Who’s your favorite DJ? Chances are that, in this day and age, that DJ is also a producer. Rarely do people make it big in EDM simply by mixing skill alone; instead, the ability to DJ well is complementary to making outstanding songs that shimmer and glisten through nightclub speakers. But there was a time in EDM’s history—in fact, for the majority of the movement’s development—that DJs weren’t big names, and producers were complete unknowns: the writer of any given popular track could walk into a club while it was playing and still not be recognized. What caused this shift in the way DJs are regarded, transforming them from “necessary evils” into global superstars?
Back when EDM first started to develop, the DJ was a nobody: he was that weird nerdy guy in the corner, stringing track after track together with seamless flow, solely for the pleasure of the partygoer. The producer was equally as unimportant: no one ever knew the name of the track that was playing, and no one cared who wrote it. EDM was about the collective—the symbiosis between the DJ and the crowd, the give-and-take of pleasure.
Now, the DJ is a god: handsome and confident, he is on a pedestal at the head of the crowd, and commands the attention of everyone at the party with charisma and charm. Gone is the two-way exchange of hedonistic bliss; instead, it’s a one-way transfer, from performer to audience. There’s no symbiosis at the modern rave—for the most part, they’re elaborate parties planned by rich production companies with monetary gain a more relevant motivation than genuine enjoyment.
How did EDM end up like this? Of course, like everything, musical subcultures change over time. A cultural meme is a small bit of cultural information that flows from one subculture to another and affects a change within it. Michel Gaillot documented this in his book Techno: An Artistic and Political Laboratory of the Present: taking a philosophical and sociological standpoint on the evolution of the techno scene in particular, Gaillot noted significant rock elements entering EDM, in the deification of the performer as a godlike figure as well as the emerging trend of extended careers and standout tracks.
Another big change from EDM’s early roots to today’s scene is the significant alteration of how the vocal is presented in the music. In Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, author Simon Reynolds documented what vocals were like in the emerging Chicago house scene in the last 1980s: vocals were so heavily filtered, distorted and chopped into small pieces using the stutter technique that the end effect was “evacuating its soul and reducing it to a shallow effect”. Of course, this is a far cry from the big-room vocal house tunes of today: now, the singer is a figurehead, delivering emotion through the vocal and enhancing the entactogenic vibe of the rave itself.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the increasing iconography of the DJ is David Guetta. His brand speaks for itself: the mere title F*** Me I’m Famous indicates not only his own fame, but the increasing trend of producers and DJs becoming famous in dance music culture—and this iconography, as Gaillot noted in his study, is heavily influenced by rock culture and the celebration of the musician as an artist rather than a battery from which a dance party derives its energy. Guetta’s increasingly frequent collaborations with mainstream pop artists, like Rihanna, Fergie, LMFAO and Nicki Minaj further highlights house’s move away from the subtle, symbiotic underground and into the piercing spotlight.
Of course, David Guetta is not the only example of this trend. Building an empire based on the strength of a single track, Swedish House Mafia’s One, a collaboration with rapper Pharrell, has all the elements of superstardom: with a big vocalist, a driving and aggressive bassline, and an infectious melody, One is a bite-sized package chock full of elements that appeal more to a pop sensibility than an EDM one. Other producers and DJs, like Avicii, Kaskade and deadmau5, focus more on the spectacle of a live show—with elaborate stage setups and euphoria-enducing light shows—than on the small, intimate settings that EDM arose out of.
I’m on the fence about this issue: while I enjoy the popularity that many EDM genres are currently experiencing, I’m not a huge fan of large, rowdy crowds and excessive drug use at the shows I attend, alongside increased ticket prices from higher demand and large concert venues. I didn’t experience late-80s raves in their original and proper form, so there’s no way I could know if that would be preferable for me—but, regardless, I hope that the increasing levels of fame don’t affect the quality of the music we’ve all come to hold so dearly. Where do you stand? Share your thoughts in the comment box below!
Note: When moving to new servers we sadly lost some of our old posts, for that reason we will be sharing some of the very early Your EDM editorials and artist spotlights once again!