From the Outside: A Brief History of Electronic Music

The ’90s are so in right now. Crop tops, faded denim, neon colors…and let’s not forget that quintessential ’90s sound: electronic dance music. Okay, the truth is that EDM never went out of style, and in fact, is stronger now than ever. No longer seen as a fringe sound, everything from dubstep to house has infiltrated even mainstream pop music. Some people lament the appearance of their favorite genres in the “mainstream,” but what this means is perfectly clear: EDM is here to stay. But where did it come from in the first place? Sometimes the best way to understand something is to learn about its past, and EDM, no doubt, has a long and storied history. So I’ve decided that this week’s mission is going to be a history lesson.

The story actually begins well before that EDM-associated decade, the 1990s. Some people trace EDM’s beginnings all the way back to the 1960s, when electronic instruments became prevalent (and some trace it back to the advent of electronic instruments more than a century ago), but the clearer tie to the modern sound we know and love starts in the disco era, with its fast pace, heavier bass, and use of synthesizers and drum machines. Actually, I discovered in my research that “disco house,” or nu-disco, is a thing now, which includes everything from disco-flavored electro house to something called space disco. The funky 1970s is one of my obsessions, so I couldn’t be more excited about this. But back then, of course, EDM was nothing more than an embryo of a genre. It was in the 1980s that it really began to unfold into the familiar sounds of today. The German band, Kraftwerk, who actually formed in 1970, was one of the major pioneers of a rhythmic electronic sound, paving the way for the success of bands like Depeche Mode and New Order.

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But what happened in the 1990s to make electronic music blow up from a genre into a culture, resulting in everything from massive parties to media hysterics to scholarly studies? The answer—the newfound accessibility of computers. The Digital Age comes along, and now everyone can make electronic music in their very own basement. So the genre—which, let’s face it, is really a large body of different genres linked by little more than the fact that they’re electronic-based—blew up, and so did the culture around it. Raves became the subject of scare-tactic news stories about teens engaging in drugs and debauchery, while for teens they became new places to hang out with friends and hear good music without needing a fake ID. Though there was some truth to the drug culture concerns, some of my first memories of ravers are of young people who had finally found a community that accepted them as sober partiers.

The ever-expanding umbrella of EDM gave birth to a multitude of genres and subgenres over the years, and for an outsider like me, it’s hard to keep track of them all. In the early 2000s, when my interest in electronic music began, not only was the number of artists, genres, and sounds growing, but festivals were growing in number and popularity as a new, holistic way to experience the genre. Visuals became an integral part of the show experience, with many artists putting on elaborate light shows or projection-mapping spectacles (speaking of which, check out my recent Shpongle experience). People went to festivals or shows instead of raves now. Some people say the term “rave” fell by the wayside because of its association with drugs, and they’re probably right. Sucks, because I kind of miss that term.

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Electronic artists also began to show up on the radio in a big way—think about all the Daft Punk songs you couldn’t get out of your head. This seems to have been the way EDM has gone in recent years: its increasing popularity has made the scene bigger, more elaborate, more famous, and more expensive. With massive festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, and the obscene kinds of money big-ticket artists like Skrillex now make to perform, it can seem as though the underground feel of electronic music in the ’90s and early 2000s is gone for good. But a lot of my first experiences with EDM—and subsequent ones too—have been at house parties or secret shows, with local artists you’ve probably never heard of but who know how to throw a damn good party. Friends of mine in college taught themselves to DJ and booked intimate shows. A rudimentary knowledge of sound and lighting technology meant you could turn your living room into a rave if you wanted to.

As big as the culture has grown, there’s still a very ground-level aspect to it when you look closely, an anyone-can-join kind of attitude that makes it easy to be a newbie like me. I’ve been learning about the real world of electronic music, not the one that’s portrayed in the media and perceived by the mainstream public, and I’ve found that it’s not about the light shows, the drugs, the crowds, the venues, or even the big-name artists. It’s about music, dance, rhythm, experience, and community. These are things that predate any form of EDM by thousands of years, things that are part of being human on a very primal level. This, more than anything, might explain why the electronic music scene has grown to resonate with so many people across the globe.

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