Ain’t No Cure for the Digital Virus

A brief glance at my PopMatters archive reveals that I love electronic music, from The Orb and Trentemøller to Bruce Haack and Venetian Snares. At least half of my reviews are of albums that fall under that umbrella genre classification, including my first ever published at PopMatters in 2007 (that 9/10 for Younger Brother’s classic Last Days of Gravity still holds up).

Bruce Haack – Party Machine

I was not always an addict of electronic sound, though. Actually, for many years, I thought it was nothing short of stupid. I grimaced at the mere mention of “dance” music. Whenever I was asked to list my least favorite music, electronic was not far behind country and metal. Thanks to stereotypes perpetuated by misleading anti-drug propaganda and ill-informed films, I figured the whole notion of electronic music was a litany of repetitive bullshit devoid of any songwriting skill that existed somewhere between Ace Of Base, Much Dance Mix ’95, and chemically induced seizures. I even went so far as to say, and I quote, “electronic music has no soul.”

Despite my misgivings, a few key things happened to me in my late teens and early 20s that led to my affection for the genre. For a start, I enjoyed the 1997 release of the film Spawn enough to buy its soundtrack, a pivotal release that featured over a dozen all-star collaborations between electronic artists (few of whom I was aware of at the time) and popular rock musicians. It paired the likes of DJ Spooky with Metallica, Moby with the Butthole Surfers, Prodigy with Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, and Sneaker Pimps with Marilyn Manson. One of my favorite tracks was the Filter assisted remake of “Trip Like I Do” by Crystal Method, the original of which appeared on their debut album Vegas.

Filter and The Crystal Method – (Can’t You) Trip Like I Do

I ran into Crystal Method again a year later, through the South Park Chef Aid album. There, tucked snugly near Isaac Hayes’ “chocolate salty balls” was the track “Nowhere to Run”. It featured Ozzy Osbourne, DMX, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard [all of whom I loved] riffing lyrics and rapping over “Vapor Trail” from Crystal Method’s debut. This inspired me enough to buy Vegas. It was my first authentic electronic album purchase, although that fact did not cross my mind at the time. Nothing else got the sub in my 1980 Chevrolet Sierra kicking like Crystal Method, and to this day, Vegas is still my go-to album for testing out a speaker system.

I started smoking pot in the summer of 1998. Shortly thereafter, I randomly bought Lords of Acid’s sophomore album VooDoo-U from a used CD store, simply because one of the tracks had the word “marijuana” in it and the cover featured a lesbian devil orgy that was irresistible to my teenage self. I would not realize it for many years, but that album turned out to have a massive impact on my future musical tastes. Lords Of Acid was raunchier than a kiddie pool full of baby-oiled Paris Hiltons. VooDoo-U was full of genre unspecific variety, lustful lyrics, and the darkest synthetic sounds 1994 could muster. Although I had little context for either VooDoo-U or Vegas at the time, I could not stop listening to them.

Lords of Acid – VooDoo-U

In my second year of college, I started hanging out with a neo-hippy named Jan. We bonded over politics and poetry, and argued late in the night about the validity of electronic music. At that point, I was still mostly into classic rock, rap, and indie. Despite my apprehension, he exposed me to drum and bass, breakbeat [akin to the big beat of Crystal Method], and progressive trance. He took me to my first rave in 2002.

The first time I ever truly danced was in 2003 at the Manga club night in Edinburgh, Scotland. Before that point, I only ever head-bobbed to the latest singles from Eminem [who I now loathe] and Jay-Z [to whom I am now indifferent]. I suddenly found myself dancing to that “repetitive bullshit” music I had so openly despised. That night, I was fortunate to see London Elektricity perform live with Stamina MC, upright bassist Andy Waterworth, BBC Jazz Award winner Liane Carroll, and the notorious Jungle Drummer. The title track from VooDoo-U planted the seeds, but London Elektricity cemented my love of drum and bass.

London Elektricity – Billion Dollar Gravy (Live)

A crack in that formerly firmly closed door appeared, and more electronic music started to slip into my collection. I attended local club nights, hung out with DJ crews, and made yearly pilgrimages to summer weekend festivals. I attended three Shambhalas in Nelson, three Soundwaves on Vancouver Island, and a Tribal Gathering in Manchester. I still liked classic rock, indie, and hip-hop, albeit far more independent and liberal minded than the misogynistic, materialistic rap of my teens, but unconsciously and over time, electronic music dominated my taste and interest. What’s more, it changed the way I listened to music.

Not to deride any genre, but you cannot approach electronic music with the same mindset as you do hip-hop and rock, genres that derive the majority of their meaning through lyrics and the arrangement of pitched notes. With electronic music, the sounds are frequently more important than the structure within which they are placed. The many classifications of electronic music often overwhelm people trying to decipher the plethora of subgenres that follow DJ names and club nights on flyers. That is fine, but the mark of great electronic artists lay in their ability to creating revolutionary sounds, designing sounds that push technology beyond its years.

The ultimate success of most electronic music is marked by a specific audience response: dancing. Of course, people love busting a move to rock, hip-hop, pop, and most other genres, but electronic music has its own unique rave culture, one that shapes the styles of dance and forms of social interaction that accompany a good electronic show. It is called “dance” music for a reason. Outside of experimental and committed ambient stuff, the majoritfy of electronic music post-Kraftwerk is intended to accompany and inspire movement. Even hipsters who have no idea about the history of influences behind the music of Four Tet and Girl Talk can’t stop themselves from, at least, nodding their heads at their shows.

The dancefloor at a rave style festival or electronic club night can be a little overwhelming at first. It’s different from the pop club dancefloor as significantly fewer people are dancing to be noticed, or expecting to hit on someone or be hit on. On the electronic dancefloor, people are dancing their asses off because they have to dance. Sure, there are many sexy people dancing to electronic music, but the music is getting them off [and I’ve seen dozens of men and women grinding on speakers that prove that point].

How To Dance At A Rave

(Yes, this is a joke, but if you ever do go to a rave, you will see variations of all these dances)

When you are new to electronic music, it can be intimidating to get next to those people who seem to be getting a lot more out of it. Even after I started to enjoy the music, I didn’t attempt to move to it for almost a year. Now, however, it is in me — I am fully infected by a digital virus. Though my clubbing days are long over, I cannot resist scratching that itch distinctive to electronic music: the overwhelming need to move, even if it amounts to merely rocking on the soles of my feet and nodding while pads wash over me, leads buzz past my head, and bass kicks me in the chest.

There are many layers to the listening process, and it takes a little bit of work, patience, open-mindedness, and the right setting to allow those layers to reveal meaning in this music that is relevant to you. It didn’t happen overnight for me, and if I didn’t have a good group of friends to grow with, it may have never happened. Everyone comes to electronic music in his or her own time. Merely by reading this column, you may already have unwittingly caught it — the PLUR laced fever that leads to a full-blown electronic music infection. Don’t worry, it’s not painful, but you may just get a little crazy, from time to time.