deadmau5’s career has been a recurring topic on this blog. I was inspired to write one of my most successful posts ever, about authenticity in EDM, by deadmau5’s occasional orneriness on Twitter and the perception by some amateur DJs that the giant Canadian mouse head guy had lost his artistic integrity by confessing to the “just press play” ethos, whereby a DJ doesn’t mix live but instead uses prerecorded/sequenced material during a live set. I also used the album cover of “While (1 <2)” in a recent post about “greatness,” and deadmau5 is always close to mind when I write about criticism of EDM.
Albums and sets
When “While (1 < 2)” came out in mid-2014, deadmau5 called it his first real album. For sure, it had all the clichéd trappings of an album: crossfaded songs, recurring themes (he had six songs with names corresponding to the Latin words for the seven deadly sins; weird how he didn’t just do songs for all seven), and protracted moods. Plus, it was a double-disc/triple-LP affair – who has the patience for such a collection in the era of Spotify? It was like deadmau5 was doing a rock n’ roll opus.
A big part of what made “While (1 < 2)” memorable for me was how it seemed to filter the spontaneity of EDM – the experience of it – through the lens of art rock, creating something that seemed like EDM on the surface, but had a whole other layer of controlled pacing and experimentation beneath. There were splashes of piano, alt-rock guitars, and even a remixed Nine Inch Nails song. It was an album that basically begged to be reviewed, more so than something like his 2006 debut, “Get Scraped.”
The latter is unique in the deadmau5 catalog, since it seems to be neither a coherent album-like statement nor something that could pass as a mainstream DJ set (like 2008’s For Lack of a Better Name, for instance). Within the first three songs, it goes from an Oakenfold-esque track with radio call-in intro (“The Oshawa Connection”) to a 90s trance revival (“Intelstat”) to a vocoder’d-up acoustic number (“Careless”) which is reprised later with the redundant title of “Careless (Acoustic).” Then there’s “Unspecial Effects,” which has the strings and ominous keys of, say, the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack.
The album, such as it is, has no flow and plays more like a mixtape or an un-danceable DJ set. I mean, imagine going to a club that played “Waking Up From the American Dream,” with all of its sprightly keyboards. Looking back at “Get Scraped” and all of this randomness, it becomes clearer why deadmau5’s later work seems more significant. That is, he’s been trying more and more with each release to create something that pushes back against the free-flow, every listener for him/herself culture of EDM – seen well enough on “Get Scraped” – in which one person’s favorite song is another person’s song that that just gets a press of the “>>” or “next” button because it doesn’t suit the mood.
Albums and criticism
In a way, by going for increasingly coherent albums (“While (1 < 2)” is the peak of this direction) he’s reversing the overall trend toward the removal of the album as the central unit of music consumption. One could easily cut up and scrape up different bits of “Get Scraped” into a more listenable album than the original; not so much with “4×4=12” or “<album title goes here>.” I’m reminded of what music journalist Ned Raggett wrote in 1999, when compiling his list of 136 favorite albums of the decade:
“The album model is not set in stone, but a creation of the technologies and limitations available in the mid-century: how much you could fit on any one side of a vinyl slab, the attendant size of the product and need to create art or design works of that size, and so forth. As much as vinyl fetishists kicked against the compact disc dominance of the last two decades, CDs at least fit a familiar listening model still. The rise of this new model, which like every other musical medium will get increasingly cheaper and with wider access for both purchasing and actual creation of music, is a much different kettle of fish. Uniform ‘releases’ may become increasingly irrelevant when two different consumers judge the same batch of songs from an artist and select only those which please them, and therefore only keep those.”
He also has this great line, which I think sums up well why EDM has so far been a blind spot for critics still obsessed with the album form:
“If, say, live DJing was the backbone of the record industry, it would be the putative norm criticism would react to.”
Would it? I still maintain that DJing and live EDM are much more about experience than evaluation, meaning that criticism would be limited in its application. Still, deadmau5’s career arc seems to be toward cultivating a bigger reputation for himself by making bold album-like statements that cohere and flow. “Get Scraped” was the disorganized, MP3-playlist-like start that allowed for a gradual reversal, culminating in “While (1 < 2).” It’s like deadmau5’s career is an alternate history of what has happened to music over the past 15+ years. Rather than the chaos of going from a mainstream dominated by albums and criticism to one dominated by decentralized distribution channels and playlists, we got order.
2004 seems longer ago than any other year to me, which I understand makes no sense. How can it seem longer ago than 1999, or 1991, or even 1989 – all years I remember, at least in bits and chunks? Maybe because 2004 felt like a bridge, some convergence of the analog past and the digital future. It was the year I graduated high school and started college. It was the year Facebook was invented, the peak of Windows dominance, the calm before the Apple-Google-let-me-check-my-phone storm. It was a time when there was still hope that George W. Bush wouldn’t be reelected. It was a moment at which I could feel the changes on horizon while being able to look into the past and realize how far away it would soon feel.
It was also the year that Above & Beyond launched their massively successful radio show/podcast Trance Around the World. The show ran for 450 episodes until 2012, when it was rebranded as Group Therapy, after their sophomore album. In 2004, A&B was on fire with songs like “No One On Earth” and “Satellite” (by OceanLab, the combination of A&B + Justine Suissa) that mixed drama and unshakable melodies with EDM churn. 10 years later, they’re more popular than ever – the 100th episode of Group Therapy (and the 550th episode of the radio show overall) was a live set in a sold out Madison Square Garden.
I’ve been fascinated with issues of EDM criticism and have even compiled my own list of A&B’s best singles. ABGT 100 didn’t seem like a time for critical reflection, but in the relatively quiet spot I found at the back of the floor, there was time to think. I appreciated how strands of Cygnus X were woven into Mat Zo, how Andrew Bayer unfurled one vocal masterpiece after another, and A&B’s integration of “These Shoulders,” perhaps Julie Thompson’s finest moment on Anjunabeats. I also got this great photo which looks kinda like Deadmau5 lost in a crowd of ABGT partygoers:
It was all so harsh, yet so gentle. All new, yet so old.
The album: From LP to SoundCloud
The album as an art form has been under escalating artistic, economic, and political pressures for decades. Since the decline of vinyl LPs in the 1980s, creative possibilities such as themed sides or run-out grooves were lost, swept away by digital audio. Bonus tracks, remixes, live versions, the whole lot were appended to already exhausting CD run times, producing an experience that was increasingly at odds with the ideal of the album as a digestible, coherent statement. It was the musical equivalent of every novel suddenly becoming Infinite Jest (that is not a compliment).
The CD was overtaken by the MP3, a simple file with no close association with any larger artistic system, at least not in the same way as a vinyl groove or a Red Book audio track. The MP3 could go it alone, be shoved into a playlist with anything else, mislabeled (the early days of Napster sent one Pitchfork writer for a ride by labeling old Pavement material as Weezer’s then-unreleased Green Album), or shuffled off onto an iPod or smartphone.
Now even the MP3 is bowing to streaming services such as Spotify and SoundCloud. Music has become something to experience, not own. In this sense, it has come full circle, returning to its millennia-old state as something that individuals and groups absorb in a continuous stream, without the discrete packaging of an album or single. The key difference, though, is that the user has more curatorial power than ever – it took the decline of the album to make everyone her own album producer and sequencer.
As someone who listens predominantly to albums, I have found the music industry’s direction over the past three decades dispiriting, but also liberating. What’s telling about the most shift to streaming is that it appears to have affected EDM more acutely, and earlier, than rock or even hip-hop.
The idea of an artist album in trance, house, techno, or any EDM field was always a lot different than in other genres – an artist might go years, producing tons of remixes, mixtapes, and podcasts, without putting together a “proper” album of original, deliberately sequenced music. Look at Sasha and Michael Cassette for but two examples. EDM artists, it seems, were just waiting for the consumptive and technological breakthroughs that would turn their habits into freeform yet stamped listening experiences enabled by the likes of SoundCloud and Pandora.
Deadmau5: At the frontier of the album’s evolution
No artist in EDM has been as publicly and repeatedly conscious of the genre’s complex relationship with form than Deadmau5. His albums, if you can call them that, have all born cheeky, inscrutable titles, from Random Album Title to <album title goes here> to For Lack of a Better Name. None of them were what a rockist might think of as an album, often recycling previously released material and using segues to disguise an absence of cohesion. Deadmau5 himself has also been at the center of recent debates about authenticity in EDM, a blanket genre going up against decades of rock-centric critical skepticism of electronic music’s value.
Leave it to Deadmau5 to expose one of the core contradictions of EDM: while mixtapes and similar media are often continuous, with one song fading into the other, this seamlessness does not play the same role as it does in rock, a genre in which the segue (think The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper) is often a way of making a Big Artistic Statement. In EDM, it’s just mechanics – an experience might run through all sorts of disparate songs, but still keep the listener gripped with nice transitions. Mat Zo’s “Mat Zo Mixes” on SoundCloud, which span drum ‘n’ bass and Anjunadeep releases, exemplify this exact ethos.
There are plenty of EDM artists still dedicated to the album experience, though. Above & Beyond’s recent Acoustic release is an example of a trance artist taking up the classic rock trope of an unplugged set to confer seriousness and artistic depth. Now, Deadmau5 himself is on the eve of releasing a double album with a cute C programming-inspired title and 25 tracks that he claims represents the first work that he’s made that can “even be called an album.”
Is Deadmau5 injecting traditional album design into the anti-album EDM world? Earlier this year, he purged his massively popular SoundCloud feed. His albums have been getting progressively more immersive and deliberate, with 4×4=12 and <album titles goes here> both showing the traces of long player logic despite their castoff titles.
While(1 <2): Deadmau5’s Biggest Statement So Far
Deadmau5’s latest album, While(1 < 2), is both his most forward-looking and old school effort. It has more genre exercises than ever before – minor-key piano interludes, contemplative acoustic guitar, vocoder experiments, and 90s/early 00s alt-rock angst – to go alongside some of the most distinctive hooks (“Phantoms Can’t Hang,” “Avaritia”) of his career.
Its unmixed version, clocking in at an astonishing 139 minutes, resists flow and momentum, almost deliberately. There’s a remix of the ancient NIN track “Survivalism” right next to the piano balladry of “Silent Picture.” Hook-drenched opener “Avaritia” segues into the barely-there “Coelacanth I,” which yields to a remix of How to Destroy Angels’ “Ice Age.” While the influence of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is undeniable – both in Deadmau5’s apparent love of “The Social Network” sound track and in the two Reznor-related remixes that sit next to the 20+ originals – While(1 < 2) has even more in common with Aphex Twin’s 2001 oddity Drukqs, another double album chock full of discrete genre exercises from drum ‘n’ bass to classical (the unforgettable Avril 14th became the basis of Kanye West’s “Blame Game”).
Strangely, While(1 < 2) becomes an album through this resistance to the easy segue and undifferentiated experience of the mixtape and, one could argue, of latter-day rock and pop albums, which have taken the coherence mandate of Sgt. Pepper and its successors to the extreme, by making everything sound the same (uniformly loud, vaguely dance-y, consistently exhausting). The tracks on While(1 < 2) each call out for individual attention – why else put the title-says-it-all “A Moment to Myself” as a prelude to the upbeat, hookier “Pets”? Yet its epic length, by willfully tempting short attention spans, begs for it to be put on in the background as something that doesn’t have to be touched for more than 2 hours. It can demand careful attention or mere acquiescence, depending on the listener’s situation. Time to have another go at it.
In the city I live in, Chicago, the owners of the historic Congress Theater came to an agreement with the city banning EDM from the venue. All acts that play there must now use “traditional instruments” during their shows.
Like genre skeptics of the past who have questioned the value of unfamiliar music and derided its creators as unauthentic charlatans, Chicago’s powers that be have provided an opportunity to think about authenticity in music. Why do critic resort to strong language about reality itself – “real,” “true,” “only” – when discussing low-stakes topics such as whether Deadmau5 is a working-class DJ or if a heavy metal is allowed to use synthesizers?
It’s like the 2000 U.S. presidential election all over again – are musicians persons with whom listeners would enjoy having a beer, yet, at the same time, do these celebrities exude sufficient serious to be accepted into The Canon (if such a thing even exists in EDM; it’s sort of a rockist construct). Since music criticism is so indeterminate, the only methodology for vetting ascendant musical acts is to wrack their music for tell-tale signs of a laborious creative process (hence, “traditional instruments) or relation to a specific social class (Born in the U.S.A. and Parklife are good examples from the rock album annals).
This critical approach toward everything from jazz to EDM has nudged artists to prove their worth – and their down-home (read: white and probably rural) – temperaments. Even synth-pop bands have proclaimed that they won’t succumb to the infinite DIY possibilities afforded by iOS music apps and instead soldier on with real synthesizers. Likewise the unexplainable influence of Mumford & Sons even made folksiness an important litmus test even for Group Therapy-grade acts for a while there. Above & Beyond themselves did acoustic shows last year and released an acoustic artist albums this year.
Genres and Society
Genres aren’t static, but their paths are carved not only by shifts in consumer style and taste, but also by social and demographic change. Jazz was incubated during the urbanized, prosperous 1920s in America, while rock and roll became the logical musical extension of 1950s urban sprawl, as the sound of America’s white population expropriating and exporting blues and jazz, which had previously been the specialties only of the country’s extreme rural and urban poles, to the suburbs.
Just as societal change can easily incite refuge to defensive terms such as “real” and “traditional” to bemoan the loss of an ideal that may have never existed, musical evolution brings out from the woodwork the authenticity scolds who decry new stars for, at best, violating good taste and, at worst, endangering everyone’s sanity and livelihoods. The Atlantic had an excellent piece on the rise of EDM (electronic dance music) as the new rock n’ roll, and in doing so, it nicely summarized the dark critical history of new genres being born (emphasis mine):
“The most obvious point of comparison…is how this new movement has been received by the majority of people who consider themselves possessed of good taste. In the 1920s, jazz was preached against from pulpits and editorial pages as the devil’s music, its crazy rhythms jangling the nerves, speeding the degeneracy of American civilization, and responsible in part for the ongoing failure of the temperance movement. In the 1950s, rock and roll was sneered at as jungle music, provoking lascivious displays unfit for the Ed Sullivan Show as well as responsible for juvenile delinquency and reefer madness. In the 1980s and ’90s, rap music was censured as violent thuggery, non-music…[B]ut most of the current non- parental criticisms of EDM are made in purely aesthetic or culturally derogatory terms: Dismissive, class-based coinages…are employed to wall off “real” electronic music as the preserve of the specialists.”
Perhaps one should pause to note the surreality of wide-bore, public discussions of “realness” within electronica, since electronica itself was once pilloried, or at least dismissed, by artists and critics alike as something too mechanical, fake, and European to be acceptable. Up until the release of their block-bluster The Game (1980), Queen emblazoned each of their 1970s LPs with the a disclaimer that no synthesizers had been used on the record. The White Stripes reprised this school of thought in the liner notes to Elephant (2003), which shouted, to no one in particular, that no “computers” had been used to make the record.
Computerized and Real Music
“Computer” really is the key term here, more so even than “synthesizer” or any more specific descriptor. Early electronica, especially the West German variety of Kraftwerk and Klaus Schulze and the American creations of Silver Apples and Cromagnon, announced itself by its reliance on obviously strange – non “traditional,” certainly – instrumentation that gave proceedings a computerized, alien sound, whether synths were in play or not. Sometimes the entire arrangement, rather than the individual sounds of a synth, made all the difference in distinguishing a song or album from pre-electronic music. For example, on Autobahn (1974), Kraftwerk juxtaposed traditional violins and guitars with samples car sounds and synths to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in new instruments and methodologies. Only a few years later, however, Kraftwerk had gone completely computerized on Radio-Activity (1975), and then issued an entire concept album that ruminated on the computer’s use cases in government, mathematics, and music itself on Computer World (1981), right on the eve of the widespread adoption of digital recording and playback technology that attended the CD format’s birth in 1982.
From The Man-Machine (1978) onward, Kraftwerk also adopted the mannerisms of robots, seemingly forced into their new mechanized existence by the growing centrality of computerized and automated processes in music creation. What had begun as the usage of a simple synthesizer had progressed into the usage of loops, drum machines, and more sophisticated recording techniques. It became hard to know where the human input (initially assumed to be composition and performance) ended and computer input (likewise assumed to be a means of enhancement and refinement) began. It was no coincidence that Kraftwerk waited until 2008 to issue a definitive remaster of their entire catalogue, as Ralf Hütter in particular became obsessed with getting the sound just right in light of newly available digital editing and production tools.
More so than any other outfit, Kraftwerk embodied how the issue of realness affects musical pioneers. Their posturing as robots was an ironic take on the conundrum that electronic musicians face in the face of both authenticity-obsessed critics and the persistent, decades-long dominance of rock and roll and indie rock within the music press. The fixation of publications such as Rolling Stone with lists of the greatest singers and guitarists, along with the enormous critical reputation afforded to indie musicians, keeps alive the question of how much realness factors into aesthetic evaluation. It appears that process in particular – the steps by which the music was created, and how discernible said process is to the listener – is a prime determinant of realness. When in doubt, we can consult Urban Dictionary (bolded emphasis mine) on this issue:
“real music includes anything that goes through what is called a pure process towards becoming music that sounds nice and does not bore the listner [sic] involves singing and not rapping. Usually involves: guitar, bass, drum.”
Via sarcasm, Urban Dictionary summarizes 60 years of rock criticism. It excavates the fading cultural currency of rock music by pinging its most basic and obvious traits – the guitar-bass-drums trio setup – and invests them with the unique power to produce “real” music, a label that early 1950s critics might have reserved exclusively for less guitar-based music, like jazz.
Books, EDM and Realness
Similar struggles for a definition of “the real” exist in other cultural fields, such as in the case of Jonathan Franzen complaining that ebooks don’t have the same permanence as the written word. There one finds characteristic appeals to soft classism (“real readers”) and authenticity (“literature-crazed). This broad struggle over realness in culture extends to EDM, which is currently the most prominent form of electronic music, and accordingly it is fertile ground for producers in heavy-rotation pop and hip-hop who are seeking to cross-pollinate their tracks with club flair. This piece, however, focuses more on how the authenticity debate affects EDM disc jockeys (DJs), who are the main EDM performers and composers. The DJ abbreviation itself is accidentally telling: it has nearly truncated the musicians’ ties to real physical discs and become a word in its own right, even if many DJs do go on using real discs (usually vinyl LPs) and their corresponding playback equipment, rather than a completely digital setup.
EDM is a conveniently broad umbrella under which to shelter the diverse genres of house, trance, techno, acid, dubstep, and what used to be dismissively called IDM (intelligent dance music). House music arouse in late 1980s Chicago, while trance was at least initially a much more European phenomenon, coming to the fore in the early 1990s with The Age of Love’s titular masterpiece. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of rapid transition in how music was recorded. Although editing software ProTools had not yet become mainstream, the music-making process was becoming increasingly automated, with hip-hop as the most brazen exponent of music that could float across a sea of carefully curated samples. Whether the samples were the hyper-specific record collection allusions of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989), or instead the vaguer synth-bass-drums issuances of house, making an album became as much about one’s abilities to curate an aural collage – and make as apparent as possible one’s diverse yet classical tastes – as about one’s abilities to perform with the human verve and virtuosity associated with jazz, classical, and rock; the idea of a “solo” doesn’t really exist in EDM.
Accordingly, the aesthetic critic would not be raising the critical stakes by criticizing the pitch of a house diva or other EDM vocalist, or by bemoaning the technical repetitiveness of a jam. The latter term is imprecise, but it may suffice if only to construe EDM as a hipper, more urban update on the rock jam, that is, a long-form construction (most EDM albums would qualify as “double albums” in the rock sense) that evolves in often subtle ways and which aims to capture, comment on, and finally re-imagine a highly specific setting, whether Ibiza or the Renaissance UK club. Terre Thaemlitz has stated that house music is “hyperspecific” and meant to convey a particular kind of post-1980s angst. Since EDM in this classical sense is super-local, like politics, then the onus for accurate reproduction and commentary falls on the DJ, whose mixing skills are arguably of no use if he doesn’t have an authentic relation with a particular location and audience. Being a DJ is really like being a politician or a real estate agent.
DJs: Just like Politicians
Like politicians, DJs have come under increasing pressure in the last decade to present themselves as authentic, “real” persons who talk, tweet, and perform just like their fans. The Verge once commented on the celebrity of the Canadian DJ Deadmau5 (who is the at the center of the current storm about DJ authenticity; emphasis mine):
“As a human, Joel Zimmerman epitomizes the “celebs: they’re just like us!” ethos. Fans are treated to rambling, very-unedited, “lol” and emoticon-laced posts on Facebook and Twitter. His face is an angular vessel of pure emotion, nearly always dominated by an ear-to-ear grin that communicates just as much as the words that come out of it, another testament to context bringing more to the table than words. His body, a lanky vessel clad in the t-shirts, baggy pants, and ballcaps of the masses, is covered in nerdy tattoos (Space Invader, Zelda hearts, Cthulhu, Mario “Boo ghost); he needn’t do more than walk into a room to tell you what his deal is. But when he transforms into deadmau5, his presentation is stripped of nearly all words.”
So Deadmau5 is someone to whom his fans can relate. The Verge even goes on to characterize him as a latter-day arena rocker, one who has replaced guitar pyrotechnics and animalistic rock star rituals with blinking lights and repetition. Even in a non-critical assessment of Deadmau5, the issue is framed within the context of rock music.
In light of these portrayals of Deadmau5′s performative style, it becomes easy to see him as the hipster or unusually tech savvy guy DJing a fraternity party or rave. While he certainly imports the obtuse cinematic sweep and costuming of Daft Punk, as part of a tradition harking back to Kraftwerk’s own aforementioned transformation, his wordlessly curated sets nevertheless have an earthy, populist air that nicely coincides with the DIY stylings of his album titles. The populism – the carefully crafted facade of “realness” – succeeds in part because of how Deadmau5 obscures his source material, although it is worthing noting that his protege, Skrillex, courts the authenticity wonks by appealing to older, mostly critically unassailable genres like reggae, in the same way that drum n’ bass once leaned critically on jazz and ragga. The New York Times described his technique as reductionist – many of the familiar parts of dance music (can we call it “classic dance” or “traditional dance” now?) are stripped away to highlight a few flashy traits, sort of like a guitar solo cutting through the blues and jazz changes of early rock but never completely obscuring the reputable source material.
Deadmau5 makes EDM that is agnostic of any particular demographic, a strategy which would seem to run into trouble if the previous argument about house’s hyperspecific contextualism is accurate. But the opportunity to predictably decry Deadmau5 as “not a real” DJ did not fully present itself until he said that most DJs show up to their concerts and, amid the booming noises and lights, simply press play. He likened EDM (by name) to a “cruise ship” meant to convey atmosphere for fans and celebrity bandwagoners alike, which, while partially an astute observation in its probing of it the genre’s roots in partylike locales like smoky clubs or laser-emblazoned dance floors, was nevertheless surprisingly brutal, even savage, in its assessment of an increasingly intellectualized, gentrified genre and its auteurs. The backlash was swift, with David Guetta in particular hitting back at Deadmau5, while other parts of the DJ community took the opportunity to point out that the instruments and live processes available simply were not up to snuff for recreating the complex introverted processes of in-studio EDM production.
Automation and Labor
To the latter point, the invention of newer, more efficient instruments has allowed for entire genres to develop, mature, and be performed throughout history. The piano’s improvements upon the harpsichord is a particularly significant case-study. Perhaps EDM’s DJs have indeed not yet succeeded in discovering easily reproduced ways to create studio-quality live performances. But even if they had, would it have changed the tribalism and infighting over “realness” in EDM? There were plenty of criticisms of Deadmau5 that cited the “hardworking” ordinary DJs (not unlike a political ad, really) who, unlike Deadmau5, specialized in live improvisation, singing or other real and true-to-life processes that demonstrate a tangible, almost bodily link between the performer and the music being performed. This is one of the more strident examples of one subgroup’s idea of “process” dictating for everyone what does and doesn’t count as “real,” and unsurprisingly, Deadmau5 himself has characterized studio recordings as “what counts.”
In EDM, musicians may well have reached a level of automation and in-studio complexity that is difficult to reproduce live, but this conundrum is a distraction, a too-convenient frame in which to confine the more nebulous issue of how “realness” is redefined and achieved by different classes. EDM today is a strange comparison to rock music in 1966-7, when The Beatles retired from touring altogether to focus on studio experimentation that would have had been both laborious to reproduce and unpalatable. This tack led to works (now) regarded as classics, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it is equally notable in how it shirked populism and visible, transparent process (like the live-playing of instruments on stage) for opaque in-studio control.
Contemporary DJing, and EDM at-large, remains strongly invested in placating crowds and creating atmosphere in that pre-Sgt. Pepper way, but they achieve this populism via automation rather than human labor, hence the aforementioned “just press play” sets. To appreciate the different tacks that rock and EDM have taken, simply recall the comparison in The Verge of Deadmau5 to arena rockers. In the 1970s, prominent arena rockers Electric Light Orchestra, known for the complexity of their studio works, were beset by accusations of lip-syncing and usage of prerecorded tracks. In the 1970s, did this faux-pas make ELO any less “real” that synthesizer disavowers like Queen?
The Verge characterizes Deadmau5 as someone who was ordinary and just like his fans, a portrait at odd with his metapersonality as a purveyor of prerecorded tracks. In a dance club full of physically active persons, Deadmau5 may be least active, as he simply goes through the motions as the music plays. But isn’t that precisely what everyone else is doing, both in the club and out of it? Doesn’t the usage of common, commoditized items like the laptop, coupled with Deadmau5’s freedom to dance (like anyone else) while his prerecorded set streams over the speakers, make him just another one of his fans? One may struggle to determine if his routine is “real” or even what school of “realness” he would be validating if it were, but struggling with the “realness” debate is not an end to itself. Rather, it is usually the sign of a genre that still requires additional norms from musicians, critics, and listeners alike in order to have its critical profile enhanced, its sound refined, and its “realness” no longer questioned in light of the ensuing maturity.