Introduction, Part 1: The State of EDM Studies

Peeps Hunting Trophy, Shit Show 01, Detroit, 2010

Peeps Hunting Trophy, Shit Show 01, DEMF @ Detroit, 2010

This is the second installment in my series of posts summarizing my dissertation, chapter by chapter. In the first post, I gave an overview of my dissertation project, elucidating the main research questions, highlighting some overarching themes, and giving an overview of the chapters to follow. Today’s post covers the introductory chapter, where I review previous scholarship on similar topics, introduce and describe my main fieldwork sites (i.e., Paris, Chicago, and Berlin), and outline my methods for conducting research. This chapter also includes the chapter-structure of the rest of the dissertation, but since that was already covered in my previous post, I’ll skip over that here.

Brief Recap: this dissertation aims mostly to make sense of scenes like this, this (near the end), this (see under “Magda”), and this (under “Heartthrob”). I talk about music, affect, and intimacy in an attempt to explain how it is that people at these events often decide to make gestures of intimacy that would be inappropriate in most “normal” settings.

EDM(C) Studies: A Review of the Scholarship

The “literature review” is sort of a standard thing in academic writing, especially in dissertations. This usually involves summarizing any previous research on your topic (or related topics), and then showing how your research will expand, correct, complicate, or challenge that research. Essentially, you’re showing that your work will be a truly original and valuable contribution to the scholarship on this topic.

This literature review can sometimes be a problem, as it can get way too long and confusing if you’re using a variety of approaches/concepts or if your topic is popular—especially if your topic has been covered by scholars in very different fields of study. In the case of my dissertation, for example, I could be building “lit reviews” of affect studies, intimacy studies, crowd theory, solidarity studies (especially in political science), popular music studies, music anthropology, the philosophy and anthropology of touch, and so on. In addition to that, the scholarship on electronic dance music scenes has been booming in the past decade, and there is work to account for in anthropology, ethnomusicology, (music) history, cultural studies, sociology, criminology, pharmacology/neurology, public health/social work, geography, religious studies, and probably quite a few more disciplines. So, my sort-of-solution has been to push the concept-oriented lit reviews into the chapters where each concept is put into use, and reserve the major lit review here for scholarship on the topic of study itself, that is: EDM(C).

(NOTE: In the dissertation, this section has well over a hundred bibliographic references. I’m not going to include more than a couple here, but I might come back later and attach a link to a bibliography. After July 29th, you can contact me and ask for a copy of the introduction, which will have all of these references.)

So, what’s EDM(C), and why is the C in parentheses? Well, to begin with, EDM stands for Electronic Dance Music, which is a sort of umbrella category for all the styles and sub-styles of music emerging from disco, electro-pop and similar styles. It tends to feature regular and prominent bass beats, although some sub-styles use irregular/asymmetrical beat patterns (e.g., drum’n’bass, dubstep) or no beats at all (e.g., ambient music). Some styles favor acoustic sounds while others favor synthesized or heavily altered sounds, but all EDM uses sound samples as its building blocks. The term EDM has been in use by academics and increasingly by popular press since the mid-1990s. It came about mostly as a replacement for the general terms “rave” (which is limited to only one kind of music-event and doesn’t say much about the actual musical content) and “techno”  (which is already associated with one specific sub-style of EDM, i.e., Detroit techno). In popular discourse as well as early academic discourse, you’ll also hear terms like “electronic music” and “underground dance music” and even “house” as generic terms for all music, but EDM remains the most useful term because it isn’t burdened with previous associations and it conveys something about style, mode of composition, and associated activities. For my project, I focused mostly on sub-scenes in Paris, Berlin, and Chicago that were affiliated with the “minimal” spectrum of EDM (minimal techno, minimal house, microhouse) as well as “deep house”/“dub house”; these are all styles that feature sparse textures and long, slow-changing musical structures.

OK, so what about that C in parentheses? The C stands for “cultures,” and I put it in parentheses to point to a division in EDM-focused writings between the study of a particular kind of music and the study of the people, practices, and communities that flourish with it. Overall, scholarship on EDM clusters around two approaches: 1) a focus on EDM itself as a style or tradition, often tracking its development historically and geographically; and 2) a focus on the people associated with EDM and their practices, usually understood as a culture, sub-culture, community, (neo-)tribe, crowd, or public.

Mind you, I don’t want to overplay the differences between these approaches; most scholarship draws from both of these approaches to varying degrees. Nonetheless, I tend to see the field of EDM(C) scholarship as following three branches:

Historical projects

This kind of project serves the dual purposes of contributing to an archive of EDM-histories—which other scholars like me can use as a basis for their own work—and legitimizing EDM as a historical phenomenon that merits “serious” study. Some of the earliest historical projects have actually been non-academic, including memoirs, magazine articles, and popular books written by journalists (my dissertation lists 15 examples, but probably the most well-known English-language example is Simon Reynolds’s Energy Flash (UK) / Generation Ecstasy (US), which came out in 1998). But there’s also been an accumulation of academic historical projects in recent years (18 so far). Most of these projects focus on the development of particular EDM styles or the careers of a few important musicians, performers, producers, or organizers, whereas my project also pays attention to the “ordinary” partygoers and fans that take part in EDM scenes.

Interpretive and/or music-analytic projects

These are projects that focus on sonic or textual aspects of EDM, usually in the genre of musical analysis, “close reading” (which is a method taken from literary studies), or some other kind of interpretive work. A widely-read example of a music-analytic project in this vein is Mark J. Butler’s Unlocking the Groove (2006), which addresses rhythm and structural patterning in techno (although it should be noted that he also employed ethnographic methods in his research). While there are few other projects that make similarly extensive use of music theory, many scholars are engaged in interpretive work that usually aims to describe the aesthetics of a particular style or sub-style (I counted about 16). Some of these interpretive projects are more speculative and philosophical (e.g., using Deleuze & Guattari), while some are grounded in communities of specific listeners (e.g., gay Latino men in NYC nightclubs). Notably, this is the domain where some important work has been done on the musical representation of gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity.

Ethnographic projects

These are projects that make use of methods from anthropology, sociology, and to some extent cultural studies to focus on the values and practices of the people involved in EDM scenes. This forms the largest grouping of scholarship, and so it can also be subdivided into several sub-groupings. One of the earliest streams of scholarship on EDM came out of the “Birmingham School” of subcultural studies, originally based in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, UK. This scholarship took a self-critical turn in the 1990s and branched out into “post-subcultural” studies that questioned some of the assumptions made about subcultures (e.g., the assumption that youth culture is always subculture, that there is a single mainstream culture that dominates subcultures, that membership in these subcultures are limited to age-class, etc.); some of these scholars instead turned to theories of “neo-tribes,” which is a social model developed my Michel Maffesoli that describes affinity groups that do not rely on identity for membership. These projects tend to overlap quite a bit with EDM scholarship drawing from Deleuze and Guattari, especially for the following concepts: assemblage, affect, becoming, the body without organs, the desiring machine, and the molecular/molar distinction. I counted about 19 separate works in this stream of scholarship.

There’s also a wider set of social-scientific projects that don’t depend on subculture theory, most of which are focused on EDM scenes in particular places or regions (about 9 publications), although some also study EDM as an international phenomenon (7 publications). These projects also include a thread of important ethnographic work on gender and sexuality in EDM scenes. Considering EDM scenes’ long history of unpleasant encounters with law enforcement, it should come as no surprise that there is a substantial literature from criminology, epidemiology, and drug ab/use studies (8 publications). There’s also a growing set of systems-oriented scholarship on EDM in recording industries and the impact of technology (at least 8 publications). Finally, there’s a large sub-set of ethnographic scholarship that focuses on EDM events as a religious/spiritual experience (14 publications), which tend to cast EDM events as rituals that can be compared to religious rituals.

Previous in series: ‘Can You Feel It, Too?’: Affect and Intimacy at EDM Events in Paris, Chicago, and Berlin

Coming up next: Introduction, Part 2: Fieldwork Sites and Methods


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