05 August 2012

"How Rave Music Conquered America". Really?

An article written by Simon Reynolds is a serious thing. The most respected and influential dance music journalist has just published his fatwa "How rave music conquered America" in The Guardian (August 02, 2012). His analysis is not essentially different than the majority of press articles on the recent growth of EDM in America. Likewise, he employs analytical categories he forged in the late 1980s, elaborating on aspects of the cyclical trajectory that electronica traces from underground, to popularization and massification, as multiplication leads to fragmentation. What's special about his article is the descriptive (albeit sometimes verbose) depth and the authoritative weight he brings to the table.

The rise of mega festivals with super structures and inflated fees is, according to Reynolds, the main indication that EDM has become mainstream in America. I am surprised, because this is the type of evidence that outside journalists and some naive insiders have been using for over 10 years now. But maybe this time it is different. Really?

The voracious encroachment of entertainment big business in the U.S. rave scene is a relatively new trend, as noted by Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Reynolds briefly mentions that the popularity of EDM has been facilitated by electronica being gradually incorporated into pop and hip-hop aired across the radio and TV mediascape. At a macroeconomic level, I wonder how the current global recession (along with the positive “Obama effect” afterglow) may have played a role. In his prior publications, Reynolds argues that the rise of house and techno back in the mid 1980s was a reaction to economic downturns of Thatcher and Reagan eras. Just like back then, current EDM events are about escapism, but a main difference lies in the lack of rebelliousness or questioning by participants today.

The EDM music being played in mainstream clubs and festivals in America is not "pure" electronica but rather strong fusions of pop and hip-hop in a big tune formula, often leading to undanceable (unbearable?) dubstep. Psy trance, deep house and tech house remain largely circumscribed to underground micro parties from San Francisco to Goa (and maybe that's a good thing). Teen sexiness - without any ironical undertone or twist - has emerged at full swing, suggesting that Millenials have succumbed to material consumerism. As Reynolds explains, the term "festival" has replaced "rave", a loaded taboo in America for it conjures hysterical images of drug overdoses and harassing sheriffs backed by draconian legislation. Party promoters thus avoid the word just like "that disease" was used in reference to cancer generations ago.

Underground critics have a point in noting that mega festivals are sterile, preformatted events regulated by vested economic interests. Not that drugs have disappeared. In fact, ecstasy has a new street name: "molly" (molecular) as new users claim that powder MDMA is more pure than pills. Beyond legality or health concerns, the point here is the lack of freedom or grassroots spontaneity in these EDM festivals. Techno counterculture was about creating a world that departs (and maybe transforms) the constraints and drudgery of modern life. Displays of fashion and flesh without the underlying playfulness or transgression intent of former times suggests that the scene has lost its critical edge, and is becoming more mainstream than ever. Within regulated structures of mega festivals, even Deadmau5 regrets that DJs may no longer be allowed to improvise tracks on the dancefloor, but are rather compelled to hit the 'play' button for a preset track list; a real sacrilege for any virtuoso DJs. The studio is thus becoming the site of creativity and experimentation; quite a departure from times when the dancefloor was an improvisational DJ lab.

The future is unknown. Currently the American EDM scene is an "unstable coalition" of dubstep (Skrillex) and feel-good trance (Kaskade), with the majority of DJ artists lying somewhere in between (Deadmau5). Twenty years from now, Simon Reynolds may use the same framework to understand the situation (from underground, to mainstream, to fragmentation). Though such festivals may provide some escapism, they do miss that grassroots questioning of "the system". Or worse, they just provide conformist, self-contained, pricey entertainment in commodity form. The genuine experience of self-transcendence and redemption is missed out: the Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) that arises in quasi-sacred electronica rituals for a secular youth in search of spirituality and connectedness. Perhaps the title of Reynolds' article would better be "How America conquered rave music". Perhaps.


  1. I enjoyed reading Reynolds's article and your response. Adding your book to my absurdly long to-read list!

    1. Rob, Thanks for your note. Hope my book "Global Nomads" climbs your to-read list. Cheers, Tony

  2. I find this confusing. You mention Reynolds' notion of 'massification' and seem to take issue, but then you yourself spend this blog entry decrying the co-opted state of US electronica. Are you parroting SR when you dis dubstep, or is that part of your own authenticity politics? Also, how do you infer that the redemption found in the TAZ isn't being found by youth today in bigger festival events--even when their musical offerings offend the jaded old-timers, like yourself? I thought this was going to be about the erroneous perception that the US cares about electronica--or, more pointedly, actually *buys* electronica--but I think you've actually got more in common with SR than you think.

    1. Anonymous:

      Please take no offense. Should I take your ageist remarks as a symptom of anger?

      I like dubstep. Great for TV commercials. It just isn't good for dancing.

      Good point about TAZ in commercial events. I had thought about it but after much observation, research and personal experience, I doubt that overly regulated/commercial events are conducive to that collectively spontaneous (or genuine) emmancipatory experience. Not that it's impossible, but just very unlikely.

      Confusing? Sorry but I refuse monolythic thinking, as I don't completely (dis)agree with Reynolds. I'm just trying to explore the fine lines of complexity.


  3. Interesting comment, thank you. I also enjoyed reading Reynolds article. My problem is the displaying of the typical underground to mainstream cycle in the way he writes as totally unproblematic because normal. He misses the importance of the meanings that people attach to their actions and the struggle between different groups of people that very much constitute the difference from underground to mainstream in their daily activities.

  4. I attended a KMFM/Lords of Acid concert a few years back and heartened by the range of style, movement and age. Super structures? Just typical performance art but then again it wasn't a festival.