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A Rational Conversation: Is EDM Easy Listening Now?

Mr. Probz. Ilja Meefout/Courtesy of RCA Records hide caption

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Ilja Meefout/Courtesy of RCA Records

Mr. Probz.

Ilja Meefout/Courtesy of RCA Records

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

When the catchall term EDM (that would be "Electronic Dance Music," if you want to use a phrase that no one utters out loud) was popularized a few years ago, it was usually used to reference dubstep; or, more particularly, it meant an ultra-aggressive, drop-heavy version of dubstep. As EDM grew in popularity among crowds in their teens and early 20s, aspects of this sound began to infiltrate more pop productions. But, as it goes in the forever splintering and subgenre-afying world of dance music, one strain dies out and another ascends. What played in a side tent at a festival last year now has a headline spot on the main stage.

In 2013, people were predicting dubstep would be replaced with deep house, but now, as dance music becomes even more mainstreamed, those house sounds are becoming ever lighter and easier to listen to. You can hear them in crossover pop hits like Calvin Harris' "Summer" or the Robin Shulz remix to Mr. Probz's "Waves." Now some people will tell you that 2015 is going to be all about summery tropical house music.

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To discuss what's behind the toned down sound of EDM, Ducker spoke to Puja Patel, who has written for outlets including Pitchfork and Rolling Stone and is a former editor at Wondering Sound and SPIN.

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If the sounds of EDM have firmly entered mainstream pop, what interests me is the softening of those sounds. A few years ago everyone was going on and on about dubstep, and we have seen it come to pop — I guess Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble" is the biggest example of that — but now it seems like the EDM influences are much lighter and much less aggressive. Do you agree that's happening or am I misreading the situation?

Electronic dance influences are probably more present in production now than they were around the time of "I Knew You Were Trouble," but definitely less obviously present in terms of being at the forefront of a song. There are the very obvious "dance" pop songs like DJ Snake's "Turn Down For What" and Martin Garrix's "Animals" that actually chart as pop songs but feel like EDM in the mass-market festival sense, but, yeah, after Disclosure blew up with "Latch" (years after it came out, for what it's worth) a huge chunk of pop-focused producers seemed to try to follow their lead.

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What is it about Disclosure they're trying to follow, the sounds themselves or just the listenability of it?

I'd say both. Gorgon City recruiting Jennifer Hudson and MNEK, festival headliners like Cazzette working with Terri B on songs like "Blind Heart" — producers are trying to adapt these old school and largely underground dance production techniques and put a soulful singer on the hook to give audiences something to sing along to. Also Disclosure very much set the tone for a kind of "cool" that was purposefully and explicitly pro-underground and a bit nerdy-chic.

Do you think the embrace of these sounds was a backlash against how aggressive dubstep can be?

I wouldn't say it's a backlash to dubstep specifically, no. But to the mainstreaming of a certain kind of EDM, probably. Also I'd give the Disclosure guys a little more credit; I don't think they were making their music in protest of anything, but did happen to make the album that was smart about appealing to dance heads, critics and festival audiences. That being said, I think that with or without Disclosure, we'd probably be in the same place as far as dance pop goes in 2015.

Yeah, I didn't mean Disclosure made their type of music as a direct response to dubstep specifically, I meant the electronic music producers who have latched (ha!) on to their sound.

Oh, for sure. Once these producers saw that there could be success with it (via Disclosure), they went for it themselves. A lot of it is pretty boring, sadly, but that sound makes DJs feel less like sell outs and gives vocalists a little more range to work with. On the plus side, pop loves hooks! So as far as club anthems go, there could be some good that comes from it. People love dancing and singing along at the top of their lungs at the same time. So when you mentioned "Trouble" earlier, a huge part of that song's success is Max Martin's genius of being able to understand that. Same with Dr. Luke and all the great '90s house producers. Same thing with Calvin Harris with Rihanna on "We Found Love" or "Where Have You Been" a few years earlier. What's happening is that producers who may have been dubbed "EDM producers" in the most modern day sense are realizing that they can be pop producers and have bigger/stronger longevity by backing a vocalist than they can by making moshpit tunes as the festival bubble is basically about to burst.

Why is it about to burst? What makes you say that?

The fans of festival EDM are getting older and, hypothetically, will begin to age out of "the experience" that's associated with going to festivals. Additionally, prices (of tickets, and the rates to book DJs as well) are rising as new output from the circuit's biggest stars diminishes because of the amount of time they spend touring. DJ-only concert-going experiences have become less cool than ones that have mixed-lineups. The rise of trap in EDM in itself shows that newer and younger audiences are just as (if not more) interested in club rap as they are in club dance. I've always felt like EDM festival-going was less about going to see artists perform as much as it was to see a "genre" perform. There are a couple of DJs that a fan may want to see but certainly not all 150, or whatever, on the lineup.

Are you saying festival-goers are becoming less interested in seeing "the genre" and having "the experience," and instead are going to want to spend their concert dollars on specific acts and performers?

Yes, and in more intimate of a setting. That's my hope at least. I also think that there's a general want for mix-format DJing and cross-genre sets as dance further infiltrates pop. This goes back to what you were saying about the lighter wash of EDM influences in pop. Producers are making songs that are easily mixable or at least not too jarring in a set — let folks have their rap and their rock and their dubstep all at once.

So you're into how you see things developing? Had you been frustrated with the where things were?

Nah, not frustrated. I can't lie, I was thrilled to see Swedish House Mafia sell out Madison Square Garden. I mentioned to you in an email that trance has had a huge and pretty consistent following over the last decade (and longer) and I got a kick out of recently seeing ATB or Armin Van Buuren headline shows alongside big room house guys or Snoop Lion or whoever else. Also I do think that EDM and party rap were made for each other. I jokingly called the genre "trap-rave" a few years ago, but the swaggy bass of dubstep and certain hi-hat and snare drum inflections of Southern rap operate in the same BPM range, so it was a no-brainer from a production standpoint. That said, songs like Jeremih's R&B radio banger "Don't Tell 'Em" and even Beyonce's "7/11" blur the line for me — you can hear trance synth influences in their production but they're so obviously meant for urban radio. Both will do better on an average dance floor than a straight EDM dubstep track.

Is Flosstradamus the current champs of the hybrid "trap-rave" sound you're describing?

Flosstradamus does do it, as did Baauer with "Harlem Shake," Hudson Mohawke and Lunice with their TNGHT project, Diplo, Afrojack and folks on UK labels LuckyMe and Night Slugs. Some mainstream producers who I expect are aware of the crossover and are being creative about it are Hit-Boy, Boi-1da, Metro Boomin and Mike Will. I don't really think of Floss as radio pop artists, though I certainly think that they have the production prowess for it. (Can I just throw out here that the Hit-Boy remix of "Scream & Shout" by Britney Spears and Will.I.Am is so great.)

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Going back to trance, how and where are you specifically hearing its influence on modern EDM?

Looking at Martin Solveig and GTA's "Intoxicated" or Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike's "Louder," it's really easy to pick up on trance cues. Neither really belongs exclusively to the genre at all, but they do heavily rely on these mood-orienting, floating, expansive synths and really extended build-ups that are typical of trance. "Louder" follows a trance-friendly structure of deconstructing the beat it opens with as the song's outro. Earlier this year both songs were near the top of the Beatport 100, which means they were some of the most popular tracks being bought by "electronic" DJs.

There are a couple of elements of trance that are so frequently found in pop-dance radio hits that they're not really associated with EDM anymore. The fluttery, melodic keys that build into the hooks of big pop songs like Calvin Harris' "Summer" or Ellie Goulding's "Burn" and a lot of David Guetta or Dr. Luke produced tracks for female vocalists are good examples. Alesso and Tove Lo's "Heroes" uses this kind of tin-like synth to bolster the melody. Strip the drums and four-on-the-floor bass from some of these big songs and you'll hear melodic elements or arpeggios that are elemental to trance.

What's the general feeling towards trance these days? I'm very much dating myself here, but back when I was first listening to some electronic music in my late teens in the mid-'90s — after growing up on rock and rap — the general consensus was that trance was the lamest of the dance subgenres, even if it was globally probably the most popular at the time. People could tell you about the redeeming qualities and "legitimacy" of house, big beat, downtempo stuff, jungle and so on, but trance still had that "mindless and repetitive" tag. Are exciting progressions happening within this sound now? What type of cred or nostalgia-aided positive feelings does it currently enjoy? Are people legitimately into trance now or is similar to the goofy Euro pop appreciation that's been happening?

Oh, man, I don't think the attitude to trance has changed very much to be honest. You're right that because it is so repetitive it can feel pretty soulless. (Though, to be fair, the whole point of trance is that it's kind of mindlessly uplifting and mantric or meditative.) I honestly am not deep in the world of trance, but I do know that Above & Beyond recently released a live instrumental album, which is aptly called Acoustic, that's supposed to be pretty interesting and perhaps showed the intent/want to bring back a kind of soulful musicianship to a genre that's so computer-based. That said, ATB, Armin Van Buuren, Tiësto and Above & Beyond are still huge world-renowned festival acts. I wouldn't say that there's nostalgia for trance, it's just that as the DJs are getting older, new generations of EDM/trance fans are cropping up to replace those who have moved on or aged out of it.

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What about the super lite stuff, like Calvin Harris' "Summer" and the remix of "Waves" by Mr. Probz? I've jokingly called it the Club Med-ification of EDM. Is this still music for young people or are they courting a more "adult" audience?

I find it difficult to qualify some of that stuff as "dance music" as much as music made by producers of dance music. (By now we can probably agree that "Electronic Dance Music" means whatever you want it to and is purely contextual.) It's interesting — the idea of courting an adult audience — because I've never really thought of it that way. I do think of it as a way to court radio, though. Let's consider the two big Avicii tracks that both charted and, by way of Avicii, are popularly considered "dance": "Wake Me Up" and "Hey Brother." It was so telling to me that Avicii went for these folksy vocals — one about growing up, another about standing by your fellow man — both were definitely specifically made to break into the larger mass markets as "pop" and not "dance." The video for "Wake Me Up" both featured and coincided with his Ralph Lauren campaign and "Hey Brother" is a tribute to our troops ("our" being the American troops; Avicii himself is Swedish). It's all very bizarre and kinda icky. Maybe you're right, maybe these are focused toward adults, or at least parental-approved EDM. I wonder if there's a general consciousness or goal among these DJs to disassociate EDM from its festival presence (and, you know, glow sticks, misogyny, drugs) and reorient itself toward being soulful but harmless. It's a nice thought — maybe one supported by labels — but I think extending that to the genre as a whole might be extending too great a line of credit. Though Tiësto did tell me he doesn't allow glow-sticks at his shows.

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Well, you have to imagine a headlining arena tour gets you more money than a headlining spot at a festival, right? And you're more likely to get ticket buyers who only want to go out for four hours, not spend an entire day listening to dance music in a concrete parking lot.

Yeah, absolutely.

I didn't go into this thinking it was all a shrewd, economic calculation.

I try not to think about it that way either, but the reality usually is that these musicians are thinking for the future. Or their team is.

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Let's go back to the music. Are you into the "tropical house" vibe many of these songs are going for? I mean, I've downloaded tons of mixes over the past five or so years of old songs and new songs that I guess have a similar vibe, but these big hits feel pretty empty to me.

Yeah, I'd agree. "Waves" is a pretty terrible song, though I have to say that I love Calvin Harris' "Summer." Some of that stuff is great, but a large majority of it sounds really shallow and same-y. I wish that Aeroplane or Classix were producing these pop hits sometimes. The Aeroplane remix of Friendly Fires' "Paris" is one of my favorites. It's interesting because a lot of these tropical vibes remind me of mid-'00s Kitsuné releases. They're the sort of thing that is explicitly made for rich people who are sitting next to a pool and need some background music to make them feel like they're hanging in Ibiza. I'VE SAID TOO MUCH.

No, you haven't, because you're onto something. There was a fantasy element to the tropical house or tropical disco of not that long ago. A lot of it wasn't deep, but it was music for the imagined Ibiza or French Riviera discos of the '70s. This stuff feels like it's for Carnival cruises circa now.

Right, exactly. I honestly wonder how much we have of that to put on — um, just throwing this out there — the last Daft Punk release. Dance and pop innovators are revisiting those laidback disco vibes. We talked about nostalgia earlier — there is a string of pop that has this strong element of revisiting more soulful dance ideas (disco, funk, Motown) in a surface-level way to differentiate itself from the glut. I feel like by doing so, some of these artists also want to remind people that they are iconic, classic, ageless and true musicians.

Maybe there's a disconnect between me and the people making the music, because the trendy super breezy stuff makes them so anonymous. They may have a hit song or a timeless song, but that gives no sense of them as an artist.

Yeah, I agree. The trends I'm noticing now — after this kind of bro-step EDM and trance boom — are that newer dance artists are mining from the UK underground; established EDM artists are toning down and leaning more heavily on this kind of innocuous, trance-infected sound; and big/established pop singers are either amenable to that or mining from a more obviously accessible and historically successful dance sound where the vocalist is the star. That's a wildly generalized statement to make, but maybe the most concise way to try to make sense of those three surges existing in tandem. It's interesting that today [Ed. note: This conversation took place earlier in February.] the #1 track on Beatport is a rework of Corona's "Rhythm of the Night" by 3Lau and Nom de Strip with Estelle on the vocals. And '90s house singer Terri B from 2 Eivissa is on two radio mix club songs right now — one is with EDM dudes Cazzette and one is a remake of Innercity's "Big Fun' by D.O.N.S (an old-school London house producer). What!? Crazy!

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When you mentioned the possible Daft Punk influence at play here, is that producers following Daft Punk's lead, or were Daft Punk able to see where things were going more clearly before everyone else and managed to make an album of it before everybody else did?

I want to say that everyone copied Daft Punk but I think that they were just prescient with "Get Lucky." There are some trends in music that kind of operate on loop and "nostalgia" is at the forefront of everyone's brain at the moment, especially given that every musical moment of the '90s is trying to be modernized for 2015. But with the puttering out of the IN YOUR FACE OVERLOAD of harder EDM and its more negative associations, there was a want for feel good, family-friendly, block party-appropriate dance pop. Daft Punk happen to be in the really great and unique position of being able to do whatever they feel like doing. They were innovators of this genre-bending electronic dance in the '90s and '00s, so them making "Get Lucky" 20 years later made it way more acceptable, and even cool, to make laidback, breezy dance music.

I don't want it to sound like I'm against all laidback or breezy-sounding music. I don't believe that everything needs to be challenging or difficult. There has been plenty of mellow dance music over the years that I've been a huge fan of, but a lot of these new hits feel hollow to me. Do you feel the same way? If not, what am I missing?

Nah, I'm with you on this. It's a blessing and a curse, as always, when a form of dance music is accepted en masse. Even when good ideas (like Disclosure's use of garage or two-step) are what has bolstered this stuff up, most of what follows to saturate the market is the lowest common denominator. I like some of it, I'm not going to lie, but it can get a bit repetitive when you've been listening to the innovators of these sounds for years. That "hollow" sound you're describing might be the direct result of the copycat production. There's no doubting that a producer who has lived or grown-up on a certain type of music has flair and an ear for nuance that appropriators would miss entirely.