How Dance Music Finally Broke America

Twenty-five years after it exploded across Europe, dance music has at last found acceptance where it all began – in the US. Esquire Music Editor Alexis Petridis journeys to the epicentre of the EDM scene – Las Vegas, weirdly enough – to ask the DJs and promoters who started the party and how long it can last

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In 2002, Tijs Verwest, better known by his stage name Tiësto, was booked to tour the US, as part of Area, a travelling Lolapalooza-style festival organized by Moby.

By then, Tiësto was already a huge star: that year, a British magazine voted him the best DJ in the world. In the US, however, he found himself playing not on the main stage alongside David Bowie and Busta Rhymes, but in a small tent to a lukewarm response. “They liked it, but it wasn’t going crazy,” he remembers. “The funny part of it was that of course I was touring with Bowie and all those rock guys, but also they had the biggest dance music DJs in the world at that time playing. I was touring with John Digweed and Carl Cox.”

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He laughs. “Anywhere in the world, Carl Cox, Digweed and me together would draw 50,000 people. In the US, we were in a small tent. Maybe 1,500 people. It was insane.” 

12 years later, in Las Vegas, however, Tiësto is quite literally unavoidable. If you walk down the strip, you can’t get away from him: his face looms out at you from the side of the MGM Grand Hotel, in whose club, Hakkasan, he is the resident DJ. His photo is the same size as that of the hotel’s other big entertainment draw, magician David Copperfield.

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This isn’t a story about a solitary plucky dance DJ conquering the US, a country traditionally resistant to dance music, that most people gave up on ever “getting” house or techno or any of their multifarious subgenres years ago. On the drive from the airport to my hotel, I pass one billboard after another bragging about which DJ is playing at which hotel. Steve Aoki, a former hardcore punk musician turned electro house star, famed for throwing cake and spraying champagne over his audiences and riding an inflatable dinghy across their upturned hands.

Calvin Harris, the Dumfries-born pop-house producer behind Rihanna’s "We Found Love", whose last solo album, 18 Months, yielded a staggering nine hit singles. Axwell, formerly one third of Swedish House Mafia, a kind of supergroup who sold 3m records, headlined Madison Square Gardens and eventually split up, claiming that they’d become too successful. If you want evidence of how big dance music – or electronic dance music, as they persist in calling it – has suddenly become in the US, well, here it is, staring you in the face.

Over the last couple of years, Las Vegas has become the spiritual home of EDM. Once its clubs dealt exclusively in hip-hop and pop: the Dutch EDM DJ and producer Laidback Luke tells me that when he played a Las Vegas pool party in 2005, “about 35 people” turned up “and there were girls coming up to me and asking me if I could play something by Britney Spears”. But then rave promoters started moving their events there: some of them had been “banished” from LA after a couple of drug-related deaths at their events and were presumably keen to relocate somewhere more licentious and tolerant of bad behavior in pursuit of a good time.

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After a dance music festival called Electric Daisy Carnival drew 230,000 people to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011, the huge hotel/casinos understandably decided they wanted in, and started throwing money at building clubs and securing DJ residencies. One Vegas club manager could recently be found bragging in the US press that EDM clubs had “killed” the traditional Vegas show – the big concert venue at Caesars Palace, The Colosseum, seats 4,100 people, a club like XS at Wynn’s Hotel can draw 8,000 in a night (10,000 came to see David Guetta last September), you do the math etc – while another claimed, perhaps a little fancifully, that the EDM clubs were so successful that they’d rendered even gambling “an amenity”. 

 

Photo: Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada

 

There’s a tendency in Britain – particularly among people old enough to remember the acid house Summer of Love in 1988 – to sneer and snigger at EDM. You can see why. There’s the awful, clunky name. EDM: electronic dance music, the first word presumably appended for the benefit of anyone who was planning on turning up to a rave in the belief they were going to hear a polka or a waltz.

There’s a certain gaucheness about the presentation. Quite aside from all that champagne-spraying and cake-throwing, EDM shows come laden with the kind of eye-popping more-is-more production values you’d associate with stadium rock: DJ booths on hydraulic platforms, pyrotechnics, umpteen video screens, confetti cannons. They accordingly attract an audience that look like, and sometimes act like, the crowd at a rock show: more than one British dance music veteran has been discombobulated by the sight of American EDM fans moshing and stagediving.

Furthermore, there’s a certain gaucheness about the music itself. This variously takes it cues from the distinctly French brand of house music pioneered by Daft Punk, dubstep of the noisy and aggressive variety rather than the sparse, haunted urban soundtracks found on Burial’s Mercury-nominated album Untrue and the bouncy, commercial “Dirty Dutch” electro sound favoured by Tiësto among others, but whatever form it takes, EDM seldom deals in subtlety. And there’s the spectacle of middle America finally cottoning onto something so long after everyone else: it’s nearly 30 years since Steve "Silk" Hurley’s "Jack Your Body" went to Number One in Britain and about four since EDM really started making waves in the US.

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But then again, before you sneer, perhaps it’s worth looking at the amount of money that the EDM DJs are raking in – one disputed estimate claimed that the big-name DJs at Hakkasan were paid over $300,000 per show, while Forbes magazine estimated Calvin Harris earned $46m last year alone – and asking yourself: who’s having the last laugh here?

The impact EDM has had on American popular culture in recent years seems faintly mind-boggling. Last October, amid much ballyhoo and media attention, a company specialising in EDM festivals called SFX floated on the American Stock Exchange, claiming the market for dance music would grow to $4.5 billion in 2013: it sold 20 million shares at $13 a pop, raised $260m.

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FM radio stations have begun to switch from broadcasting rock music to an “all-EDM format”: the first, Boston’s WHBA, stopped playing "adult hits" last December, changing its name to WEDX Evolution 101.7 and its slogan to “All Things Dance”. Big business is moving in: another former member of Swedish House Mafia, Steve Angello, tells me that he’s inundated with requests from companies desperate to “get into the EDM space”. “They want me to sell a razor, because I have a beard,” he says. “But my fans are too smart for that. They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, Steve is using Braun,’ then go and buy that. I mean, I can’t sell a Skoda car. I can’t sell a Fiat because my fans know I’m not driving a Fiat. They’re not stupid. It’s easy just to sell out because you want a quick buck. I see people going and working with the weirdest brands, just to make $150,000 or sometimes a million, sometimes more than that. But I love my fans too much to try and trick them into buying something that they won’t like, you know?”


As the music has got bigger, so too has the level of fame attained by DJs in the US. The phrase “superstar DJ” is once more being bandied about. It’s a hoary old cliché, but it has to be said that EDM’s superstar DJs seem a lot more like actual superstars than the people for whom the term “superstar DJs” was originally coined.

The superstar DJs of the Nineties – Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, John Digweed et al – were rich and successful and had devoted fans, but they were also oddly anonymous, interchangeable figures, utterly devoid of any kind of charisma. The leading EDM figures seem more like traditional rock stars, which it’s hard not to feel might be a big factor in their success in the US mainstream.

Almost every one of the EDM DJs has a personality or an identifiable image or, at the very least, a gimmick. Dubstep star Skrillex looks less like a DJ than the kind of goth you see sitting by a provincial town’s war memorial holding a two-litre bottle of cider: the former singer in a punk band, he even “broke” the US in the time-honoured style of a rock band, by getting in a van and touring relentlessly, playing Middle American cities and college towns that few other DJs could be bothered to visit.

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Underneath his giant mouse-head helmet, Deadmau5 is a weird, scrawny, volatile figure given to outbursts on Twitter and peculiar self-loathing remarks about how much he hates dance music and how all DJs are “fucking cunts”.  Steve Aoki stage-dives and crowd-surfs and throws cake at people. Swedish House Mafia, meanwhile, projected an image not that far removed from the bling and braggadocio of hip-hop, all private jets and exclusive after-parties and magnums of champagne.

Signs of the DJs’ celebrity are everywhere. When I speak to him, Angello is still reeling from the experience of being papped. “I was driving in LA last week and these guys jumped out of a car on a red light and started taking pictures of the car I was sitting in. They were like, 'Hey Steve, how are you?' I was like, 'Who the fuck are you guys?'” Angello sighs. “It’s really awkward, because I didn’t come into dance music to become a celebrity. I came into dance music because I heard Daft Punk’s Homework and shit my pants.”

Meanwhile, before I’m permitted to interview Nick van de Wall, better known as Afrojack, one of his management team takes me aside and tells me I’m not allowed to ask him anything about money or his personal life. That itself tells you something about how famous Afrojack is: only the biggest stars get to dictate the terms of their interview in advance.

It is also, I suspect, connected both with a recent New Yorker piece, which made Afrojack out to be rather a dim bulb – willing to pay a $500 cleaning charge on a private plane so he didn’t have to go without a cigarette for 45 minutes and claiming that the instructions on how to open an aircraft’s door offered “a really deep life message” – and with what we should perhaps call The Paris Hilton Incident, in which the titular heiress decided she wanted to become an EDM DJ, apparently encouraged by Afrojack, with whom she was romantically linked: the general yell of horror that followed her DJing debut, in which Hilton didn’t appear to DJ so much as stand around with some headphones on, waving a flag, took quite a long time to die down.

Still, profiles in The New Yorker however snarky, romantic attachments to Paris Hilton however ill-starred: this is the stuff of big-league celebrity.

As if to underline the DJs-are-the-new-rock-stars line, when I ask him about his lifestyle, Afrojack hits me with a lengthy monologue about personal freedom that might once have come out of the mouth of Jim Morrison or Keith Richards. “It’s not about the cars or fancy stuff, it’s about being free to make your own choices… my message to my people is that the only thing you have to do is make your own free choices, don’t listen to society… when I’m on Twitter, when I’m on Facebook, sharing pictures of what can happen if you chose that life it’s basically like a counter-attack to what society’s telling you.”

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I don’t buy a word of it myself, but I can see how this kind of thing might sound pretty exciting and charismatic and aspirational if you were 16.

 

Photo: Tiesto plays the Staplecentre. Credit: Jordan Loyd 

 

Modern dance music was invented in the US.

London can claim drum n’ bass as its own, Croydon is famously the birthplace of dubstep, but the cornerstones of dance music, the foundations on which every subsequent development was built, all came from the US: house music from the gay scene in Chicago, techno from the middle-class black suburbs of Detroit, garage from clubs in New York and New Jersey.

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The US invented it, and then the US ignored it.

They had the music, they had the drugs – Rolling Stone magazine was running features on ecstasy in 1985, with their guinea pig PJ O'Rourke reporting back that it made him feel “wholesome and completely swell” [CHK] – but the two didn’t seem to click in the same way as they did elsewhere.

There was an American rave scene in the early Nineties, but it was a weird, underground thing that existed in small isolated pockets around the country – in New York, San Francisco and LA – the raves themselves often founded by British ex-pats.

There was nothing like the seismic and lasting impact acid house had in the UK, where it changed not just music, but the country itself: if it had achieved nothing more than a change in the hours that pubs open – the number of people eschewing alcohol for ecstasy in the Nineties caused the breweries to start lobbying hard for a reform of the licensing laws – then you could still argue dance music had effected more tangible social change than any youth movement before or since.

Indeed, in the Nineties, there was such a glaring disparity between the way dance music was viewed on either side of the Atlantic, that it gave rise to the belief that something akin to the early Sixties British Invasion might be inevitable.

Just as then, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Yardbirds awakened the US mainstream to the blues and r’n’b artists that had existed under their noses for decades, so, big British dance acts might alert them to the house and techno they’d thus far proved oblivious to.

Indeed, something briefly flickered in the late Nineties – the Prodigy’s 1997 album The Fat of the Land went to Number One in the US, Fatboy Slim had a couple of hits, there was a burst of interest in trance, led by Paul Oakenfold – but it died away.

One oft-expressed theory was that American resistance to dance music came with vague, but dark intimations of racism and, especially, homophobia. The US mainstream looked askance at dance music because of its distant roots in the black gay scene.

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It was linked, however vaguely, to disco, and the US was a country that had long ago decided that disco sucked and saw no reason to revise its views. There seemed something telling about the fact that the artists that did find some success in the US were the ones whose music seemed least connected to the records that had played in Chicago’s Warehouse or New York’s Paradise Garage: the Prodigy’s “electronic punk”, Fatboy Slim with his hip hop beats and Sixties soul samples, the Teutonic thud of trance.

Indeed, some have leveled a similar claim at EDM. From its name down, it can feel like music that’s been rebranded, that’s definitively broken its ties with house and techno’s black and gay roots. There are none of house music’s gospel influenced vocals or samples from old disco records.

Unlike old Detroit techno, it isn’t – to use a vague term – particularly funky. The dubstep variety of EDM may have “dub” in its name, but it bears literally no relationship to reggae: as has often been pointed out, the distorted bass on an EDM dubstep track functions in the same register as the guitar on a heavy metal track.

“It definitely has cut its ties with house music, but I don’t think it has that kind of homophobic or racist edge to it that the whole “disco sucks” movement had in the Seventies,” says Simon Reynolds, author of the definitive dance music history Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture.

“That was so long ago. Things have changed in the US. If you look at polls in this country, most young people are in favour of gay marriage, a lot of celebrities are out, the country has changed for the better in lots of way. I don’t think that kind of nastiness that was behind the 'disco sucks' movement is really relevant now.”

In fact, the reasons for EDM’s surge in popularity may be far more prosaic. Everybody agrees that the internet had a vast role to play. US radio had always been resistant to dance music, but with the arrival of YouTube and Facebook, that ceased to matter: the internet meant that an artist like dubstep star Skrillex could become what one observer called “the biggest thing since Nirvana” without getting on the radio.

“Big radio dominates what American audiences listen to,” Tiësto says. “And I think when social media blew up, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, then people got exposed to the music and that’s what really made the change. I think people were always curious about dance music, but you have to be educated, you have to be exposed to it and radio was just country, hip-hop and rock. I think the internet finally made it what it should have been for years.”

In addition, the nature of dance music events in the US changed. In the Nineties, raves were drugged-out counter-cultural events: Energy Flash has some pretty lurid tales of psychedelicised chaos on remote Californian farms or in woods in the wilds of Wisconsin.

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EDM events are anything but: should you wish, you can book a table for dinner at Electric Daisy Carnival. Promoters – some of them the very same people who’d been behind the drugged-out counter-cultural chaos – began putting on professionally-run events in mainstream locations, which began attracting larger and larger numbers: attendance figures for Ultra in Miami leapt from 45,000 in 2005 to 100,000 in 2010 to 330,000 last year.

“They just got better at doing it in a conventional way,” Reynolds says. “They gradually learnt how to do it through the correct channels. They picked very, very conventional, boring controlled locations to hold raves in, places like sports arenas, where there was already a very safe set-up in place organised for the controlling of crowds of people, where there was an existing structure of security and fire exits and things. They weren’t doing them in exotic locations any more, they weren’t holding them in kind of kooky, far-off ranches any more, they were doing them in plain view of authority. They learnt to play the game."

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Furthermore, promoters worked hard to disassociate the music from drugs: to short circuit the automatic association between dance music and ecstasy. They started calling raves “festivals”, a rave being somewhere that you go to take drugs and dance – and which you’re unlikely to get a licence from the local hilarity in Britain a couple of years back when EDM star Deadmau5 lambasted Madonna for the mentioning ecstasy onstage at Miami’s Ultra Dance Festival: he compared it to “mentioning slavery at a blues concert” and banged on rather pompously about how “a dark veil” had previously hung over dance music before he and others had taken the scene “so goddam far”. 

In fact, however improbable it seems, Deadmau5 might have had a point. I’m sure there are plenty of people “tripping balls” at your average EDM festival, but the automatic link between the music and drugs appears to have snapped.

When I visit Hakkasan to see Tiësto play, I’m struck by the fact that almost nobody in the crowd seems to be on ecstasy. “That’s the big difference from the Nineties,” Tiësto agrees. “It’s not necessarily a whole drug thing anymore. The raves in the Nineties were all about drugs, but now the music is so popular, I think people are more going to a club and having a couple of drinks, you don’t have to be off your head to enjoy your night.”

 

Photo: Calvin Harris announces Hakkasan Las Vegas Residency at his BRIT Awards After Party 

 

But if some of the reasons for EDM’s success seem straightforward, others feel a little bizarre.

There was, for example, the surprising adoption of EDM by hip hop and r’n’b artists and producers. There was a period around 2010 when it seemed that virtually every mainstream rapper or r’n’b singer had taken to making records that sounded like they could be played at an EDM club.

Their success certainly helped popularise the sound in the US, but it still felt faintly peculiar, given how hostile rappers had traditionally been towards house and techno: Chuck D of Public Enemy seemed to sum their attitude up when he described house music as “sophisticated anti-black, anti-feel, the most artificial shit I ever heard, it represents the gay scene, it’s separating blacks from their past and culture.”

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But as Dutch DJ and producer Laidback Luke points out, a variety of hip-hop stars began visiting Ibiza in the mid-Noughties, perhaps lured more by the island’s reputation as a millionaire’s playground than a burning desire to hear Armin van Buuren DJ at Privilege’s A State of Trance. They nevertheless ended up in the island’s clubs: you may recall P Diddy’s widely reported plan to record an album of electronic music, which seemed to flounder after it was reported that the crowds in Space and Pacha had shown a marked tendency to boo him off whenever he turned up unannounced and attempted to rap over the DJs set.

“I remember guys like P Diddy and Timbaland visiting Ibiza in the mid-Noughties and you could just instantly hear the influence of what they experienced over there,” Laidback Luke says. “When I first heard 'SexyBack' by Justin Timberlake, I was like, ‘What the fuck, this is like a house beat, yet fitted into a hip-hop mould.’ I do think there were subtle changes in the urban and hip-hop scene and they were getting ready for it. I feel the real change came from David Guetta, this was in about 2007 or 2008. He saw the potential of hip hop merging with this sound. I remember him and I being in the studio making tracks, and he’d get phone calls from the US about guys like Akon or Dr Dre wanting to work with him because he had that crossover sound, his tracks were getting Top 40 attention. Will.i.am had been to Ibiza and heard records like Fedde le Grand’s "Put Your Hands Up 4 Detroit", and he was one of the first guys that reached out to David. He had to try and cross over the sound.”

Perhaps understandably, the question of whether its success is a fad or evidence of a permanent change in the American musical landscape hangs heavy over EDM: it’s all got so huge, so suddenly, there’s the chance it might be a bubble about to burst.

In The New Yorker’s piece, a promoter from Las Vegas’ Wynn Hotel and Resort shrugged that “it may not last longer than next year..” No one I speak to says anything like that, but you can detect a certain unease: every DJ expresses some degree of reservation at how big EDM has become or the detrimental effect of vast sums of money on creativity. “Everybody’s playing it safe, everything sounds the same, you can’t even tell who’s made what record because they all sound the same,” Steve Angello complains.

“It’s a massive industry and the industry forces people to be uncreative, because of the availability of money. When people ask me when the bubble is going to burst, I say: the bubble’s going to burst for those guys that are here for a fun ride. But I think if you really believe in something, if you build a proper, strong following with people that respect you, you’ll have those fans for life.”

Even Afrojack, who rang the bell that opened trading at the NASDAQ MarketSite on the day of SFX’s floatation, strikes a vague note of caution regarding the future. “The only problem I see is that it’s basically the stock market is buying EDM. I hope the political influences do not fall back into the festivals, because I can really imagine budgets coming in and budget cuts and 'Yeah, security’s more important and we’re going to make the music softer because it’s better for the city and the government and we have to do this and that for the police, so the festival can only run from 11am to 2pm,' or whatever, you know? That’s the thing I’m scared of.”

Then he brightens and starts telling me about meeting Leonardo DiCaprio in a nightclub in New York: “He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, what’s up, Nick?’ It doesn’t matter that I’m a DJ and I make music, I’m still Nick fucking van de Wall and that’s Leonardo motherfucking DiCaprio! And he just came up to me and said, “Hey Nick, what’s up?” How fucking cool is that? How fucking cool is that? He laughs contentedly. “That’s so fucking cool.”
 

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