Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dance music blows up

Around 1994 (my memories are fuzzy), Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a greatest hits collection and the Smiths released or rereleased some compilation or other (it may have been "18 Singles" in the spring of 1995, but it doesn't really matter for the story).  Both bands were long since defunct, and had recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their landmark albums "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" and "The Smiths".  One of the big UK  music mags (I think it was the NME, but again, it's not so important for the story) lumped the reviews together into one and took the opportunity to compare the legacies of the two bands.

Britpop was massive at the time, and "X is the best British band since the Smiths" was a catchphrase that was tired on arrival, but was still used regularly as a lead-in about a band that the papers desperately wanted to promote.  Reviews of each album were generally positive (cash grab or not, the best of both bands are unfuckwithable) but the essence of the review was that the Smiths still sounded fresh and contemporary, while FGTH were a horribly dated relic of the 1980's.

It's now twenty years later (was it really that long ago???) and I'd say the roles are reversed.  In an era where dance music has successfully infiltrated pop music production and the (admittedly catch-all) genre of electronic music is legitimately huge in its own right,  Frankie's brand of slick, provocative dancefloor bangers seems far ahead of its time.  The Smiths, OTOH, now look like quaint, sleepy products of the 80's, back when being an indie rock band meant having a defeatist attitude and wouldn't dare to dream about ever playing to more than a few hundred people at a time. You toiled away in noble obscurity and the idea of "not selling out" was worn like a badge of honour.  Morrissey's personal war against all forms of dance music doesn't make him look good in the eyes of history either -- I mean, he always looked silly taking these cartoonish stances about how "dance music is killing everything!", but in the 90's he still had a lot of defenders, whereas now even his staunchest fans won't back him up on that or just about any political or social issue he's ranted about in the years since.

And thus, "indie rock" is now regularly used in ads for cars and fast food, while EDM is arguably the hottest brand of music in North America.  Michaelangelo Matos' piece in SPIN gives a great deal of insight into how EDM is marketed, the types of people doing the marketing, and those making the A&R decisions.   It also explains -- perhaps better than any other article I've seen on this subject --  how the usual way of doing business was forced to change in order to sell this music properly.  The majors were clueless about this in the 90's -- they tried to sell electronica as if it was rock or hip-hop via flashy videos pushed into high rotation on MTV and a big emphasis on albums.  The club and vinyl culture aspect of it was completely ignored, and the idea that your top artists could be your best A&R people was absurd.  The evolution of the industry is a major focus of the SPIN article.

It's still not clear to me why this music has gotten so big.  It may be too soon for a definitive history,  but in an age where music is dissected everywhere on the internet within hours of its release, maybe it shouldn't be.  In '91, it was easy to point to Nirvana and say that they were the spark behind a shift in music tastes, but such straightforward analysis is exceedingly rare these days.  That's especially true for the dance music scene, which was already so delocalized even before the internet and file sharing changed listening habits forever.  In another era, you'd say that David Guetta and Calvin Harris produced smash hits for superstar artists and dragged EDM kicking and screaming into the mainstream, but that shoe doesn't seem to fit here.  Timbaland and The Neptunes connected EDM with hip-hop and were insanely influential while doing so, but you can't draw a line between "I"m a Slave 4 U" and anything on a David Guetta album.  Eurodance was huge in the 90's (and remains underrated) and the promotion was all about the single, the investment in artists as long term projects (rather than something thrown together in the studio for the producer's benefit) simply wasn't there. 

Or maybe FGTH invented everything ...

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