From the Outside: The Final Song
Not too long ago, I was out at a bar with a musician friend, talking about (naturally) music, when a stranger who had overheard our conversation came over and introduced himself as a fellow musician. We got to talking over a couple of rounds of craft beers, and the conversation eventually turned to the local music scene, which in the unashamedly hipster area of Philadelphia I live in is decent and reasonably diverse. Our conversation mostly centered on the kind of live music that involves the “usual” equipment like a guitar, bass, and drums, but then our new friend mentioned somebody he knew who DJed house music.
“It’s really a scene, that electronic dance music,” he said, with equal parts mystification and admiration in his voice.
“It’s fun, though, isn’t it?” I said, trying to gauge his feelings about it.
“Oh, yeah. It’s always a good time. It’s just really something else,” he said.
There was a kind of reservation in his voice, an “I think I like this, but I don’t quite know what to do with it.” I know what that’s like. It’s the way I felt about electronic music about a year ago, when I started writing this column. I felt like it was an exclusive club that I didn’t have access to yet. Like I could show up and dance, but only as long as I remained aware that there was a technical term for whatever genre I was dancing to, a term which I didn’t know and which therefore marked me as uninitiated. Like there was some kind of secret password that would grant me admission to the EDM club, if only I could find it out.
Spoiler alert: there is no password.
The night after that conversation, I went out to one of my favorite dance parties in my neighborhood, a goth/industrial themed weekday-night event which is made all the more fun because there’s only ever about twelve people there (translation: plenty of room to dance). But upon arriving in all our gothed-out glory, my friend and I discovered that it wasn’t goth night after all. There was some kind of special event going on, and as we headed up to the second floor to dance, we realized that the door to the (for me) never-before-seen third floor was open. “Did we just unlock another level?” I asked my friend as walked up the mystery stairs. At the top, in a room that was illuminated just beyond pitch-black by a single candle and the lights from the DJ equipment, was an EDM party.
In the name of writing this column, I’ve been to more random little electronic shows (and occasional bigger concerts) than I can count in the past year. And I spent hours between those shows at my computer, Googling band names and reading the Wikipedia articles for different subgenres: house, deep house, post-disco, acid techno. It was a weird vortex of terms that kept getting weirder and never seemed to end. In fact, I just now discovered this detailed (if almost intimidatingly thorough) list of genres with examples.
But on this particular night, even with all my newfound knowledge of electronic music, I just danced. I didn’t try to guess the genre I was dancing to (although I’m fairly confident that it was house music, and don’t ask me about subgenres beyond that). I didn’t wonder how much the other people on the dance floor knew that I didn’t. I didn’t stare at the DJ and ask mental questions about where he learned to do what he does. All I did was have a really, really good time.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while writing this column, it’s that all you really need to do to be an electronic music fan is just that—have fun. Be yourself, dance, have a good time, and you’re in. There is no secret password. There is no specific body of knowledge that can turn one from “uninitiated” to “expert.” No matter how many electronic artists you familiarize yourself with, there are always going to be more. No matter how many subgenres you can name, there will always be new ones and blurry in-between spaces where labels are hard to fit. You can know everything you think there is to know about electronic music, and there’s still going to be someone who knows more. Or, you can know as little as you think is possible and there will be someone out there who knows less. How much you know doesn’t matter: if you’re always learning and exploring, you have the passion and curiosity that makes a fan. And—while I know this might sound wrong to those who take their electronic music uber-seriously—when you come down to it, it’s just music. It’s art, but it’s also fun; it’s entertainment. It shouldn’t be stressful. If you’re having a good time, you’re doing it right.
So I’ve found the secret to electronic music that I set out to find almost a year ago, and it’s this: that there is no secret. Like anything popular and fun, it can seem like a secretive clique when you’re looking in from the outside, but once you erase the idea that you’re “looking in,” you’ll see that there was never any glass in the window to begin with. The barriers are self-created. I thought I didn’t know enough, that I wasn’t cool enough for EDM. Now I know a lot more, and who cares how cool I am anyway? Everything I’ve learned has only taught me that there’s an infinite amount more to know about the vast jumble of genres that we call “electronic music,” and the social scene around it. But I’ve learned that it’s okay to not know everything, or even all that much. I can still show up and have fun, and I’ll probably learn something in the process.
For those of you would-be fans out there thinking about shows and festivals with apprehension, or wincing whenever someone starts breaking down genres that you’ve never heard of, the best thing I can tell you is to stop worrying. I entered the electronic music scene looking for answers, and I found out that there are none. Hell, it’s not even a “scene,” really, because it’s made up of a massively diverse fan base, and you don’t have to be or do anything in particular to be a part of it—except be yourself, be accepting of others, and have fun. And that means I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. So I’m going to leave you with that, and let this be the final installment of From the Outside. It’s been a wonderful journey, and trust me, the learning doesn’t stop here. There are plenty of new artists, genres, songs, and sounds out there waiting for me to discover them, and I’m going to go find out what they are. I encourage you to do the same.
If you need me, you can find me on the dance floor.