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 Lopez, Ellie 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 Prism, Katy 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.