As a music fan, nothing makes you feel like you’re getting old quite like living through a media-driven trend and then seeing it come back…for the third time.
So it goes with the recurring assertions that rock is dead and dance music is taking over. “Dance Madness!” screams the cover line on the latest Rolling Stone, beside a picture of Deadmau5, the Toronto-based producer who has become the masked poster child for the newest wave of electronic dance music—or, to use its more Twitter-friendly acronym, EDM. It’s a predictably melodramatic declaration from a magazine that has served as a gatekeeper of classic-rock tradition for nearly 40 years, and is thus compelled to frame the popularity of dance music as if it were some communicable mental disease.
I first noticed such rhetoric around 1990: As hair metal was starting to lose its poof, the euphoric sound of house infiltrated the pop mainstream and indie underground alike, to the point where there was little sonic distinction between an MTV hit like George Michael’s “Freedom 90” and an alt-rock anthem like Happy Mondays’ cover of “Step On.” Factor in the continued ascendancy of hip-hop, and 1990 marked the rare year when no rock band topped the Billboard album charts.
Of course, a year later, the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam brought guitars roaring back into vogue. However, by 1997, the insurrectionary promise of grunge had been diluted into the adult-contemporary angst of Matchbox Twenty, Live, and Tonic, which set the stage for dance music’s next commercial breakthrough, via the earth-quaking “electronica” of The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers. Suddenly, David Bowie was making drum ’n’ bass records, The Rolling Stones were dialing up the Dust Brothers for spare beats, and heretofore anonymous producers like Moby became media-savvy pop stars. Yet, once again, this moment yielded an over-correction: the post-millennial uprising of retro-rock bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes.
So perhaps the third time’s a charm? Evidence suggests there need not be a fourth. While Rolling Stone’s over-the-top sell of electronic dance music may seem moot here in Toronto—where we’ve nurtured a healthy dance-music culture for some three decades—this year, we’re seeing more EDM artists graduating to venues normally associated with rock bands. And they’re not just serving as incongruous, tokenisitic additions to rock-centric festival bills (see: Prodigy’s stint on the ill-fated 1997 Lollapalooza tour), but dominating the city’s summer-concert calendar.
Over Canada Day weekend, the DJ-driven Digital Dreams festival brought some 25,000 revelers to the Molson Amphitheatre grounds; this Saturday, the Full Flex Express tour, headlined by dubstep star Skrillex, hits Fort York’s Garrison Common, which will also host the inaugural Toronto edition of L.A.’s electronic-focused HARD Music Festival in August. Even Edgefest, that bastion of black-T-shirted alt-rock, will feature its first-ever EDM tent this weekend (despite the fact sponsor station 102.1 the Edge doesn’t play any of the artists performing in it).
There are myriad factors contributing to EDM’s mainstream ubiquity. The internet has enabled producers to bypass traditional media and mobilize fans online. First-wave ravers have spawned a new generation of dance enthusiasts, creating an ever-larger critical mass. Behemoth North American concert promoter LiveNation is now in the business of acquiring rave-production companies. Throughout the 2000s, the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Justice furthered dance/rock crossover efforts in the indie realm, while superstar artists from Kanye to Gaga have reintroduced club sounds to pop radio. And, lest we forget, there’s the completely moribund state of mainstream rock.
Historically speaking, young people want to listen to loud, obnoxious music that reflects their loud, obnoxious selves. And for several decades, rock music served that purpose admirably. But the infrastructures that used to supply a steady stream of new rock stars (major labels, FM radio, music-video channels) are now both less dominant and less adventurous. And while rock purists like to write off electronic artists as a bunch of nerds dicking around on a laptop (heck, even Deadmau5 recently admitted as much), EDM’s most visible ambassadors actually embody the swagger and cult of personality inherent to rock stardom better than most of their six-string-slinging contemporaries: Skrillex’s Tommy Lee-approved dubstep, for instance, landed him on SPIN’s recent list of the Top 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time even though he doesn’t play the instrument. And when given the choice between what passes for a rock star these days—whether that’s Chris Martin or Chad Kroeger—and someone like Deadmau5, who wears a metallic mask, shoots lasers out of his eyes, and shit-talks Madonna… well, who’s going to look more exciting to a net-trolling teenager?
It’s possible that, a decade from now, Skrillex’s hairdo will look as dated as Keith from The Prodigy’s psycho-clown cut does today, and that future generations will ironically dress up as Deadmau5 for Halloween just as our parents did with the Village People. But no matter what the mainstream media decides to call dance music the next time around, the beat will go on. What we’re experiencing is not some form of “dance madness.” By all measurable 2012 standards—YouTube hits, Facebook Likes, tour revenues—it is very much, and quite predictably, the norm.
SUMMER OF EDM
July 13 Full Flex Express Tour (Skrillex, Diplo) at Fort York
July 14 Edgefest’s EDM stage (w/ JFK from MSTRKRFT) at Downsview
July 21 Identity Festival (Paul van Dyk, Eric Prydz) at Echo Beach
Aug. 4 HARD Toronto (M83, Justice, Austra) at Fort York
Aug. 4–5 Veld Music Festival (Deadmau5, Bassnectar, Steve Aoki) at Downsview