There’s an old joke, often credited to George Bernard Shaw or Groucho Marx in which a man asks a woman he’s just met whether or not she’d sleep with him for ten million dollars. Yes, says the woman, laughing. “Well, how about for $10 then?” he asks. The woman is offended. “Of course not. What kind of woman do you think I am?” “Madame, we’ve already established what kind of woman you are, now we’re just haggling over the price.”
While there are certainly outdated sexist undertones to the joke, I can’t help but think of it whenever the old argument about “real music” versus electronic music crops up, as it has over and over again since the popularization of electronics in pop music stretching back decades to disco, on through the synth-pop boom of the ’80s, and up to the current EDM moment now. The tired back and forth was resurrected yet again this week in a pissing match between deadmau5 and Arcade Fire.
During their performance at the first weekend of Coachella, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler took a shot at some of the electronic acts on the bill. “Shout-out to all the bands still playing actual instruments at this festival,” he said.
Last night the DJ and producer deadmau5 responded with a series of tweets that took umbrage to the indie rock band’s dismissal of his genre. “shit to remember: A computer is a tool, not an instrument.” he tweeted. “arcade fire needs to settle down. some dudes devote their lives to instruments, others to electronic composition by cpu, dafuqs yer problem?”
And then, in a pretty deft move of one-upping snooty rock bands at their own game, he pointed out that rock and roll isn’t particularly technical and artistic in the grand scheme of things anyway. “if i wanna watch real artists perform, id pick the opera before wasting a fucking minute of my life with arcade fire. #do youevenscorebro?”
You may remember a similar controversy erupted around the time of the 2012 Grammys, when Dave Grohl gave an acceptance speech that many took as critical of electronic music, despite having actually performed with deadmau5 that same night.
“To me this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important,’ Grohl said. “Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do.”
You may further remember other similar controversies erupting every single day online whenever someone makes a joke about deadmau5, or Skrillex, or David Guetta, or whoever happens to be in the spotlight at the moment.
Another dismissal of EDM as a whole was making the rounds earlier this week from noted music critics Anthony Bourdain and Penn Jillette. “Where once they used to say, ‘Cocaine is God’s way of saying you have too much money’ — now, maybe EDM is,” Bourdain groused on Parts Unknown. “Come ye lords and princelings of douchedom.”
“Are we just old?” he asks Jillette. “Or are we non-douchey?”
Well, he has the first part right anyway.
All of which brings me back to that joke. Outside of literally sitting down with an acoustic instrument or a piano, there is no such thing as music that is devoid of electronics anymore. Arcade Fire’s music is made with keyboards and computers and cut and pasted and looped and edited with a computer, just like 99% of the other indie rock bands in the world. Overdubs are inserted into songs, weird blips are edited out, or in, as the case may be. Tracks are built and layered in Pro-Tools on a – gasp! – computer.
Everyone is an electronic act now, we’re just haggling over price.
And besides, what critics of EDM are actually talking about when they’re dismissing it out of hand isn’t the act of composing music on a computer, and performing it with samplers and synths and drum machines – no one would be expected to be taken seriously after tossing all of hip-hop out of the window for that, would they? What they’re actually railing against is bland pop music. It’s not the copy of Ableton that is corrosive to culture, it’s the repetitive, uninspired, mass-produced nonsense that is the real enemy here. Anyone who thinks that describes the entire spectrum of electronic music isn’t just ignorant and uninformed, they’re also willing to proudly proclaim themselves as such.
Here’s a little secret most of these type of rockists don’t understand: producing creative electronic music is hard. Really, really hard. If it were easy to write and produce stand-out electronic music, we’d all be doing it. Believe me, tens of thousands of people are trying every day in their bedrooms at home, and we’ll never hear about them, because it’s simply not as easy as it looks. Writing engaging rock music isn’t easy either, but in the grand scheme of things learning how to chop out a few chords and string together a riff is simple in comparison to all of the skills an electronic producer has to master, and all of the tools they need to understand. No one looks down upon the producer of a rock record or a hip-hop record, right? On the contrary, we praise them for bringing the songs written by other artists to life. So why take it out on the producers who also have the temerity to entertain crowds while doing it?
No one is suggesting that there isn’t a glut of mindless, disposable EDM crowding the market right now, but if that’s all you see when you consider it, then that’s your deficiency, not theirs. It’s the equivalent of going to watch a Michael Bay film and concluding that all movies are explosive drivel. If you can’t find something to appreciate in the music of producers like, say, S O H N, or Shlohmo, or Jacques Green, or Disclosure, or Burial, to name just a few that I’m partial to, then it’s not electronic music you have a problem with, you probably just don’t like music all that much in the first place.
Luke O’Neil is a writer in Boston. Follow him at @lukeoneil47.