Pre55 Play: The Debate Over EDM, Authenticity, and Technology in Music

Queen – A Day at the Races, no synths

The “No Synths!” proclamation from the gatefold sleeve of Queen’s “A Day at the Races” album.

Traditional Instruments
In the city I live in, Chicago, the owners of the historic Congress Theater came to an agreement with the city banning EDM from the venue. All acts that play there must now use “traditional instruments” during their shows.

Like genre skeptics of the past who have questioned the value of unfamiliar music and derided its creators as unauthentic charlatans, Chicago’s powers that be have provided an opportunity to think about authenticity in music. Why do critic resort to strong language about reality itself – “real,” “true,” “only” – when discussing low-stakes topics such as whether Deadmau5 is a working-class DJ or if a heavy metal is allowed to use synthesizers?

It’s like the 2000 U.S. presidential election all over again – are musicians persons with whom listeners would enjoy having a beer, yet, at the same time, do these celebrities exude sufficient serious to be accepted into The Canon (if such a thing even exists in EDM; it’s sort of a rockist construct). Since music criticism is so indeterminate, the only methodology for vetting ascendant musical acts is to wrack their music for tell-tale signs of a laborious creative process (hence, “traditional instruments) or relation to a specific social class (Born in the U.S.A. and Parklife are good examples from the rock album annals).

This critical approach toward everything from jazz to EDM has nudged artists to prove their worth – and their down-home (read: white and probably rural) – temperaments. Even synth-pop bands have proclaimed that they won’t succumb to the infinite DIY possibilities afforded by iOS music apps and instead soldier on with real synthesizers. Likewise the unexplainable influence of Mumford & Sons even made folksiness an important litmus test even for Group Therapy-grade acts for a while there. Above & Beyond themselves did acoustic shows last year and released an acoustic artist albums this year.

Genres and Society
Genres aren’t static, but their paths are carved not only by shifts in consumer style and taste, but also by social and demographic change. Jazz was incubated during the urbanized, prosperous 1920s in America, while rock and roll became the logical musical extension of 1950s urban sprawl, as the sound of America’s white population expropriating and exporting blues and jazz, which had previously been the specialties only of the country’s extreme rural and urban poles, to the suburbs.

Just as societal change can easily incite refuge to defensive terms such as “real” and “traditional” to bemoan the loss of an ideal that may have never existed, musical evolution brings out from the woodwork the authenticity scolds who decry new stars for, at best, violating good taste and, at worst, endangering everyone’s sanity and livelihoods. The Atlantic had an excellent piece on the rise of EDM (electronic dance music) as the new rock n’ roll, and in doing so, it nicely summarized the dark critical history of new genres being born (emphasis mine):

The most obvious point of comparison…is how this new movement has been received by the majority of people who consider themselves possessed of good taste. In the 1920s, jazz was preached against from pulpits and editorial pages as the devil’s music, its crazy rhythms jangling the nerves, speeding the degeneracy of American civilization, and responsible in part for the ongoing failure of the temperance movement. In the 1950s, rock and roll was sneered at as jungle music, provoking lascivious displays unfit for the Ed Sullivan Show as well as responsible for juvenile delinquency and reefer madness. In the 1980s and ’90s, rap music was censured as violent thuggery, non-music…[B]ut most of the current non- parental criticisms of EDM are made in purely aesthetic or culturally derogatory terms: Dismissive, class-based coinages…are employed to wall off “real” electronic music as the preserve of the specialists.

Perhaps one should pause to note the surreality of wide-bore, public discussions of “realness” within electronica, since electronica itself was once pilloried, or at least dismissed, by artists and critics alike as something too mechanical, fake, and European to be acceptable. Up until the release of their block-bluster The Game (1980), Queen emblazoned each of their 1970s LPs with the a disclaimer that no synthesizers had been used on the record. The White Stripes reprised this school of thought in the liner notes to Elephant (2003), which shouted, to no one in particular, that no “computers” had been used to make the record.

Computerized and Real Music
“Computer” really is the key term here, more so even than “synthesizer” or any more specific descriptor. Early electronica, especially the West German variety of Kraftwerk and Klaus Schulze and the American creations of Silver Apples and Cromagnon, announced itself by its reliance on obviously strange – non “traditional,” certainly – instrumentation that gave proceedings a computerized, alien sound, whether synths were in play or not. Sometimes the entire arrangement, rather than the individual sounds of a synth, made all the difference in distinguishing a song or album from pre-electronic music. For example, on Autobahn (1974), Kraftwerk juxtaposed traditional violins and guitars with samples car sounds and synths to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in new instruments and methodologies. Only a few years later, however, Kraftwerk had gone completely computerized on Radio-Activity (1975), and then issued an entire concept album that ruminated on the computer’s use cases in government, mathematics, and music itself on Computer World (1981), right on the eve of the widespread adoption of digital recording and playback technology that attended the CD format’s birth in 1982.

From The Man-Machine (1978) onward, Kraftwerk also adopted the mannerisms of robots, seemingly forced into their new mechanized existence by the growing centrality of computerized and automated processes in music creation. What had begun as the usage of a simple synthesizer had progressed into the usage of loops, drum machines, and more sophisticated recording techniques. It became hard to know where the human input (initially assumed to be composition and performance) ended and computer input (likewise assumed to be a means of enhancement and refinement) began. It was no coincidence that Kraftwerk waited until 2008 to issue a definitive remaster of their entire catalogue, as Ralf Hütter in particular became obsessed with getting the sound just right in light of newly available digital editing and production tools.

More so than any other outfit, Kraftwerk embodied how the issue of realness affects musical pioneers. Their posturing as robots was an ironic take on the conundrum that electronic musicians face in the face of both authenticity-obsessed critics and the persistent, decades-long dominance of rock and roll and indie rock within the music press. The fixation of publications such as Rolling Stone with lists of the greatest singers and guitarists, along with the enormous critical reputation afforded to indie musicians, keeps alive the question of how much realness factors into aesthetic evaluation. It appears that process in particular – the steps by which the music was created, and how discernible said process is to the listener – is a prime determinant of realness. When in doubt, we can consult Urban Dictionary (bolded emphasis mine) on this issue:

real music includes anything that goes through what is called a pure process towards becoming music that sounds nice and does not bore the listner [sic] involves singing and not rapping. Usually involves: guitar, bass, drum.

Via sarcasm, Urban Dictionary summarizes 60 years of rock criticism. It excavates the fading cultural currency of rock music by pinging its most basic and obvious traits – the guitar-bass-drums trio setup – and invests them with the unique power to produce “real” music, a label that early 1950s critics might have reserved exclusively for less guitar-based music, like jazz.

Books, EDM and Realness
Similar struggles for a definition of “the real” exist in other cultural fields, such as in the case of Jonathan Franzen complaining that ebooks don’t have the same permanence as the written word. There one finds characteristic appeals to soft classism (“real readers”) and authenticity (“literature-crazed). This broad struggle over realness in culture extends to EDM, which is currently the most prominent form of electronic music, and accordingly it is fertile ground for producers in heavy-rotation pop and hip-hop who are seeking to cross-pollinate their tracks with club flair. This piece, however, focuses more on how the authenticity debate affects EDM disc jockeys (DJs), who are the main EDM performers and composers. The DJ abbreviation itself is accidentally telling: it has nearly truncated the musicians’ ties to real physical discs and become a word in its own right, even if many DJs do go on using real discs (usually vinyl LPs) and their corresponding playback equipment, rather than a completely digital setup.

EDM is a conveniently broad umbrella under which to shelter the diverse genres of house, trance, techno, acid, dubstep, and what used to be dismissively called IDM (intelligent dance music). House music arouse in late 1980s Chicago, while trance was at least initially a much more European phenomenon, coming to the fore in the early 1990s with The Age of Love’s titular masterpiece. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of rapid transition in how music was recorded. Although editing software ProTools had not yet become mainstream, the music-making process was becoming increasingly automated, with hip-hop as the most brazen exponent of music that could float across a sea of carefully curated samples. Whether the samples were the hyper-specific record collection allusions of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989), or instead the vaguer synth-bass-drums issuances of house, making an album became as much about one’s abilities to curate an aural collage – and make as apparent as possible one’s diverse yet classical tastes – as about one’s abilities to perform with the human verve and virtuosity associated with jazz, classical, and rock; the idea of a “solo” doesn’t really exist in EDM.

Accordingly, the aesthetic critic would not be raising the critical stakes by criticizing the pitch of a house diva or other EDM vocalist, or by bemoaning the technical repetitiveness of a jam. The latter term is imprecise, but it may suffice if only to construe EDM as a hipper, more urban update on the rock jam, that is, a long-form construction (most EDM albums would qualify as “double albums” in the rock sense) that evolves in often subtle ways and which aims to capture, comment on, and finally re-imagine a highly specific setting, whether Ibiza or the Renaissance UK club. Terre Thaemlitz has stated that house music is “hyperspecific” and meant to convey a particular kind of post-1980s angst. Since EDM in this classical sense is super-local, like politics, then the onus for accurate reproduction and commentary falls on the DJ, whose mixing skills are arguably of no use if he doesn’t have an authentic relation with a particular location and audience. Being a DJ is really like being a politician or a real estate agent.

DJs: Just like Politicians
Like politicians, DJs have come under increasing pressure in the last decade to present themselves as authentic, “real” persons who talk, tweet, and perform just like their fans. The Verge once commented on the celebrity of the Canadian DJ Deadmau5 (who is the at the center of the current storm about DJ authenticity; emphasis mine):

“As a human, Joel Zimmerman epitomizes the “celebs: they’re just like us!” ethos. Fans are treated to rambling, very-unedited, “lol” and emoticon-laced posts on Facebook and Twitter. His face is an angular vessel of pure emotion, nearly always dominated by an ear-to-ear grin that communicates just as much as the words that come out of it, another testament to context bringing more to the table than words. His body, a lanky vessel clad in the t-shirts, baggy pants, and ballcaps of the masses, is covered in nerdy tattoos (Space Invader, Zelda hearts, Cthulhu, Mario “Boo ghost); he needn’t do more than walk into a room to tell you what his deal is. But when he transforms into deadmau5, his presentation is stripped of nearly all words.”

So Deadmau5 is someone to whom his fans can relate. The Verge even goes on to characterize him as a latter-day arena rocker, one who has replaced guitar pyrotechnics and animalistic rock star rituals with blinking lights and repetition. Even in a non-critical assessment of Deadmau5, the issue is framed within the context of rock music.

In light of these portrayals of Deadmau5′s performative style, it becomes easy to see him as the hipster or unusually tech savvy guy DJing a fraternity party or rave. While he certainly imports the obtuse cinematic sweep and costuming of Daft Punk, as part of a tradition harking back to Kraftwerk’s own aforementioned transformation, his wordlessly curated sets nevertheless have an earthy, populist air that nicely coincides with the DIY stylings of his album titles. The populism – the carefully crafted facade of “realness” – succeeds in part because of how Deadmau5 obscures his source material, although it is worthing noting that his protege, Skrillex, courts the authenticity wonks by appealing to older, mostly critically unassailable genres like reggae, in the same way that drum n’ bass once leaned critically on jazz and ragga. The New York Times described his technique as reductionist – many of the familiar parts of dance music (can we call it “classic dance” or “traditional dance” now?)  are stripped away to highlight a few flashy traits, sort of like a guitar solo cutting through the blues and jazz changes of early rock but never completely obscuring the reputable source material.

Deadmau5 makes EDM that is agnostic of any particular demographic, a strategy which would seem to run into trouble if the previous argument about house’s hyperspecific contextualism is accurate. But the opportunity to predictably decry Deadmau5 as “not a real” DJ did not fully present itself until he said that most DJs show up to their concerts and, amid the booming noises and lights, simply press play. He likened EDM (by name) to a “cruise ship” meant to convey atmosphere for fans and celebrity bandwagoners alike, which, while partially an astute observation in its probing of it the genre’s roots in partylike locales like smoky clubs or laser-emblazoned dance floors, was nevertheless surprisingly brutal, even savage, in its assessment of an increasingly intellectualized, gentrified genre and its auteurs. The backlash was swift, with David Guetta in particular hitting back at Deadmau5, while other parts of the DJ community took the opportunity to point out that the instruments and live processes available simply were not up to snuff for recreating the complex introverted processes of in-studio EDM production.

Automation and Labor
To the latter point, the invention of newer, more efficient instruments has allowed for entire genres to develop, mature, and be performed throughout history. The piano’s improvements upon the harpsichord is a particularly significant case-study. Perhaps EDM’s DJs have indeed not yet succeeded in discovering easily reproduced ways to create studio-quality live performances. But even if they had, would it have changed the tribalism and infighting over “realness” in EDM? There were plenty of criticisms of Deadmau5 that cited the “hardworking” ordinary DJs (not unlike a political ad, really) who, unlike Deadmau5, specialized in live improvisation, singing or other real and true-to-life processes that demonstrate a tangible, almost bodily link between the performer and the music being performed. This is one of the more strident examples of one subgroup’s idea of “process” dictating for everyone what does and doesn’t count as “real,” and unsurprisingly, Deadmau5 himself has characterized studio recordings as “what counts.”

In EDM, musicians may well have reached a level of automation and in-studio complexity that is difficult to reproduce live, but this conundrum is a distraction, a too-convenient frame in which to confine the more nebulous issue of how “realness” is redefined and achieved by different classes. EDM today is a strange comparison to rock music in 1966-7, when The Beatles retired from touring altogether to focus on studio experimentation that would have had been both laborious to reproduce and unpalatable. This tack led to works (now) regarded as classics, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it is equally notable in how it shirked populism and visible, transparent process (like the live-playing of instruments on stage) for opaque in-studio control.

Contemporary DJing, and EDM at-large, remains strongly invested in placating crowds and creating atmosphere in that pre-Sgt. Pepper way, but they achieve this populism via automation rather than human labor, hence the aforementioned “just press play” sets. To appreciate the different tacks that rock and EDM have taken, simply recall the comparison in The Verge of Deadmau5 to arena rockers. In the 1970s, prominent arena rockers Electric Light Orchestra, known for the complexity of their studio works, were beset by accusations of lip-syncing and usage of prerecorded tracks. In the 1970s, did this faux-pas make ELO any less “real” that synthesizer disavowers like Queen?

The Verge characterizes Deadmau5 as someone who was ordinary and just like his fans, a portrait at odd with his metapersonality as a purveyor of prerecorded tracks. In a dance club full of physically active persons, Deadmau5 may be least active, as he simply goes through the motions as the music plays. But isn’t that precisely what everyone else is doing, both in the club and out of it? Doesn’t the usage of common, commoditized items like the laptop, coupled with Deadmau5’s freedom to dance (like anyone else) while his prerecorded set streams over the speakers, make him just another one of his fans? One may struggle to determine if his routine is “real” or even what school of “realness” he would be validating if it were, but struggling with the “realness” debate is not an end to itself. Rather, it is usually the sign of a genre that still requires additional norms from musicians, critics, and listeners alike in order to have its critical profile enhanced, its sound refined, and its “realness” no longer questioned in light of the ensuing maturity.

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