Dynamic Range

The Politics of Popular Dance

by by Greg Nissan

illustration by by Robert Sandler

This is not about you. You will not Travolta across the dance floor, the neon lights on the lapels of your white suit. No one will notice the new way you bump your hips back and forth. No crowd will circle around you as you shimmy from side to side. This is faceless, collective movement.

Popular dance culture has a new home, Electronic Dance Music (EDM), and its most salient trends—commercial success, streamlined structure, homogenized rhythms, and mammoth club gigs and festivals—are manifesting themselves in the way bodies are moving. In a GQ piece about Electric Daisy Carnival, a three-day Dionysian lingerie party of 300,000, Gideon Lewis-Kraus describes the communal aspect of the dance: “Mainly what a DJ seems to do is egg us on to a collective dance victory, which he celebrates by putting his arms up in a great V, usually just after he’s pumped his right fist for a bit.” It’s now a dance that you can enter and leave at ease, in which your own body’s motion is just a piece of the sweat-drenched, drugged-out mass. The dancing is characteristically done in conjunction—bouncing in unison as the bass drops, each rave-goer mashed into the audience’s pulp.

According to Forbes, EDM is an estimated four billion dollar industry. Its abduction by the major music industry was completed when Skrillex, the spectacled, waifish bass wiz, won three Grammys. It’s the only sector of music whose prospects are rising, as the rest of the industry languishes in the mp3 age. While the ubiquity of mp3s has hurt the traditional record giants (illegal downloads, a shift away from albums toward singles), these factors lend themselves well to a culture that relies on constant remixing, where new tracks are posted to sites like Soundcloud every day. In addition, the start up costs are relatively small: a laptop, mostly pirated music software, and some headphones. All that money comes largely from touring. The tours cost promoters less than the traditional rock set up, as they involve fewer personnel (Swedish House Mafia is the largest popular DJ group, with three members, and even that number is rare) and don’t require staggering tour busses to carry expensive gear and roadies. DJs can get from show to show more quickly. Show up, unpack your gear, plug in the laptop, go. This recent success is plastering itself onto the bodies of fans. EDM’s commercial success has led it to bigger and bigger venues, and the way people dance—synchronized head bops, arms pointed up, the moment of eerie stillness before the bass drops, the jumping organism—matches the space in which the dancing takes place. In his essay “The Pleasure of Popular Dance,” Robert Crease explores dance’s relationship to space: “By popular dancing I mean the kind in which people dance amongst themselves, spontaneously, without professional training, in ordinary spaces without sharp borders between participants and spectators… one gives oneself over to… a gestalt, an entire situation, a setting in which the people, lighting, environment, and ambiance foster an informal moving atmosphere.” Fans often cite festivals like Ultra Music Festival in Miami or Electric Zoo in New York as the apex of the new rave culture experience. These gargantuan festivals are so crowded that to dance individually is literally impossible—either run with the group, or don’t join the stampede.

Isn’t this the lost ’60s ideal, though? A gathering that obliterates the individual, that celebrates peace, love, and narcotics? Aren’t these next-to-nude neon-lovers and their bejeweled bodies carrying the torch of Woodstock? Nouveau Hippies? At first glance the EDM aesthetic seems to promote these utopian ideals. The crowd undulates together like an amoeba, hops up and down as one body. To lose oneself in the human sea at these mega-festivals, in the bodily comfort of being one of many, might sound appealing, but this is a music sub-industry that aggressively standardizes its sound and style, forging a frightening mass aesthetic in which everything is neon, everything is instagrammed, and every rhythm sounds the same. While some of the sounds produced by the giant DJs are innovative, the forms are quite conservative; every EDM pop hit follows a rigid structure, surrounding the build-up and the drop.

In a recent study of contemporary pop music, a group of scientists and academics, Joan Serra et al. analyzed a huge database of songs in terms of pitch, timbre, and loudness, to see whether pop songs sounded more alike today than they did in past generations. The findings showed an overwhelming homogenization of pop music. The analysis of pitch served to compare melodies, and melodies are closely tied to the rhythms of songs and the way we dance to them. Almost every top 40 song gets the EDM treatment—the four on the floor stomping bass drum, the bone-shaking synth bass, the ethereal synth wash before a chorus that makes you feel like you’re standing on a mountaintop, yodeling something in a lost but magnificent language. The new unifying production trends are leading to a loud, sterile march. This rhythmic compression, a departure from the diverse array of syncopated or intricate rhythms that dominated the past half-century of dance music in genres like funk or soul, coincides with the compression of dance. The dance becomes a coordinated, simple, and repetitive motion with everything lining up to the beat. EDM is no utopian music ideal; the flowered masses are left with the skeleton of dance’s old rhythms, as evidenced by the singular body of dancers that amasses at these festivals.

Serra’s work on loudness poses another question, especially in light of the debauchery of EDM festivals—is the music influencing the drugs (MDMA is the marquee drug of the moment) or are the drugs influencing the music? Many of the production trends of popular dance music are related to purely physical sensations. If you’ve ever stood in front of a subwoofer, you know that bass isn’t just about the melody, but the feeling of large sound waves vibrating through your body. As songs are produced at louder and louder volumes, this is a measure of relative, not absolute volume. No matter how loud you crank up a Joni Mitchell song, your brain will perceive a David Guetta club banger as inherently louder. Molly, the movement’s drug, heightens music’s physical impact. Are people taking so much Molly because the music is perfect for it, or is the music responding to the culture’s drug du jour and shirking certain creative elements in favor of speakers large and loud enough to shake your body into ecstasy? As we become more accustomed to the sensations of loudness, it seems less likely that the trend will be reversed.

As dance is compressed so is our definition of dance music. It becomes synonymous with the tank tops, vague lyrics about saving the world and, of course, the impending bass drop—a moment so seemingly addictive that it is eliminating other ways of bringing a song to new heights. The form of a dance hit is so conservative (build-up, drop) that it seems to undercut the sonic advancements these DJs are achieving. The rampant sub genre-ism of EDM makes this even clearer. As Lewis-Kraus got the opportunity to interview a rising DJ, Sander van Roorn, the DJ’s publicist instructed him to make no queries about genre. Lewis-Kraus finds a scary explanation for this: “House is ascendant; trance has been sliding out of fashion, and a rising DJ such as Sander isn’t keen on being identified with last year’s category, even if the sounds themselves remain debatably distinguishable.” This genre-squashing, this narrowing of what is popular dance music and what is yesterday’s fad, mirrors the standardization of rhythm, of space, of individual dance itself. Dance music that doesn’t have an ejaculatory bass drop, that doesn’t seem arena-ready, is getting pushed to the sidelines. Perhaps dance music needs room in the conglomerate sound of the world’s top DJs (DJ Magazine’s yearly ranked list of the world’s top DJs is taken entirely seriously and often cited, as if this is a pure measurement of talent and not style or fame) for other genres, many of them electronic and technically EDM, which are not receiving the attention or fratty fist pumps that the rest of the movement is. With EDM’s popular takeover, however, it seems as if it will claim the “dance music” title for itself for some time.

It’s easy to get distracted by the bright lights. The spectacle. But this mass movement—both of culture and body—features a rigidly controlled aesthetic of motion, even as it masquerades as a hedonistic celebration of the senses. It might be both. This story seems to be playing out like others we’ve seen. In the ’60s, too, lofty selling points like “love” and “fun” and “peace” were turned around on those who coined them. The importance of social networking to the EDM generation, where mixes are constantly recycled and remixed, suggests a specious democracy at the heart of this giant “scene.” But while the Internet has made it easier to put music into the world, social media sites also make it that much easier for advertisers and promoters to know exactly what people want and, in response, to exaggerate those trends until that’s all we see. Pop music and creativity are not always in opposition, but what we hear as a rally cry to dance sounds more like a military march to me: One-two-whoop-whoop.

According to Forbes, Greg Nissan B’15 is an estimated $4 billion industry.