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Dance Dance Revolution: How EDM Conquered America in the 2010s

A decade in dance music that changed pop forever, according to Skrillex, Zedd, Boys Noize, and more.


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llustration by Drew Litowitz and Arjun Ram Srivatsa. Images via Getty Images.

In 2011, I was a high school junior mindlessly browsing web forums during psych class, when one of my friends messaged me a strange YouTube link. “Check this out later,” she said, as we both ignored our lecturer. “It’s crazy different.” The bell rang, the other students filed out, and I popped my headphones in. What ensued sounded terrible: screeching synths, swollen bass gurgles, and a maniacal sample of someone screaming, “Yes, oh my God,” which I’d later learn was lifted from a viral video of a girl beating her personal best competitive cup-stacking time. But when the noise subsided, there was another voice, scratchy but soft-spoken, over twinkling MIDI piano chords. “You don’t need to hide, my friend/For I am just like you,” it assured me. That was the first time I heard Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” I’d have it on repeat for months.

Listening to Skrillex’s first big record now, it feels like a microcosm of his career as an electronic producer and former frontman of a post-hardcore band: Both are bombastic tours de force with moments of genuine beauty interspersed. His style of dubstep was initially framed as an aggro counterpart to the subby club music of the South London scene—numerous dullards across the internet would crudely compare it to “two Transformers going at it”—but teenagers in middle America didn’t know anything about UK pioneers like Skream or Benga, so they had nothing to compare it to. Skrillex ended up bringing a new breed of aggressive electronic music to teeming masses that may not have been exposed to it otherwise. His rise—and the rise of “brostep”—came about just as new breeds of euphoric house music were beginning to make waves in the States. These various styles all quickly coalesced under a broader umbrella term: EDM.

As EDM began to spread across America, the time-honored tradition of adults sneering at young people’s music resurfaced like clockwork. Dance-music purists mostly held their noses while older generations raised on guitar music wrote it off as wub-wub nonsense for ecstasy-addled kids. But for an entire generation of young millennials, EDM was the first music that felt like it belonged solely to them—to us. Fueled by subbass (and, yeah, sometimes substances), it was a pure break from the harsh realities of life. The rock bands handed down to me by my older cousins suddenly felt like relics from a bygone era, even if they held parallels in their dynamic principles. Where Nirvana nicked the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic of the Pixies, the lateAvicii took after progressive house forerunners like Eric Prydz, perfecting the build-up and drop. Tastes change, but teenage rage is forever.

“It’s funny because, to me, EDM isn’t a dirty word at all,” Skrillex says now. “I call everything EDM, even techno. That’s just the terminology: electronic dance music. It’s not a genre—it’s a platform, a means. I was making all these different types of music, but ‘EDM’ was the music that was blowing up at the time I was making it.”

Besides, what really qualifies a piece of music as EDM? Sixteen bars of excruciating white noise build-up before a drop? Constituencies of wooks and kandi kids? A lack of adherence to the stricter codifications of more underground dance genres? Perhaps EDM could be defined the same way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart characterized his litmus test for whether something should be considered pornography: “I know it when I see it.” The problem is, by the end of its meteoric rise this decade, EDM became a moving target of regional styles co-opted into mainstream pop trends—very little of which could match the oft-outlandish experimentation fueling the original material, or the visceral shock of early crossover hits like “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.”

“There’s something that happens in the first 10 percent of any movement’s lifespan, during which the artists are all in their exploratory phase,” says Porter Robinson, the former poster-boy for frat-house-electro, who pivoted pointedly away from the genre in 2014. “They’re all trying new things and the rules aren’t really particularly well-defined, and there aren’t all these genre tropes yet. That’s when so much of the rawest, most interesting stuff gets made.”

However you define EDM, some semblance of it was difficult to avoid on the radio by 2012. That same year, Taylor Swift dove headfirst into her first true pop phase with Red and its third single “ I Knew You Were Trouble,” whose dubstep-inspired drop proved as awkward as it was commercially successful. By 2013, Katy Perry was utilizing EDM trap drops, and the producer/pop star pairings pioneered by anodyne DJs like David Guetta ( “Turn Me On” with Nicki Minaj) and Calvin Harris ( “We Found Love” with Rihanna) were everywhere.

Suddenly there were new opportunities for vocalists who could deliver potent hooks perfectly primed for the drop. Some singers were more excited than others about the prospect. Sia famously hated “ Titanium,” her 2011 collaboration with Guetta, calling it a “cheesy pop house song,” albeit one that breathed new life into her career. Electropop artists like Ellie Goulding and La Roux didn’t even have to directly participate to benefit: They found entirely new fanbases through EDM producers remixing their music, pairing their voices with face-melting bass drops. And lest we forget that Cedric Gervais’ club-friendly remix of “Summertime Sadness” served as Lana Del Rey’s first big pop-radio hit.

The rush to commodify the movement was lightning quick, and there was no shortage of fresh meat. New artists cropped up every week, armed with YouTube tutorials, cracked copies of Ableton Live, and the determination to be the next breakout wunderkind. Within two years, German DJ Zedd went from Skrillex protégé to Interscope solo artist, proving with his 2012 hit “Clarity” that an EDM track without a traditional chorus could crack the Top 10. When I reach him over Skype recently, Zedd looks amused but almost doleful as he reminisces about the days before seemingly everyone wanted to be a producer. “In 2010, the level of production quality wasn’t very high: If you wanted to have a banging club track, you needed a simple kick, a simple bass, and you were kind of set,” he says. “But now, over time, kids have way more access to sample packs, with drums and different sounds. It became a world where other people can sound good, easily.”

The live music industry capitalized on the growing interest in EDM with massive new dance-music events seemingly cropping up every month. Ultra Music Festival, having experienced a decade of consistent growth since its founding in 1999, doubled its attendance between 2012 and 2013, with 330,000 people turning up to party in Miami. Eccentric music mogul Robert Sillerman’s careless consolidation of dance-music properties like Beatport and famed European mega-fest TomorrowLand made his company SFX Entertainment a preeminent part of EDM’s rise. In 2013, it was publicly valued at over $1 billion. It felt like there was money everywhere, and everyone wanted in.

Of course, America hadn’t always embraced live electronic music. In the years following the 1990s rave boom, politicians like then-Senator Joe Biden were particularly resistant to dance-music events that were perceived as havens for illicit drug use, going so far as sponsoring anti-Ecstasy legislation (and cheekily calling it the RAVE Act). The realization of a viable national audience, combined with advances in technology, made the modern EDM live spectacle possible just a handful of years before they became ubiquitous. “Before 2010, whenever I played in the United States, I played all these rock venues because clubs didn’t really exist for my music,” says Alexander Ridha, better known as the DJ/producer Boys Noize. “When I came up, I was always billed with bands like Foreign Islands, the Rapture, LCD Soundsystem. I think Daft Punk really changed things for U.S. crowds, on the production side. Their pyramid show made people look around like, ‘Okay, now’s the time, we’re going to do this.’”

Ridha isn’t the only one to reference the robots’ Alive 2006/2007 tour as a turning point. Captured in full on their Alive 2007 album, Daft Punk’s career-spanning show not only established the gold standard for EDM concert production, but broke new ground in how electronic acts could mash up and re-contextualize their catalogs in a live setting. (As the story goes, Skrillex was inspired to pursue his own production career after witnessing the duo deliver pure elation to tens of thousands of people at Coachella in 2006.) Daft Punk’s tour was enabled by technological advancements in computer processing and lighting design, which finally made it feasible to take such a production on the road. LED panels have only grown exponentially cheaper since the pyramid shows, opening up opportunities for daring artists to develop live “experiences” powered by perfectly-synced audio-visual drops. In the 2010s, we saw awe-inspiring live production seemingly everywhere we looked: legends like the Chemical Brothers augmented their powerful live show with mechanical robots, while electronica duo Odesza deployed drones to form geometric shapes in the sky during their own landmark Coachella set. A live setting allowed EDM to really channel the scale and thrill of an amusement-park attraction.

As internet-famous producers began to receive lucrative booking requests, many scrambled to learn how to DJ. Meanwhile, DJs who had made their names on track curation and technical ability were now suddenly expected to have original music. This shift led to a demand for what became known as “ghost producers”: gifted technicians willing to stay in the shadows, making music for established acts that found themselves unable to fill the market’s needs with their own creations. Dutch heartthrob Martin Garrix—whose big-room house hit “ Animals” scraped its way to No. 21 on the Hot 100 chart in 2014—was famously signed to noted dance imprint Spinnin’ Records after they found out that he was responsible for ghost-producing a track released on their label.

Once EDM became a major label concern, ghost-producing manifested itself in what producer/DJ Anna Lunoe describes as a pyramid model akin to the top-down hierarchy and total bloat of modern pop-music songwriting and production. “There’s this culture of big EDM artists signing major label deals and running their own de-facto songwriting camps,” she says. “It’s a win-win for the labels, who no longer have to invest in the risky business of developing pop talent who might only have one big hit, and can rather invest in a producer who can showcase whichever new artist has emerged from streaming or social media platforms, on a case-by-case basis. But if talented young producers give their best ideas to the whales, instead of investing time into their own sound… will this ultimately cause greater homogeneity in electronic music?”

Some would say that certainly happened—a peek at the Billboard Dance/Electronic Songs chart reveals plenty of generic-sounding tracks with perfunctory toplines, primed for maximum streaming impact—but skeptics might point to the way the mainstream plowed through subgenre after subgenre during the boom years. The ascendance of EDM coincided with the emergence of streaming services as the primary method of music consumption, which allowed the masses to quickly cycle through myriad strains of dance music. These sounds rotated in their dominance: Early in the decade, European DJs found success with progressive house before it petered off, while Diplo and Major Lazer fused their unique brand of party music with dancehall and reggae influences. Deep house found mainstream champions in brother duo Disclosure, who stepped across the pond with their (relatively) sophisticated chord shapes and less-neurotic sound design. Producers like Flume and Kygo dominated the middle years of the decade by shepherding in new micro-genres like “future bass” and “tropical house,” each with their own rules and conventions.

Some niche genres began more regional than others, before the internet briefly blew them up. Moombahton, largely credited to Washington, D.C.’s Dave Nada, was born of necessity. Legend has it that in 2010, the nightclub DJ showed up to play his younger cousin’s house-party with a bagful of house records, only to discover that the teens in attendance were far more interested in hearing Afro-Caribbean rhythms. He took an Afrojack remix, slowed it down to a reggaeton tempo, and effectively invented a new strain of EDM, one that influenced future hits like Justin Bieber’s “ Sorry” and Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s “Lean On.” And while Baltimore and Jersey club music never found quite the same level of pop ubiquity as moombahton, the hyper-regional genres won new fans through platforms like SoundCloud, Vine, and most recently, TikTok, where remixes of memes can become overnight sensations.

Then in 2015, just when it seemed like EDM was going to take over the planet, the bubble appeared to burst. The festivals started to dry up, and so did the gigs, with only the biggest players able to pursue lucrative opportunities like Vegas residences. The pop zeitgeist shifted over to trap music, dancehall, and Afrobeats. Three years after going public with a $1 billion valuation, SFX Entertainment declared bankruptcy and ousted its troubled founder. By 2016, this very website had declared EDM—that hyper-capitalistic monument to laser-light shows and loud-ass beats— to have breathed its dying gasp.

“Is it the same industry now as it was when all these fucking business people were looking at it? When SFX bought everything?” Skrillex wonders. “I have no idea. There are always waves; the waves will crash, the water dies down, and then they come back. Stuff like [famed promoter] Gary Richards leaving HARD Festival and Holy Ship in 2017… that felt like the end of an era. And I definitely felt it in the past year, with Avicii’s passing, too. A shift is in the air.”

Today, there are still plenty of touring DJs that most listeners would identify as “EDM artists,” and while the money’s still decent ( for now), few would argue that the scene is as culturally dominant as it once was. If anything, EDM has seeped into the soil of American popular music. Instrumental choruses certainly existed before EDM, but nearly half a decade of build-ups readied an entire generation for the horn-heavy chorus of Mark Ronson’s “ Uptown Funk.” Two of the highest-paid DJs in the world right now are the guy in the mouse head and the guy in the marshmallow head. And 100 gecs, one of the most exciting experimental pop projects to emerge in years, owes a clear debt to Skrillex and his wild-eyed sound design.

Robinson hears EDM in certain tangible qualities of pop music today—things listeners take for granted, from the way drums are sequenced to how vocals are manipulated. “Just before the 2010s, you had songs like Kesha’s ‘ TiK ToK’ and Lady Gaga’s ‘ Just Dance’ and ‘ Poker Face’ on the radio, as well as R&B artists doing these one-off dance tracks,” he says. “A lot of those songs sounded to me like they were being produced by people who didn’t have a lot of experience with electronic music production. It was such a funny period because it was so obvious that this commercial electronic music sound was going to pop off, but they were still having the old guard of producers make the tracks. Now, it’s clear that so many of today’s big pop tunes are made by people who got their chops making EDM tracks and following YouTube tutorials.”

Whatever your feelings on EDM may be, its influence on the 2010s feels impossible to overstate, and the next decade looks no different. Many of the genre’s most talented practitioners have graduated from crafting festival bangers to working with some of the most interesting pop artists of our time. There’s Diplo of course, who has produced for Beyoncé and countless others. More recently, Skrillex and Kenny Beats, the in-demand rap beatmaker who also cut his teeth in the EDM circuit, worked on FKA twigs’ meticulous new album, MAGDALENE. Frank Ocean’s first new song in two years, the recent “ DHL,” was co-produced by Boys Noize in the techno maven’s Berlin studio. And A.G. Cook and his EDM-adjacent PC Music sound have helped to steer Charli XCX into even more thrillingly synthetic directions.

Despite these developments, the stigma around “EDM” lingers. Its crassest commercial aspects—the live shows where the performer is effectively just pressing play, the Vegas nightclubs where much of the audience couldn’t care less about the music—have outlived the reign of any single subgenre or style. But every year, more and more of those cultural connotations fade away, leaving only Twitter jokes and the music itself. “The hype is different, but we know it’s not dead,” says Skrillex. “Passion falls through from the top to the bottom—scenes die when the artists don’t have the energy for it. And so, EDM is only dead when DJ Snake, Tiësto, Richie Hawtin, Guy Gerber, Todd Terry, Boys Noize, Flume, Disclosure, Major Lazer, Diplo, and a bunch of others stop. A lot of people would have to quit music before EDM is done.”

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This post originally appeared on Pitchfork and was published November 7, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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