, massives, festivals and illegal one-off events in a multitude of electronic music sub-genres.

Mix CDs from the top DJs who play these clubs sell well, if not well enough to earn gold certificates. Paul Oakenfold's 1998 release "Tranceport," for example, sold 222,000 copies and a recent independently released continuous mix by relatively unknown New York DJ Louie DeVito has sold 315,000 copies according to the Village Voice. Electronic music is even starting to catch on in the heartland, where cutting-edge DJs pack clubs in Kansas City, Mo.

And finally, with the success of Radiohead and groups that use electro-beats, elements of turntablism and loops, electronic music production techniques have now become the norm in rock music. The digital and computer-based recording equipment long used by electronic artists is now the industry standard in pop music as well. In this respect at least, Americans are now listening to electronic music almost every time they turn on the radio or television.

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In April, at the Coachella music festival in Southern California, Microsoft passed out thousands of glowsticks bearing the X-Box logo during a set by British progressive trance/tech house duo Sasha and John Digweed. So if American corporations are so fond of electronic music, why don't we hear it on the radio? See the videos on MTV? And popularly speaking, will the music ever amount to more than sonic cotton candy for watching movies, shopping at the mall and waiting for "Survivor" to come back from a commercial break?

Part of the problem is that electronic music still faces the same old prejudices that have plagued it from the start. You've heard them all before: Electronic music is repetitive; it's empty fluff; it's soulless; the people who make it play with computers, not instruments.

Because these criticisms continue to come up after more than a decade, it's worth addressing some of them. As with all other genres of music, of course, there are good electronic music tracks and bad ones. Whether you like an electronic song or electronic music in general is wholly dependent on context. Just as a certain intellectual context makes it possible to appreciate John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen, so dancing is the key to the electronic aesthetic.

The most important thing to remember about the most globally prevalent strains of electronic music, house and trance, is that the purpose of both is to keep people moving on a dance floor. That repetitive four-four beat is supposed to be repetitive. At the same time, that steady kick drum leaves room for endless rhythmic variance and progression, just like the four-bar blues structure leaves room for endless innovation in rock.

Empty fluff? Yes, there's plenty of that in electronic music. But so what? Some of the greatest rock songs, from "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Yellow Submarine," have been deliriously fluffy. And an aversion to brainless meringue hasn't stopped millions from buying Garth Brooks or Destiny's Child.

As for the charge that electronic artists are not musicians, computers and digital tools are merely that. The music does not write itself. The artist, however, does enjoy a few advantages that he or she might not get with traditional instruments. Because electronic music is usually (but not always) digitally based and is frequently created on computers, it is unusually elastic. Electronic musicians compose with palettes of sound limited only by their imaginations and their patience. If they want to drop some tablas into the middle of a song or use a sample of breaking glass as the rhythmic basis of a song, their dream is often only a double click away.

A related problem is the ongoing confusion between DJs and the people who actually make electronic music. Although more and more high-end DJs are releasing full-length albums of their own work, such as Timo Maas' "Loud," the most prevalent form of electronic music on the market today is the continuous DJ mix, which approximates a live set, with the DJ picking tracks by other artists and mixing them together.

A DJ is still best appreciated as a live performer. When top DJs perform at clubs or massives, even the most educated listeners in the audience probably won't recognize many of the tracks, because such DJs often drop ultra-rare records that are made available exclusively to them months ahead of the listening public. DJs of this caliber also often use dub plates, records that will literally wear out after a very limited number of plays, which they produce themselves or are floated to them by the best producers in the world, and which the public might never even be able to buy.

All but the most savvy of electronic music consumers, then, are clueless about who the people are who actually produce this music, how they do it, what they look like, what they wear, how they party or any of the other details that make celebrities out of rock stars. A slightly larger number of music listeners and consumers know the names, styles and techniques of top-tier DJs.

DJs don't speak. Most don't produce their own full-length albums. When they perform, their only motions are precise hand movements and brief shuffles to record bins that are obscured from view and confined to a 5-foot square area. There are no David Lee Roth jump kicks, synchronized boy-band dances, Michael Jackson moonwalks or Janet Jackson ass-shaking.

For American consumers, this is a problem.

The average American listener is used to going to performances featuring vocalists and instruments that are recognizable and produce the kinds of sounds that they've spent decades listening to. They expect these sounds to be accompanied by the visual spectacle of singers, rappers and dancers on stage doing their damnedest to entertain and otherwise get them fired up. To people who have only experienced music this way the concept of the electronic music DJ and the dance experience must be utterly perplexing.

If you're used to live music as entertainment -- in the sense of watching performers make spectacles of themselves as they create music while you passively consume the sonic byproduct of their efforts -- then enjoying electronic music requires a shift in aural expectations, synthesis, digestion and physical participation. While there are certain branches of electronic music, such as the intelligent dance music created by producers like Boards of Canada, that are made for listening rather than dancing, by and large electronic music is made to make people dance. And when you dance, the DJ takes you on a journey, but he or she is usually not the focus of your experience at a club or festival or wherever you hear the music. Dancing is.

Most Americans still have a hard time relating to this.

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Call it the soccer problem. America remains pretty much the last country on earth that doesn't really care about the sport. (And even the unexpected success of the U.S. team at this year's World Cup is unlikely to change that permanently.) As with electronic music, you could argue that we don't really like it because it doesn't really jive with our cult of individualism. We believe that history is made by great men and women, whether in politics, sports or the arts.

In spite of their homogeneity, rock and hip-hop are still the music of the individual. And both rock and hip-hop, with their alternately boastful, self-deprecating, uplifting and emotionally self-destructive lyrics, masquerade as the music of the rebel. The fact is, both genres have been bought and sold and recycled so many times that it's hard to connect with most pop music on an emotional level. Who feels the pain of some multimillionaire who had a bad childhood? Still, the ideologies espoused in pop music are far more in line with the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, me-against-the-world myth that dominates America's vision of history, a kind of romantic ideal perhaps best embodied by the image of Ted Nugent hunting elk by his lonesome with a large gun. And for the most part, electronic music, without words, cannot forge this ideological connection to American listeners.

So electronic music remains invisible. But at the same time, it's the sound that keep everyone cheering at monster truck rallies and baseball games, dancing on the weekends and cruising the Gap. Whether we know it or not, we love this music. Advertisers wouldn't use it otherwise.

Will Americans ever admit it?

Probably. For a number of reasons that have largely been overlooked by champions of electronic music in the popular press, electronic music's success in America has taken longer to happen than it has in Europe. But it can happen. Here's why.

The omnipresence of electronic music in advertising and films continues to prime listeners. Dirty Vegas' "Days Go By" was only an import record when it debuted in that Mitsubishi commercial with the woman dancing in the front seat. Weeks later, it was playing on commercial radio, identified by New York DJs as "the song from that commercial."

Further, like the fans of Phish-style jam bands who chronicle every move of their favorite groups and follow them across America, the electronic music listenership is loyal and dedicated, and until this music is everywhere, they will travel to find it wherever they can, turning on others along the way. When the music industry finally wakes up from its decade-long slumber and wraps its tendrils around electronic music, the fan base will already exist to ensure its commercial success.

There remain two problems: Electronic music songs mostly don't have lyrics, and electronic music artists don't have public images. But just because the music doesn't have lyrics doesn't mean that it's not smart or complex.

Further, electronic music is constantly evolving. Even critics who get this aspect of electronic music fail to understand that some electronic music artists and DJs who are hugely popular aren't content to continue to pump out the same styles of beats over and over. A review in the June 6 Rolling Stone criticized Sasha and Digweed for spinning undynamic, heavily repetitive tunes at a show in San Francisco.

This San Francisco performance happened to be the same weekend that I saw the duo at Coachella. Over the course of the past year, I've noticed that a lot of trance producers and DJs have shifted from the histrionic, arpeggiated synths that have dominated progressive trance for the past several years toward a far more stripped-down sound that relies on broken kick-drum beats, long, minimalist builds borrowed from the tech-house genre (as often heard on Digweed's own Bedrock label), tribal hand-drum samples, and strange, simple breaks in lieu of snare roll orgasms.

This is the kind of music that Digweed has been spinning and producing since at least the time of his 2001 Global Underground performance in Los Angeles, so to criticize him for not playing the same records that they did in 1996 is to fail to understand that these artists aren't the Rolling Stones.

More generally, what some critics of electronic music don't (yet) understand or acknowledge is that the absence of words provides the opportunity for narratives that transcend the boundaries of language to be built in much the same way that narratives are built in jazz and classical music. Trance, house and jungle, for example, all use builds, instrumentation and sampling to greater and lesser degrees to create powerful transporting narratives. In this way, dancers in such disparate locales as the Moroccan desert, the beach in Tel Aviv, Ibiza, the Ministry of Sound in London and Giant in Los Angeles are all able to connect to the same track. Language and image are no longer barriers; the only musical language that matters is the language of tension, release and dynamism implicit in the construction of electronic music.

Ultimately, then, the factors that seem to be holding back electronic music from succeeding in America are some of the same reasons that its widespread commercial success may very well be inevitable. Record companies don't understand why mass groups of strangers get off on congregating in dark rooms to dance their asses off to records made by invisible artists from around the world. Sooner than later they will -- or, in the grand tradition of the record industry, they'll simply buy a record label that does.

What corporate America can't completely commodify or sell, though, is the experience of hearing this music on a dance floor surrounded by people who are going off. At its best, the electronic music experience brings together people from all walks of life to celebrate and move to the same unifying rhythms. And that is its power, especially in a Balkanized era of global strife, terror and paranoia. The beauty of it is that it is born again every night in dark rooms, open fields, beaches, forests, warehouses and desert dunes around the planet -- wherever people mass around sound systems and celebrate to the pulse of electronic music.

By Andrew John Ignatius Vontz

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