How I learned to love EDM as a way to escape

By NIKITA SHTARKMAN | October 26, 2017


GORVELL/CC BY-SA 4.0T Norwegian DJ Kygo performed at the Rio Olympics closing ceremony.

People generally have very specific and arbitrary tastes; I am one such person. I think that J. Cole makes simple, boring music, but you can find me on any given day listening to Famous Dex and Lil Xan. I say that I hate melted cheese, yet adore pizza. I enjoy funk and poppy dance music, but don’t give EDM a chance.

I was the guy who stood quietly in a corner at parties when EDM music came on, mumbling about how this wasn’t good music and waiting patiently for whoever was on the aux to somehow miraculously transition from some aggressive synth-laden remix of “Mr. Brightside,” to a Future or Young Thug song (it never happens).

My perspective on EDM changed suddenly and quickly. This is a big statement, and one that should be followed up with some long and disjointed story of a crazy, drug-laden adventure through Ultra or Tomorrowland, where I progressively lose my clothes and become more at one with myself and the universe.

Unfortunately that’s not what happened. I, in a very Hopkins fashion, was awakened to the power of EDM in the solitude of my own room while hunkered down studying for two midterms and struggling to stay awake.

This was a week in which I had hours of work and time enough to do half of it. It was a week in which sleep takes a backseat to other responsibilities. I tried everything I could to keep myself awake and alert.

Energy drinks, advertised as some miracle drug, don’t do much other than make me feel anxious and wiry.

Drinking tons of water kind of worked, but I ended up spending more time in the bathroom than doing my work. Splashing my eyes with cold water was in vain.

The best remedy was listening to Young Jeezy’s phenomenal debut studio album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, a musical masterpiece that will get you motivated enough to do anything from selling pounds of cocaine to finishing that calculus problem set you’ve been procrastinating on. But that was only an hour-long solution, and I soon ran out of ideas.

I don’t know how it happened. Somehow through Youtube’s search algorithm, I ended up listening to “Coming Over,” Dillon Francis and Kygo’s collaborative anthem — a sweet love song that is supported by various synth stabs and a pounding 4/4 kick.

I wouldn’t say it’s a great song, it’s a very basic melodic track. But for some reason the EDM energy made me forget my harsh tiredness.

Something about that relentless kick worked like an amphetamine. Usually I would back out from this part of Youtube and go back to listening to some chopped and screwed Lil Pump remix, but some part of me wanted to try steering into the skid. So I did.

Over that week I went from the surface level, million-view, poppy EDM songs to the long, two-hour EDM mixes that fly through styles at a mile a minute.

Across several late nights and early mornings, my room would rattle at 128 bpm, pounding with 4/4 rhythm and excessively loud synth melodies, bothering both my roommates and the family of roaches that lives somewhere hidden in our room. Throughout that week, I immersed myself in a new genre.

I want to preface what I’m about to say with a disclaimer: I am speaking as someone with literally zero experience with EDM before last week. This isn’t as much a statement on the music genre as much as it is a description of my first impression of it.

To those who don’t know, I will describe the general format of an EDM song. EDM is music that has a very specific rhythm and tempo: usually 128 bpm with a 4/4 drum rhythm.

The undercurrent of almost all EDM is the classic boom-chick-clap drum pattern. Most EDM songs start quietly, with some lead melody or motive that slowly builds in intensity.

With each successive bar, another element is added or a recurring melody is reinforced; slowly the track builds in energy. Risers, which are long, drawn out sounds that rise in frequency over time, pile atop one another until they reach this ear-crushing peak.

Then, in an instant, the producer/DJ decides to resolve all of the tension — this is the infamous “bass drop.” The melodies compete and the risers release all the built up pressure. It is bliss encapsulated in one musical moment.

As far as I can tell, this is true for most EDM tracks. The danceability comes from the simple 4/4 rhythm that is emphasized; there is no complicated syncopation, just jump every quarter note.

Here is where many people start to criticize EDM: “It all sounds the same,” is a common detractor. This is true to some extent. The “EDM formula” is strict and includes a lot of songs, but the creativity comes through in the melody and sound arrangement.

I think after listening to a couple hours of EDM nonstop, I started to realize the uniqueness and goal of this otherwise very alien sounding music. It is bottled energy, diffused into a soundwave and printed on disks. The whole EDM motif builds tension until it is unbearable, then lets it explode.

Whereas hip-hop and rock have an aggressive and independent bend, pop a romantic motif, country a strong patriotic character and blues and soul are tinged with sadness, EDM is pure, unabashed, almost otherworldly, energy and joy.

Watch some EDM music videos, they’ll explain the music better than I can. Videos usually involve the DJ or some stand-in character (usually a brown-haired white dude) doing something (it does not matter at all what he’s doing) and crowds of euphoric revellers.

Everyone has a glazed, flat look in their eyes — somewhere on the scale between seductive and airheaded. Everyone is beautiful. The backdrop is either a dark club or some gorgeous beach. The colors are all super-saturated and everything moves like honey. It is an almost overwhelming portrayal of idyllic life.

One of the tropes of EDM videos is to take a very unsubtle approach in showing daily life as this boring, horrible and dreadful existence. People are disgustingly average, with pale skin and bug eyes, and the settings are grey and tan. Cubicles are nothing more than cells. Then, as the EDM song drops into the scene, life becomes colorful and joyful. (Look at Nicky Romero and Avicii’s “I Could Be The One” and Avicii’s “Levels” as examples.)

In essence, that is what EDM tries to do. EDM has always been associated with drug use, but that’s because, in a way, it is a drug. The music generates a strong dopamine release through powerful major chords and hooks that are completely meaningless but have some joyous undercurrent and resolution of tension.

I think that one of the central arguments against EDM is that it is hedonistic and empty. For a lot of the music, I think that it is true, but I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing.

I recommend that if you’re at all interested in the genre, even as a spectator, you go on Youtube and search up Ultra or Tomorrowland DJ sets. The videos show what looks like a cult ceremony ­— a chosen few stand atop a glowing platform with fires, lights and images flashing above their heads. In front of them stands a crowd of thousands completely controlled by the blasting music.

The DJs will yell commands (sit down, stand up, clap your hands, etc.) and everyone does as they are told. It would be eerie and cultish if there weren’t this overwhelming joy in the building. Everyone is dressed up in bright colors and holding signs that share loving, happy messages.

Whenever the camera pans on anyone, they either flash a peace sign or make a heart with their hands. It seems like, in those few hours, the people in the crowd find that idyllic moment that EDM promises; you can tell by the happiness that floods through their eyes.

EDM has one true purpose: to make people dance.

It is made so that we forget ourselves, our responsibilities or jobs for a couple minutes. The DJ is the conduit from my Calculus and Prob-Stat covered desk at two in the morning to the craziness of the beaches of Ibiza or Miami.

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