March 23, 2016

SOSNICK | Poptimistic EDM: A Love Story

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2012 was an easier time in pop music. Love was international and starships were meant to fly. I could call you maybe or blow your whistle, baby. More importantly, though, I felt more confident in distinguishing pop from EDM.

Now I’m not a stickler for genre, but there’s a time and place for different types of music. Each styles serve different purpose in people’s lives. Few people self-identify as hardcore pop music devotees, but that isn’t the case for EDM. We all have at least one raver friend who talks our ear off about their “Trance Fam,” somehow treats Electric Daisy Carnival both as a pilgrimage and an annual necessity and has thirty Facebook photos of them decked out in neon and showering in glitter, with PLUR written somewhere on their body. As ridiculous as the subculture may seem to those of us outside it, electronic dance music is deeply important to a ton of us. But when the line between pop and EDM gets blurred, what’s left for the raver?

Broadly speaking, the gap is still well defined. One could say, for example, that Justin Bieber is clearly pop and Tiësto is clearly EDM. At one point in time, this would have been true. “Baby” is undeniably pop and whatever the hell Tiësto was doing in 2010 was definitely EDM. (Briefly listening to Kaleidoscope confirms this.) But what is “Red Lights”? It sounds like a pop track to me: a catchy hook, a singlalong chorus, and a massively approachable song structure. It also sounded a lot like a pop song to the Z100s and KIISs of the world, who made sure it was one of 2014’s summer bangers. More importantly, what is “Sorry”? Listen to the two songs together — they’re much more similar than they are different.

“Sorry” (and “What Do You Mean”) also sounds a hell of a lot like Kygo, the Norwegian megastar DJ we have to thank for much of this confusion. Even though Kygo didn’t start what’s being referred to as “tropical house,” he’s definitely the person who has brought it into the most earbuds worldwide. Tropical house — the sound Kygo has cornered the market on that now inspires tons of traditional top 40 artists, like Justin Bieber — is characterized by the twinkling sounds of perpetual summer. Totally conflict free and manufactured to be easier to swallow than a spoonful of sugar, tropical house eschews the drop many of us associate with more, shall we say, “festive” EDM. As Dorian Lynskey so eloquently described the style for The Guardian, “It evokes a vague but potent feeling of nostalgia for the recent past, the way you might look back on your Instagram shots of a blissful summer holiday in October.” Or, as described by Clive Martin for Vice, it “washes over your being like a neck-nibble from the sun, [and] somehow manages to drop you into a kind of generation-wide collective memory.”

In the recent past, tropical house’s existence was mostly kept online. That has obviously changed, though, as demand for its biggest names grew at festivals around the world. But where does an artist like Kygo belong? At a populist festival like Montreal’s Osheaga? Or at an EDM mecca like Ultra? Apparently the answer is both, and therein lies the casualties created by this blurring of genre.

EDM as big business is nothing new. It has been music’s “next big thing” for years. Absolut has sold us vodka with Swedish House Mafia and Kia got us driving their cars using Axwell cuts. Since the monetary value of music festivals has skyrocketed, though, those have become the front lines of milking electronic dance music for every last greenback. This commercialization has made them even more visible on your Facebook and Instagram feeds as friends you wouldn’t conceive of dropping $400 on organic music spend the same amount on heavily manufactured parties orchestrated at the top level by people in suits.

Festivals were once the domain of pure PLUR adherents, the ones who actually did blow their yearly savings on surrounding themselves with music and other people with the same mindset. These people are losing their place at festivals, though, because they’ve consciously become as palatable to the mainstream as possible in their own bid to cash in. Using this past weekend’s Ultra as an example, performers included Avicii, David Guetta, Icona Pop, Kaskade, Kygo, Miike Snow and Zedd — under our calculation above, all essentially pop artists. Miami was flooded with pop-minded spring breakers looking for the craziest possible party, and this clusterfuck of mass-sponsored neon, festival greed, major labels and pop-EDM confusion has all but pushed out the true ravers.

Where there’s a rave, there’s a way, and the most dyed in the wool parts of the subculture will (and, to an extent, already has) found its own new spaces. The trend in pop is bound to change, just like 2012’s need for every radio hit to have a rap verse. The commercialization and mainstream fetishization of festival culture, though, I fear is irreversible.

Regardless of the festival fallout (All the more reason not to pay a ton of money for back sweat and performers who will only receive a small fraction!), anyone who listens to the radio can benefit from pluralistic pop music in the meantime. Pop fans win with musically diverse airwaves, so let’s toast to an inevitable Ed Sheeran x Armin van Buuren collaboration.

Mike Sosnick is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. 40 Percent Papier-Mâché appears alternate Thursdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].