In the beginning, there was Jack, and Jack had a groove. And from this groove came the groove of all grooves. He declared: “Let there be house!” and house music was born …
And so the bodies murmured and moved, indistinctly, uncertainly, in dark communion. They jacked their bodies to the beat; they stepped, danced that erratic dance, on a path from nowhere to nowhere, yet somewhere to somewhere … they gyrated and funked, invisible but for the dim pulses of light. A hand, a head, some fingers glowing in the light — then nothing. They were one, a body without organs, swinging in fervid, sweltering unison; they were themselves, and each other, disparate, chaotic. Freedom to move, and laugh and love — this was the rave. PLUR: That was the word used to describe that uninhibiting feeling, liberated from the boundary between human and human. That was then, before electronic dance music was Electronic Dance Music, when it was called house — not my house or your house, it was our house once you entered it — and it lived a fresh life underground in urban tenements and clubs, sequestered from society.
Electronic Dance Music (EDM) has since become ubiquitous. It is indeed a young music — 30 or perhaps 40 years old, an infant in the world of music — yet it has already become a worldwide phenomenon, with billions of adherents from around the world. Defined by extravagant, light-up festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), Tomorrowland and Creamfields, EDM has been remade into an attractive and flashy form of entertainment. But in its current iteration, EDM is an invented pseudonym, popularized and resurrected in the last decade, seeking to encapsulate the enumerable multitudes of electronic music and repackage them into brand names and market items. The electronic music of old defied such enclosure; it was its free-bounding antithesis. Nevertheless, EDM has presently become a singular commodity: criticized as fungible and commercial, consumed thoughtlessly, stretched into a vapid abstraction of its political roots.
Modern EDM is an agent of popular entertainment culture, the capitalist-driven phenomenon that entrances the masses. Whether or not this transformation has enriched or spoiled this music remains debatable. It is no secret that the main characters of the pop culture narrative are white, and EDM is no exception. Electronic Dance Music today evokes a nearly all-white, all-male cis-het cast of characters playing amidst stunning LED displays and hissing CO2 cannons in front of an excited, homogenous crowd of concertgoers (mostly white). It is lamentably unsurprising that 85 of 100 DJs in the 2016 DJ Mag Top 100 are white. This poll, criticized by DJs and news writers alike as a popularity contest, has nevertheless become somewhat equivalent to fame, creating a pantheon within Electronic Dance Music. The names — Martin Garrix, Hardwell, Tiësto — evoke recognition in both neophytes and longtime ravers. And for a moment, this spectacle, this hollow extravagance, is quite beautiful. Yet it is a far cry from the obscure, mysterious soul of that electronic music of old, the renegade sounds of the underground.
In this nostalgia we ask, “What happened?”
Electronic Dance Music™
Before EDM was EDM, it was just electronic dance music, and before even then it was trance, techno, disco, jungle, DnB, breaks, house — multitudes of music, and of peoples. Born as a safe space for queer persons of color, it was an institution of liberation operating outside the state. The Electronic Dance Music of today is a proper noun, a trademark, given identity by the dominant discourse. Though the abbreviation “EDM” has been in use for some time, only recently has EDM become a mass commodity. It conjures a picturesque image of opulent festivities, neon lights and jubilant crowds. This romantic vignette of Electronic Dance Music is a fixed point — a meme created by the state: a fantastical, capitalistic hedonism that fetishizes and replaces the liberatory hedonism of early electronic dance music. The images of the “raver,” kandi ecstasy bracelets and the mystical PLUR are all for sale today, market commodities in the conferral of “raver” status. The former “sounds of the underground” are a subset of the mainstream, a commodified “underground” identity that has the look of the counterculture but the stench of the sociocultural superstructure of the state.
Moreover, EDM has forgotten how to be political: YourEDM, based on its “political” news coverage in 2016, seemed to have understood the politicity of EDM as short Twitter jests by famous DJs against President Donald Trump, MAKJ’s “FUCK DONALD TRUMP” festival chant and “GOP Presidential Hopeful Marco Rubio Listens to EDM.” This understanding of the political is establishmentarian at best and partisan at worst; the gestures lack in substance, and form is treated as a contrived resistance that engages the common politics of the dominant discourse. This vulgarian activism is a false substitute for the subversive, extrapolitical institutions that defined the dynamic infancy of electronic music. Back then, electronic dance music was imaginative and transgressive; the question proposed was not a partisan one of Democrat versus Republican but a classist struggle between the hegemonic discourse and those excluded from it. Today, Electronic Dance Music is a commodified shadow of that iconoclasm, a perversion — or maybe even a blasphemy — of the previous ritual it embodied. It is conformity to a particular brand of “acceptable” subversion.
Meanwhile, “electronic dance music” uncapitalized is no trademark. Free of commodity, defined solely by its own existence, it is the most humble, most mundane strand of this music. If Electronic Dance Music is the capitalistic baroque, “grandeur incarnate,” with its gods standing elevated on the stage in a baptism of shimmering light and smoke, spreading his hands over the multitudes below, casting spells of thunderous music into the air — then electronic dance music is artistic realism: simple and genuine. It is a subtle form of ubiquity, a fringe act of performance that continually subverts reality from the sidelines. Most of all, it is not a fixed point; it is rhizomatic in musical form, weaving many evolving textures, layers and samples into music, inhabiting all identities and aspects. There is something contentious about the sound of EDM itself, literally assimilating and collecting bits and pieces of sampled music, melding them into a new creation. It challenged the idea of musical creation and performance through its existence. It was emphatically unnatural and digitized, a cyborg on the dancefloor wrought of spare mechanical parts and a human touch. It was the music of the Other; it was music unlike any other heard before.
The counterculture has long been linked to political music, having harbored the anti-war protest songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, anti-establishmentarian punk rock and civil rights movement hymns. Songs from the folk “We Will Overcome” to “Imagine” by John Lennon to even “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana have become nearly synonymous with political music in many circles, embodying an eclectic array of anti-statist themes from rebellion to harmony. Even blues — the sound of Black America in the early 20th century — was countercultural. The structure of blues itself, with its dogmatic creation of uncharted harmonies, chords and rhythms, was subversive already, and songs like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in the era of Jim Crow floated the voice of the oppressed itself past the boundary of the political and into mainstream ears.
But electronic dance music holds scarcely a similar infamy in the present. If it holds any connotation today, it is an infamy defined by all-too-frequent drug deaths and juvenoia. Perhaps it previously held a more notorious connotation, one stemming from the days of illegal warehouse raves and secret apartment parties. No matter. EDM is one assimilated thread of many in the cultural mainstream. A recent demographic survey by Nielsen shows that the largest block of EDM fans today are young, middle-class, white males. They are perhaps the group most normalized by the dominant discourse; they are the heirs to the political nexus of America, inhabiting a bulwark of privilege within the established state. EDM therefore espouses a banal type of rebelliousness, one that functions within the confines of the state while satisfying the most standard consumers of this entertainment.
Electronic dance music claims to be apolitical. It is a hedonistic space of boundless, interpersonal exchange, unhindered by human difference. Its motto — Peace, Love, Unity, Respect (PLUR) is all-encompassing and all-loving — but it is a conscious ignorance. Electronic dance music is a powerful oxymoron, as its apolitical nature neither recognizes nor knows any human difference: Therein lies its inherent politicality. Its utopian existence was in and of itself a political statement, a subconscious act of protest against the politics of the dominant discourse. Electronic dance music was the lovechild of this sociality, a futuristic performance of technological escapism that beat a frenetic, apocalyptic rhythm into the hearts of the oppressed. Played by beat-juggling disk jockeys — the progenitors to modern DJs — music, once ephemeral, taken song for song, became the a continuous set: a seamless transition from music into music that upheld in perpetuity this impossible space of interpersonality.
As the boundaries between songs blurred, so did the boundaries between people. And so electronic dance music lived a double consciousness, critically aware of its flowering existence outside the boundaries of the political, but simultaneously aware that its apolitical existence was dangerous. Once, it was a foremost countercultural movement, a sequestered space of social interchange unregulated by the austerity and auspices of society. Gawk at its successor, the EDM of today: It is a farce, a deceptive, romantic display that claims lineage to this house music of old. It dresses as the real thing, perhaps, but the soul is lost. Jack’s groove plays on in perpetuity, but few recognize it.
The birthplace of electronic dance music in the United States is said to be Chicago. Then, it was called house music, supposedly named after The Warehouse, one of the gay nightclubs that formed a safe space for those of all ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender expressions and economic classes. Blending disco, Afro-Latin and funk influences, Chicago house was a dynamic, nimble music, punctuated with samples of soul and gospel verses and chants. It burgeoned in the underground of the Chicago nightlife, quickly populating various queer and black spaces throughout the city. Later, Chicago house would develop into acid house, the soundtrack of late ‘80s and early ‘90s raves in the United Kingdom, marked by its famous squelching basslines generated by the famed Roland TB-303 bassline generator.
Detroit techno, the other pillar of early American house music, represented an alternate tradition of subaltern socialization. Perhaps some soul of the decline of Detroit’s industries, from the time when the phrase “Rust Belt” entered the American lexicon, ingrained itself in the futuristic, post-industrial, consciousness of techno, creating an austere, almost-paranoid melancholy through music. Influenced by the gay black DJs of Chicago house, Detroit techno became associated with Afrofuturism, an emphatically African-American cultural aesthetic melding elements of magical realism and technologism. Detroit techno was therefore a safe space wherein, amidst the decline and neglect of the Detroit African-American middle class, the imagination of a future became plausible, especially one that transcended the color line and identity.
The concurrent development of the house scene in Europe reflected a similar liberatory sentiment. Unlike the explicitly queer spaces of the American electronic music landscape, the U.K. rave scene had a largely white, young, working-class following, a remnant of the dominant discotheques of the previous decade. Though dance music had been popular for some time overseas, acid house music exploded onto the British scene in the late ‘80s after a group of four DJs, returning from a summer trip to renowned Ibiza club Amnesia, attempted to replicate the open, carefree spirit of the Baelaric dance scene. It was a resounding success, and thus the transformative “Second Summer of Love” began. The raves of this period — described as “underground, forbidden, naughty” — amassed a multitude of youth from all walks of life.
In other cities worldwide — Berlin, Toronto, Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo and others — similar pockets of space carved out by the marginalized began including electronic dance music into their nightlife. The thesis of early electronic music was one of dislocation from white-heteronormative social structures: an inherent freedom and liberation. It was a type of utopian anarchy, governed only loosely by the performing DJ at the pulpit-booth — who was in reality a mere channel for the unfettered flow of divine music. Perhaps it was a characteristic of electronic dance music, in which the music existed regardless of the performer; the identity of the DJ was merely incidental. It is important, however, to note that such safe spaces of queer musical liberation catered largely to gay men, with the exception of the Paris lesbian clubbing scene, which flowered in the ‘90s. It may be too idealistic to portray early electronic dance music as a perfect space of social liberation, but it still provided a safer space for the multitudes of the marginalized.
Search and seizure
“SHOOT THESE EVIL ACID BARONS!” screamed the headline of The Sun, a British tabloid. Underneath that shocking headline was an intense account of a mother who had recently lost her child to drug abuse at a rave. Another cartoon depicted Lucifer, masked by a smiley face, grinning as young partygoers fell into Hell through a carpet labeled: “Welcome to Acid House.” Tony Colston-Hayter, the club promoter known then as “Mr. Big of Acid House,” had helped bring electronic dance music from the underground into the open air during that Second Summer of Love. Raves with thousands of teenagers began to fill the streets of London and Manchester at night. Sensational tabloid pieces tore at the fabric of electronic dance music culture as it emerged from the underground, latching onto one aspect of the scene — the use of illegal drugs like “acid” — and associated social degeneracy and chaotic lawlessness with the rave in the dominant discourse, thus demonizing the counterculture. As its popularity grew, the electronic dance music scene, once invisible and populated by invisible souls, now fell under harsh scrutiny from society. In the dead of the night, throngs of youngsters would now fill the streets suddenly after a rave, and the burst of activity would attract the attention of the police. Combined with the “druggie” connotation of the rave and the occasional, statistically unlikely death, a powerful social backlash began to develop against electronic dance music.
Tough anti-clubbing laws were enacted in the U.K., the most notorious of which was the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which criminalized the rave. Police were given power to shut down and remove people from musical performances at night characterized by “a succession of repetitive beats.” DJ Timmi Magic describes such a raid by the police on a rave, recounting the police’s confusion at the peaceable, communal nature of the rave: “They were like … what is going on? There’s no going off and fighting, everyone’s happy, everyone’s just raving. We should let it go on, but we know we can’t.” British youth took to the streets in protest, but to no avail — the Summer of Love had ended. Raves, once a countercultural stronghold, survived only through a reluctant commercialism, allowed only in licensed venues with licensed promoters. The rave was thus incorporated into the regulatory sphere of civil society.
The United States experienced a fleeting revival of rave culture in the ‘90s, centered around California, but even that was short-lived. During this brief renaissance, the Mojave desert in California and Arizona was often the site of massive raves. But as in the U.K., law enforcement was similarly drawn to such raves, perhaps owing to the contemporaneous “War on Drugs” espoused by the presidential administrations of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Anti-rave pressure intensified as negative press increased, including a 1998 Fox News exposé that featured drug-addled teenagers, turning the rave into a dangerous, immature and potentially violent party in the public imagination. A recently leaked Drug Enforcement Administration factsheet and a Department of Justice information bulletin both focused on drugs as an allegedly “integral” part of club culture, and thus the rave was branded for suppression. That information bulletin also lauded the success of Operation Rave Review in 2000, in which undercover officers, emergency transport records and rave promoter targeting formed a grand scheme by law enforcement to suppress rave culture in New Orleans. The Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act was soon proposed in 2002 by then-Senator Joe Biden to criminalize the staple drug MDMA, which was passed eventually in the form of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act.
Electronic dance music was mercilessly assailed by society. What had once been a safe space for the marginalized was now criminal and subject to invasion. The long arm of the state had gazed upon electronic dance music, deemed it dangerous and reached in with the arm of law enforcement and media, subordinating it to the political through a draconian procedure of search and seizure. Electronic dance music was banished once more into the queer spaces in urban nightclubs, where it existed as fragments of the original mundane jouissance of the ‘80s. It was not dead, but neither did it thrive. Today the histories of those spaces following the war on electronic music exist only as fragmented oral histories, sequestered from the dominant discourse. Electronic dance music would indeed become prominent over a decade later, but this second rise would not come to pass through the labor of the subaltern.
In 2016, the shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse reechoed the raids and invasions of old. The setting of this tragedy — at a gay nightclub — was disconcertingly poignant in light of the evolution of queer club culture concurrent with electronic dance music. Though this attack came not from law enforcement, but a terrorist whose motivations were less clear, it relayed a hauntingly similar message: Electronic dance music could longer be a safe space.
Telling it straight
The resurrection of electronic music was imperfect. The soul of electronic dance music had almost been forgotten, but some form of it was salvaged, or rather, appropriated, and placed into the engine of pop culture. This straightened-out form of electronic dance music was a mass rebranding effort from corporate interests in an attempt to absolve the rave from its druggie stigma. Such rebranding was not an act of altruism but of capitalism, as the machinations of the dominant discourse allowed the rave and therefore electronic dance music to be abstracted into a money-making engine. By commodifying the counterculture, the dominant discourse thereby could assuage the anger of the ravers by allowing them to relive the spirit of the rave under the auspices of the state. “Raves” became “festivals,” “techno” and “house” became “Electronic Dance Music (EDM)” and “ecstasy” became “molly.” It was a hollow imitation, but it was commercially successful.
EDM has now become the space of the middle-class white. Expensive ticket prices have made participation in the modern iteration of this musical ritual contingent upon economic status, ceding this space to middle- to upper-class, mostly white households, leaving the marginalized with little voice. Judy Park, writing in the journal Dancecult, describes a dichotomy of the “kandi ravers” of the ‘90s and white “frat bros” in the modern EDM scene based on her interviews with Asian-American festival attendees. She notes a concurrent normalization of whiteness as well in those two archetypes: The “default” race of these festival attendees in the public imagination is white. Park continues, explaining this phenomenon succinctly: “While EDM festivals … perpetuate the promise of an egalitarian utopia through the PLUR ideology, both the physical production of the events and the symbolic production of authenticity in the scene reflect the dominance of middle-class whiteness.”
As the rave was the center of activity in the early electronic dance music scene, EDM is similarly marked by festivals. On the surface, they are the same as raves: large gatherings of a multitude of young partygoers dancing to music. Symbolically, however, the “festival” is distinct from the rave; while a rave is defined as illegal, a festival is a celebration. Woodstock, for example, though not free of its own problems with illegal drugs and rioting, was a festival. The festival is, at a conceptual level, free of much of the stigma facing the rave. In reality, an association still exists in the public mind between EDM and illicit drug use, but it has hardly led to widespread reactionary laws against modern festivals. Deaths and hospitalizations from drug use, however, surged at festivals in the past two years, including HARD Summer in Los Angeles and Future Music Festival in Singapore. Still, it appears that commercialized festivals are here to stay as the present incarnation of electronic dance music.
The festival ought to be a cheerful space, but in its material splendor it has renounced its subversive roots. And when EDM thus forgot how to be political, it became blind as well to its history of a music borne of queer, marginalized spaces. Los Angeles club founder Loren Granic explains the situation in the magazine “Resident Advisor”: “We’re currently experiencing a total mainstreaming of dance music in America … many of these newcomers are straight/white kids who are very far removed from the LGBT community … I think it’s important that we highlight the role that the gay community played and that we educate new fans of dance music to the ideals of community, equality and diversity that were so crucial to dance music’s DNA from the beginning.” A music and culture born from emphatically subaltern communities has somehow become a widespread agent of the heteronormative mainstream. The EDM community today still attempts to proffer some an activist, inclusive message, sponsoring fundraisers such as Promote Diversity following Russian anti-gay legislation, but EDM’s double consciousness of simultaneous apoliticality and politicity is gone. The commodified dream of PLUR, now moribund, stirs weakly in the modern space of Electronic Dance Music.
It is possible that EDM has merely walked down the ineluctable path of cultural evolution followed by its predecessors, moving from the fringes into the mainstream. Or perhaps its assimilation was subtler, an all-encompassing envelopment by society. Nevertheless, EDM is hardly the first form of art to be depoliticized by the state and turned into a commodity. In doing so, it has shaken off the quintessence of its revolutionary birth and surrendered itself to an abject humiliation. The images of the rave era are commodities today; the raver archetype, the utopian PLUR are marketing points, salesmen for the state. The carefree nomadism that previously characterized the dynamic raves has scattered; the erratic dance of the itinerant from nowhere to nowhere is long-forgotten, and replaced with the commercialized ritual of modern EDM.
Listen one last time, then, to Jack’s groove, the groove of all grooves:
“… Jack is the one that can bring nations and nations of all Jackers together under one house. You may be black, you may be white; you may be Jew or Gentile. It don’t make a difference in our house … and this is fresh.”
- Marshall Jefferson — “Move Your Body”
- Frankie Knuckles — “Your Love”
- Phuture — “Acid Tracks”
- Jungle Brothers — “I’ll House You”
- Farley “Jackmaster” Funk — “Love Can’t Turn Around”
- Mr. Fingers/Larry Heard — “Can You Feel It (Vocal Edit)”
- Joe Smooth — “Promised Land”
- Adonis — “No Way Back”
- Orbital — “Chime”
- Drexciya — “You Don’t Know”
- Inner City — “Big Fun”
- Da Hool — “Meet Her at the Love Parade”
- Faithless — “Insomnia”
- The Prodigy — “No Good (Start the Dance)”
- Modjo — “Lady”
- GALA — “Freed from Desire”
- Madison Avenue — “Don’t Call Me Baby”
- Moloko — “Sing It Back”
- Nomad — “I Wanna Give You Devotion”
- Stardust — “Music Sounds Better with You”
Contact Trenton Chang at tchang97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.