EDM: A Rose by Any Other Name

In this Editorial, our Editor-in-Chief takes on the issue of using the term EDM to describe all the various types of music under the umbrella. He explores the issues of European and American views and tastes in EDM and what they say about its future. Read below for the full story.

by Albert Berdellans, Editor in Chief

The hodgepodge of sounds we’ve come to know as electronic dance music (EDM) is as varied as it is undeniably connected. It is this fact precisely which sits at the heart of the radically divergent ways United States listeners can be from their counterparts in Europe (particularly the United Kingdom). It seems the only consensus between the populations is that they do, in fact, like the music. I hope to shed some light on this disagreement, and in so doing prove that perhaps the two inexorably-bound groups aren’t nearly as different as they think.

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet;
(Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Sc. 2, 47)

In the context of this disagreement, it’s pretty amazing the above quotation was written by an Englishman. The answer, of course, is that a name does nothing to change the intrinsic qualities of any given object. But if one is expecting tea, yet a sip of the straw gives a taste of tonic water, one invariably undergoes a moment of shock and surprise. This is not because of a dislike for tonic. It’s simply because you weren’t expecting it. Maybe you really like gin and tonic, but no one enjoys a surprise on the rocks.

This is exactly the type of identity issue fueling the debate surrounding the term “electronic dance music” (EDM). The argument of UK fans is that the use of this term whitewashes dozens of large musical groupings which are quite unique. Instead, it is much more common to hear them use “dance music” as an umbrella term, and even then only when absolutely necessary. UK fans are keen to use more specific descriptors as early in a discussion as possible.

A related but more distinct difference between the US and UK is the method in which each seem to compare new music to old. US fans are constantly looking for similarities; whether it be theme, melody, style, or even the physical appearance of the artist(s). UK listeners, by contrast, almost religiously thrive in the differences that make a certain type of music unique. One old-school UK DJ I spoke with explained it as “minority music;” fans crave and admire a unique musical identity.

There is no sense in arguing who has the “right” methodology. The truth is there are wrongs on both sides. I recently explained to a UK producer why building a website for “future bass grimestep” wouldn’t be realistic. A similar annoyance arose when I overheard a US club promoter explain to a young lady that if she liked Bingo Players, “you’ll love Swanky Tunes, it’s like the same thing.” I eagerly await the day an artist embraces this irony and simply names himself “DJ Fill-in-the-Blank.” But while there are certainly easily refutable opinions at the extreme ends of the spectrum, those in the middle merely have differing (but certainly justifiable) opinions.

That being said, I firmly believe the resistance to the term EDM is far more rigid and fierce than need be. Yes, there’s a need for a sufficiently updated and accurate term for this body of music. It consists of many genres that, due to the way the music developed, are now permanently connected.

First, let me immediately dispel the misconception that “EDM” is a newly coined term for an American market that is too lazy to learn about the music. The first published usage of “electronic dance music” I’ve found is from a 1982 article in the Canadian Globe and Mail. Speaking on the old new-wave band Boys Brigade, legendary music and film critic Liam Tracy wrote:

The music has something in common with the current English synthesizer- led electronic dance music, ranging at times from (SIC?) in sound from the moody sweeping electronic effects of The New Order to the bright, sweet pop of Depeche Mode.

The truth is, for US listeners, the term “dance music” is not adequate. It needs to be specified as electronic dance music. In American music culture, dance music has simply meant any type of music playable in a modern dance setting. This includes blues, swing, jazz, reggae, rap, salsa, etc. If you use the term dance music, you are describing a much larger body of sound, including music like this:

Neither is the description of “electronic music” is accurate. In this case, you include ‘80s and ‘90s synth-pop, new wave and dance-pop sounds many of us grew up dreading to hear on Oldies radio. You also lump in electronica, which is much closer to indie rock than EDM. For example:

The musical development in the US has created an atmosphere of musical terms where using EDM to describe the combination of trance, house, dubstep, techno and the like is necessary. So to all the publications out there trying to demonstrate their knowledge of the genre with this ridiculous brand of linguistic elitism: please stop. This is not dance music, nor is it electronic music. It is EDM.

Finally, it is important to understand the historical differences between the two regions to truly appreciate how so many types of music actually became linked in the first place. The US, despite being the birthplace of house music, did precious little else to develop the sound until recently. The nearly 30 years in between were marked by volatile growth, decline, and consequent mere preservation as a genre in the US. There were, at the time of it’s downfall, not only huge turns in public opinion and popularity for the music, but also a dedicated legal crackdown on rave promoter. For better or worse, raves were the primary source of musical progression and outreach for the US scene at the time. As venue owners and promoters found themselves threatened with significant sentences in federal prison, the number of events dropped dramatically, and the music suffered.

Meanwhile, Europe, mostly free of such backlash, enjoyed a lengthy period of massive popularity and musical development far beyond the scope of this article. Eventually, books will be written to describe the musical history of this time (especially in Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK), which has resulted in the incredibly well-versed nature of the region’s fans and producers. They are characterized by musical maturity, something the US scene lacks.

Perhaps the most amusing part of this dichotomy is how European producers lament the unsophisticated US fan base one minute, only to perform the same overplayed, ridiculously mainstream and cliché tracks imaginable. Very few are willing to risk the music they believe is artistically significant on an American crowd. Simply put, European artists either need to be patient enough to allow the fans to musically mature naturally, or take the chance to educate them. I suppose, complaining backstage over their bottle of Dom Perignon is an option as well.

As an ocean separates them, the physical distance becomes but a symbol for the leagues of ideological difference between EDM’s two divergent courts. UK fans are waiting for the US scene to catch up to their tastes. Meanwhile, US fans are waiting for their UK counterparts to let go of archaic conventions and join them in the future.

Unless someone compromises, it looks like we’ll have to clash in the middle. The middle of the Atlantic is pretty treacherous, I hear.

Perhaps that is fitting imagery. Because sink or swim, we are now all in this together.