The Electric Zoo of Uncritical Good Times

David Guetta, a guy whose music you almost certainly have heard whether you know him or not, stares blankly into a webcam to accept the first ever American Music Award for Electronic Dance Music. To arrive at this teleconferenced acceptance speech, Guetta had to beat out Calvin Harris and Skrillex, two musicians as disparate as disco and steampunk, here united under the banner of EDM. Guetta seems gracious, although it is telling that he is doing this from Brazil about to go on stage at a major festival, he informs the viewing audience. He is not in Los Angeles to accept what, again he tells us, is a very important award, being that it’s the first one. David Guetta by webcam before he’s about to do something else: If this is the moment electronic dance music crosses officially into the mainstream, it all feels a bit empty.

As big as EDM has become in the United States, and 2012 was the year it either firmly jumped the shark or leapt confidently into the mainstream, it is still largely an international tradition breaking hard on the shores of the U.S. music consumer and concertgoer. Guetta is only minutes away from the taking the stage in at the More Music Festival in Brazil, where he will DJ his set, playing a blend of his own hit music and remixing other material. Guetta, like so many of his peers in the elite DJ community, represents an ability to crank out hit music that plays equally well at festivals and on radio, alongside the occupational hazard of playing his own music live. During that evening’s performance of Guetta’s hit song, “She Wolf (Falling to Pieces)”, he will back away from his decks and raise his hands in mock triumph, as the song powers toward its most important moment: The drop. Guetta takes this confusing theater even further, standing on the platform that holds his decks, arms raised as “She Wolf” plays on unassisted. Brazil goes wild as Guetta, quite literally, does nothing. In this rapidly mainstreamed genre, at the most critical moment, the DJ is often intentionally and obviously doing nothing. The transformational moment is hollow. The Brazilian crowd bounces as if carbonated under the accompanying laser light show, but it is Americans who are left either confused or in love.

This moment at the American Music Awards represents the fundamental contradiction of electronic dance music as the genre confronts the problems of enormous popularity, especially among the coveted 18-35 year old demographic. But who is the dominant driver in this emerging generation of EDM? While the genre’s surging popularity certainly covers a broader swath of the older fans, people who were fans of earlier trance and house music movements — the 1990s boiled this impulse down to Moby, Paul Oakenfold, Paul Van Dyk, the movies Trainspotting and Go — the genre’s current sui generis is more intimately tied to a broad and young following among high school, college, and recently graduated kids; call them the post-Berlin Wall generation or the kids who were in utero when Nirvana released the record of the same name. If 9/11 was an elementary school memory, you are far more likely to be a fan of Pretty Lights or Tiesto. Michael Rapino, CEO of the concert promoting conglomerate Live Nation, told the New York Times last spring, “If you’re 15-25 years old right now, this is your rock‘n’roll.” This demographic supports the larger EDM market, a four-billion-dollar global industry, giving the genre the highest rate of growth among all U.S. mainstream genres in terms of record sales for 2011. The 2012 iteration of Electric Daisy Carnival at the New Meadowlands sold out its 60,000 tickets, each priced upwards of $100, in less than three hours, while 165,000 fans descended on Miami for its Ultra Festival last year. These numbers have become the rule, not the exception, when it comes to the current marketplace for electronic dance music. The kids aren’t just alright, they’re buying two-day passes.

Can something so popular be suitably counted as an emerging movement? And if the subgenre has crossed over into the mainstream, as the AMAs would suggest, what does this movement mean, especially given its comparative lack of “newness”? Electronic dance music is already a well-documented phenomenon among college and high school students, and the opportunity to attend one of the regional festivals like Electric Zoo or the Electric Daisy Carnival presents the chance to don neon tank-tops, non-ironic Wayfarers, wear face paint, and do designer drugs.

David Guetta accepts the 2012 American Music Award for EDM

This broader cultural behavior of the young surely represents nothing new, even if some of the proper nouns have changed. This is the long tradition of children trying to alarm their parents, the kind of thing that makes Don Draper not grasp the Beatles and feel passé backstage at a Stones concert, the kind of thing that made concerned contemporaries worry about a jazz club appearing next door to a home for young, unwed mothers in the 1920s. The moral health of the next generation is nearly always under attack from something. In the American musical DNA, this goes all the way back to the invention of ragtime, when John Philip Souza’s marches became beautifully bastardized by small-town bands on the backside of the Civil War, much to chagrin of the antebellum establishment. This was the beginning of pop music in America, Souza done on banjo, threatening the Old Order with a storming of the cultural Bastille while your parents and the King’s guards ran for cover. Counterculture pop has always threatened rebellion. Electronic dance music, too, is youth in revolt. Sort of.

The AMAs and Mr. Guetta’s long-distance and distant acceptance speech represent a tipping point of sorts, a symbolic fulcrum from which EDM must, in some sense, confront what, if anything, it is or is not. As massive and broadly defined as the genre has become, is it hollow at its center? As Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, is there “no there there”?

Last June, I was riding in a terrifyingly reckless SuperShuttle from the Los Angeles International Airport and got talking with a girl a bit younger than I, she a George W. Bush teenager and me, a Clinton-era adolescent. She was straight off the plane from Vegas where she attended the Electric Daisy Carnival. More than 200,000 people attended the year before, and this airport shuttle stranger guessed that the 2012 festival had broken this number with its dense lineup of heavy-hitters. As suburban Los Angeles, a place that is no place, whipped by the windows, I peppered her with questions about the meaning of the experience. The headliners were not surprising: Guetta, Tiesto, Avicii, Calvin Harris, and old-guard representative Moby. I finally asked my SuperShuttle friend what was her most transcendent moment of the EDC Vegas? “Seeing Avicii play ‘Levels’ live,” she replied, before offering an aside about how important it was to have your drugs peaking near the middle of the headliner’s set. It was a damning and enlightening moment. There was no explanation of what, if anything, it meant to “play” one’s own song live if you were a DJ, although some hardcore EDM fans pursue live variations in DJ sets the way Phish fans talk about Trey guitar solos in “Weekapaug Groove”. But this fan, a 30-minute friend from the airport, wasn’t so much interested Avicii changing “Levels” for the live performance as she was interested in hearing the song with a lot of other people, very loud and while on drugs. This was to have a modern, unencumbered aesthetic experience without a whole lot of critical bullshit (see: this) tied to it.

This group-think and the popular drug culture of the EDM festival scene are useful entry points to wrestling with what makes this subgenre both the same and different from kids doing LSD at Woodstock, Snoop smoking enormous blunts in Long Beach, and the Strokes bumping rails in the Mercury Lounge greenroom. Drugs and popular music intertwine in a way everyone knows implicitly, whether they’ve done drugs or not or ever watched the middle 30 minutes of an episode Behind the Music. Molly, the drug of choice in the EDM community, is what I grew up calling “X” or “E” or “Ecstasy”, though the festival kids contend that Molly is purer form, MDMA unadulterated, in roughly the same way Adderall is allegedly preferable to street-slung speed.

Labels matter. Molly sounds innocuous; its biggest drawbacks are second-day malaise and easily mitigated dehydration. Molly’s biggest danger is that it feels awesome. This soft counterculture of escapism, comfort, and pills is maybe even a predictable response from the children of a generation of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pharma-popping parents. This is not to say you, in some compulsory sense, must do drugs to “get” EDM. But by analogy, you probably can’t grasp the late Beatles without experiencing pot, and probably shouldn’t listen to most rock music without a working knowledge of whiskey.

Molly simply represents a unique brand of escapism on which this generation of adolescents and post-adolescents has the market cornered. It’s hard to blame them. They are neck deep in the generational shit left unresolved by the previous two. Clinton-era kids found nothing against which to rebel, their parents having built no edifice of the ilk of the ‘40s or ‘50s to tear down. In turn, the children who came of age in 1990s built nothing themselves, save highly compartmentalized, comfort-laden DIY experiences. Overly progressive education and being focused on “feelings” and the following of passions, however inane, certainly didn’t help — cultural edifices are rarely built or torn down in an absence of judgment. The adolescents of the 1990s who saw nothing to rebel against built even less against which to rebel.

Electric Daisy festival trailer

At some point, the Hegelian cultural dialectic broke. No one played the reindeer games of dominant values versus subversive ones. Culture slipped into a gutless relativism. Old counterculture signifiers were too easily co-opted as indie rock devolved into the Garden State soundtrack and Urban Outfitters began selling wayfarers and skinny jeans. Counterculture went up for sale and ceased to exist in the process.

So picture the teenagers of the W. Bush and then the Obama years, the prime EDM demographic, waking up as adolescents in an era where rebellion is focus-grouped, with no established cadre of elites to blame and no dare-to-be-great moment coming on the horizon. To rebel is to use your parents’ credit card on a Shins album featured at the register of your local Starbucks, or a pair of skinny Levi’s 514s and a graphic t-shirt that says something about New Jersey? It was all sort of bullshit, and they must have known it. Is it any wonder that the kids who flock to EDM festivals are looking for an extremely non-judgmental, low-think, collective moment of transformation? Everything else had suddenly gotten complicated, the old tropes of “kids in revolt” overgrown or commercialized to death. If rebellion was out, or if the palace was empty, it at least made sense to get together. If EDM feels like an exceptionally weak counterculture, it is a product of a much older cultural anxiety.

This is not too far away from a telling impulse in recent Top 40 pop music urging us to “having a good time tonight” and “tonight being a good night” and “letting go tonight.” It is a grand cultural reverse psychology. Only a society so hopelessly anxious and unsure could generate so much popular music about having a great time tonight. Only a society having such an unadulterated bad time could love so much music about having a good one. In some sense, 200,000 people at the Electric Daisy Carnival in Vegas are maybe just coping, together. It wasn’t like EDM moved in to challenge and kill a dominant cultural establishment; there wasn’t even one to kill.

Despite this generational tension, the other vexing question has to do with the EDM’s enormous popularity and completely unthreatening aspirations. For better or worse, the last three major counter-culture movements to take hold in American music sought to overturn the established order, to be an enemy at the gates. Jazz, rock, and then rap all were overwhelming male, menacing, and appeared wantonly sexualized to the established orthodoxies. They sought a certain tension, an anger even — not just anyone could be in them — and the original authors of the movement kept a certain weird OG status even as middle-class suburban kids adopted their phrasing and signifiers. Baudrillard would, perhaps, have only shrugged watching college students bark “London Calling”, or most curiously, rooms full of largely white, upper middle class kids shouting along with Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy”, turning the menacing chorus into a moment of uncertainty about the politics of repeating the n-word.

The revolution is always co-opted. It sells too many records or ends up in a poster on the wall of a suburban teenager. But jazz, rock, and rap were all, in some sense, violent challenges to the System, even as they were adopted into the mainstream. So, EDM fits these categories and then also not at all. It is broad and popular and young, but it aspires to no systemic change.

In fact, the unifying response from the EDM fan when asked what it all means is: it’s just fun. Something no one ever would have said in the formative years of jazz, rock, or rap. Perhaps this is the first counterculture movement that has been co-opted from the start, relentlessly commercial, broadly and self-assuredly popular. There is no value placed on originality — consider the very role of the DJ as a walking pastiche of loops and samples — or authenticity, or any need to be a romanticized outsider, all hallmarks of traditional American counterculture, especially in rock and rap. There is no leather jacket or skinny jeans or flat-brim hat, all signifiers from past cultural uprisings that have been noticeably commercialized. There is no danger in Electronic Dance Music, only tank tops and an emphasis on a never-ending stream of uninterrupted good times. It’s Hair Metal and 1990s Party Rap rolled into one, even the fashion choices of EDM kids are a bricolage of Kid ‘n Play and Whitesnake. Perhaps, EDM provides a system and a rebellion at once, a sort of zero-sum culture, an intentionally empty center. It is a movement that doesn’t fear co-optation, it aspires to it.

Avicii – “Levels”

This may explain EDM’s lack of lyricism — Avicii’s “Levels” has one line and it’s about “getting a feeling” and Guetta’s “Titanium” is similarly interested in “feeling.” It is intentionally made for a global audience, no words necessary, rather the repetitive progression toward the “drop”, a universal, commercial language of aesthetic experience, pure veneer, inherently unsubstantiated. The genre is intentionally empty, no marching orders, no sadness, no danger, and no unsettling tales of adolescence, just glittering loops and samples, and the anticipation of the transformative moment to come. It is an anonymous group experience that requires no politics, no grand gestures, and no system to destroy. It is just fun, a sort of pleasure principle for a generation wading through three decades of cultural uncertainty and anxiety.

The mindlessness of the genre isn’t necessarily a drawback. Counterculture, at least as we have known it in the past, is full of non-invitations and overt prejudice. Jazz, rock, and rap, for all their power, were not open to everyone. And if a critical sensibility is missing at the center of EDM, perhaps, genre succeeds specifically for its inclusiveness. In fact, the club music scene and dance music more generally, have been bastions of safety for the LGBT community, a reflection of a certain inclusivity that rock and rap could never (and never wanted to) claim while building their temples to heterosexual male mores. This is a generation of kids that refuses to be hung-up on defining marriage or sex; everyone is invited. Writ large, EDM is a generational experience too: a desire to belong to something larger, the safety of big, anonymous groups, and acceptance of yourself in the company of others you accept and who accept you. EDM, perhaps, marks a grand no-judgment zone, festival-sized, for a generation of kids who were left no trail of breadcrumbs through the cultural wild. Drug use is recast as self-medication and cultural escapism as generational survival.

So pardon David Guetta if he doesn’t know what to say to you, the audience of the American Music Awards. Whatever American kids want to do or not do with this music is fine. It is a cash cow abroad and he is about to go out on an enormous stage in Brazil. Debate over the supposed “meaning” of EDM is anathema to Guetta. It’s supposed to have a hollowed out center. It’s supposed to be escapist. The drugs are about feeling good, as most drugs have always been. It is weird to see DJs playing their own music, especially with no hands, but none of it matters. It’s mindless by design. The generational polemics hold little relevance to fans of EDM, a movement ostensibly about thoughtless worship of aesthetics and divorced signifiers. It can mean anything to anyone and everyone is invited. In return to Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, of course, there is no there there. There wasn’t supposed to be.