Musing On Music #8

by Hannah Weiss

Electronic Earworms – Unravelling the Hype behind EDM

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the Gobi Desert for the past year, you will have heard of The Chainsmokers. More specifically, you will have been unable to escape Closer, an infectious earworm of a track that held the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 consecutive weeks. During those three months, you may have attempted at first to drown out its repetitive platitudes before eventually succumbing to head-nodding along, hypnotized with everyone else. Music critics have long been predicting the burst of the EDM bubble, yet beats produced by The Chainsmokers and their contemporaries Kygo and Calvin Harris prove otherwise, when mixed with the vocals of pop stars Justin Bieber, Halsey and Selena Gomez to chart-topping success. When the genre seems to be on the rise, why would the EDM high come crashing down?

The criticism of EDM is three-fold. The name itself – an acronym for Electronic Dance Music – is an umbrella term encompassing drum and bass, dubstep, house and trance, coined by the businessmen who have spied its unique goldmine. Whilst other genres of both the mainstream and independent music industry are struggling to stay afloat as physical album sales fall and streaming overtakes radio, EDM by its nature is dependent on live performances. It is music made to be danced to, at raves, clubs and festivals. And so corporations have taken the opportunity to cash-in on the phenomenon and invest in festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, Tomorrowland and Ultra Music. A ticket to one of these festivals can cost £300 for a standard multiday pass and over £800 for VIP access. Event producers are quick to justify the eye-watering prices by citing the costs involved in securing high sound quality, impressive visual displays and of course, the booking fees for top DJs. The economic gains for these festivals run into the hundreds of millions, and unsurprisingly more and more are being hosted each year. Yet there is an underlying fear that in this musical goldrush, the market is being saturated. It is undeniable that despite its mass popularity, EDM’s rise is being fuelled more by business interests than fans.

Then there are the top DJs, paid excessive sums to headline these festivals. The internet age has spawned platforms like SoundCloud, Pandora and Spotify that give us all the power to mix music, curate playlists and share them with others. Which is how talent like Kygo and Skrillex can go from dabbling in their bedrooms to becoming household names barely a year later. But streaming sales do not equal decent pay, as any penniless songwriter will tell you. DJs make their money playing gigs at clubs, with Las Vegas playing host to the prize spots. According to Forbes, Calvin Harris earnt $63 million in 2016, largely due to his deal with America’s biggest club, Hakkasan. It is too easy to pick holes in the justice of this. Your average band will trail up and down the country to play at down-and-out bars and live mike nights to gain a following and keep their instruments in good nick. Even global superstars like Bruno Mars and Beyoncé must endure gruelling world tours that can last many months to reap ticket sales. Yet DJs can sign on to play at a single club, where they will show up and play similar sets to similar audiences for exorbitant paycheques. And do so on replay, since Calvin Harris’ deal is a multi-year gig. Harris is also arguably a hitmaker in his own right, with top charting collaborations with artists including Rihanna and Ellie Goulding. Yet when copycat hits have been birthed from pairings including Justin Bieber and Skrillex, Selena Gomez and Kygo and Zara Larsson and David Guetta, is it the DJ people are listening out for, or the popstar who carries the song?

EDM gets a bad rap. It is reductive, it is noisy, it is fuel for drunken delinquency …. yet the cries of the music pundits, unsettled from navel-gazing to the avant-garde sounds of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music, in case you were curious) echo those of early critics when introduced to jazz, rock and hip hop. Music constantly evolves, and when it does so the new sound is unsettling to older ears. Where once the experimentation of jazz was the downfall of youth, rock was the bringer of chaos and hip hop was the cause of criminal behaviour, now EDM is seen as the death of culture. But in amongst Kygo’s hypnotic beats, Skrillex pillaging Jamaica’s native Dancehall to make ‘Tropical House’ with Justin Bieber and The Chainsmokers releasing the Selfie song, there must be some spark produced by the metaphorical scratching of EDM DJs to hold listeners captivated.

I believe it is in the lyrics. Listen to a handful of offerings; It Ain’t Me by Kygo and Selena Gomez, How Deep Is Your Love by Calvin Harris and The Disciples or even the ubiquitous Closer by The Chainsmokers. Hidden between the synths and drops of each song you will find snapshots of life – moments painted in polaroids and heartbeats that are interesting for their seemingly mutually exclusive juxtaposition of the intimate and generic. Compare the minutiae of a line in Closer: “Stay and play that Blink-182 song / That we beat to death in Tucson” with the open evocativeness of How Deep Is Your Love: “Is it like the ocean? / What devotion? Are you?”. Kygo even makes good use of Selena Gomez’s potential for gossip-blog fodder by mixing dream-details with an overarching allusion to a damaged relationship in It Aint Me: “I had a dream / We were sipping whiskey neat / Highest floor, The Bowery … No, I don’t wanna know / Where you been or where you’re goin’”.

This contrast creates a perfect paradox, both for fans hunting for Selena-Justin clues and listeners of Closer, How Deep Is Your Love and many other EDM chart-toppers. There is the illusion that this song connects to something you have personally experienced, yet it does so on a grand scale, as every other listener worldwide sense the same thing. In an era of 90s kids and #ThrowbackThursday, EDM has made canny use of nostalgia to tug listeners’ heartstrings. Tellingly, the production of The Chainsmokers’ biggest hits soften the drops by emphasising the hook and melody with airy synths. They are EDM, but it’s pop EDM now.

Music’s most profitable genre has its kinks, but at its core it does what it’s designed to do. Whether you’re riding the hype at Lollapalooza or sharing Kygo on SoundCloud, EDM understands how to connect to its listeners. Isn’t that how we define great music?