Not About the Bass

Swirling, thumping bass reverberating through a concrete floor. Glassy eyed English tourists, plastic bags poking out of their pockets. And above, three massive screens, the only focal points in the dark club. White lines swirling across them, pulsating and throbbing. Jesus Christ, I thought to myself. I fucking hate techno.

The time and place? A club in Amsterdam on a Monday night. After sheepishly asking the receptionist at the hostel for her recommendations, she asked us what we were into. We replied unanimously “no techno”. Unfortunately, apparently Monday night in Amsterdam is techno night. So, we ventured out, embarking on a fifty minute walk on a cold August night, only to be surrounded by a large swathe of sweaty, drugged out English tourists.

Techno, and wider EDM music, has never really appealed to me. In the interest of journalistic credibility, I actually wrote this piece to a Spotify playlist called ‘No Vocals EDM’. The thing about EDM is that I don’t really understand it. I can understand the historic connotations between EDM and drug culture. Indeed, the rave scene of the 90s is an important element of music history. Standing among the sweaty masses, staring at the shapes on the screen, I got the feeling that I would be really enjoying myself if I was high.

In a lot of ways, it doesn’t matter why we like music. Music exists to bring us feeling. This, I think, is my real question – how does EDM evoke feeling? And in a wider sense, is music only valid if it does so?

EDM has always been subversive. Dub Music of the late 1960’s was one of its earliest incarnations. Dub is Jamaican music, with roots in reggae and sound system culture. But this is a far cry from the EDM music I hear people in the building next to me playing for pres. It’s hard to find and message, or even a real culture, in today’s EDM music aside from rich London kids. This lack is hard to reconcile with our fundamental understanding of music. EDM has its roots in fascinating musical history. But what does our love of EDM mean today? Why is it popular?

In my mind, music is popular or loved because it makes us feel. But it is hard to assign meaning to music, especially music absent of lyrics and traditional melodies. It is very well being subversive, but I struggle to see what EDM is actually subverting other than my eardrums.

Obviously, not understanding something is not a good enough reason to mark it as worthless. However, so much of the validity we attach to music is how it makes us feel.

This is particularly interesting in a time where pop music has been reduced to so little. When Ed Sheeran dominates and distorts the charts for weeks with lyrics that are over sentimentalised and laughingly commercial, it speaks. It speaks loudly, in fact, about the state of commercial radio and the problems of music streaming. Sheeran, on the release of hit singles ‘Shape of You’ and ‘Castle on the Hill’, described them as one hit for Radio One, one hit for Radio Two. It is hard to write about the validity of feeling in music when so much of pop music feels cynical. Yet we are also living in a time when we have access to so many artists, so many genres that would never make it onto Radio One.

When you listen to the top 40, these songs have a purpose. Sometimes, the purpose is just to be a bop, and get a load of streams on Spotify. But lyrics are still important, even in this context. The idea of the top 40 is to have songs you want to shout along to in the club, or play in the background of teen tv shows. The thing about 2018’s music, though, is that it’s so much more than the charts. There is an almost unimaginable variety in genre and style out there. Where EDM stands out, however, is in the absence of lyrics.

“It is very well being subversive, but I struggle to see what EDM is actually subverting other than my eardrums.”

What is interesting is the fact that commercial lyrical music is really very young. From the mid 1920s, the dance halls were the focal point of popular culture, particularly for working and lower middle class groups. American influence was essential here, with swing music and jazz dominating the scene for decades. The growing popularity of radio also made music more accessible; previously it had been limited to the upper classes. Thus, lyrics and particularly solo artists didn’t make an impact until an established point in this phenomenon.

It is wrong to suggest that lyrical music is the only way to capture feeling. What we now think of as ‘classical music’ is stirring and poignant. It feels a bold claim, however, to describe EDM as the Renaissance of classical music. But while this is a bold claim, maybe it is a correct one. Music has become a focal point of people’s lives in a way that was simple not accessible one hundred years ago. This surely necessities a broadening claim to what music is.

We are a society that listens to music and appreciates lyrics. But we also appreciate music despite its lyrics. Pop music is pop music. It doesn’t have to be profound to be enjoyable. This leads me to another question – is lyricism a dying thing? Significantly, a lot of pop music is massively influenced by EDM. Artists like David Guetta and Calvin Harris have made an important stamp on pop music as club music. This is particularly relevant given the fact that EDM is in many respects club music.  To go back to the club in Amsterdam, maybe that’s enough. Maybe meaning is enough even if it’s only meaningful when you’re coked out of your brain.

Really, what is the function of music if it doesn’t move you some way? Is music valid if it doesn’t? And more importantly, are we seeing a move back to a time before lyrics? Music seems to be moving in parallel lines – where it broadens and deepens because of music streaming, where we can discover artists and genres who would never make it onto mainstream radio, we also see a top 40 scene largely dominated by sameness and heartless commercialism. Music has become so varied, yet also so constrained. Maybe we need a reset – an erasure of Ed Sheeran style sentimentality. It will be interesting to see how music continues to evolve, whether house music replaces Will Griggs on Fire as the go-to club tune. But no matter what happens, I think we will always seek meaning and feeling. Maybe EDM can deliver.