Celtic Revenge: Or, The Demise of Electronica

Are you old enough to remember the rise of electronic music in the 90’s, as DJ’s and other electronic groups emerged from the underground into the light of the mainstream?

This era was a heyday for labels like Astralwerks and Mute, large players responsible for bringing Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, Underworld and many others to the throngs of new fans disenchanted by the standard 4 piece band.  It was a time where there were few choices, either classic rock, metal or alternative.  That wasn’t good enough for a lot of people, who wanted something new and different.  Something they hadn’t heard a thousand times in as many configurations.

Electronica and Techno were used as blanket terms for every kind of new music involving a drum machine and a synthesizer, whatever didn’t fit an existing mold.  They were essentially shorthand for, “I don’t know what to do with this.”  The music spurned generous debate and criticism about what constitutes ‘real music’ and if it was made by machines, that meant the machine was doing all the work and not the musician.  It was hard to recognize the work a DJ/producer was doing because there was no point of reference like there was with a guitar.

This was a very important era in music.  It was the musical equivalent of a hover-board or what the Jetson’s might have listened to in the future.  The turn of the millennium was coming up and there was a desire for something that sounded futuristic and as technologically evolved as we felt we were.

Eventually, more traditional and established musicians caught on and began to incorporate elements of electronica into their sound.  Electronic artists did the same, welcoming more traditional musicians into their studios and songs.  It seemed like electronic music was fitting right in and carving out a permanent place as an established genre.  Not surprisingly, Madonna jumped on-board with “Ray of Light,” as did U2 with their weird album, “Pop,” full of samples, synths and uncharacteristic everything.  Hell, David Bowie had a legit drum ‘n bass record.  They were experimenting, and that was the important part, that it was open and including more people.

Electronica also made infiltrated television and movies.  Moby’s Play consisted of 18 songs, all of which were licensed for use in some kind of tv show, commercial or movie.  It’s hard to imagine The Matrix, Fight Club or Virgin Suicides without the electronic music soundtracks that helped define them.  A score became something you could listen to separate from the film, a standalone piece of work.  It’s impossible to hear “Born Slippy” by Underworld and not think of Trainspotting.

Perhaps the most successful integration came in hip-hop.  Just listen to the string of songs Timbaland produced at the time.  They still hold up fifteen years later.  Pharrell WIlliams had similar success with The Neptunes, NERD and other projects.

Everybody was finding a way to get in on the action and at some point, somebody somewhere crossed a line.  I’m sure they meant well, that they were convinced they were expanding and improving the genre.  They could not have been more wrong, nor more destructive.

It’s taken me this long to figure out that it would take something wholly offensive and/or absurd to reverse the course of a booming genre, essentially sending it back to the minor leagues, back into obscurity.

It would take something like a musical project trying to combine, oh, let’s say Celtic melodies with, I don’t know, maybe tribal African drum and rhythms.  Take that pile of ‘nobody asked for’ and build it around western electronic dance music and you would have something like Afro Celt Sound System.  I’m sure they thought they were being innovative and pushing limits.  Many people agreed, like Chris Rubin of Rolling Stone who put them on his top ten of 2001, as well as the 500,000 people who purchased said album.

Slowly, but surely everyone discovered that some limits were there for a reason.  Some walls are not meant to be scaled for your own protection.

I know I may sound a little harsh, but the next time you’re at a party, put ACSS on and just watch.  People will get a bit of an initial rush, looking around like ‘what is this?’ You’ll tell them what it is, explain the concept to them and they’ll be so into it at first.  Before long, you’ll see people begin to slowly migrate away from the source of the music.  If there’s no way of getting away from it, they will simply leave, one by one.  Soon, it’ll be just you and ACSS.  You’ll wonder where the party went, why you thought it was a good idea to play the band in the first place and eventually you’ll hide that disc of shame deep in a corner closet in the basement.  Welcome to the world of electronica fans in the early 2000’s.

The music went back underground, with exceptions of a few bigger names like The Chemical Brothers and Moby, the latter adapting to a more subdued, quieter background kind of sound.  Hip-hop continued to utilize and improve instrumentation borrowing from electronica, manipulating beats and rhythms with technology, which explains the thriving glitch-hop movement of Pretty Lights, Griz, Gramatik and Big Gigantic.

You’ll notice the popular music of the mid-2000’s was fraught with the likes of Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer and Jack Johnson.  Culture rebounded, rejecting technology and moving back to a place of comfort: the acoustic guitar.  U2 went back to being an Irish rock band.

Electronica essentially died, or rather went into a cocoon, waiting for a new generation to find this music, absorb it and start to generate music of their own.  The babies gestated for a time, then when they were ready and the world had successfully forgotten about ACSS, they rose up to reclaim their music’s place in the daily lives of people, the festivals, record store shelves, parties, commercials, everything.

Given this history, given the mistakes, you can get an idea as to why I cringed when I heard Avicii’s new record, “True.”  If you haven’t heard it, “True” mixes in a lot of the same sounds and takes some of the same risks as ACSS.  I physically reacted to the music, not because it’s terrible or because I don’t like it (I don’t like it), but because history repeats itself.  I like EDM, and I want it to stick around.

Tim Berg and any other ambitious producers: I respect your artistic license and I won’t presume to revoke it in any way, but consider this a shot across your genre-defying, limit-pushing bow.  Some seas are not mean to be crossed.  Tread with caution, my backwards-hatted friend.

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