In defense of tropical house: understanding the rise, the ‘experience,’ and foreseeing its future
Last year, the phrase ‘tropical house’ meant nothing more than a Hawaiian beach house.
In less than 12 months, names like Kygo, Thomas Jack, Klingande and Bakermat have been placed underneath the latest subgenre to leave its mark on the EDM phenomenon. Kygo, arguably the most successful pioneer of the movement was handed unspoken confirmation of his arrival in dance music when he acted as a stand in for a coveted main stage slot during Avicii’s absence at TomorrowWorld in 2014. Kygo then signed to Sony Music within just a few months of emerging into the electronic music sphere. Thomas Jack, an Australian who coined the term tropical house, was hand-selected by radio mogul Pete Tong as a leading tastemaker in the modern day music sphere with the probable potential of curating his own station on BBC. Where big room house once stood and dubstep was once primed to do, tropical house has now achieved and in record time.
Despite its rapid rise to success and clear evidences of popularity (Kygo sold out three consecutive shows in New York City and two in Los Angeles), tropical house has met quite a bit of resistance. But what is most surprising about this back push is not its existence, but rather where it has originated from. Like the new cool kid arriving at a school with an already established hierarchy, the genre has been criticized both directly and subtly by many of electronic dance music’s own seasoned figureheads. Internally, tropical house has been deemed the ‘elevator music’ of dance music and ‘shallow.’
if @KygoMusic is aiming at the grandma demographic then prepare for the hits.
— Tommie Sunshine (@tommiesunshine) February 10, 2015
Plot twist: new EDM is actually smooth jazz/adult contemporary re-branded as tropical house to keep white kids dancing.
— Kaskade (@kaskade) February 12, 2015
Sounds familiar, right?
There’s no doubt about the fact that tropical house is indeed, quite far from the spectrum of dance music genres that were once at the forefront of the movement. Big room and electro house, championed by the likes of Hardwell, Afrojack, and Tiesto, provides the perfect soundtrack for high-energy, all-night partying. Dubstep kingpins like Skrillex and Bassnectar deliver explosive spine-chilling bass drops that have enough power to raise goosebumps and hairs on the back of your neck. Even trap artists like Yellow Claw combine the best of electronic music and hip-hop influences to have their fans up on their feet and dancing to the beat of their songs. There is a canyon of distance in energy and style in the new wave of “popular” dance music compared to the likes of these dominant genres.
So if veterans of electronic music are shaking their heads in disapproval of it and making serious claims that it shows no evidence of true musical talent, what explains the rise in popularity of the tropical house movement? How do we explain that Kygo retains some of the highest SoundCloud statistics compared to any other major EDM artist?
In continuation of his above words on Kygo, Tommie Sunshine said this:
“I live in New York City & “Tropical House” may be a quick breeze of a fad but will never soundtrack the power of this city.”
Tommie Sunshine, along with his fellow peers, have misunderstood the arrival and consequential rise in popularity in dance music. To Sunshine, a 43-year old Chicago-native, electronic music is far from what it once was. In the beginning, there was just music – little money, no corporation involvement, and certainly not nearly as many blogs reporting on ‘EDM news.’ (Believe me, we know). There were no million dollar main stage set ups, no elaborate costumes for gogo dancers, and only a handful of official venues where the events were allowed to take place. Dance music and raves were a counter culture movement that was spread by word-of-mouth and driven solely by the music.
Today, monstrous festival brands like Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra Music Festival, and Tomorrowland have ballooned into larger-than-life fantasy productions. Hundreds of thousands of people travel across the world to attend these events in hopes of being dazzled by not only the talent, but the sights as well. The events, though still largely rooted in the music, are now about cultivating an entire experience. There’s no denying it – it’s the reason why Pasquale Rotella has been compared to a modern day Walt Disney and hopes to one day create a festival amusement park. This subtle, but distinctive shift in focus has affected how audiences react to the music as well.
Perhaps what Tommie Sunshine has misunderstood is that tropical house’s arrival came at a desperate, anxious time in popular EDM’s short history. People began to tire of the endless drops and jackhammering of big room house. They claimed they’d soon move on if something more mature didn’t come along – so it did. Acts like Disclosure, Porter Robinson and ODESZA began to bridge the gap between new age EDM fans and the deeper side of electronic music. Skirting categorizations, this opened the door for further exploration between genres that were softer and more melodically driven. People responded to songs that could be listened to casually during the day rather than the sensory overload of its EDM and its festival focus.
Tropical house is a story of the right time and the right place. Kygo — who added his own spin on Ed Sheeran and Coldplay as well as nostalgic throwbacks like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” — was merely a bedroom producer who understood how to riff a catchy hook in his own unique way. He created his own experience within just a song – transporting people to images of sandy beaches and warm sun. His music, along with other tropical house tunes, became songs that were accepted – and even requested – in situations that EDM could never have infiltrated: BBQs, day time parties, at the pool, on a long road trip or a long night at the coffee shop studying.
As little or nuanced as these instances may seem, the new generation of young dance music fans have responded. Tropical house has become a gateway for even more audiences who were wary of EDM and its stigmas, providing a different, more familiar terrain of music to begin to explore and discover what electronic music has to offer. It’s not to say that within the entire realm of electronic music that tropical music is the most advanced or even the hardest to master but the summery, sunshine vibes that tropical house has so eloquently captured is creating a one-of-a-kind music experience that no other genre has yet been able to grasp.
But this experience – the ‘tropical experience’ – isn’t appropriate for all realms or settings where dance music has traditionally landed. It remains to be seen if mainly electronic-exclusive arenas like EDC Las Vegas will invite Kygo or his fellow tropical house artists to the stage. It explains why Tommie Sunshine and his fellow naysayers are comparing their own more “aggressive” styles to it and their confusion about where it fits into the big picture of dance music as a whole. Tropical house isn’t necessarily “taking over,” it’s just providing audiences a choice of something different – something new.
Frankly, there’s no reason to write off tropical house. It may be foreign and experimental at this point, but that doesn’t mean it lacks purpose in further pushing the entire bubble of dance music even further forward.W
Will the summer vibes of tropical house overtake EDM and last forever as the popular genre of choice? History isn’t in its favor. Most likely, the sound will eventually be overtaken by a new artist with a new revolutionary sound; just as dubstep, trap, and deep house have done in the past.
As 2015’s festival season begins with the opening of Ultra Music Festival this upcoming weekend, you can bet all eyes will be watching tropical house and its representatives closely and with anticipation. But perhaps the genre will be both the under and the top dog of the season. There is no better backdrop for the first major debut of tropical house than the hot, bustling world that is Miami during Miami Music Week. Few and far between, acts like Kygo, Thomas Jack, Bakermat and Klingande are now being given the unique opportunity to prove that there is more to the sound than just soft flute chimes and sunshine vibes.