2013 In Review: The Beginning Of The End Of Pop’s EDM Era

Dec 19th, 2013 // 14 Comments
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If 2011 is the year EDM-pop broke out, then 2013 is the year it broke. EDM, dance music, electro, dubstep, whatever you call it, it’s not over, of course. But that particularly exhausting strain of EDM-infused pop — the buzzing synths, wobbling bass and that now-predictable moment of tension before the whole arrangement crashes down in euphoric grandeur — is in steady decline, now a tiresome trope on the level of late ’90s rock singers emulating Eddie Vedder. Poptronica’s hegemony has ended, with unpredictable diversity filling the void as pop necessarily sheds its molly-soaked skin.

The tipping point came at the end of the year with the release of two major albums by two major stars. First ARTPOP, which found Lady Gaga wringing every last drop of blood out of steroidal laser-pop, trying to do it more baroquely and frantically than everyone else on the charts. She pretty much achieved this, but it was self-sabotage — Gaga smothered otherwise strong songs and hooks with a phalanx of squelches and bloops and over-synthesized digital fuckery. We had hit peak EDM.

Rising up on the other end of that seesaw, then, was Beyonce. Rather, Beyonce. Bey was never a candidate for the electro fad, but on December 13 we saw just how far her music stood above the manufactured noise of her contemporaries. Rather than compress everything into a coked out, high-energy bender, Yonce let her songs unspool over languid atmospherics and squishy beats. There was art in her pop, and also room to breathe. The staggering sales numbers dwarfed ARTPOP‘s, suggesting listeners have grown tired of the constant endorphin rush; thus, the greatest accomplishment of Bey’s fifth album ambush may very well be that it served as the knockout blow sending EDM-pop to the canvas.

It’s impossible to imagine it now, but a few years ago, raging, melodic clubbers represented a fresh sound, bringing blazing but commercially untested discotheque and festival flourishes to pop radio. It quickly became the norm, and quite frankly, it was exciting to hear aggressive sounds in the mainstream once again. Rihanna‘s “Only Girl In The World” in 2010 was perhaps Patient 0 in this EDM-pop mass awakening, and Britney Spears in 2011, led by Femme Fatale singles “Till The World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me,” became the face of the movement.

Soon enough, holdouts realized Ke$ha may have been onto something with those clanging party anthems in early 2010. Soon enough, LMFAO became a thing. Soon enough, the phenomenon had spread around the globe: in 2012, the grinding churn of Icona Pop‘s “I Love It” reared its head, and a little dude known as PSY employed the trend’s can’t-miss formula to the tune of a billion clicks. Nicki Minaj crammed every trick of the era into “Starships.” Even Taylor Swift transformed from a precious singer-songwriter into a bass dropping club queen with “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

By this year, the pattern seemed as healthy (and predictable) as ever. Another crop of serviceable, radio-ready rave songs took hold: Zedd and Foxes‘ “Clarity” and Calvin Harris and Florence Welch‘s “Sweet Nothing” soundtracked the first half of the year. Jennifer LopezEllie Goulding and a freaking Lana Del Rey remix all dominated clubs and workout playlists. And that was all with Gaga’s electronic opus and a will.i.am-helmed Britney Spears album on the horizon. Pop or EDM, the three letters didn’t matter, they now denoted the same concept.

But the crescendo-by-numbers approach had become grating, obnoxious — even with Black Eyed Peas on the sidelines during this time. So some of pop’s behemoths aimed to kill the monolith, hedging their bets that the listening public was synth-saturated and wub-worn. For Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk, this meant ignoring the rave renaissance in favor of a warm, heady disco calm — perhaps looking to destroy a monster they both had a hand in creating.

Meanwhile, guys like Kanye West and Trent Reznor topped EDM by out-thinking and out-muscling it, subsequently making electronic-tinged pop sound visceral and vital again because they didn’t use drops or robot vomit breakdowns. (Yeezus was a completely inverted version of electro-rap from the “Stronger” mastermind, who not so long ago threw a dubstep breakdown into one of his hit songs). All four of these acts created some of the best material of their careers while consciously avoiding the EDM sounds of the now, thus sowing the seeds for the next generation of now.

Divas showed they weren’t beholden to the productions du jour, either. On PrismKaty Perry largely eschewed clubby music for yoga-wave breeziness and a surprising eclecticism. Miley Cyrus‘ current incarnation seems tailor made for the post-Peas, post-K$ molly-pop landscape — but Bangerz, while a goddamn mess, was bold for (generally) staying off the beaten EDM path and following Mike WiLL Made It‘s syrupy hip-pop route instead.

The really telling pattern, though, is that up-and-comers are consciously avoiding EDM-pop’s cold grasp and its production-first bombast. HAIM can out-rock whichever mainstream rock acts are left, but they also write better melodies than most of our pop overlords.

Charli XCX, despite her “I Love It” writing credit, has always been more chillwave than churning strobes, and now she eschews knob-turners altogether by touring with a live band and, what’s more, interpolating Sleigh Bells‘ “Riot Rhythm” in the middle of her songs.

Hell, some of the year’s most striking guitar riffs came from Sky Ferreira‘s debut album! It’s entirely possible we’re entering a pop-rock revival.

Then you have Ariana Grande, who obviously isn’t pop-rock, but her brand of R&B ignores the clubby, “Yeah”/”OMG” sect of the genre, (as well as the self-consciously hazy, post-Weeknd niche). Instead, Grande pairs her voice with tasteful production, transporting Mariah Carey flawlessness into the digital age. Lorde uses stillness and equally tasteful arrangements — and this “tasteful” thing is key. Because outside of, say, Adele, pop in the last couple years was a place where restraint and subtlety went to die.

Thanks to these anti-blockbuster approaches to pop, EDM now has a more nuanced relationship with the mainstream. We’re going from “Levels” to levels. There’s house-pop, from Disclosure‘s UK club pastiche to Katy B. Groups like AlunaGeorge and CHVRCHES take aggressive dance music, break it down into its component parts and then reshuffle everything. Hard-to-label oddballs are snapping and stretching electronics like bubble gum (see: Sophie‘s “Bipp,” James Blake).

EDM-pop had to fly, and then die, so electro-pop, in all these wonderful new iterations, could live. And that’s why, by the time “Work Bitch” and “Aura” dropped late this year, they seemed like the overcooked, overblown death howls of the laser-pop era. Such music caught on for a reason: it matches the euphoric abandon of the perfect singalong hook with actual, literal euphoria — collective emotion on top of collective emotion. That goal won’t go away, nor should it. But the same-y, synthy molly-pop songs no longer hold a monopoly on the means of achieving it.

It was a good streak, but even the brightest glowsticks run out of juice.

Are you tired of EDM-pop, or do you think it still has some legs? Let us know below, or by hitting us up on Facebook and Twitter!

  1. I for one am glad that this EDM movement is fading out. Even during it’s heyday I thought it was rather tasteless and an annoying trend that represented the most basest idea of pop music – that it is commercial music crafted for the masses. It seemed all you had to do was make the beat drop after the chorus and you’d get a hit. This paint-by-numbers technique left little room for good lyrics or innovation. It reminds me of the Brill-era of pop music where everything was crafted to be the same. Hopefully now people have realized that they need to stick out. Beyonce certainly came forward to prove you don’t need to follow this bland pop formula for success.

    Also to correct you I think Project 0 in the EDM movement was one of the Black Eyed Peas’ long running #1 hits of 2010.

    • You could definitely argue BEP were the crusaders of this era, or even Ke$ha. But I feel like BEP and K$ were sort of anomalies at that point. But once Rihanna picked up that sound, at least from my perspective, that was when everyone realized, Oh, this is a major trend that we’re witnessing.

      • I see your point but wonder if spending 27 weeks at #1 (over half a year) is an anomaly. To me their impressive chart run suggests there was a clear demand for this music. I think Only Girl cemented the trends’ arrival perhaps but did not spur it.

    • Great article by the way! It’s really comprehensive.

  2. Corey

    It was time for EDM to fade out. As you mentioned in the article it started around 09-10 with Gaga’s ‘Power Face’ breakout and BEP’s ‘I Got A Feeling’ revival. Of course when R&B acts like Usher, Chris Brown, and Rihanna jumped on the bandwagon it was a damn near tsunami of EDM in EVERY genre, even hip hop (Flo’rida anyone?) But I also must admit that Beyonce’s new album is a reflection of what she intended her perivious album 4 to be. She just didn’t execute it properly due to weak singles and NOT submitting to the EDM sound that was dominating that year. Bey has NEVER made a blatantly EDM inspired record. She clearly never cared for the sound. If Bey had released a few singles off this new record in a traditional promo roll out IT WOULD NOT have sold the way it did. She knew that which is how its soremarable that she could outsell ALL of her previous albums in a 16-year career. Go Bey!

  3. JimRester

    I am so happy EDM is going back into the clubs and undergound for the real dance music lovers!. Lets get back to calling it HOUSE music. This music wont fully ever go away though. It is future music. Always has been, as long as computers are around!! Long live the beats! Great article BTW

  4. JoVer

    Calling “ARTPOP” an EDM album is very narrow minded. Have you even heard it?

  5. Chris

    I despise EDM. Rave music had this certain mystique before it went mainstream, like when it was mostly underground artists. I liked it that way and I used to listen to a lot of interesting arrangements. But it does not work as pop music, it’s beyond annoying. One of the worst fads to ever overcome music. I think the worst offense was when R&B artists turned to EDM, that was the breaking point. Awful. Now, I’m noticing that websites are either Pro-Bangerz or Strongly Against. I disagree with your opinion. It’s certainly not a mess. It’s quite diverse and the most interesting record of the year.

  6. Ronald

    About time they stop promoting this genre. I remember that was this guy who talked to me about dubstep. He said the choruses are “jingles”. I can’t disagree.

  7. I would much rather be at a edm concert then sit through a boring beyonce show! Miley cyrus is atrocious! Lady Gaga tried way too hard to recreate the success of her first album. So artpop was just a mess! Nothing wrong with the cliche “buildup and drop.” Underground music has always influenced the mainstream. I don’t think this year’s 2014 crop of new music will change much from 2013 to tell you the truth. Yeah some of what’s on top 40 might be a little less edm infused, but acts like Hardwell, Nervo, Tiesto, Calvin Harris, Armin, Nicky Romero aren’t going anywhere time soon and will always have an influence on mainstream pop!

  8. Dom

    Its high time we had a resurgence of pop-rock. Haim, Onerepublic, Paramore and the reformation of Fall out Boy, for me personally dominated last year. Its time that this genre, which was popular during the noughties, returns. After having listened to Shakira and Rihanna’s new song it seems like the genre is being helmed by the big guns once more!

  9. It seems as if it is still growing if you go to the festivals. They are getting bigger and bigger!

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