In a thought-provoking (but at times disorganized), reflective piece in the New Yorker last week, Sasha Frere Jones wrote about the rise of electronic dance music (EDM), a sub-genre of which is dubstep. It has become very popular for young people (up through about the age of 22) to dance the night away at clubs while d.j.s perform electronic music on laptops and turntables. They often don neon, suck on binkies, and wave glowsticks in the air, thereby making their dancing seem more complex than it really is. It’s a cultural movement; the “generation” that listens to music on Youtube and downloads mixtapes illegally is actually contributing to the artist’s pot by paying the hefty covers and attending these raves. DeadMau5 and Skrillex are two of the major players in the game, although their styles are different, and aficionados will liken the two to apples and oranges.
Frere Jones makes a couple of very interesting points about this phenomenon. The first is as follows: music is very often used as a tool of rebellion. Unfortunately for “kids these days”, their parents, and other older figures, listened to pretty cool music back in the day. Of course, this isn’t true across the board, but many young parents will talk about punk or wax poetic about the days of Led Zeppelin. The nineties were a time of more frustration and feelings of rebellion in music (Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, etc.), but kids nowadays don’t have that kind of rock. In fact, rock is on the decline altogether! Rock radio stations are dying, and almost all of the current hits are infused with hip hop or…electronic dance music.
So, how can teenagers rebel when the music that they blast in their rooms is not anathema to parent ears? They can get up and move. The club environment is built for people with the energy and stamina to dance all night long, and to be honest, even at the young age of 25, I don’t think I can stay up nearly as late as I did when I was a college student. Sasha Frere Jones is right that this is rebellious music in the only way that music can be rebellious nowadays – by actually requiring youthful vigor to be truly experienced.
As a side note, music’s place as an expression of frustration with authority is very fascinating. It is especially fascinating, given the research that musical tastes often stabilize during the teenage years. Maybe the emotions – the sheer hormonal changes and ensuing confusion – that go along with adolescence make music “stick with” or “speak to” adolescents more.
Another interesting point in Jones’s article is that EDM is really not all that new! Daft Punk were an anomaly back in the early 2000s, but they were pioneers of electronic dance music. I remember that they had one song from their (awesome) album Discovery that made it onto the radio (“One More Time”), and it was unlike most songs that you heard back then. Their repertoire has all the basic components of modern-day EDM: warped samples from old songs, sparse vocals, thumping bass, building melodic lines, sonic complexity, climax, dance-ability. Heck, they even wore costumes (like DeadMau5 does) and gave great live shows (check out the recording, Alive 2007). Many EDM artists nowadays look up to Daft Punk, and even though they’re relatively older, kids these days have a lot of respect for the duo. Check out my favorite clip from Alive 2007 here.
So I guess the dubstep will have to keep getting more extreme (and maybe less melodic) for it to be really rebellious…because I listen to Daft Punk, and hey, I’m basically an old curmudgeon.