Cutting Through the Bullshit: A Dancing Astronaut editor reflects on his musical journey
I fell in love with dance music on June 26, 2010. What have I learned since then? For me to explain, I need to take you back to the beginning.
PART ONE — LET’S GET ELECTRIC
It’s pretty easy to go a music festival when it’s walking distance from your apartment. So, when the Electric Daisy Carnival came to my university’s football stadium, I decided to go. At the time, I was very much a dance music newbie. I’d only heard of one artist on the poster — Will.I.Am, of Black Eyed Peas fame. I hate(d) the Black Eyed Peas.
A little after 3PM on a beautiful mid-summer Saturday, a group of friends and I made the 14-minute stroll to the Los Angeles Coliseum, where monstrous lines had already begun to form. After what seemed like hours, we were past security and into the stadium. As we descended towards the playing surface, I realized that I’d never actually been on the field before. The stands looked massive from down here.
An extremely large Dutch gentleman named Afrojack was on stage. I wasn’t sure what he was doing up there, but it sure as hell wasn’t what I called ‘music.’ I immediately began to regret my decision to attend EDC. But everyone else seemed to be enjoying it, and I didn’t want to walk home alone. I decided to stick around. Eventually, the distressing sounds he was producing began to make sense.
Then Will.I.Am appeared, and my mood darkened. It was June 2010. The Black Eyed Peas were at the height of their power, and the world was suffering. For most of the past five years, the BEPs had ravaged our ears with the instruments of torture they called ‘songs.’ I found their music deeply offensive, and my soul ached whenever I heard it. Which was frequently.
Remarkably, Will.I.Am’s set was tolerable. He was followed by Laidback Luke, who was spectacular. By the time Benny Benassi was done, I was beginning to enjoy myself.
As the evening melted into night, a portion of our group announced that it was leaving in order to see MSTRKRFT. I was unimpressed by that proposition — I value vowels highly — so I decided to stay at the main stage, with the rest of the crew. The dude on my left assured me that I’d made the right decision. Apparently, these Above & Beyond chaps were kind of a big deal, and Armin van Buuren was The Best DJ In The World, which made him important.
It was now completely dark. I was getting impatient. I began to doubt myself. Had I picked correctly? Would Above & Beyond be worth it? What was I even doing here?
Then eerie trance music started flowing out of the speakers, and the atmosphere inside the stadium began to change. People stopped fighting their way towards the stage. The crowd began to spread apart. The concept of ‘personal space,’ which had been abandoned for most of the day, became important once again.
The music swelled, filling the cavernous stadium with sound — magical, ethereal sound. I’d never heard anything like it before. Weird things started happening around me. I saw strangers moved to tears, touched by the music’s emotional resonance. People stopped jumping around and started doing what might actually be termed ‘dancing’ (i.e. rhythmically moving in some sort of relationship to the ‘beat’).
Even though I was an EDM novice, I could tell that we were on some sort of momentous musical journey. The guy next to me was correct. This was a big deal.
And just like that, Above & Beyond were done.
Then Armin van Buuren came on stage and waved his arms around, and everyone went batshit crazy for two hours.
PART TWO – ‘HIS NAME’S AVICII, AND HE’S NOT IN THE MAFIA’
In the months that followed, my musical taste began to develop. I became a progressive house junkie. I listened to Swedish House Mafia’s “One,” and Deadmau5’s “Ghosts n Stuff” at least twice a day, every day. I started going to every progressive show that I could afford. Then, in December, I heard Avicii’s Essential Mix for the first time.
The next few weeks became incredibly confusing for me, because I’d never harbored such intense feelings for another male before.
I became firmly convinced that progressive house was going to save the world. When I bumped into Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso at Heathrow airport, I was so aggressively starstruck that it took me nine minutes to work up enough courage to ask them for autographs and this photo.
Then I started writing for Dancing Astronaut, and I started going to even more progressive shows, because I no longer had to pay for them. This was my dream job. I should have been happy.
I wasn’t happy. Something curious was happening to me. The more progressive I heard, the more bored I became. I heard the same songs over and over again. It was impossible to escape “Save the World,” Coming Home,” “Flash” (Nicky Romero Remix), “The Island” (Steve Angello, AN21 and Max Vangeli Remix), or some combination of the aforementioned.
At a deeper level, I found every progressive track and DJ set structurally disappointing. Fundamentally, they were all the same. They all featured melodic chords building towards a euphoric conclusion. Not a single progressive show came close to achieving the emotional resonance of the best trance sets. The entire genre had become a victim of its own success. The biggest progressive DJs had become so popular that they had lost the freedom to express themselves. Their sets had no flow, no rhythm, no narrative arc. Instead of guiding the crowd up and down on a sonic sine wave, they simply pumped out one big-room smash after another. It wasn’t art. It was mindless entertainment.
At first, I thought I was just burning myself out. I was attending too many shows, and the magic of progressive was disappearing. The novelty of simply attending a concert, of seeing thousands of people gathered in one place to celebrate music, had worn off. I began to demand more of the artists I saw. At massive EDM festivals, I began to despise the main stage. I realized that I was becoming a music snob.
But maybe I was becoming more than a music snob. Maybe I was was beginning understand what it truly means to be a music critic — to love music so passionately that you allow yourself to criticize it. I no longer felt compelled to write unanimously positive things about every show I went to simply out of gratitude for the free tickets.
I realized that it’s okay to have an opinion. It’s okay to have high standards, to expect that DJs will deliver on their promises. I realized that the EDM industry, particularly in the United States, is funded by young people — young people who would gladly go hungry to pay for an overpriced concert ticket. I realized that just because the Swedish House Mafia have an awesome documentary and sold out Madison Square Garden in minutes doesn’t mean they’re the best DJs in the world. Maybe it just means that they have the best marketing and PR teams.
PART THREE – GENERAL RELATIVITY
My approach to house underwent a fundamental change. I began to value simplicity and structure above all else. I became a musical utilitarian. Today, I believe that the form of the house music you hear — the kinds of sounds you hear, and the way in which they’re arranged together — should derive directly from its function. And what is the function of house music? What is its purpose? What is every DJ trying to do, with every song in every set? You already know the answer. All a DJ wants is to make you dance.
Please don’t interpret this as a condemnation of progressive house in general. Progressive house is beautiful. Every time I hear Avicii, Calvin Harris, David Guetta or Swedish House Mafia on the radio, I become irrationally happy, because its so much better than the crap you usually hear. Progressive is a gateway drug. It allows people who think they don’t like dance music to realize that everyone likes dance music, because everyone likes to dance.
But I need more. I need beats that hold my attention for hours, not minutes.
The best house music, the cleanest, simplest, sexiest house music, can make you dance for days. Real house music is proof that Einstein was right, that time is relative. The best DJs can make seconds feel like hours and hours feel like seconds. The best DJs make you look at your friends and go: “I can’t believe this is actually fucking happening.” The best DJs give you a musical experience that you didn’t even know was possible. The best DJs are artists, in every sense of the word.
If you’ve made it through this whole convoluted column, if you’re one of those lovely, beautiful people who reads our beloved EDM blog, I want to thank you, and offer you this promise:
We promise to tell the truth. We promise to call DJs on their bullshit. We promise to tell you who is worth your money, and who isn’t.
Most of all, we promise that anyone who gets the Dancing Astronaut stamp of approval will be more than capable of giving you a night that you remember for the rest of your life.