EDM backlash

“If Pac-Man affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in darkened rooms, munching magic pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.”

You may or may not know this quote allegedly uttered by a Nintendo Vice President in 1989, or Marcus Brigstock a British Comedian at about the same time, I’ll leave that up to you. But it very cleverly illustrates is life imitating art in a truly visceral sense, begging the question “To what end is ‘free will’ affected by Media involvement?” Hopefully, by the end of this article we will be a little closer to an answer.

The recent drugs incident in New York and subsequent closing of the Electric Zoo festival has sparked a flurry of activity online by parents and outraged groups calling for the banning of ‘EDM’ in America. Was this a knee jerk reaction or a reasonable parental inevitability? Were the media to blame for their portrayal of the news? Should drug taking be seen as part of dance culture much the same as marijuana is in Rastafarian society and to that end should we actually be preventing deaths through positive teaching rather than vilification and demonising those involved?

Before we get to the meat of the question lets examine briefly the history of the growth of the electronic dance scene in the USA, it did start there after all but was largely marginalised for many years. Conversely in the UK, the second ‘summer of love’ in 1988 sparked off an enormous youth movement much like Punk or even Rock n Roll before it that captured a generation who felt disenfranchised and disconnected from the main stream. Simon Reynolds writing in UK broad sheet ‘The Guardian’ speaks of history repeating itself with the recent increase in the popularity of dance music in the US, stating it isn’t so much of a phenomenon as a carefully orchestrated rebranding exercise.

However, it’s not like America had never heard of ‘EDM’ before, in the early 90s bands like The KLF, C&C Music Factory and Deelite had cracked the Billboard Top 40 and raves, both legal or otherwise were springing up all along the East and West coasts. Evidence of a ‘rave scene’ captured on film (Think Go, Blade, or any movie with a ‘dance music scene’) had kids dressed in day glo and depicted as hapless victims of drug lords unable to have a good time without drugs, rather than normal kids being normal, going to a dance club.

Pop music also took an interest in dance in its upbeat form with artists like Madonna quick to jump on UK producers and artists like Sasha and William Orbit. However this synergy didn’t last very long and soon dance music’s love affair with corporate America had come to an end, leading to an increase in popularity of the poppy hip hop/RnB hybrid sound and other more ‘normal’ forms of popular music. These sorts of pop song were preferred by commercial radio because of their conventional song structure and run time.

Major labels preferred them as developing electronic artists, who are inherently under achieving in to cash cow album sellers was harder than they had imagined. It appears it was easier to plough money back into rock bands like The Strokes or The White Stripes who could churn out albums in a matter of weeks than bet on an artist who viewed their tracks as art and who took years to make an album (cough Sasha cough!!) And so the worm turned back to a point where guitars started to out sell turntables and many American DJs moved toward Europe for better job prospects, such was the decline of the scene.

So how you ask, did the US dance promoters claw their way back into the hearts and minds of the youthful masses? Well, this is where the clever rebranding comes in. Rather than associate themselves with the word ‘rave’ and all its connotations: drugs, deaths, crime. Instead, they were rebranded as ‘festivals’. LA based Hard Events also went one step further by banning rave paraphernalia such as glow sticks, dummies and cuddly toys to further distance themselves from the stigmatised 90s dance music model.

“Older and shrewder by the late 2000s, the early 90s pioneers involved in Hard Events and Insomniac (the company behind Electric Daisy Carnival) learned how to work with the system, going through the bureaucratic hoops required to get permits, and providing the level of intensive security, entrance searches and overall safety provisions that would give political cover to their local government enablers.” Simon Reynolds

Popular music in America also turned back towards dance albeit as a radio friendly amalgam of what passes for electronic music in Europe, with artists like Skrillex combining the quintessentially British urban music of Dubstep with the synth lines of mid 2000s Electro House to create a shrill, uninviting hybrid sound and more established DJs like Kaskade providing a watered down facsimile of Trance. Arguably, the ‘rave scene’ in America, fractured as it was, lacked the grass roots punk ideology the UK scene had grown up with, meaning this rebranding of events was nothing more than backhanded conforming of youth culture for the sole purpose of control and wealth generation. Living the ‘American Dream’? Hardly.

Gossip salacious or otherwise has for a long time been a good way for artists to draw attention to themselves. Surprisingly it is something new to dance music in the digital realm, but which tragically came to ahead in America in the mid 90s with the deaths of rappers ‘2Pac’ Shakur and Christopher ‘Biggie Smalls’ Wallace. They were, if you remember, embroiled in a vicious back and forth verbal sparing match who ended up in them both being shot. On a lesser level these days is the spiteful twitter based vitriol of DJ Sneak, self proclaimed ‘House Gangster’ who it seems, is determined to publicly lash out at anyone and everyone who annoys him. We can debate the validity of his accusations ad nauseum, however the sad truth is his actions to draw attention to himself, chip away at the very scene he is supposed to be an ambassador of, creating a dumbing down of the perception of electronic music to the masses and further giving credence to the backlash we are seeing from concerned parents and a God fearing, uneducated minority.

“Newspapers with declining circulations can complain all they want about their readers and even say they have no taste. But you will still go out of business over time. A newspaper is not a public trust – it has a business model that either works or it doesn’t.” Marc Andreessen

Telling the news is big business and the ultimate goal of any business is to increase sales. One obvious way of doing this is to print stories which slant a certain way for your readership, this allows the paper to become a source of reason to many who feel and think the same way. It also means the paper can (if it wants) shape peoples perceptions and ideals to fit an agenda. Dance music’s lifespan has been a real roller coaster story, but its tale has always been told a certain way by the Press. From the Disco Sucks demonstrations at Cominsky Park July 12th 1979 to the Electric Zoo drug deaths this year, the popular media’s view of dance music and its fans always appears to be negative. As Bill Hicks famously quipped “You never see a positive drug story on the news, do ya?”

Governments historically have viewed youth culture as something which needed controlling. In the UK, the Tory’s passed law which meant gatherings of more than 11 people could be viewed as raves and were allowed to be shut down by police, from which fines could be levied. It was called the Criminal Justice Bill. In America, promoters were prosecuted under erroneous and vague interpretations of certain laws surrounding crack houses. Furthermore, Congress debated a complete ban based on the fact club owners knowingly allowed drug use on their premises. Interestingly, Blogger Derek Staples points out that the language used in the US media has not changed in over 10 years paraphrasing that rampant drug use and youth culture have evolved concurrently.

My point is this: The Beatles took drugs, so did the Rolling Stones and so did their fans, so drugs and youth culture isn’t a new phenomenon. Drugs also kill a fraction of the people that alcohol or tobacco do, but we all know that and I won’t bore you with the whole legalise drugs line. I’m also not about to condone drugs or their use for recreational pleasure, but what I will say is there should be more education aimed at kids to make them aware and allow them to make informed choices based on actual facts and not government rhetoric. Like it or not, kids will experiment. They also have the sense to say no. The youth of today are much more street savvy than even my generation and are much more equipped to make life choices for themselves. They are victims of a society where consumerism is king and a group of marketing executives are powerful enough to tell us what to like and what to listen to (as long as it makes them money). I think the parents who have set up these online petition groups have every right to; it’s the attitudes they carry with them which upset me (and every other music fan). We aren’t all drug crazed, lay about, tax dodging, needs a good talking to types. A lot of us hold down really quite stressful jobs, and if we want to go out at the weekend and decompress we should be allowed to. Music is my religion and I don’t need to wait until Sunday to go to church.