The Building Blocks of EDM: Feeling, the Soar, and the Drop

EDM music is a “sensory affective bridge between touch, sonic experience and sense of connection in dancing crowds” (5). It seeks to invoke tactility (5) and centers around the idea of feeling. Some songs are made for dancing while other songs are meant to make you think (1) and can help the listener access “daydreams and imaginative fantasies” (4). The music encourages individual movement yet at the same time makes one feel like part of something larger than him or herself, especially when experiencing the music live in a crowd (1). In these live EDM performances, the music serves to create connection and intimacy amongst the concert-goers.

Indeed the overarching concept of “feeling” is associated with EDM through literature, song titles and lyrics. “Feeling” in this sense embodies “the overlap between emotion, affective knowing, perception and touch” (5) which is the fundamental idea at the heart of EDM music. The music is able to achieve this complex result of “feeling” through structure and key elements like heavy bass, fleshy timbre and sonic grain (5).

There are two key elements in popular EDM music today which orchestrate “feeling”: the soar and the drop.. The soar is the “build up” to a climax found in music like the song Gangnam style by Psy or in the music of Calvin Harris or David Guetta. The soar serves to build rhythmic and tamboral intensity “to the point where people can’t hear distinct rhythmic events and just hear constant sound” (2) It allows the artist to structure the climax of a song in an entirely different way than an artist can do with strummed chords (2).

The drop serves to shake things up and introduce a shock (2). Sometimes drops are catchy and a pleasant progression from the soar and climax while other times the drop really is a shock. Pop artists like Rihanna also play around with using drops in their music (2).

Academics have proposed that people enjoy these structures, the soar and the drop, because in tandem they exemplify and perform the resilience that people wish to embody. As the soar gets going and the music builds up there is often silence or a sonic crash after which the music bounces back stronger than ever with the drop (2). These structures are similar to Atari Teenage Riot in the early 90’s but work in a very different way politically. Unlike the 90s, neoliberalism has reached a point where noise is no longer disruptive and is now viewed as normal (2).

Indeed, noise and volume are a key component of EDM music and not always a disruptive one. In reference to EDM music by Swedish Producer/DJ Basshunter, a listener in a study on the subjective experience of music noted you can put the “volume up to a certain pitch,” which you can’t do in most genres like classical, to a level that “makes accessing easier” (4): accessing imaginative fantasies or daydreams that is. Indeed, heavy bass is associated with strong feelings (4).

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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).

What is EDM Music?

In recent years, EDM has exploded in popularity within the United States and some are calling it the “New Rock and Roll” (19). But what is EDM music exactly?

Originally, EDM music was understood as “electronic music produced primarily for the purposes of use within a nightclub setting, or in an environment that is centered in dance-based entertainment” (20). This goes back to the early days of EDM where it was primarily consumed in nightclubs and at raves.

But today, EDM has come to encompass something much broader. It means something different to each individual but generally refers to percussive music genres which are meant primarily for dancing or are derived from dance-oriented styles (20). Some examples of EDM genres include electro, house, techno, dubstep, trance and trap. Further subgenres exist like deep house, eurotrance, and progressive house.

The term EDM has been used in America since 1985 but wasn’t popular until the later 1990s when academics and the American music industry began to embrace it. While the term is well-known today around the globe, in the UK EDM music is still largely referred to as dance music (20). Furthermore, the term EDM used to be synonymous with club music but has since diverged. While both can still encompass a variety of genres club music is based on what is popular while the term EDM is rooted in the structure and attributes of the music, not its popularity or method of consumption (20).

EDM Music in My Life

I’d also like to begin by explaining my interest in exploring EDM music through this blog. At the end of the blog, when we explore my proposed circuit of EDM culture, you will see how my personal experience with EDM fits neatly into my model.

Ever since high school, I have been well known among my friends for my eclectic obsession (at least that’s what they called it) with what I collectively call “Swedish Techno.” most of this music isn’t technically techno, but rather various types of electronic music that could all be considered EDM: some of the genres included bubblegum dance, bitpop, eurotrance, house and so on. I even have a high school teacher who still brings it up with me. I once made him a CD for a party full of Swedish Techno music which was a big hit among his guests!

This so-called obsession began Sophomore year when I heard Basshunter’s “DotA” being played at soccer practice during out warm ups. At first, I didn’t even realize the song wasn’t in English; I was interested mainly in the catchy melody and synths. When I went home and found the song, I was introduced to Basshunter and other Swedish music (mostly dance) and from there I began to amass a collection of over 500 Scandinavian songs. Eventually, this stretched beyond just dance music, and I later learned a lot of the music was in Danish.

A large part of my interest in the music was the language. I’m half Norwegian and have an interest in Scandinavian culture in general so I began to scour the internet for deeper cuts. Through Youtube I was able to find a lot of obscure Swedish techno that you probably couldn’t find anywhere else on the web except for the one Youtube video, presumably uploaded by a Swedish teenager who made the track in his or her bedroom using a pirated copy of Fruit Loops Studio (popularized by Basshunter).

DotA was a significant song for me. Not only did it introduce me to this whole world of EDM music (Because of DotA I later got into more mainstream EDM and artists like Tiesto, Armin van Buuren – back in the day – and to Bingo Players and Calvin Harris more recently), but I also began to explore a new style of guitar playing and blend genres.

By senior year of high school, I had been playing guitar for a little over 10 years and had developed a unique acoustic-percussive style. However I was mostly playing original pieces or classical pieces. But after hearing DotA, I arranged my own acoustic percussive instrumental cover which is posted on my youtube account below:

After this cover, I added to the song and had some friends sing the original Swedish vocals for a performance at my senior chapel recital. I than continued to arrange electronic songs in my unique acoustic percussive style.

Learning that Basshunter used Fruit Loops to create DotA, I taught myself how to use the software and began making backing tracks to play guitar over (like a mash-up of Disney songs). However I never got into creating or remixing electronic music.

Today, I mostly listen to EDM music and I have seen a number of live shows like Bingo Players, Calvin Harris and Adventure Club. Most of my music comes from an EDM blog called weoncehadanempire or from Beatport, iTunes dance chart, youtube (remixes and msh-ups mainly) and soundcloud (also remixes and mash-ups).

The EDM Circuit of Culture

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The Circuit of Culture

Below are the definitions of the different aspects of the “Circuit of Culture” taken from Stuart Hall’s textbook “Representation.” The definitions are direct quotes from https://culturalstudies101.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/hall-the-circuit-of-culture-ed-fink-11-11.pdf and are not my own words or ideas.

I. Representation

What the thing means (signifies) and to whom—what signifier/signified relationship it contains, how and from whom it takes them on, and how and to whom it gives them off.

II. Identity

Who all the agents involved with producing, consuming, and regulating the thing are – be they individuals, groups, and/or non-human entities-and how they got to “be” that way.

III. Regulation

The formal and Informal Rules that affect and are affected by the thing, how they are(n’t) enforced, and the formal and informal authoriies that make and enforce them.

IV. Consumption

Buying the thing, using the thing, becoming part of the thing, and/or making the thing a part of you-and paying for all this.

V. Production

Making the thing-inventing it, fabricating it, reproducing it, distributing it, marketing it—and paying for all this labor/work and the people who do it.

About this Project

In this blog, I will examine Electronic Dance Music (“EDM”) using the Circuit of Culture as my theoretically framework. In my first post, I will present my version of the Circuit of EDM culture. Then, because the circuit (as a result of its many intersections) does not lend itself well as framework to explore EDM, I will take a more natural approach to organizing later posts. I will explore the history of EDM music, touching upon production, consumption and regulation. Finally, with a solid understanding of EDM, I will return to the Circuit of Culture, where in my final post I will show the reader how all of the aspects of EDM music fit into my proposed Circuit of EDM Culture, largely referencing two “case study posts” on Swedish Techno and the Flume Remix of “A Baru in New York.”