Back in the middle of the 20th century, the implementation of the electric guitar into popular music sent listeners and musicians into a subsequent fervor, forever altering how music could be heard, created and experienced. It eventually became that “it” sound and the preferred instrument of choice, so much so that those musicians and fans who refused its inclusion were seen to be a part of a counterculture movement of sorts. Just do a bit of research and see the reaction that Bob Dylan’s folk fans had when he abruptly (and purposefully) jolted his fans by plugging in an electric guitar. Some of those fans and artists who dug their heels in when it came to the electric guitar movement saw it as an abhorrent betrayal, a selling out to a trend and movement that had already encapsulated mainstream music.
Sound familiar? It appears that music culture is at another crossroads of sorts. A new trend has gained traction and has unequivocally swept up the masses not just in the United States, but around the world as well. To call it electronic music, for the sake of this debate, is a bit incomplete. Besides folk music, most all other genres possess an electronic element, whether it be a hint of synthesizer, a drum loop or the obvious electric guitar. This new movement, however, separates itself in that it is solely electronic, created entirely by machines. These machines include (but are not limited to) a laptop, drum machine, keyboard or synthesizer. Being that the beat and sounds are completely driven and crafted by these machines, there is a technical perfection in both the studio records and the live show. The creators of this music are referred to more as producers or DJs, and if there are vocals on the tracks, they are usually sampled bits. One man or woman is able to create a big sound without the aid or help of other musicians or a band, per say. Some of this “new” electronic functions strictly as dance, others as trippy moody pieces and some as a combination of the two. The form that has broken most into the mainstream is the strand of electronic music that specifically and emphatically emphasizes the bass in its music, performing drops (when the bass hits the hardest) that ignite the crowd into a euphoric, head banging frenzy. Even the harshest of critics of that music cannot help but succumb to the infectious force of thousands being galvanized by a huge, propulsive drop of bass from the likes of DJs Skrillex, Bassnectar, Diplo and others. Pitchfork actually did a complete 180 on its criticism of Skrillex after witnessing his live show at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
With these “new” electronic acts overtaking the mainstream, indie and rock genres, one has to wonder whether music has yet again approached another crossroads in its history. Is this the transitionary period where the rock band slowly gives way to the one-man band consisting of machines and a laptop? It seems absurd to comprehend something so extreme at this point in time, but will the listener see more and more rock bands give way to the movement by further implementing electronics into their orchestrations? Harken back to when Dylan plugged in that electric guitar. People were angered because they believed there was a greater purity, a greater authenticity in the sound and idea of the acoustic guitar. The same sort of resistance is seen in many rock bands and their highly devoted fans today. As the guitarist for Black Lips stated in the middle of their raucous Bonnaroo set earlier in June, “This is the original electronic music.” It is a righteous defiance to this new sound. Fifty years or so later, there is that idea and feeling of purity attached to the sound of an electric guitar and of a band creating something greater than the sum of its parts.
And that is where this supposed shift in music differs from that past transition to the electric guitar. In many ways, the electric guitar could duplicate that general sound of the acoustic guitar. It was still a man and his guitar. He had to play chords, and he could still solo. The sound may have been a bit different, but the overall setup and execution remained largely similar. Not so when one compares this electronic music to the original. Along with the almost total absence of the guitar, the most glaring difference between the two is in the live performance arena. Sure, the likes of Skrillex and Bassnectar, both of which create music that posses the ever-entertaining bass drop, can get away with that “one-man-behind-a-DJ-table” performance, for the music is meant to work the crowd into a frenzied, energetic movement. But what about the likes of James Blake, Four Tet or Actress, whose electronic creations rely more on atmosphere and subtle tempo shifts? The live setup of having one man behind a laptop or keyboard the entire time becomes a little more noticeable and a bit of a hinderance. With rock or folk music that relies on subtleties, the audience can watch the artist playing the instrument (or a band playing multiple instruments). There is a great element and risk of human error present, making the execution of the music immensely engaging. This is not to say that Blake and company are not crafting incredibly difficult, nuanced music that requires a wealth of talent and creativity. Yet when the artist is behind a laptop or pressing different machines and buttons on a table, it is simply harder for the audience to fully engage because they cannot truly see and marvel at the execution of the song. Considering this, the idea that the “new” electronic music will one day have the capability to perform and fill an arena like the more traditional bands is a still not quite feasible at this current time.
In conclusion, it appears that until the new brand of electronic music is able to discover a way to translate their recordings into a more engaging, entertaining live performance, the “original” electronic music will continue to be the premier type for the time being. For how much longer that time lasts, however, remains to be seen. Once this final piece of the puzzle is solved for this movement, it will be intriguing to see how the state of music will continue to evolve. At least one former rock star predicted this transition years ago. Here are the words of Jim Morrison from 1969: “I can envision one person with a lot of machine-tapes, electronic setups-singing and speaking, using a lot of machines.” Eerily enough, music has begun to fulfill this very prophecy.