If you asked what song best describes the state of EDM in 2017, the answer wouldn’t be electronic. It wouldn’t have a drop or a simple synth melody or a four-on-the-floor beat. It would be “After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young.
The singer-songwriter wrote “After the Gold Rush” while the utopian vision of the ’60s was beginning to crumble. After the gold rush of rock and pop festivals — the beginning at Monterey, the peak at Woodstock, and the crushing implosion at Altamont — rock music lost its values and became unabashedly raunchy and commercial for two solid decades, typified by the sleazy, arena-filling hard rock of Boston, Aerosmith, and Kiss.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. EDM — the particularly bombastic, compositionally simple form of dance music whose years-long stranglehold on our clubs, festivals, and pop radio is now beginning to loosen — is in its death throes, and the music world is beginning to adjust. The grand festivals and megaclubs of Miami and Las Vegas have emptied, the crowds of bright-eyed youths have dissipated, and many of the superstar DJs that populated the Billboard Hot 100 in the past half-decade have moved on. And that might be a good thing.
For one, the scene was becoming life-threatening. Few in Miami can forget the infamous incident at the 2014 Ultra Music Festival in which a group of gate-crashers rushed a fence and trampled security guard Erica Mack. Although the 28-year-old survived, her injury emerged as a watershed moment for the festival, sparking outcry from local politicians and threatening its future. Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff even declared that the Ultra people had “overstayed their welcome.”
The festival didn’t leave, of course — its estimated $30 million in ticket sales ensured as much — but the incident remained relevant amid increasing reports of deaths at other festivals, most of them drug-related. Late last year, the Los Angeles Times reported “at least 29 confirmed drug-related deaths nationwide since 2006 among people who went to raves organized by Los Angeles-area companies.” According to the paper, fatalities were caused by a laundry list of toxic substances: Ecstasy, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin.
The money was drying up as well. SFX Entertainment, one of the highest-profile organizations in the business, filed for bankruptcy in February 2016 after its TomorrowWorld festival in Georgia descended into chaos. In Vegas, club owners began to realize that superstar DJ talent provided insufficient returns on investment. “It’s ridiculous to have the same five or six guys, pay them a fortune, and lose money,” one promoter said in a Page Six article last year.
And in Miami, 2016’s spring event season was met not with crowds of revelers but with “half-empty pool parties, quiet streets in Miami Beach, short lines, and a relative availability of cabs and car services,” according to a now-deleted Beatport article reposted on Pitchfork. (Beatport was, at the time, owned by SFX.) Incisive in its assessment of the scene, the Miami Herald told of disgruntled promoters making a fraction of what they had pulled in a decade ago and jaded fans sick of exorbitant costs for homogeneous sets by the same DJs they’d seen a dozen times.
The most telling narrative in the Herald‘s article, however, had less to do with Miami and more with the general trend of EDM’s commercialization and creative degradation. Writer Jordan Levin described a sort of “nocturnal financial arms race” in which competitive DJs would release track after inferior track to boost their social media stats and earn lucrative corporate sponsorships. South Beach club owner Carmel Ophir decried the “oversaturation and commercialization” running rampant in the scene and described it as “one big Kiss concert — we’re gonna give you bang for the buck, fire, explosions, blood.”
Perhaps EDM was having a Kiss moment in 2016. This year, when the most tangible evidence of popularity seems to be that Ultra 2017 has sold out of general-admission tickets, the scene resembles another period when rock music was having an identity crisis: the postgrunge late-’90s. At that time, rock was just as the Black Madonna describes the state of EDM in 2017: undead.
“We’re definitely in the zombie moment of EDM,” the noted DJ told New Times last year. “It’s dead, but the lumbering corpse is still walking around and fucking up FM radio.”
How exactly is it doing that? Six little words: “Closer” by the Chainsmokers featuring Halsey.
Much ink has been spilled over the appeal of this song, which spent 12 weeks atop the Hot 100 and earned a Grammy nomination. Its slavish devotion to both pop-music vapidity and EDM clichés, as well as the duo’s public persona as frat-bro provocateurs to whom, in their own words, “pussy was number one,” led Esquire‘s Matt Miller to crown the group “the Nickelback of EDM.”
“Nickelback became the perfect scapegoat for the downfall of early-2000s cock-rock. The Chainsmokers are poised to do the same with their pop-focused lite-EDM,” Miller wrote. “They’ve distilled the sound of the times into a handful of popular pervasive hits by stealing from nearly every act that came before them. They’ve shown that the genre is badly in need of innovation — and fast.”
Nickelback was part of a wave of bands that undermined and corporatized the genuine radicalism of grunge in the early ’90s. So if we’re going to complete the metaphor, we need a Nirvana or at the very least a Dave Grohl. In this case, that’s Skrillex.
EDM was a concern before Sonny Moore exploded onto the scene with his aggressive, grinding-machines take on dubstep. As Skrillex, however, he became dance music’s chief popularizer, the DJ who convinced a massive number of young Americans, for the first time since disco, that dance music was cool. So when he announced in January that, after all these years, he had re-formed his screamo band From First to Last, it was an acknowledgement that times had changed, that maybe it was time to try something different. Grohl did something similar after Nirvana’s breakup. Rather than twiddle his thumbs, he formed Foo Fighters. Like Moore, he decided to continue creating, but not in the same way.
Of course, this attitude doesn’t help EDM. The scene is torn between two self-destructive forces: commercialize and die slowly with the Chainsmokers, or move on and die fast with Skrillex.
Then there’s Calvin Harris.
The platinum-selling artist, still the highest-paid DJ in the world per Forbes , released his latest track, “Slide,” February 24. The song is funky and easygoing, paring down the heavy thump of radio house into a tropical groove. It features Frank Ocean and Migos, two of the biggest artists of the moment. Publications are already calling it the song of the summer — in March. It will be a hit. That it’s fantastic on its own might be beside the point.
It’s 2017. EDM must innovate or perish, and Calvin Harris has plotted a new course. We should all follow it.