It’s Not EDM Rockists Like Arcade Fire Hate, It’s Bad Pop Music

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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While there are certainly outdated sexist undertones to the joke, I can’t help but think of it whenever the old argument about “real music” versus electronic music crops up, as it has over and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.

  • The Colonel

    There’s also the (valid) criticism to be made that most EDM lacks spontaneity. A band will play the same song differently every night, and if they’re in the “zone” they just might play it better than they’ve ever played it before. But when EDM acts are playing “live,” that usually means they’re twiddling nobs, sequencing things differently or banging a drum along with the pre-recorded beat. I think that’s what Grohl et al. are complaining about. Mostly, EDM is canned.

    Also: “If you can’t find something to appreciate in the music of” certain EDM producers, “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.” Piss off with that–everyone has their own tastes. It’s like me saying if you can’t find something in Norwegian Black Metal to appreciate you don’t like music.


      Totally disagree. Ableton allows producers to perform live and alter their music in many different ways live. If you’ve ever been to a Bassnectar show, NONE of his shows are ever the same. Ever.

      Meanwhile, you have shitty pop rock bands lipsyncing on stage…. every genre has their demons. Its just easy to pick on EDM cause its new.

      Is Rap a REAL music genre? Its someone who knows how to rhyme say illegitimate shit over an electronically produced beat. Yawn

      • The Colonel

        Fair enough, but you have to admit Bassnectar is definitely the exception.

        • lukeoneil47

          All genres have good and bad actors. That’s the point. People who dismiss “edm” out of hand are missing out. And yes, anyone who dismisses metal out of hand is as well.

          • The Colonel

            Sure. But let’s take Coachella for example. If you were there or watched the feed, it was like night and day between the bands and the EDM artists. Sure, Disclosure guys played a bass and trotted out vocalists for a song at a time, but the overwhelming majority of dance acts were bopping their heads while their tracks played. I’m here because I love dance music, but it was embarrassing.

          • lukeoneil47

            I agree that the live setting is a bit of a different thing, but there are plenty of people who dismiss all electronically produced music out of hand. I don’t particularly enjoy watching a guy in front of a laptop either.

      • JeanbearTheImmasculator

        Thats still more then most EDM knob twiddlers.

        • disqus_Nh4gh7bHX1

          I highly doubt you’ve ever been to a legitimate show where someone played songs off of itunes. However if that is your experience with electronic music I feel sorry for you because there are such talented people out there in the scene who you would probably really enjoy. I sincerely hope your perspective on the enormous, ever-expanding universe of electronic music hasn’t been warped and jaded by a couple of hacks.

      • Rex

        What rock bands do you listen to that lip sync, because I don’t know any? And excuse my ignorance, but Daft Punk is the only electronic artists I’ve seen use Ableton. Most other DJs I see spend more time taking off their shirt, smoking and jumping up and down.

        • BiteMeRepubs

          Neon Trees. All sequenced rock band.

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  • ryan

    arcade fire sucks. and edm is not new, it’s just a new term for stuff that’s been around for a long time…

    • lukeoneil47

      Thanks, I thought it was new.

      • electronicbuda

        Simple electronic music has been around since the 50s with musique concrete and artists like karlheinz strockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer . EDM is just a new term for commercial big room crap.But I think danceable electronic or edm started on the 70s.

        • Almark

          It is nothing more than Electronic Pop, and that’s it. It’s Pop and they are feeding it to the masses that it’s actual electronic dance, and if many actually listen to real electronic dance it’s very good. Oh if only people did their homework. It’s another way to pull in the masses to listen to pop, more listeners to pop, more money.

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  • Markp

    Great, so you argue your point, then basically dismiss rock as simply “chopping together a few chords and stringing together a riff”. IT’S ALL HARD WHEN DONE RIGHT. Everyone is such an elitist these days. I’ve played guitar for 15 years – its hard as fuck to do it well. Just like composing on any other instrument – rock, country, classical, edm it doesn’t matter. A good song is a good song period. And good songs are hard to write.

    • lukeoneil47

      “Writing engaging rock music isn’t easy either…”

  • Vince

    This would mean more if it wasn’t coming from Arcade Fire. How much more generic, benign, and MOR can you get?

    • Nick

      If arcade was generic they’d be popular lol

  • J.Martins

    “Shout-out to all the bands still playing actual instruments at this festival,” 90% of people I know that started to produce electronic music didn’t had money to afford instruments. So we went to software to express our art, our feelings,

    Others people I know really have a problem to form a band, (myself for instance) all the social and relations are really boring so we have decided to be the one-man-band

    another thing to consider, there are people that really love to experiment with music & technology and other like me that really hates to use instruments invented 200 years ago or more (eg acoustic guitar)

  • JeanbearTheImmasculator

    I think the point they are trying to make is The bands are LIVE. Not just present. Deadmaus can have someone else there in the helmet and press play on the itunes and noone would be the wiser. I’ve been to EDM shows and I’ve been to Clubs. If I didn’t know it was the actual producer there I’d have thought it was just itunes.

  • Lord Byng

    It was Wierd Al who remarked that they created Rock And Roll for guys who could play but couldn’t sing, and then they created hip hop for guys who couldn’t play either.

    For Dead Rodent to assume that Arcade Fire’s personnel are not every bit as accomplished as the pit musicians you would find at the Opera is just ignorant- it’s the sort of thing someone who never actually learned to play an instrument would say.

    And to argue that because cutting and pasting other people’s sounds together on a computer is hard, it’s equivalent, is just foolish. If you take away all the recorded music that has ever existed, Arcade Fire will still be making more. Dead Rodent would be out of business, because he doesn’t make the basic materials.

    Source: I can both play and program.

    • Chris

      FYI, Deadmau5 records most of his own samples.

    • oblonsky

      Deadmau5 pretty much builds all his material from scratch. Most electronic producers out there don’t, but deadmau5 does. He’s unique compared to most of the other guys who sound the same. Deadmau5 is pretty much a proper sound engineer. Used to make sounds for video games too!

    • lulz

      Do you REALLY think Deadmau5 doesn’t know how to play an instrument? You realize most “EDM” compositions start with the keyboard, right?

      I bet Skrillex knows how to play more instruments than Arcade Fire does. You’d be f*cking surprised.

      • Nick

        Criticize arcade fire all you want, but one thing no one is gonna beat them at is the amount of instruments played. Every show involves 6+ people playing 5+ instruments

  • Andy

    No idea why deadmau5 thought that was directed at him. Arcade Fire actually had Diplo open for them at their Australian shows couple of months ago.

  • BiteMeRepubs

    We write music that goes with the venue. Orchestral pieces were written for symphony halls. Rock music for giant stadiums. EDM for clubs. The problem is that we have this boring old rock stadium cliché still and EDM has to perform there if they want to make money. If I’m dancing in a club, I don’t give a crap if its a DJ, EDM knob twiddler, or pre-recorded. I’m not there to watch some blistering guitar solo. I’m there to dance.

  • Casey Reece

    When I look at Rock music, I look at dinosaurs.

    Literally. I look at a bunch of old people. Most acts in Rock ‘n’ Roll are 70 years old trying to look like they’re 50, or acts that are 50 years old trying to look like they’re 30.

    It’s not “bad.” But, I’ll be honest. I don’t find compelling, engaging rock music anywhere any more. To be fair, I don’t search for it, but rock ‘n’ roll should be able to deliver me a tune after having grown up, around, and delivered by the media empire that is North America.

    I should turn on the television and hear artists rip into as like-able, recognizable, and moving pieces such as Smells Like Teen Spirit.

    Wow, did I just name that last universally acknowledged and known rock song? From like . . . twenty years ago?

    And the “live acts” that are supposedly so great from “live performers” is really a bunch of horse-shit. It’s true, there exist some phenomenal jazz talents whereupon sitting down and watching them play for an hour, you walk away impressed and moved. But if someone wants to tell me that some clown plugging their “ACOUSTIC AND LIVE” instrument into this gigantic speaker-box which ELECTRONICALLY changes every Goddamn signal the “LIVE PERFORMER” put into it, so that it comes out this fuzzy, unrecognizable, messy wall of sound, then no, you dipshit, you aren’t playing an acoustic set. Chances are, if people took out the shitty wall of sound, they’d find an artist that plays a really shitty acoustic set. You know, no electricity? Just them and their six-string acoustic guitar.

    You know – the future of the music industry? Where all the kids are flocking too? No one can wait to pick up their bass and head over to their best friend’s place, whereupon studying the works of the masters in the 60′s and 70′s, they have a new and interesting take on the works we all recognize, follow, and love.

    Because that’s what the kids love these days! Ignorant, seventy-year old sexual dynamos, exploring and taking advantage of their gigantic crowds of teenage fans. Right? Because, that’s the shit we all should all try and be like, right?

    All this “knowing what the sounds are, where they come from, and what they do” is absolute bullshit when compared to sitting down with a string box that, when you hit it, makes funny sounds. Definitely.

    Soon rock fans will need a time machine to take people to a place where their music is relevant. And trust me – it’s not going to be the future.

  • James Otworth

    Yes. Thank you so much, Luke,

  • Suke Mahpeen

    arcade Fire sucks though.

  • ElPROVenezuela .

    Listen to Los Pericos – 1000 vivos
    then you will know how live music is suppose to sound hahaha

  • FistedSister

    But. Arcade Fire IS bad pop music.

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  • Nick

    The argument that “all music is electronic” because we use computers to perfect and album is idiotic. That’s like saying led zepplin or the Beatles or any other old band is electronic because they used electricity to record the songs. At the end of the day the bands with instruments can still go in front of their fans and put on a live gig, but for EDM acts you just get a bunch of idiots on Molly pumping their fists along with avicii or whoever is popular at the moment.