It was a rock concert without the guitar. Skrillex jammed on a computer rather than a keyboard, playing a synthetic bass rather than a drum set. His avatar on the LED screen behind him made Skrillex seem larger than life, as if he were a puppeteer controlling the audience, which was sprinkled with neon, glow sticks and flashing finger lights. During his 300+ shows this year, Sonny Moore — as Skrillex — commanded the attention of a rock star but played the electronic music of an underground rave.
“That’s what people are into, the rock star DJ,” said Alex Lin, DJ and light producer with student company EasyLove Records at UC Santa Barbara. “It’s more about the experience, the rock star DJ that puts on a good show.”
And people are into it. Skrillex is the first-ever dance artist to be Grammy-nominated for Best New Artist. He received four other Grammy nominations, and three went to house music producer deadmau5. Although the artists have been around for a few years, the difference is that in 2009 deadmau5 was confined to Lollapalooza’s electronic tent, Perry’s, and in 2011 he headlined the main stage. Like deadmau5, Electronic Dance Music (EDM) — though some people still mistakenly call it “techno” — has graduated from the kiddie table.
“Perry’s tent used to be small, but this year it was massive. Every year it gets bigger and bigger,” said Chris Miller, who works at WaveMachine Labs, a Chicago-based music software company, and graduated from Northwestern University’s now extinct music technology major.
EDM is gaining momentum, especially with the 18-21 crowd. Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) drew an audience of 230,000 this summer in Las Vegas, and this spring, the first-ever electronic music spring break for college students, Electro Beach, will take place in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. For the first time in history, EDM is in the American youth mainstream.
History: When it was “rave” instead of “rage”
Skrillex is leading EDM into the public arena, but he’s only the cherry on top, the peak of the wave. What of the force supporting him, pushing him to success?
It all started with the development of a little thing called the “rave,” a crazy colored, drug-infused party that featured—or included, as the culture necessitated a platform of equality —EDM, like “techno,” “trance” or “house.” Though its roots lie in the 1960s counter culture, the American rave went through all sorts of transformations, hitting its peak in the 1980s as private dance parties held in gay clubs and lasting until the 1990s and early 2000s. By then, the “rave” had become a subculture of American youth, characterized by a “peace, love, unity, respect” mentality that accepted members from the fringes of society. But it still held on to the music.
So, where is the rave now? It has disseminated across the American landscape. Some of it still exists in abandoned city warehouses, drawing participants from Facebook and other connections. Other aspects of the rave are right under your nose, in Chicago’s Congress Theater, at festivals like EDC or Miami’s Ultra and in college fraternities across the country. The rave has paved the road for the rave-like concert.
“The grassroots-organized rave events from yesteryear have given way to about six different types of parties today,” explains Dr. Tammy Anderson, author of Rave Culture: The Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia Music Scene. “One of those is a superstar one-off, where deadmau5 is the main act, the sole act, at a night club. It’s billed and promoted ahead of time and he’s portrayed as the superstar.” The other five types of parties she describes are music festivals, underground parties, corporate raves, monthlies and weeklies.
The difference between today’s “superstar one-off” and the traditional rave, which Anderson argues cannot be found in its totality, is in their zeitgeists. The overarching goal of a one-off, or concert, is to make money by selling tickets. This is “against the peace, love, unity ethos of the past,” she said. The rave’s participants were once “glued together by an ideology” — an egalitarian principle — that would have prohibited the idea of a “superstar” in the first place.
“Artists are popular and some of the songs are popular. What I’m not seeing is peoples’ endorsement of a collective scene, a coordination of an aesthetic,” Anderson said.
This can be confusing. With all the neon, glow sticks and drugs that are, indeed, found in today’s EDM “superstar one-off,” it can look like a rave. For most, though, it’s just a party and opportunity to rage. “The joke among DJ’s is that it’s rave, not rage,” said Lin.
What we are seeing, though, is a new kind of concert experience influenced by both rave history and rock shows, which, unlike raves, have always promoted the idea of a “superstar.”
“DJs are the new rock stars, dance music is the new rock,” said Ryan Russell, 21, who was a Resident DJ at Ruby Skye, the “holy-grail of DJing in San Francisco,” and whose DJ career took him as far as Ibiza, Spain, “the Mecca of dance music.”
Of course, a rock concert looks a little different from an EDM show. One has instruments, and the other features none — at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, it has, well, everything else…
Bass in your face: Inundating the senses
“We drop BASS in your FACE!”
“Is the bass high enough?”
Throughout the soundscape of Electronic Dance Music, lyrics reflect what makes the genre unique: shows that completely overwhelm their audiences with sound, lights, images and heavy bass.
“The difference now is that you go crazy," said Dave Sumberg, who studies music theory and electrical engineering at NU. "EDM today is utilizing a principle of music that has been around for centuries: tension and resolution. With Mozart, you thought, what’s going to happen next? And he’d land on a perfect authentic cadence. But now, instead of a perfect authentic cadence, it’s heavy shit in your face.”
In addition to providing the audience with sounds they cannot receive on personal listening devices, artists are capitalizing on the “full experience” mentality.
“Artists are definitely focusing on production a lot more so than ever before as a way to create a special live experience for fans,” said Hunter Williams, manager for artists such as Pretty Lights, MiM0SA and 3LAU.
It’s more about the unique experience, the rock star DJ that puts on a good show, said Lin. Take Steve Aoki, for example. “He started a successful record label and event company in Hollywood, but is famous for pouring alcohol on people while he’s DJing. He’ll just pour Grey Goose on people, and that’s the iconic Steve Aoki," said Lin. "He doesn’t DJ that intensely. He’ll let a song play for 7 minutes, he’ll go out into the crowd, crowd surf in a kayak, or lately he’s been pie-ing people in the face. He’ll rage on stage. He’ll do everything but DJ."
The lights are also a huge component of today’s rave-rage concert. “You can go to any room and listen to loud music, but when you have lighting, it heightens the emotions and the energy,” said Kyle Kegan, lighting director currently on tour with Michal Menert and Gramatik, both signed under the Pretty Lights record label.
EDM concerts today provide more than a show to audiences. They encourage dancing, new friends, light shows, heavy bass and new sounds—in other words, a big, fat party.
“Going to an electronic music show is like participating in a collective celebration with people who share your passion. Your passion for good beats, spectacular visuals, physical expression,” said Jennifer Piemonte, who has been to raves and EDM concerts.
The collision of rock, rave and bass has made its way into the mainstream concert circuit.
“Popular music is not a genre but a tornado that meanders through genres," said Sumberg. "This stop is really about the experience. The ideal situation is not listening to dance music on headphones. It’s being around people, being there and being fucked up."
Although EDM has enjoyed popularity in the past — in raves and European clubs, for example — it has never hit the American mainstream until now.
A mainstream artist, David Guetta, is in the number one slot on DJ Mag’s “Top100 DJs” list. “This year was the first time we've seen a mainstream artist win, knocking Armin van Buuren to number two for the first time in five years,” said Russell.
However, EDM still has a ways to go. Russell looks forward to the day when the public can navigate the scene to learn the correct lingo and find good music. To those who already do, he says: “Thank you for not calling it techno.”