The emergence of EDM—the youth-music movement of the moment—resembles the arrivals of jazz, rock, and hip-hop in a few key ways, from its backlash to its lineage to its mass appeal.
"Excuse me," said the teenage girl approaching the circulation desk at the public library. "Do you have any dubstep? Like Skrillex?"
Normally that would have been my cue to go to the catalog and show her how to look it up herself, but as an occasional music writer, I happened to know the answer off the top of my head.
"We don't have Skrillex. He doesn't have any physical albums out yet."
"Okay, how about Dead Mouse?"
There I did have to check the catalog; we had had some Deadmau5 albums in, but they were all checked out. "I can put them on hold for you if you'd like."
"No, that's OK." As she left the library with her friend, who had been stifling laughter while she spoke to me, she shrugged. "I guess I'll just torrent it."
That was almost two years ago. As anyone who follows pop music knows, those two years have seen Skrillex, Deadmau5, and peers like Avicii, Swedish House Mafia, and more rise to celebrity status on a tidal wave of brutally physical, subtlety-free dance music that's come to be called EDM (electronic dance music) by the press and fans alike. The industrial-siren, incessantly pounding sounds of EDM have also been popularized on Top 40 radio by superstar producers like David Guetta, RedOne, Dr. Luke, and Calvin Harris, but the music's real home, according to its youthful fanbase, is in warehouse raves, DJ sets at not-particularly-upscale clubs, and increasingly at live festivals, where both attendance and excitement has been upending the previous two decades' conventional wisdom about the preference of American youth for rock, hip-hop, or country.
Like anything new or perceived to be new in popular music, the rhetoric around EDM has quickly gotten overheated. The New York Times recently quoted a concert promoter as saying, "If you're 15 to 25 years old now, this is your rock 'n' roll," and breathless profiles in even the nostalgia-peddling Rolling Stone have encouraged that identification. Meanwhile, the chorus of voices declaring that EDM is the worst musical movement in history, the ultimate proof of the decadent know-nothingness of American youth, and the end of culture itself, has only grown—especially online. A lot of that, of course, is the usual grumbling of 30-and-older-somethings that music has changed since they were 15 to 25. But even better-informed arguments that it's all been done before, and that the new crop of EDM superstars don't measure up to the past glories of electronic rave, sound familiar. The cultural arguments over the meaning and value of EDM, in fact, mirror those of previous generations in pop music, from jazz to rock and roll to hip-hop—suggesting that perhaps we really have entered a new era.