Does EDM Need A ‘Poptimism’ Moment?

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At the end of March, noted rodent DJ and producer deadmau5 released Where’s The Drop?, an album that compiles new orchestral works the artist wrote with Gregory Reveret as well as orchestral arrangements of mau5’s back catalog. The release marked a departure for the producer (aka Joel Zimmerman) who has built a reputation over the past thirteen years as one of the progenitors of popular festival-sized EDM in the United States.

Fellow music journalist Chal Ravens wrote an article in the latest issue of The Wire (#411), speaking to a greater trend in electronic music where artists try to make their sound more palatable to listeners by making orchestral versions of their work. Though Ravens wasn’t directly addressing Zimmerman’s latest album in the column, I couldn’t help but feel as though the piece resonated. “Playing electronic music on acoustic instruments is a denial of what made this music fascinating in the first place: The mysterious power of mechanical repetition and the futuristic allusions of synthetic sound,” Ravens writes. More than anything, Where’s The Drop? feels like Zimmerman’s attempt to have his work as a songwriter and producer be taken seriously, outside the context of dance music altogether. There’s an irony in that although he’s one of the most well-known, popular and well-paid DJs in the world, he really has yet to earn the respect of critics.

And he’s not alone, either. Looking at Forbes’ list of 2017’s highest-paid DJs (Zimmerman graced the list from 2012 – 2015) — Calvin Harris (who topped the list for the fifth time in a row), Tiësto, The Chainsmokers, Skrillex, Steve Aoki, Diplo, David Guetta, Marshmello, Martin Garrix and Zedd — almost all of them have been eluded by any substantial critical praise. The obvious exceptions to this are Diplo and Skrillex, who joined forces in 2013 as Jack Ü and helped usher in Justin Bieber’s own EDM/”tropical house” reinvention. Crossover producers like Guetta have certainly had their fair share of well-received pop collaborations with other artists, but rarely has their solo work or full-length albums elicited the same glowing praise.

Cross-referencing Forbes’ recent list with Metacritic’s aggregate critical scores is hardly scientific, but paints a consistent picture that’s hard to ignore. Doing the same with Billboard‘s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs or Albums lists produces very similar results. From Aoki all the way to Zedd, EDM’s top earners rarely average outside the 60th percentile, which by Metacritic’s own rubric means “Mixed or Average Reviews,” falling directly in the sweet spot of mediocrity between “Generally Unfavorable” and “Generally Favorable” reviews.

For sake of comparison, Forbes’ list of highest-paid musicians — including Diddy, Beyoncé, Drake, The Weeknd and Coldplay — paints a different story, as those artists’ averages tend to fair better, while also fluctuating more than the plateau we see with EDM’s scores. Though there isn’t necessarily a strong correlation between industry success and critical praise, the consistency in outcomes for dance’s top earners when compared to their pop star counterparts suggests that there’s less critical enthusiasm for EDM overall.

But it’s worth considering that Metacritic is pulling review data from websites that traditionally don’t engage with EDM, or worse, have some critical bias against it. Perhaps what this frequency of “average” album reviews is telling us is that there’s a larger issue with how music critics engage with dance music. Does EDM need its own “poptimism” moment?

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Poptimism is music critic speak for a seismic shift in thinking that happened in the early 2000s, when the then dominant perception among critics was that anything on (or aspiring to be on) the Top 40 was frivolous and not to be taken seriously. Many at the time viewed all music through that rockist lens — prioritizing the work of a songwriting auteur over the labor of a team of producers, analog live instrumentation over in-the-box studio wizardry, full-length albums over singles, scruff over polished sheen.