Once promoted by its champions as the music of the future, electronic dance music has become as tired and derivative as the rock music it challenged. The fault lies with its originators as well as today’s producers, argues Duncan Higgitt
A room, a dark room, its gloom stabbed with a rhythmic spectrum of staccato colour. We’ve all been here, been intoxicated in these rooms, disorientated in such rooms. The nightclub as rite of passage.
A rumble begins in the bass speakers as we smile knowingly. But this music hasn’t read the script and it’s off, a nanosecond later, up to the other end of the sonic envelope, a screeching treble, machine in pain, tested to the limits of what it can do. Perhaps an inquisitive child is at the controls, feeling his way (and it is nearly always he with this kind of music) round this new toy? But no. This – as the advert insists – is dub step.
How did it come to this? Like light sabre to blaster, electronic dance music – the music of the future – has done nothing but move backwards over the past decade. Whereas once it was original, sophisticated and seductive to the mind and body, it is now derivative and clumsy, its idea of sex a vodka-fuelled, fast and furious knee trembler. Even electronic bands like The xx, touted by critics with evident short memories, are crossing ground first mapped out as long as three decades ago.
This year marks two decades since dance music’s highest moment. Back then, everything was in its place. House music for good times, garage for a bit of home-grown, and techno the genre’s R&D division. Centres of excellence grew up across the globe, in cities such as Detroit, Sheffield and Frankfurt. Cities that were often the left to be for dead by neoliberal capitalism, a literal rising from the ashes of deindustrialisation through innovation and, often, entrepreneurialism.
That this electronic music is finished as a form is implied in 6Music’s recent season on dance music. The main emotion we are led to feel here is nostalgia, harking back to our halcyon days as dismal as nasally Mancunians tearing up over Hacienda nights.
So why is this such a big problem for electronic music? After all, Kings of Leon can absorb entirely every facet of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s identity and sound and still become one of the greatest bands on earth. The Strokes take their every musical and stylistic cue from the New Wave bands of the late 1970s and can still become critically feted. Why does the same fate not await electronica?
It cannot, and it must not, because innovation is written into its DNA. Created in the technological development of the synthesisers and drum machines of Moog, Korg, Roland and others, moving forward – from the discovery of new synthesised sounds to the creation of whole new sub-genres – is implied in its making. It is a search, a journey into the unknown. To begin creating electronic music for nostalgic reasons makes about as much sense as buying a pet cat because your property needs an early warning system against burglars. It isn’t used for that kind of thing.
So why did it stall? Why did electronica run out of new ideas? After all, the manufacturers of its equipment remain as competitive and innovative as ever. If anything, the electronic revolution should have been hastened by the switch from analogue to digital, which not only dismantled the horizon pretty much forever, it also significantly reduced the cost of making such music and delivered it to everyone. Whereas once a decent electronic studio could have run to tens of thousands of pounds, all of that is now possible through a digital audio workstation like Cockos Reaper (which costs £37) and a universe of free virtual studio instruments.
For those chin-strokers who mutter about comparable sound quality, the lo-fi wars have been fought and won. It doesn’t matter if the finished product sounds a little rough around the edges. It’s the idea that matters. This appropriation of the punk ethic was one of electronic music’s greatest adoptions, but it hasn’t survived the leap into the Pro Tools age. In fact, considering that some of electronic dance music’s greatest moments in the past 30 years were made on the Roland TB-303, an unassuming baseline synthesiser whose acid sound was discovered by mistake after its batteries ran down, there is a strong suggestion that the music form benefits from restrictions.
Electronic music needs to be finding the next Florian Schneider, Georgio Moroder, Marshall Jefferson, Derrick May, Richard James and Richard H Kirk. Whereas other modern music forms have mutated into something fresher (grime escaped hip hop’s growing misogyny and criminal worship to replicate a more authentic urban British experience, for example), even standard-bearing labels like Germany’s Kompakt makes the same kind of music that has been with us for two decades. Even if it is good, it is no leap forward.
Like most things, there are probably a number of reasons for this collapse – musical, individual and societal. It may well be that innovation disappeared as a consequence of electronic music being crushed by the weight of its own expectations. There was always an inherent tension in the music, with its enthusiasts roughly divided into two camps: those who appreciated its originality and beauty – the evangelists – and those who simply wanted to dance to it – the clubbers.
There was a lot of crossover, of course. But both sides remained deeply distrustful of one another. Even when this gap was bridged, as it was with Detroit techno that moved both feet and minds, it would come under further attack, labelled as too cold, lacking soul. It ended the only way it could, with the splintering of the music into hundreds of sub-genres, sometimes as small as being focused around one club night, and none of them with the reach to take on the mighty hip-hop and find a lucrative place in popular affections.
In such circumstances, many producers returned to what they often started out doing, and what they loved best – DJing. The aforementioned Derrick May only ever made a handful of tracks and, no matter that this handful were almost all landmarks, he returned to the decks. Similarly, Joey Beltram – criminally overlooked as a pioneer – is happiest in the booth.
As such, for sacrificing their innovation, they bear some blame. But other producers and record labels failed to move with the times. That the record industry, with its commercial considerations, could not see the way in which MP3 would turn music upside down is perhaps understandable. But the fact that to this day, the multiple Detroit labels have no indigenous site that allows the downloading of new music straight from the Motor City is nigh-on unforgiveable. Perhaps DJs still prefer wax, but the rest of us don’t. And there’s a lot more of us. And this in turn opens up electronic music to another often-heard criticism – that it is elitist.
Another issue for the genre is that its shortcomings have been cruelly exposed by the absence of a tradition of musicianship among its producers. There is no reason why it could not ape the approach taken by jazz, which relies on highly skilled musicians to find the way forward. And while making electronic music isn’t the cakewalk its detractors claim, neither is it studied in any meaningful way. Of course, in rock music this is often counter-productive (Neil Tennant’s argument that pop music succeeds over rock because the latter tries too hard to be timeless is pertinent here). But electronic music is not rock music, and doesn’t have to stick to any of its rules or parameters. In fact, as already argued, it should concern itself with knocking down or moving outside of those parameters.
One recent documentary that charted the rise of British electronic music through protagonists such as Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire and Depeche Mode (who in turn would become a huge influence on electronic dance music) focused on the influence that those bands took from their surroundings, how they sought to ape the sound of Sheffield’s steel hammers. The UK is now truly post-industrial, so perhaps any kind of communion with the machine is less pressing.
But equally, a lot of those dancers from the late 1980s and early 1990s have grown up to become 40-something mums and dads, company directors, NHS managers and planning officers, part of the suit-and-tie brigade they swore they’d never join. It is at them that 6Music’s dance music season is aimed. In this way, it is simply aping the nostalgia industry that grew up around 1950s rock ‘n roll. In fact, although Orbital are one of the very bands from that time still making new (and decent) music, a review of a recent gig in Cambridge made heavy mention of the grown-ups remembering how they used to be in the audience. Surely ‘Dad Techno’ is just around the corner.
But perhaps this is the key to electronic music’s escape from the doldrums. They may have swapped Aphex Twin for In the Night Garden, yet who understands this music better than that Orbital crowd? Those people who grew up through the 1980s, beginning with New Romantics, maybe something earlier from Germany, and then into Acid House, and on into Massive Attack and the samplers of the 1990s know more about this than anyone on earth save the DJs who played to them (and who in turn are now in their fifties).
Given the price of laptop-based (and increasingly smartphone-based) music software, it is these people, these past acolytes who are more likely to have ideas about how to return electronic music to its core mission and bring us new symphonies of bleeps. It is on the commute, or in those precious couple of hours after getting the kids off the sleep, that a way of getting back to the future lies.