Turning up the volume, I wrapped a blanket around me as I let my mood settle into the crooning voice and lazy strums of an acoustic guitar. The singer’s harmonies capture the tone of the night, mirroring my sighs of relief after a long day. My head bobs to its ascending chorus as my fingers tap along to the increasingly frenzied chords. His falsetto melts away after the last progression, leaving a final strum in its wake. The song then fades into another one, but the transition isn’t smooth. A singular mechanical beat starts to lead. Percussion is replaced with a driving synth-dominated rhythm. Unlike the soulfully aching verses that preceded, no narrative is offered here. The notes continue to scale upward, swells, and releases, bursting into kaleidoscopic sonic waves that flux and flow into rippling euphony. A completely different landscape.
With its energy adrenaline surging productions and self-celebratory culture, EDM, or electronic dance music, has carved its niche within the music sphere in recent years, cultivating devoted international audiences especially among younger generations. Attached to it are escapist anthems that serve as a call-and-response between the DJs, performers, and thousands which flock to the events annually, which often are to blame for the drug culture and hyper-hedonism that circulates around the genre. Such characteristics have unsurprisingly earned it as many critics as admirers.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. Many critics or music purists fiercely condemn the genre, arguing that much of its hits are derived from generic sounds largely without substance. Critics or music purists argue that it’s thrives on nothing but hollow sounds and it’s largely without substance. They speak about getting lost in the sound as if it’s inherently negative, and that the complete surrender to the present experience is an attitude to be abhorred rather than encouraged. As convincing as those arguments may be, they completely miss the point. Substance isn’t necessarily the focus nor an afterthought, people are drawn to this type of music on an instinctual or even spiritual level.
Speaking from my own first experience, I know how this divisive style can be an acquired taste. It wasn’t until hearing from several friends’ testimony that I decided to drop judgement. Though I listen to a range of genres, my liking to new music isn’t always immediate, regardless of genre. Oftentimes for me a song’s appeal doesn’t manifest until the right context; it wasn’t until after multiple repetitions and a feature in a dance group’s choreography that I fell in love with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”. Much more constant exposure to EDM eroded the abrasive surface of my own bias. After so many listens, I became more open to the idea that this music had heart after all.
Stripped of its more dominant or even overbearing elements, the genre presents an underlying emotive quality. This is exacerbated by the multitude of EDM songs that have been made into acoustic covers. Layered with classic influences such as 80’s synth-pop and funk roots, some songs impose a nostalgic quality. The fast pace, pulsing rhythm mimics the sensation of audience’s own hearts pounding against their chest. DJ’s exude an aura like that of a deity, sending ripples through the crowd of thousands with the slightest; they hold an unyielding command that can only come from an acute sense of one’s audience, or followers if you will. Despite their heavily technical nature, a surprisingly human element anchors a subtle, but powerful presence at the core.
I noticed this particular aspect in the music of Porter Robinson, one of my current favorite artists. When I first heard about him from a friend, my expectations were neutral. I was familiar with other more “mainstream” DJs at the time, like Zedd and Calvin Harris, so I thought I was going to be more of the typical Top 40. Thus sparked a weird year-long obsession that I quickly kept coming back to. I was just confused about this newfound appeal. Why do I even like this so much? Why was I so into this?? It was until I read an article about Porter and his debut album Worlds that it clicked in my head. His commentary about the songs strongly reflected how I felt the state I was in at this period in my life. His signature style was based on a peculiar amalgam of influences, from the minute traces of Japanese culture, to the grand orchestras that frame the narratives of video games and film soundtracks. It sounds really sentimentally lame, but in a weird way, it was like stumbling upon a score of a specific period in my life. The music evoked a particular mood which resonated with me, and I found it to be increasingly therapeutic.
One area within EDM that’s sharply criticized are its lyrics. EDM’s association with rave culture can leave the impression that artistic quality isn’t much of a priority, but the minimalist lyrics surprisingly reveal a reluctant honesty. There are hints of half-uttered thoughts and sentiments captured, but not completely divulged. Madeon’s Beings is underscored with a subtle anxiety towards maturity: “And I know that you’re scared of the notion / We’ll become who we’re meant to be”. In Polygon Dust by Porter Robinson, the line “Taking back wasted time that we have spent / Walking ‘round wastin / Tracing back the steps” evokes a pensive state that centers on regret. One of my favorites is Porter Robinson’s Language, in which the lyrical quality delicately captures a hidden yearning for reassurance and level state of mind:
“Give me release / Let the waves of time and space surround me [..] Cause I need room to breathe / Let me float back to the place you found me / I’ll be okay”
To me, the verse serves as an affirmation of the wistfulness and uncertainty sustained in the focal melody. Language is an apt title; vague, but successful in communicating a universality that listeners can project their own memories and thoughts onto. For listeners, the idea of an emotion half-expressed is enough; sometimes the impact lies in the inability to explore certain developed, or only half-realized feelings. Why make something more convoluted with words when the emotion itself is complex? Introducing the essence of a feeling is good enough and ensures its relatability.
A friend of mine recently made fun of me for my unexpected change of heart. For a long time I harbored a scathing skepticism of what I perceived to be superficial self-indulgence. Images of fists pumping to mind numbing techno stifled in me any suggestion of it passing as music or bearing any sense of depth. After treating it with rolled eyes and skepticism, its appeal got through to me. I recognized its capacity not just what it can be on a technical scale, but the meaning people elicit from it.
Much like hip-hop, EDM is both a genre and cultural phenomenon. It’s paradoxical because it offers both a dissociative and communal experience. That’s mainly why I wasn’t a fan of it at first; I didn’t form an immediate appreciation or connection to the culture because I was an outsider. What also defines the subculture maybe more so than others is that the desire to be in touch (literally or figuratively) with other individuals and to be part of a bonded community is visually and verbally expressed. The theme of escapism is what lends its strength; the people act as each other’s refuge.
Looking at EDM from these angles, it exemplifies music’s capability to help us share and intertwine our intimacies. There is a focus on purity and fleeting moments that is emphasized; the listener is put into a place of peace that provides them with an authentic experience. It’s easy to bash a whole genre of music that doesn’t quite meet the precise definition of music a person has decided in their minds. What is garbage to one person though might be gold to another; there has to be something about the fact that I got into EDM through the repeated recommendations of friends. Something doesn’t need to be blatantly art or “deep” to be universally enjoyed. That is besides the point. Music doesn’t function the same way or serve the same purpose; it’s meant to elicit a reaction, express emotions, or validate experiences.