From Disco to EDM: A History of EDM in America

EDM music in America has its roots in disco music. In the 1970s, disco music began shifting away from acoustic orchestral sounds to a more synthesized, bass-heavy sound (21). This new sound, which hadn’t been heard in popular music before, was made popular by artists like Donna Summers who topped the charts with her 1977 hit “I Feel Loved,” produced by Giorgio Moroder (20). The pair worked together to produce Summer’s 1979 album, and highest-selling album, Bad Girls. The album featured similar production techniques and heavy bass which would continue to be prevalent in 1980’s dance music as disco declined (20).

During the 1980s, regional nightclub and warehouse party scenes began to emerge, further helping to popularize electronic music (20). Widely considered the first house music scene, the Chicago house scene of the early 1980s paved the way for the development of the “techno” genre in Detroit around the same time (22). During the latter half of the 80’s, the early rave scene emerged. This scene remained largely underground in the United States but took off in Europe. This can be attributed to the association in America at the time between raves and drugs and anti-rave laws which sought to prevent these music events (20). Nonetheless, during the 1990s America’s nightclub scene finally began to boom (6). Indeed, as disco died during the 1980s and 1990s, the emergence of these various party scenes encouraged the evolution and popularization of EDM music.

By the 1990s, EDM music finally began to gain some mainstream attention in America. In 1997, the English dance group Prodigy topped the U.S. Billboard Charts with their album “The Fat of the Land” (23). The popularity of UK dance acts like Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Underworld were “prematurely associated with an American electronica revolution” by many, including the music industry (20). Nevertheless, by the mid-1990’s, academics had begun to show interest in EDM’s historical and cultural role in society, signifying the genres growing prominence and popularity in mainstream society (22).

It isn’t until the second half of the 2000’s however (6) that EDM music truly finds its way into mainstream American music and culture; this boom happens to correspond with a boom in both the internet and music production (computer and software) technology during the early 2000’s (20).

In addition to the Silicion Valley boom, two high profile artists can also be attributed to the emergence of EDM music in mainstream America: David Guetta and Daft Punk. In a meeting with Glen Mendlinger, manager of EMI’s dance label Astralweks, David Guetta famously announced his intent to cross urban cross-over music with dance music and turn it into a mainstream hit (24).

Additionally, through a 2006 Coachella performance that went viral on youtube, Daft Punk made EDM music “comprehensible to a mass audience” (36). The video, which features the entire Daft Punk set at Coachella, was compiled by Mark Edelsberg after he discovered that everyone who had their phones out at the show had published clips to Youtube. After he found the soundboard recording he decided to piece the concert back together using the hundreds of user-submitted posts creating a supercut that went viral (39).

This clip is credited by many as making dance music popular “cool” (36) again after its brief forays into mainstream music throughout the 90’s and 00’s. Viewers could see from the video that you didn’t have to dance to the music – you could watch the DJ perform if you wanted or the lights and show. Or, if you wanted to dance, it was clear that the music lent itself to any style and intensity of dance you wanted to express yourself through. Ultimately, the video exposed the set as an interactive and accessible performance (36). This is one example of how the development of technology and increase in popularity of EDM go hand-in-hand.

By 2011, EDM had officially become the “soundtrack of choice for a new generation” (20); that year the Swedish EDM supergroup ‘Swedish House Mafia’ sold out a show at Madison Square Garden in less than 9 minutes (28). Meanwhile, on the radio, Zedd’s “Clarity” hit #1 on U.S. Radio Charts in 2012 at a time when pop stars Katy Perry and Robin Thicke had singles in contention for #1 (25). EDM was even making waves at the Grammy’s with artists like Sonny Moore (known by his DJ name “Skrillex”) winning six grammy’s in two year, including “best dance recording” and “dance/electronica album of the year” (24).

EDM producers like Calvin Harris are credited with “catapulting” EDM music from its increasing mainstream popularity right to the “forefront of the music scene” through their production of smash hits for pop artists like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj (27). Indeed, America is no longer viewed as the “final frontier” when it comes to EDM music, a genre which continues to grow in popularity, even changing and shaping mainstream pop music (20).

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