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Electronic dance music: What happens when the dancing stops?

Electronic dance music producer Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5, worries that the genre is becoming homogenized.

Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

If we take our coaching from Pharrell Williams (and there's no good reason why we should not), we should now be moving to the beat. "Lose yourself to dance," the high-voiced singer-producer instructs on an anthemic disco number from Daft Punk's smash summer album Random Access Memories. And, on Robin Thicke's balmy, cowbell-clanking chart-topper Blurred Lines, it is Williams who implores, "Everybody get up."

We are up. Electronic dance music (EDM) is having its North American moment. The machine-made movement that began with writhing club-set raves and then invaded major pop festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza now boasts its own extravaganzas – sizzling spectacles and audio-visual cavalcades at super-duper clubs and wild mega-fests such as the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas (and now in Chicago and London), where acrobats and LED screens are as vital as sub-bass, bottled water and mood-altering chemicals.

The one thing missing? Dance. No one's moving as the floors get more jammed. "It's hard to dance when you're shoulder to shoulder," says Joel Zimmerman, the Juno-winning laptop auteur and producer better known as Deadmau5. "Maybe it's just matter of physics. Can one dance with less than a foot of personal space?"

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We might find out this weekend, where more than 50,000 people are expected to shuffle off to Toronto's Downsview Park for the second annual VELD Music Festival, a two-day open-air EDM affair with Deadmau5 headlining the fest's closing Sunday-night bill.

Zimmerman, a slightly-built mischievous sort who for this interview does not wear his trademark high-tech mouse helmet, pauses for a second as he reconsiders the question of why people aren't dancing. "Maybe it's just their fault," he offers. "Maybe they don't know how to dance."

Or maybe they do, but their senses are being overloaded. With so much to look at now, dance fests are beginning to resemble stand-and-stare rock concerts.

Commentators speculate about fault lines that are beginning to show on the bubble of EDM. The costs of the elaborate staging and the fees commanded by charismatic genre stars such as Deadmau5 and Tiesto are soaring at a time when the music itself is more homogenized.

Too big to fail? Hardly. The disco craze of the 1970s, which crashed when things got too big, is a cautionary tale for EDM. "Satisfaction came in the chain reaction," the Trammps sang in Disco Inferno back then. "I couldn't get enough, so I had to self-destruct."

Zimmerman has spoken at length about the cookie-cutter nature of current dance music, so I don't bother asking him about the genre's lack of musical adventure. Our chat drifts into a discussion about club culture and, again, the lack of the boogie. "People don't go to nightclubs to dance," he says, with a wave of his hand. "People go to nightclubs to buy bottles. Or to be seen. Or to be seen buying bottles."

Speaking of clubs, Zimmerman caused a stir with his recent brush with Justin Bieber at Toronto's Cabana Pool Bar. The meeting of the pop-culture princes is bizarre to the mind – like a wary meeting between a tiger and a lion. Zimmerman, a native of Niagara Falls, Ont., got things off on the wrong foot by welcoming Bieber to Canada, a knock at the Baby singer's Americanization. "He was a little put off by that," Zimmerman recalls. Things devolved further when Zimmerman trash-tweeted about Bieber's dominating presence at the club. "Everybody was having a good time, but when he arrived, everything gravitated toward the beautiful gold body of his," explains the knob-tweaking musician, referring to the 19-year-old's toned and tanned physique.

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Zimmerman's sarcastic commentary drew the ire of online Beliebers. Days later he shakes his head at the fierce loyalty of the popstar's legion. "I just wish there was a way to harness that energy and use it for purposes of good," he says, rubbing his tattooed neck in consternation. "Or evil, for that matter. But it's just the most useless force ever."

I didn't ask Zimmerman if anyone was dancing at the Cabana joint. Perhaps there was a sophisticated swaying, or maybe there was no movement at all, save for the frantic unholstering of smartphone cameras.

So now we know why Deadmau5 and Daft Punk wear helmets when they perform. Everybody is digging the music, but no one is dancing. It is a sad development; the headgear of the maestros is there to mask their tears.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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