EDM is a term that’s often misapplied by the casual listener.
Much in the way every track with a quantized beat was called “techno” in the 90s, many people now refer to all electronic music as “EDM.” What originally was a description of electronic music writ large has over the past few years become an increasingly specific form of electronic music, with a sound and a fan base that overlaps less and less with genres like techno, drum and bass, and others.
EDM has become essentially the pop music sector of electronic music, the place where the most mainstream and easily accessible tunes take up residence. If you’re hearing catchy vocal hooks, synth stabs in triplets, and heavily compressed drums, chances are you’re hearing what most people think of when they say “EDM.” It’s a form of electronic music designed for big festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival and the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
If you’re hesitant to visit the EDM portions of ACL Fest because your mental image of the electronic music crowd is something out of a “Groove” deleted scene, fear not: Today’s EDM acts are functionally the same as any other concert, and their fans act much the same as you’d find at a rock concert. Gone are the days of the ravers dancing in their own world, enmeshed in the music and oblivious to where the DJ stands (if that’s more your scene, you’re probably spending time at an event like Kingdom’s afterhours with Steel Grooves & Jason Jenkins); these days the EDM crowds point directly at the act on stage, watching the artist while he exhorts them to dance more. They dance, sure, but the vibe is more one of spectating than raving. It’s effectively the same as being at a Foo Fighters concert, albeit with more furry boots and Native American headdresses.
ACL Fest’s lineup provides a decent EDM starter kit. If you want to name an act that defines the pop nature of EDM, Zedd is one of the first names that will be listed by fans of the genre. His most popular tracks — “‘Clarity” and “Spectrum” to name two — exhibit many of the telltale EDM sounds mentioned previously. His music is uplifting and geared toward mass consumption, and many of his tracks receive significant radio play. “Clarity” and “Stay the Night” reached No. 2 and No. 6 on the Billboard Top 40.
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Calvin Harris is an act you probably know even if the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell; he’s charted multiple Billboard hits, won a Grammy, and has produced work with a list of artists ranging from Katy Perry to Cut Copy. While Calvin has been pushing EDM for some time, in recent interviews he’s professed a desire to transfer from EDM he described as “too formulaic” back into the house music he cites as his roots. Then again, the only thing more popular than playing EDM is complaining about EDM being too formulaic, so it remains to be seen if house music is actually on tap during his set.
Another name that may not be immediately recognizable is Major Lazer, though you may recognize one half of the duo under his other name, Diplo, head of the Mad Decent record label and the guy in the Blackberry commercial who unleashed twerking upon us all. Expect to hear a lot of reggae and baile funk flavors during Major Lazer’s set; twerking is optional but actively encouraged.
Arguably the biggest name of the EDM acts on ACL’s lineup is an artist who isn’t really EDM at all: Skrillex. Skrillex is the poster child of dubstep, a genre that might be best defined as “if breakbeat forgot to take its Adderall.” There will be sawtooth waves and bass drops aplenty during Skrillex’s performance; those who attended ACL in 2011 understand the bass cannon they’re about to step in front of for 75 minutes each weekend of the show.
Follow Jonathan Brashear on Twitter @Bitterwhiteguy.