Post vs Pop: the growing divide within EDM
2017 marked a tumultuous year in EDM’s history. With artists like Kygo, Martin Garrix, DJ Snake, and The Chainsmokers all enjoying streaming counts ascending into the hundred millions — some even reaching one billion — the genre has never reached such ubiquitous popularity. But as it continues to evolve, it’s evident that growing factions within it have become increasingly entrenched, and new classifications of “post” and “popular” act as bifurcating wedges.
Perhaps a survival strategy, popular EDM has internalized many of the structural facets of traditional pop music, and many singer/songwriters have helped hold the genre afloat. In 2017 alone, Calvin Harris released collaborations with Migos, Future, Pharell Williams, John Legend, Katy Perry, Frank Ocean, Young Thug, and Ariana Grande on his exuberant fifth studio album, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1. It’s rather telling that even he — arguably EDM’s most prominent stalwart — enlisted an all-star roster of pop support to create his latest body of work.
Calvin Harris isn’t the only example of mainstream EDM artists who have utilized the gravitational tug of pop music to bolster their own success. One need not look further than Billboard’s top 100 or Spotify’s global charts to see the endless collaborations between DJs and pop stars: The Chainsmokers & Coldplay; Kygo & Selena Gomez; Marshmello & Khalid. Such collaborations beg the question: have the mainstream sects of EDM merged with pop music altogether?
These examples point towards the blurred lines between pop and EDM. Although certain components of the two genres’ love affair are simply coincidental, their union seems too prominent to overlook.
Popular dance music is usually the first thing that comes to mind when the term “EDM” is brought up at the dinner table, but the other side of the coin, “post-EDM,” is an entirely different story. Though its impossible to tell who originally coined the term, A-Trak likely popularized it in a Facebook rant in which he claims that EDM has reached an “almost comical level of self-aggrandizement, with soaring emotional ballads and an overdose of cheese that many have likened to Hair Metal.”
“Post-EDM” admittedly sounds a bit vague. Nevertheless, A-Trak seemed to be more accurately foreshadowing the current EDM climate than most.
As the neon tank tops of EDM’s early aughts retired to thrift stores and frantic festival goers slowly began to gravitate towards the myriad of subgenres and styles that electronic music has to offer, the preferences of EDM’s early adopters begins to shift as a result.
What defines “post-EDM?”
While impossible to define narrowly, post-EDM broadly represents electronic music that has moved on from the gaudy production methods of popular EDM — aka, the repetitive cycle of triumphant buildups paired with painfully obvious drops — in favor of a more refined, often club-heavy sonic landscape. Much like mainstream EDM, post-EDM is an umbrella term that covers a variety of different sub genres, but generally represents a more forward-thinking production approach than the usual fare of big room, trap, future bass, etc.
In some instances, “post-EDM” is used to reference the cultish label collectives currently injecting their own funk characteristics into traditional club music: Claude VonStroke’s Dirtybird, AC Slater’s NightBass, and Billy Kenny’s This Ain’t Bristol are a few that come to mind.
Many would argue that Dirtybird set the tone for such post-EDM collectives that now host showcases at festivals like Electric Forest, EDC, and CRSSD. The seminal record label & brand — which began in 2005 — built a grass roots following hosting events in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, trading in competition and rigidity in favor of inclusion and a willingness to step outside the box In doing so, the collective fostered a desirable sense of community among its artists and, more importantly, its fans.
As for NightBass and This Ain’t Bristol, both have found success in refining their own invigorating electronic sound, utilizing many of the key production elements of early EDM while simultaneously gravitating toward a more timeless club aesthetic. Both labels could accurately be defined as “party music,” but their followers are likely less rambunctious and more musically-inclined than many “casual” EDM fans.
Post-EDM can also represent the introduction of live instrumentation into electronic music. Since the popularization of EDM in the US, a growing number of artists — GRiZ, Disclosure, Gramatik, Tycho, Gorgon City, Bassnectar & Pretty Lights, Big Gigantic, and Porter Robinson, to name a few — have gained worldwide notoriety due in large part to wildly expansive live performances. Perhaps festivals such as Electric Forest, which transformed from Jam Fest (Rothbury) to large scale electronic paradise between 2009 and 2012, helped bridge the gap between EDM and live instrumentation here in the US. Such massive festivals certainly helped to popularize the art form within electronic music sects.
Not only do the aforementioned artist’s breath taking live performances bolster their recognition, they are critical in establishing each individual artists overall authenticity.
In the case of GRiZ, for example, the artist has built a name for himself for his skills as a classically-trained saxophonist and in impeccable electronic music production. The 27 year old funk auteur currently has five studio records under his belt, and serves as head of his own record label, All Good Records, which “reps old school Mo-town soul, future funk, new disco, cutting edge electronica, and anything on the forefront of new sound.”
Tycho’s ascension into the mainstream is another pointed example that EDM is at a crossroads. The musician and photographer has broken ground in the ambient sphere over the past decade, veering toward organic realism over manufactured surrealism in his production M.O. by Injecting clips of breathing, talking, and even weather casts into his tracks.
His ethereal production is only eclipsed by his expansive live performances which feature backing bandmates on bass guitar, keyboards, and drums. Tycho himself plays synthesizers, guitar, and bass, in addition to orchestrating visuals and programming the entire performance. Thus, his role in his own live sets is more similar to an orchestra conductor than that of a DJ — such innovative behavior is one of Post-EDM’s defining characteristics.
It would be folly to mention the term “post-EDM” without mentioning its ultimate shape shifters: Disclosure. The young brothers — Howard and Guy Lawrence — impeccably synthesize rave influences ranging from garage, to deep house, to jungle, into their own quicksilver sonic landscape.
The mercurial nature of Disclosure’s first album release, Settle, is an anomaly. It nods to the post rave years with influences such as Joy Orbison, James Blake, Burial, and Mount Kimbie, while also retaining its characteristic pop inflection. Their debut simply doesn’t fit into any of EDM’s pre-established categories, and the fact that the two brothers — who were 19 & 22 years old at the time — managed to refine such a singular sound on their first go-around is astounding.
Moreover, Disclosure’s performance setup is one of the most engaging displays in live dance music to date. Onstage, the two brothers are both encapsulated inside what looks like an alien UFO. Howard’s sphere features mainly keyboards, a few cymbals, and midi controllers, while Guy’s primarily includes wood blocks, cow bells, midi drum pads, and a few synthesizers.
Where artists like The Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris, and DJ Snake act as hosts to a frantic pop music party, groups like Disclosure merely utilize singer/songwriters to accent their already cutting-edge production methods. Such a distinction highlights a crucial divide in philosophy between post and pop: artistic innovation vs vogue replication.
Noisey cites that aspects of EDM turned inward and became depressed in 2017, but perhaps the introspective movement the publication is referring to is simply a growing sect within the gargantuan genre. One of 2017’s biggest standouts, Porter Robinson, is a glaring example of post-EDM’s propensity to pioneer new ground, sometimes in dark, introspective fashion.
In many ways, Robinson has actively vilified mainstream aspects of EDM, even going so far as to renounce portions of his own catalog, going so far one day as to release a Spotify playlist that he claimed was made of the only original work of his that defined him as an artist:
“Don’t wanna bump that thread on twitter but because people are misunderstanding it: i am literally saying those are the only songs that i stand by. i was not being sarcastic.” Robinson posted to Twitter last January. “that was a playlist that i made to showcase the music that i feel proud of. it was not sarcasm. that tweet was 100% unprovoked by anything specific. just wanted to let you know how i feel!”
Post Spitfire EP, Robinson’s body of work underwent a radical transformation. His debut LP Worlds saw him foraying into inventive new territory and turning inward for refreshed inspiration. The atmospheric mechanics on Robinson’s new wave of production — which includes collaborative tracks with Mat Zo and Madeon — are steeped in human emotion. Worlds was truly ahead of its time. and still is.
Some of the most divisive and simultaneously astonishing examples of post-EDM exist in Bassnectar and Pretty Lights, both of whom have built grassroots fanbases centered around free expression, DIY attitudes, and breaking the feeble barriers of modern EDM in favor of their own revolutionary sound structures. Although they can hardly be classified as “post-EDM” — both began well ahead of EDM’s popularization in America — they still serve as examples of electronic music’s more forward-thinking sects.
Pretty Lights, aka Derek Vincent Smith, counts artists like The Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and The Roots as major artistic influences. Smith also pays homage to jam bad culture as an artistic point of reference, as he got his start DJing late nights for massive jam acts such as The Disco Biscuits, STS9, and Widespread Panic. Smith translated key principals learned in the jam scene to electronic music and now fosters a loyal fanbase, who flock to festivals in drones to catch the genre bending artist perform.
Similar is the case of the mad scientist character known as Bassnectar. The Bay Area legend — born Lorin Ashton — grew up attending raves and became infatuated with the DIY attitude the scene encompassed. Ashton’s music draws influence from various historical facets; attend a show, and one might hear anything from Massive Attack to Gucci Mane spun as a warm up to his cosmically neurotic sets.
“Well, to be clear, I 100 percent don’t feel like I’m any part of EDM any more than I’m part of hip-hop or rock and roll.” – Bassnectar in an interview with ‘Westword‘
Both Bassnectar and Pretty Lights’ status within the bass music scene are held in the highest regard. The two artists’ omnipresent fanbases and improvisational nature of their live shows represent a situation akin to that of the Grateful Dead and Allman Brother’s. Equipped with a widespread base of traveling fans that ravage the countryside from festival to festival, their movements have gained tremendous momentum.
Quite possibly the largest indication of a shifting of the tides, Wynn hotel in Las Vegas recently announced its first ever tech house residencies. Less than a month ago, the luxury hotel officially confirmed seminal tech house DJs Jamie Jones and Solomun as two of the brand’s new residents for 2018, as well as South African superstar Black Coffee. High profile Las Vegas residencies tend to err on the side of the mainstream, but perhaps these residencies point towards a palpable shift in mainstream contextualization of electronic music.
As EDM’s popularity continues to skyrocket, iconoclasts occupying the genre’s fringe outskirts continue to fly in the face of its known patterns. Ultimately, electronic music’s survival is entirely contingent on such artists to continue pushing boundaries. Without post-EDM, there would be no evolution: nothing but a never ending loop of “Closer,” and nobody — not even the Chainsmoker die hard — wants that.