As I was browsing the plethora of top 100 albums of the decade lists, an overarching trend I noticed is the revival and reinvention of electronic music. Yet with little to no effort to identify the often implicit traces of such a phenomenon, the great change in electronic music in this decade has largely been a missing narrative, overshadowed by the more apparent prominence of hip hop.
Electronic music serves as the backbone of music in this decade. I refer to electronic music not just in terms of electronica or EDM, but as music of different genres across the spectrum that incorporate some elements of electronic music into its creative process. You can hear traces of electronic music almost everywhere. Pull up any list of top albums regardless of the category and the criteria — even for a list of rock albums or a list of hip hop albums — it would be a rarity to find a record that has not used synths or drum machines in its production.
Rather than a genre of its own, electronic music represents a new way of thinking that leads the digital future of music. As electronic music gives artists ample agency to reimagine the possibilities of sound with no acoustic or instrumental constraints, it drives them to push the boundaries in radical ways. A notable trend in music in this decade is the restructuring of composition. Repetitive 4/4 beats with slow variation are no longer perceived as vulgar, and the obliteration of structure will no longer be immediately lumped into the realm of avant-garde and never be delineated. These are two extremes of electronic music that used to lie outside the comfort zone of many, yet the boundaries have been pushed to include both ends in the past decade.
The accessibility of the tools to produce electronic music has fostered a more egalitarian culture of music. This has led to the non-hierarchical, countercultural ideals of cultural participation being realized. The accessibility of electronic music gives agency to people who formerly would have not had access to music education and thus would be barred from entering the world of music. This decade sees the greatest and fastest penetration of music technology with the prevalence of digital audio workstations and virtual studio technologies. With such software readily accessible on one’s personal computer — oftentimes even for free — and with the radical refashioning of a user-friendly mode of production, electronic music has cultivated a universal medium that gives a voice to our tech-savvy generation.
This is strictly from a Western perspective. With the digital divide being an ongoing global phenomenon, when everything goes digital, the prominence of electronic music may have in fact created a greater power imbalance.
In terms of listening experience, electronic music caters to two different needs in the streaming age. It is highly versatile across the physical and the virtual. Technological advancements are reshuffling the very notion of live music, offering refreshing new possibilities for electronic performance in the process. Live electronic music is now perceived as an art form in which the physical sense of being is inseparable from the immersive experience. The rise of electronic music festivals sheds light on the growing popularity of dancing to the bleeps and bloops of live music. DJs are now perceived more as performers than mediators, and twisting knobs and coding beats are considered no less impressive and entertaining than playing any other instruments. In the age of noise, when everyone is constantly numbed by sensory overload, live electronic music has established a long-form of musical experience that one can slowly immerse into hours of reverberating ecstasy.
On the other hand, the contemporary playlist culture has helped bring back and reinvent the DJ culture of the preceding decades. Everyone can be a DJ at anytime at anywhere with their Spotify or Apple Music account. This new playlist culture has further annihilated time and space. With playlist being the modern unit of listening, the 2010s have brought back the significance of the human decisions of song choices, sequences and remixing, which is reminiscent of the heyday of early electronic music.
Yet this underlying prominence of electronic music is not without its negative cultural implication. As electronic music is often associated with the newfound idea of digital agency, it inadvertently speaks to the rhetoric of digital utopianism, which is precarious as it is too good to be true. Electronic music is fundamentally machine-mediated, and as such, despite the potentiality of accessibility, it will inevitably lead to some form of dehumanization and the alienation of humans in the creative process. To further probe into the impact of human-machine integration in music production requires us to more critically follow and critique the implicit trends in the following decade.
Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.