(Originally published in 2014)
Electronic Dance Music (EDM) has taken over pop culture. Its infectious beats, airy synths, signature builds, and explosive climaxes are now a household sound, from car commercials featuring Dirty Vegas, to Maroon 5’s backing track to “Love Somebody,” to the viral “What Does the Fox Say?” Those who outright dismiss EDM as illegitimate art mock its bland repetition, its mind-numbing sameness. Such critiques miss the subtle nuancing and gentle sculpting that occur over time, and they forget that EDM has a doppelganger in the classical world in minimalism, with composers like Philip Glass and John Adams. EDM is also quickly dismissed in an understandable move of guilt by association, because of its strong ties to the rave culture of drug use and promiscuity. Even so, I believe we can still see something redemptive, even beautiful, even liberating in the art form of EDM. Being well over thirty years old now, EDM has spread its tributaries far and wide into hybrid genres and sub-genres, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the mainstream EDM sound and the surprising, liberating gift it can give us. In this instance, I want us to not theologize on the art but let the art theologize on us.
In the End…Dance
Almost all histories of EDM trace its roots to the 70s club culture of New York City and the 80s DJ culture of Chicago. EDM’s rhythmic sound came from disco, inheriting the thump-sizzle-pop as its most basic musical building block. It was exported across the Atlantic, amplified in the UK, and then re-given to the US in the 90s, finally emerging from the underground into the mainstream in the new millennium.
The EDM sound is not meant to be enjoyed in a passive recline on velveteen seats of ornate theaters. It is not receptive art but intensely participatory art. When you hear it, you don’t ponder—you dance. Understanding that EDM is inherently dance music is the first step in understanding why it resonates so deeply in the human soul. Dance is the human’s greatest, fullest expression of abundant, overflowing joy. When we are pleased, we smile. When we are kidded, we laugh. When we are exploding with joy, we dance. EDM puts us immediately in the context of what theologians call the “eschaton”—the end that we were built for…an eternal basking the pleasures of God. The Old Testament frequently pairs eschatological joy with dance (e.g. Jeremiah 31:4). EDM feels liberating, first, because it is the sound of the joy that is to come, for which every last human being is hard-wired to hunger. This makes complete sense of the contexts out of which EDM thrived—the depressed economy of 1970s New York, the hard urban context of 1980s Chicago, and the gloomy streets of 80s and 90s London.
Painting Sound on a Canvas Without Edges
However, not only does EDM point to an eternal future of joy, it brings eternality into the present. Part of what shaped the unending, repetitive sound of EDM was its original context—the club—where the music never stopped. The two-deck, dual-turntable technology, pioneered in the late 1940’s, allowed DJs to blend the end of one song into the beginning of another. In dance clubs, one can literally dance to one, long song that conceivably could have no end.
EDM, unlike other musical forms, which have a more pronounced storyline from beginning to end (think of a sonata or a country song), places the listener-dancer into the playing field of the infinite. Put another way, EDM’s paints on a canvas without edges. It transports us into an eternal storyline. This is why EDM sounds so repetitive. It is an art form expressed in the context of eternity, catching us up in a never-ending loop of joy. The Bible similarly describes eternity as a euphoric repetition of heavenly beings who never cease crying, “Holy, holy, holy” (Revelation 4:8). Perhaps EDM is equipped better than any other art form to help human beings grasp, even for just a second, what eternal rapture feels like.
The “Narrative Arc” of EDM
But if we stopped with the above, we’d only possess a kind of unspecific, ultimately unsatisfying vagueness with which a Buddhist or, say, Oprah could happily agree. EDM speaks an even better word. Eternal dance is only the backdrop, for within the basic framework of modern EDM now exists a familiar storyline, a generic form. EDM artists today may play with that form, reconfiguring the order or leaving out certain elements altogether, but they all pay homage to the basic “narrative arc” of modern house music. We all know it, whether we realize it or not. A musicologist I was recently interacting with described the EDM narrative as “home, exile, and New Home.” This very simple, basic structure can be heard within the first two minutes of Swedish House Mafia’s “One (Radio Edit).” Listen for these elements in the music. (1) HOME: introduction of the musical theme (0:00-0:09), and development (0:10-0:23); (2) EXILE: beat drops out and it feels “darker” and develops, anticipates New Home (0:23-1:01) with the final build before the “drop” beginning at 0:56; (3) NEW HOME: full beat, the sonic spectrum opens up, it carries the original theme but in a blossomed, fuller way.
This arc is discernible in pop radio hit, “Wake Me Up,” by Avicii.
The reason this narrative arc is significant is that it is the very storyline of the Bible—Creation, Fall, Redemption. And this brings us to the heart of why EDM feels so liberating when we hear it. EDM’s basic structure echoes the story of the gospel—God’s creation of humanity and our home, our rebellious fall and exile, and the redemption of Jesus Christ, ushering us into our new, more beautiful, eternal Home. Some EDM artists would accuse me of imposing my theology on their songs against their intention. I actually think it is the reverse. I am exegeting the story written on our hearts that we were all built to be enamored by, whose main Character and specific plot line were blurred and veiled by our sinfulness but not completely forgotten. The vague gospel story reverberates in all human beings like a fourth-generation echo, which gets stronger and clearer when its original story draws near. EDM feels like what the gospel crystalizes: there is redemption, freedom, and eternal joy to be found in what Christ provides for us, in unbridled grace, by His death and life.
Sonically, this is why the best EDM producers and DJs know how to tease the listener with tantalizingly delayed gratification. They drag the narrative out through false summits—builds that lead to partial gratification, ultimately unfulfilling. Listen to Markus Schulz’s “Loops & Tings,” and you’ll feel many moments of the Promise Land being yanked from you when it’s just within reach.
But when the “drop” finally happens in a song, when the new heavens and new earth are unleashed, it’s always sonic rapture. The ear had been previously deprived of certain frequencies—subterranean lows and sizzling highs—but suddenly it all blossoms. Full bass and kick, wet, sizzling keys with washed out highs, and a saturated mid-range. We finally hear and feel everything we were waiting to hear, meant to hear.
This is precisely how the gospel feels when we truly hear it. All our longings, all the deprivation, all the lost hope, all the unmet expectations and false summits that can’t deliver on what they promise…they all dissipate as the Truth suddenly blossoms in a single, penetrating moment when our heart thumps like never before, resonating to the news that Jesus paid it all and lived it all. EDM feels liberating because it microcosmically echoes in musical form what the Gospel proclaims boldly in sermonic form—Jesus Christ, the answer to everything.
For Meditation and Further Listening
If you dare, take a moment out of life for a ten-minute guided tour of the narrative arc of Deadmau5’s epic song, “Strobe,” whose structure I’ll interpret from the model of the biblical storyline.
- 0:00-3:56: Opening motif, a budding creation and a meandering melody
- 1:40: introduction of low-mid saw; the story gets more dramatic, complex, beautiful, intriguing; other elements (piano, sizzle, strings, shakers) emerge; life begins to “teem”; pulse slowly accelerates into…
- 3:56: introduction of beat; creation moves, flourishes; a simple kick
- 4:25: beat gets deeper, then snare enters (4:41), intensifying
- the beat drops out, and an eerie stillness
- the stillness turns into agitation, disruption, uncomfortability, jolting syncopation (5:39)
- a low-end build introduces the ramp-up; where will all this disillusionment go? (6:21)
- final build as the “wind” blows in (6:41)
- full beat, full throttle; the dance begins
For further listening, here are some of my favorite EDM artists who I think are doing extraordinary musical work. I’ll even recommend songs I like, too. (Note: Some of these artists fall into sub-/side-genres that some would classify as offshoots of EDM, but I’ll lump them all together.)
Above and Beyond (“Walter White,” “Sticky Fingers”)
Kaskade (“Lessons in Love,” “Turn it Down,” “Last Chance”)
Deadmau5 (“Some Chords,” “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff – Nero Remix”)
Avicii (“Dear Boy,” “Levels”)
Swedish House Mafia (“One,” “Don’t You Worry Child”)
Skrillex (“Kyoto,” “Ruffneck,” “First of the Year – Equinox”
David Guetta (“Without You,” “She Wolf,” “Bad”)
Daft Punk (“Human After All,” “Aerodynamic Beats”)
Here’s a Spotify playlist I put together of all of these. What songs do you love and what artists would you recommend?