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A crowded dance floor at a club in Northampton, England, earlier this month. (ANDREW TESTA/NYT)
A crowded dance floor at a club in Northampton, England, earlier this month. (ANDREW TESTA/NYT)

Russell Smith

Electronic dance music and the rise of the big night out Add to ...

One of the most dramatic cultural developments of the past year has been the explosion, among young people, in the popularity of clubbing; that is, dancing in fancy places with an overwhelming sound and light show, to prerecorded music mixed by DJs, and in the pervasive presence of illegal stimulants. It surprised everybody, as the days of rave had long been known to be over. This has been replacing, across North America in particular, the live indie-rock shows and heartfelt folkie crooning that so dominated youth culture and the media imagination in the first decade of the century. People with beards and banjos, as you can imagine, hate it.

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The trend is usually called “the rise of EDM” (electronic dance music) in newspapers, but the epithet is vague and inaccurate: The trend is about a certain kind of night out rather than a strict style of music, and the EDM tag has already started to connote a conventionally luxurious and expensive kind of space (what we tech-heads call “big-room” culture) rather than the matte-black, DIY spaces formerly associated with house and techno music. (In very large dance clubs, there are often several stages; the smallest is the one devoted to the underground music; the big room is where the spotlit go-go dancers and frat boys are.)

This sudden ascendancy has been both a cultural and economic event, generating massive new companies and income streams. Back in February the giant – and growing – entertainment company SFX bought the online DJ music emporium Beatport for $50-million. SFX already owns a number of dance event promoters and music festivals, and has been accused of making the clubbing experience generally more homogeneous and mainstream. Just before that, the music-identification software Shazam partnered with Beatport to have access to its entire catalogue, meaning that if you hold up your phone in a nightclub you have a good chance of discovering the name of the track and composer of every sound you hear. (This in itself destroys the mystique of the DJ as studio/club insider with his milk-crate full of rare white-label records, and opens a much more educated conversation about what exactly those knob-twiddling wizards are doing up there.)

A fascinating article in The New Yorker in September, by Josh Eells, described the life of top club DJs in Las Vegas, where stars can be paid millions a year to play exclusively in one club and over $300,000 for a single night’s spinning. The article claimed, astoundingly, that the giant hotel complexes of Vegas are now able to earn more money by selling overpriced drinks in these dance complexes than they can from conventional shows and even, in some cases, from their casinos.

“The underground has gone mainstream” – that’s how you’ll hear this shift described in a lot of magazines. But that’s not exactly what has happened. It is true that some of the jangling elements of techno and electro – buzzsaw sounds, harsh percussion, wailing – have made it into the slick and booming pop music that makes up most of the big clubs’ playlists. Massively successful DJs like Deadmau5 do throw techno tracks into the mix. But big-room EDM still has a lot of vocals in it. It has almost, but not quite, abandoned the worn paradigm of the song.

The rising success of bottle-service clubs, and their old-fashioned gender roles (girls in tight, strappy dresses, muscular boys with hair gel) has outraged clubbers who were around in the nineties, who remember the fierce androgyny of rave outfits (everybody in baggy pants) and the peaceful, non-predatory vibe that came from a room in which ecstasy was widely distributed. Or they remember rooms that were entirely gay, as early house clubs were.

There have been points of fiery friction between the two aesthetics. There have been a number of widely-reported incidents in the expensive clubs of Miami and Las Vegas, where very highly respected – and highly paid – DJs have been booted off the stage because of complaints by high-rolling patrons. What happens is this: The guys entertaining ladies with $650 bottles of Grey Goose, thinking it’s just another club employee up there, get bored with the hypnotizing rhythms and demand their favourite hip-hop or pop songs, as they are used to doing. DJ refuses, high rollers complain to management, manager bows to power of cash and switches famous DJ off. It has happened a half-dozen times this year, usually documented in camera video instantly posted to YouTube, and often entails intemperate attacks on the crowd by the DJ over the PA system. A day or two of traded Twitter insults follow.

Indeed, there have been plenty of flame wars in the wake of EDM’s wide popularity: It is common now for DJs of the various schools to take to Twitter to condemn each other for being sellouts or fakes – “not a real DJ” is the slur that follows the big-room stars because they just play a lot of hit songs and don’t improvise with their knobs and faders much.

The days of peace and love are over. One may wonder why such an abrasive sound – and an abrasive culture – are so popular. My theory is that hipster music – the gentle sound of a young white man singing about love and alienation with a band dressed like farm workers – was just too wimpy to excite hormone-fuelled teenagers for too long. People are finally getting tired of songs; songs are a fixed form in music, and fixed forms are limiting. The industrial pounding of a big drum and a lot of scratchy, wailing synths does for young people what heavy metal used to. It’s big and mean and dark and that’s sexy. When you’re 22, sensitivity is just not what you want from a big night out.

 

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