By Nick Darbonne
“All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. […] A generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force—is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
A few years ago, I took a large dose of LSD at an electronic music show. The “psychedelic trance” band Infected Mushroom was on stage when the acid kicked in. They’re not a very good band, and their music isn’t very articulate. One of their songs endlessly repeats a phrase like “I’m losing my mind,” which wasn’t particularly pleasant to hear at that moment, given my circumstances. And yet the rest of the crowd was clearly losing theirs. While the spectacle took place, I realized that these guys had a large amount of control over a massive crowd of people. My mind made some rudimentary connections: the beady array of LED lights on the stage morphed into a cavalcade of revolving swastikas, and I could’ve sworn the lead singer, now decked out in full regalia, was doing a Nazi salute. I don’t know how long that lasted; I remember living out weeks, which changed to years, and then to infinity, whereupon I died and was reborn, or so it seemed.
After dying, I disengaged from the concert, signaling to my acid partner (who was, naturally, a girl I’d met about an hour prior) that we should head to the back of the venue and sit down while Datsik played. The music didn’t really matter anymore because I suddenly saw how contrived everything was. I found no answers, only questions. What was this music saying? Why were these people so excited, so easily corralled? I think she agreed wholeheartedly when I said it was all a nonsensical spectacle, but because LSD makes you feel overly connected, it could’ve been mostly an illusion. Despite the drug’s reputation as a master of unreality, I felt that I’d finally pried open the curtains. There was nothing there.
It was 2010 when I first heard Skrillex, three years or so before my “revelation.” It was the year the Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP broke through. His wasn’t the only dubstep record to make a splash; Porter Robinson’s Spitfire stood beside it the following year, heralding an era where mainstream dance music became impossibly aggressive. This is music that would build up energy and then violently combust. It was music for the neon mosh pits of the future. Commercial punk/metal fusion was waning in popularity, and this stuff picked up right where it left off. Whatever these producers were doing sounded really unique; that era of dubstep was eye-opening to my 16-year- old self. In fact, the subgenre pulled in such a large number of new fans that it can’t be ignored or written off as a one-off thing. The formal language of house and techno existed long before, but the colloquialisms of dubstep introduced a generation of young people to electronic music. Even Taylor Swift and Korn tried their hands at dubstep; this is proof of, if nothing else, the lengths artists go to capture the moment.
Skrillex and Robinson were associated at the time with a loose movement of electronic dance music (you know it as EDM) producers entering the arena from other genres, or just happening to catch the hype train at the right time. Their ranks include Bassnectar, Rusko, Feed Me, Zomboy, Datsik, and countless others. But more than the rest, Skrillex exemplified the moment in electronic music. The man won eight Grammys. He was the face of EDM for a few years, superseding the reigning champ deadmau5. It seemed like a prominent new subculture was forming, albeit one that was mass-market friendly. Like I said, this subculture had actually existed for years. But with the coming of aggressive dubstep and a proliferation of commercial raves, it was poised for a resurgence, a Third Summer of Love. Advertisers and record producers rejoiced. And isn’t that the mark of any subculture? The ability to become, at some point, massively marketable?
There’s also the promise of meaning, even if it’s disseminated through marketing. I can’t claim to be able to accurately summarize what EDM meant (or means) for people. Subcultures are often based around music that expresses the ethos of their members. At least, that was the case with most historical youth subcultures. It took some time for me to realize that EDM was truly devoid of substance. You could disagree. “If we’re just there to have fun,” you say, “there shouldn’t really be a meaning to it at all, right?” That’s the most EDM thing anyone could ever think. Go chew a glowstick and suck your fingers to Diplo, you kandi-hoarding weirdo.
If anything, the genre’s about excitement and novelty. Many of us like electronic music because of the “drop.” It is the moment when the music gets more exciting. It is a rush of excitement and a release of pent-up energy. It is a guarantee. It is the light at the end of the tunnel in lieu of a meaningful truth. You’re crammed on the dance floor, doing your thing. Soon the tension shifts, the music gets faster, the stage lights flicker, and the water vapor cannons fire. Then the bass hits. In 2010-era dubstep, it was actually more of a violently shrieking mid-range, but that doesn’t matter. It could still shake your bones.
As such, the catch-all term “bass music” is now widely used to refer to this genre and related evolutions: future bass, electronic trap, whatever they’re calling it these days. “Dubstep,” as we knew it, has largely moved underground. It started there, sounding far different than it did upon its breakthrough atop the charts—now it’s gone back into hiding. Today, the aesthetics of popular music are different; the sounds and the people have changed a bit. There is constant truth, but there is also constant change. Dubstep is just the case study that drew me in; the subculture itself is bigger than that and continues to evolve. It leaves the question: where do EDM’s ideals come from, and how do they grow? They do not materialize out of thin air. Still, there is no beating heart behind electronic dance music, no blood that binds the members of its family. We try to group ourselves with like-minded people, but what do EDM fans really have in common? Love of dancing? Love of spectacle?
According to French theorist Guy Debord, the “society of the spectacle” is, among other things, “the material reconstruction of the religious illusion.” Think back to the hippies of Thompson’s era, caught in the trappings of psychedelia, believing their truths to be within reach because their environment promised it to them. Granted, Debord was referring to a lot more than a dubstep concert, but the fact remains that everything we consume in mass culture amounts to a packaged experience, removed from real-world context, claiming to define us and impart meaning. EDM was never any different. It absolutely was and is religious, remaining all the more fallacious for it. The cult of MDMA-assisted “PLUR” (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect) furthers this religious notion for those who choose to partake. It’s a step in the ritual. We prostrate ourselves at the altar of the DJ; their body is the crystalline substance, blood the five dollar water bottle. Repeated actions. Fulfillment. Now you love everybody. There’s your meaning.
Subcultures impart meaning: there are many people who really have bought into the idea that this music represents them. They usually don’t reject the material world, but they have a heightened appreciation for the illusory one.
We define ourselves by the culture we consume; electronic dance music is a cult to many of its followers. Subcultures impart meaning: there are many people who really have bought into the idea that this music represents them. They usually don’t reject the material world, but they have a heightened appreciation for the illusory one. A more thorough analysis would take into account background and race; according to a 2014 Nielsen survey (and from my own observations), EDM fans are primarily white. It could be said that, because it’s a wholly apolitical subculture, white people would feel comfortable latching onto EDM instead of anything that directly or indirectly calls out their status and labels in society. However, the numbers in this survey don’t seem too different from the mostly white population of the United States; Nielsen says 63% of EDM fans are non-Hispanic whites. The US Census Bureau tells us that, for 2015, 61.6% of the US population were non-Hispanic whites. This may have not been the case when I was dubstepping a few years ago, but EDM seems to be able to transcend race now. We have to look further for meaning.
Many young people have clung to this notion of music festivals as a place to “find themselves.” No, not everyone assumes they’re going to come face-to-face with the answers to life’s great mysteries or the truth about their place in the world or anything other than a quick release, a brain vacation. But again, branding produces meaning, even if it operates in the subconscious of its victims. You’ve seen those videos of classically attractive youths yelling at a hovering, swerving camera whilst confetti cannons fire. Why aren’t you one of them? In the same way that Woodstock was said to be the manifestation of a generational shift, and punk music was a similar response to disillusionment (don’t tell a punk that), it’s easy to assume that the young people of today filling up concert venues and beer-soaked grassy fields are looking for the same sense of belonging and purpose. But I realized, much like disillusioned mod Jimmy in the film Quadrophenia, that subcultures will not necessarily grant you truth or define you or make it all make sense. That is up to the individual.
There, the DJ is God, the dance floor is his temple, and the lights are visions of angels.
Ideas and attitudes spread like viruses through pop culture, and businesses like to sell us things. Thus, EDM became a phenomenon through not only companies like Insomniac Events and festivals like Ultra, but also through countless suburban Hot Topics, shifting their wares yearly to cater to emerging subculture-turned-mainstream- culture. But most importantly, EDM has been able to provide the illusion of meaning, much like any other element of culture is wont to do. Its cult stems from this, functioning in the same way as the cults of goths, mods, hippies, bikers, and good old-fashioned religious types. I’ve noticed EDM is particularly effective due to the relatively unified sense of neon-vomit aesthetics, common entheogenic and empathogenic drug use, and the broadly defined man-made spectacle that makes up its large-scale technicolor gatherings. There, the DJ is God, the dance floor is his temple, and the lights are visions of angels. But is any of that really a problem? It may look crude to an outsider, but all of life rests on perception, and I firmly believe that there is beauty in is world yet. We’re all meant to look for it.