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Is Electro the New Rock and Roll?

THE CHINESE ECONOMY is the new rock and roll. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe congressional re-alignment is the new rock and roll—I don’t know. I do know one thing that is not the new rock and roll, though, and that is the rock and roll being made today. Like other worthy musical forms born of past eras—jazz and salsa, for instance—rock and roll is still played widely and still worth playing; yet rock has been frozen as a form for quite some time. Its only newness is one it confers as a metaphor—a handy, all-purpose symbol for the achieving of status as a phenomenon sensationally, voguishly cool. Thus, Chris Hedges announces, in his book Empire of Illusion, that porn is the new rock and roll; a manual for start-ups tells us that entrepreneurship is the new rock and roll; a media encyclopedia says it’s comedy; another book says it’s business law; The Guardian says it’s history—not something historical, which rock and roll has been for years, but the very discipline of history. At this point, we can see that Danny and the Juniors, and Neil Young after them, missed the point. If rock and roll is here to stay, hey, hey, it’s here mainly now to help us to recognize when something else has arrived.

One of the newest of the new rock and rolls happens to be an actual form of music—or, more precisely, a broad class of musics comprising dozens of styles and sub-styles and sub-sub-styles of work, from the decades-old genres of house and techno music to their younger offshoots, dubstep and dub techno, to a stunning variety of splinter styles, including Rotterdam techno and cosmic disco. As a class, this music falls under the general heading of electronica, not only because it is made by electronic means, often entirely by computer, but also because it is intended to evoke the electronic realm. It is made with electronics to sound like electronics.

As rock and roll once did, electronica dominates the soundtrack of social life for young adults, though it is far from the only music for hooking up today. Brooklyn still has blocks full of bars with bands playing live music, including old-fashioned rock—and jazz and salsa—on instruments other than MacBooks. Electronica, in varied forms, permeates the big dance clubs, as it has for years, and plays also now in the arenas and on the festival grounds where, just a couple of seasons ago, one would see lots of bearded guys with accordions. Meanwhile, strains of electronica not geared for dancing have been flourishing as downloads for people to take in, one by one, with earbuds or headphones; and there is a meaningful distinction here between the essentially passive act of taking in, which is appropriate to this vein of electronica, and listening, the traditional and more active sense of hearing with close attention. Electronica, the sound of our moment, has something in common with the earliest known music, which was the accompaniment to ancient ritual: neither was made just for listening.

“If you’re 15 to 25 years old now, this is your rock ‘n’ roll,” Michael Rapino, head of the event promotion company Live Nation, told a reporter for The New York Times. As a promoter, Rapino was basically matching a category of customers to a classification of product, though he was getting at something more interesting. To relate electronica to rock and roll is to apply a historical pattern to the new music. One generation’s rock and roll is, more than anything, a music that veterans of the preceding generation do not like, approve of, or grasp. My parents’ rock and roll was swing. Their parents’ rock and roll was Dixieland, the fans of which the swing kids derided as “moldy figs.” I like to describe myself as a product of the punk era, but that is mainly posturing—I really loved disco, but was too insecure among my mullet-headed New Jersey friends to admit it. Disco was my secret rock and roll.

ELECTRONICA certainly qualifies as a counterpart to the many past styles of popular music the successes of which seemed largely predicated on their ability to confound and to alienate old-timers. In that sense, electronica is almost quaintly traditional. While rock is essentially a vocal music, electronica is concerned with absolute sound; it uses the human voice—often heavily processed and manipulated, when it is used at all—as one of innumerable sources of tonal effects employed in service to the groove and the mood. While rock takes the song as its standard form, electronica seems, but is not really, formless. It is elliptical; it is built on repetition, through which variations can occur so subtly that unconditioned ears might not hear them. Rock has earthiness; electronica, atmosphere. Rock is descended from Chuck Berry and Elvis, and before them, the blues. Electronica’s grandparents are Stockhausen and Cage, their antecedents the abstractionists of the early Modern era.

Notionally, as a proposition that new methods of production can help to liberate music from the ostensible tyranny of melody and harmony imposed by traditional instrumentation, electronica has roots in the polemical musings of Ferruccio Busoni, a difficult but interesting Italian composer and teacher who wrote the prescient, if simplistic, Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music in 1907. Calling for vaguely conceived challenges to ingrained musical conventions, above all those of the Western tempered scale, Busoni proposed that technology could have value in music-making before much technology had been devised for the purpose. “Music was born free, and to win freedom is its destiny,” Busoni wrote in language as intemperate as the scales he dreamed of. “[Music’s] state is one of development, perhaps the very first stage of a development beyond present conception, and we talk of ‘classics’ and ‘hallowed traditions’! ... We have formulated rules, stated principles, laid down laws; we apply laws made for maturity to a child that knows nothing of responsibility!”

The rhetoric of aesthetic liberation, entwined with a utopian-futurist idealization of machinery, followed electronic music as it traveled over the course of the twentieth century from the imaginings of theorists to the labs of the Princeton and Columbia music departments to the dance clubs of Chicago and Detroit. In the words of George Lewis, a current-day composer who has produced a body of serious-minded works of music with his laptop, “The history of electronic music—in fact, the history of the avant-garde, to a certain degree—is a history of artists getting their hands on something new—it could be a computer, it could be almost anything—and saying, ‘Well, this is interesting. I wonder if I can change the rules with this.’”

HOWEVER forward-looking it may seem, the electronic dance music of today connects directly to music from about thirty years ago. Contemporary electronica has obvious precedents in both house music (the hard-throbbing, minimalist dance music first developed at The Warehouse, a gay club in Chicago, in the late ’70s and early ’80s) and techno (the more sonically complex, multi-layered dance music that emerged in Detroit some time around the mid-1980s). Each of these styles offered, in its essence, an embedded critique of the mainstream music of its day and the culture that supported it.

House music, in its primal relentlessness and carnal muscularity, was the near antithesis of the dozy, mopey Southern California folk-pop all over the radio, and it provided overnight fuel for the gay awakening of the post-Stonewall period. Techno, developed in the birthplace of Motown Records for an emerging generation of African Americans and Latinos, took its name from an Alvin Toffler book, and rejected the romantic smoothness of R&B for a command of digital effects that demonstrated a kind of prowess more technical, more cerebral, than physical. “The Detroit underground has been experimenting with technology, stretching it rather than simply using it,” said Juan Atkins, who produced one of the first important techno tracks, “No UFOs,” under the name of Model 500. “Basically, we’re tired of hearing about being in love or falling out, tired of the R&B system, so a new progressive sound has emerged.”

In the decades since, as house music and techno have evolved into (typically) denser, (often) slower, and (sometimes) moodier styles, electronica’s historical identity as a music for dancers—and gay, black, and Latino ones at that—seems not to have helped its reputation in the pop-music establishment. Rolling Stone and Spin largely ignored electronic dance music for decades; and the Grammys gave it little more than token attention as a specialty category until this year, when it anointed Skrillex, a gimmicky electronica composer and performer who has a rock-star aura, with five Grammy nominations. (He won three, for Best Dance Recording, Best Dance/Electronica Album, and Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical, but lost Best New Artist to Bon Iver, the emo band that had been recording for four or five years by then.)

THERE ARE legitimate reasons for people to ignore or to dislike electronic dance music, of course. A colleague of mine, a former editor at Spin, finds its repetitions tedious and its tonalities grating. I have had a similar response to some electronica—including the music of the wildly over-hyped Deadmau5. Another colleague, a writer at The Wall Street Journal, pleads ignorance on this subject, and there’s no shame in that. As a closet discohead, I liked house music from the start, but have not followed dance music from the inside, with a VIP-room view. Still, the history of the music I have studied most deeply, which is jazz, suggests that electronic dance music, being dance music, is probably susceptible to longstanding biases against work the first mission of which is to engage the body rather than the mind.

In 1996, I went to the ninety-fourth birthday party for the late alto saxophonist Benny Waters. He got to reminiscing about his early days in the New York jazz scene in the 1920s, when he played with King Oliver. “There was a lot of criticism of what we were doing,” he said. “It’s all just a beat. There’s no melody.’” The parallel to electronic dance music—and to hip-hop, as well—is glaring in this fable: the music was thought of as limited, if not dangerous, because it seemed best at inducing movement rather than thought. As Waters went on to explain, critics of the jazz that he made with Oliver soon caught on to the fact that the music had a “real lot more than meets the eye,” or the feet: it offered gratifications for both the body and the mind.

But this moral applies to only some electronic dance music—to the techno of Juan Atkins and Richie Hawtin, for sure, and even more to the broody music made through dubbing (dub techno) by artists such as Deadbeat and Andy Stott. And the lesson is a limited one, in that it denies the legitimacy of the physical and the value of the power to stir a person to dance. It’s not for nothing that we say, when music affects us deeply, in our bones, that the music moves us. A great deal of high-quality electronic dance music—the work of Machinedrum, or Derrick Carter and Mark Farina—derives its quality from its utility, from its usefulness as an inducement to movement. If we stopped to think about the music, we would be stopping, and the music would have failed—not simply as a form of expression, but as a stimulus to personal expression through dance.

Electronic dance music has grown more and more listenable—indeed, more cerebral, not that this has made it better by the standards of the dance floor. A whole school of electronic music for use with earbuds has been flourishing under the names of chill-out, ambient, and trance. Much of this work is related to dub techno, which grew out of dubstep, which emerged after house music and techno traveled from the urban Midwest of the United States to England and got mixed up with Euro disco and the stylized German intellectualism of Kraftwerk. Andy Stott, a dub techno producer out of Manchester, has been making especially strong music in the school of electronica for listening—meticulous but unfussy, serious but unpretentious collages of processed voices, sounds, and effects. One can appreciate the high achievement of his work without fully accepting the narrative cliché of pop-music migration, in which important styles of music are born among disenfranchised Americans and end up in England, inflated and prettified as art music. After all, the techno that Juan Atkins helped to invent in Detroit was profoundly artful—original and immeasurably influential, as well as danceable. Techno didn’t need an Englishman to turn it into art.

Among the marvels of electronica is the sheer number of sub-genres that the genre accommodates: ambient house, illbient, Baltimore club, funky breaks, liquid funk, folktronica, breakcore, cybergrind—literally hundreds, as well as I can count them. Many are defined so narrowly, down to the acceptable number of beats per minute and the beat on which a snare sound may occur, that a deviation does not constitute a variation, but calls for a new sub-genre name. Dubstep employs a syncopated rhythm of 138 to 142 BPM, with a snare sound acceptable on the third beat of the bar. Wind down to 130 BPM, and you have post-dubstep. The regimentation within this system of classification may be matched only by the rules of harmony in the Western tempered scale from which Busoni looked to machines for liberation.

David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Principia Electronica.”