Within the electronic dance music community, the term “EDM” is a controversial one — which probably seems weird to outsiders, since it’s literally just an acronym for “electronic dance music.” So what’s the big deal?
Most of the debate centers around whether EDM refers to all electronic dance music, as its name implies, or whether it only describes the more mainstream styles of dance music — mainly dubstep, trap, electro and “big room” house — that have dominated clubs and festivals since the term “EDM” was popularized in the past half-decade.
But the truth is that the whole debate is silly, and here’s why: The people advancing the more narrow definition, for the most part, are old-school snobs. They hate that the music they love has gone mainstream, and they’ve directed all of that hatred towards the term “EDM” by limiting its definition to the stuff they don’t like.
They need to get over it. “EDM” is to electronic dance music what “rock” is to music with guitars. It’s a useful umbrella term and it’s here to stay.
EDM as a simple acronym has been floating around since the ‘80s, according to several sources. But it didn’t become a popular descriptor of the music and culture until about six years ago, when it was used to market a new generation of dance music artists like Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta, as well as the massive festivals at which they headlined.
Before EDM, both the media and the dance music industry tried and failed — repeatedly — to coin an umbrella term for the entire genre. But techno, rave music, electronica: all fell short, for various reasons, of effectively encompassing all of dance music’s many sub-genres and tributaries.
To fans, dance music remained happily subdivided into house, techno, trance, breakbeat, drum & bass and a hundred other mutations. To non-fans, it all remained indistinguishable and almost nameless — a horrible, repetitive “untz-untz” bumping out of that sketchy-looking nightclub or that Honda Civic you were stuck next to in rush hour traffic.
Many of the fans actually preferred it this way. They still liked to think of their music as “underground” — even during its last very mainstream moment in the late ‘90s, when the Chemical Brothers headlined both Coachella and Woodstock. Refusing to accept a mainstream-approved blanket term like EDM — or the admittedly lame term of that era, electronica — was a way to keep the music impenetrable to outsiders.
Ironically, despite the culture’s embrace of the concept of “PLUR” — peace, love, unity and respect — lack of a unifying descriptor also kept fans balkanized into their various sub-groups. Raves of the ‘90s and early ‘00s (and yes, back then they were still called raves) would be divided into different rooms, which some fans would never leave: house, trance, jungle/drum & bass, happy hardcore. Many tribes peacefully co-existed under the PLUR tent, but those tribes seldom interacted or overlapped. This is in stark contrast to today’s EDM, when many of the best-known DJs and producers — Diplo, Steve Aoki, even the one-time dubstep/fratstep standard-bearer, Skrillex — play eclectic, catch-all sets and freely mix styles in their original productions.
Many old-schoolers miss those days, or even insist that the rigid genre distinctions of yore should be maintained. Writing for our sister publication Westword, Amber Taufen advocates that we avoid saying “EDM” and “use the terms of each specific genre when talking about that type of music. Techno is techno. House is house. Dubstep is dubstep.”
This may be true for describing individual tracks, as well as certain artists. But when describing electronic dance music as a whole, it makes no sense — unless you assume that there is no whole to begin with.
And this is where the argument against EDM starts to get a bit nasty — because that’s exactly what it assumes. For many old-school dance music fans, today's EDM fans are what Taufen calls “bros with frosted hair and wifebeaters who hit the clubs on the weekend so they can drink to excess and mack on scantily clad women.” They are unlike us old-schoolers in every way, and they should get off our lawn.
Never mind that this is a tired critique of dance music fans in general and that bro'd-out club scum have been part of the dance music ecosystem for decades (SNL's "Roxbury Guys" sketch is nearly 20 years old). Even assuming that the bros listening to Calvin Harris in the club have nothing to do with us fogeys listening to Richie Hawtin in our living rooms, it’s still not a valid argument against EDM as an umbrella term. Calling Nickelback a rock band does not mean that a mulleted horde is going to descend on The Smell next weekend. The two groups can both call what they listen to rock music and peacefully co-exist.
As EDM’s popularity grows – and despite the many naysayers, it shows no signs of slowing — its fan base will continue to evolve in a similar way. EDM will be a starting point for a conversation, not a banner under which all the tribes will unite.
To a large extent, despite the best efforts of old-school snobs, this is already happening. Even veteran artists like Moby have embraced the term, telling USA Today in 2011, “No one calls it electronic dance music. The term is EDM.”
So, sorry, old-school dance music snobs. Underworld is just as much EDM as Swedish House Mafia. So is Richie Hawtin. So are Sasha and Digweed. So are the Chemical Brothers, Moby, Doc Martin, Carl Cox, Frankie Bones and even the godfather of techno Mr. Juan goddamn Atkins himself.
Do they play dance music? Is it electronic? Then guess what? It's EDM. Accept it and move on.
And hey, maybe there's an upside to this. Maybe it would be a good thing if, instead of demonizing those "frosted-hair bros," we treated them as fellow fans. Maybe if we educate instead of excluding, we'll convert some of those bros into tomorrow’s Richie Hawtin fans.
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Instead of drawing a line in the sand between yesterday and today, mainstream and underground, let’s just accept that we’re all fans of music that goes “untz-untz” and makes us want to dance. We can disagree about our preferred form of that music. But let’s all agree, once and for all, to call it EDM.