I had a dream
We were sipping whiskey neat
Highest floor, The Bowery
Nowhere’s high enough
Somewhere along the lines
We stopped seeing eye to eye
You were staying out all night
And I had enough
This is not an unearthed stanza from a recently discovered notebook of William Carlos Williams. Nor is it a cluster of lines from the latest Sun Kil Moon album. These, mate, are Kygo lyrics. See for yourself:
Despite the narrator of that song clearly suffering from some sort of existential isolation, Kygo is in fact far from alone in his attempts at introspection.
“I am fire gasoline, Come pour yourself all over me, We’ll let this place go down in flames only one more time,” goes Zedd’s latest single “Stay,” meditating on the destruction of impulse.
“Where was the real? Undefined, spiraling out of touch, Forgot how it feels,” ponders Dua Lipa on Martin Garrix’s “Scared to be Lonely.”
“Sitting in the living room, You look at me, I stare at you, I see the doubt, I see the love.” A recently translated excerpt of Jacque Prevert? Nah mate, it’s MØ on the new Snakehips record.
The trend is clear. Mainstream electronic music is trying to get serious. Perhaps seeking to distance themselves from the gratuitous whimsy of the cake-throwers and men in mouse masks, chart-bothering EDM producers have begun churning out songs with lyrics that resemble inspirational quotes penned by the Used. The new brand of sad-lad Emo-DM producers present their overwrought emotions nuance-free, telling tortuous stories of love, loss and international travel with absolute sincerity. Shooting for emotional grandeur via the medium of sixth form poetry. Or, as with kitchen sink drama starring Sean Paul that is Clean Bandit’s latest single, attempting to interweave cinematic pathos into tropical house.
These are hits intent on making you think as much as they make you put your motherfuckin’ hands in the air. Producers who wear their hearts on their sleeves, provided no blood gets on the leather because it’s Japanese and cost a shit ton to import, okay?
Pop music, of course, moves in trends, but normally these manifest themselves in production style, videography or dress-code. The phenomenon currently gripping chart dance music is peculiar in that it’s a narrative one. Heaters that have shifted their gaze from the party, and turned into strangely morose—albeit totally vacuous—reflections on the human condition.
The tropes are nearly always the same. There’s a girl, and a boy—both tanned, and sporting the sort of bone structure you’d take 45 minutes sellotaping your face to the back of head to get anywhere close to—and their world is falling apart. There are hazy memories from the night before and the stench of regret stings the nostrils. Maybe they “took a pill in Ibiza” and now feel they have somehow aged ten years in the process, or perhaps they have spent too long getting high because they felt so low, as Justin Bieber finds himself on “Cold Water.” The drama is normally drawn from a comedown, either or emotional or chemical, that the narrator is embroiled in. Oh and there are normally lots of balconies involved. Balconies and terraces.
For make no mistake, these are stories that tell the problems of privilege. In an attempt to be taken more seriously EDM has become obsessed with documenting the heartbreaks of the 1%. Emotional Dance Music deals with the trials and tribulations of the sort of people who wake up in a penthouse suite in Manhattan with a sore head from the night before, only to have that pain compounded by the realization that they are drifting apart from the person they have spent the past two weeks sending nudes to over Snapchat. These are people who need your emotional support about as much as your financial.
Which brings us onto Chainsmokers, two men who—despite looking like the sort of jocks who get their comeuppance in the final act of the film when the hero (who they bullied mercilessly in the opening ten minutes) employs the help of his new alien pals in order to fly the bullies car over a canyon and straight into a big pile of compost, causing them both to burst out either door crying “It’s spooked! Let’s split!”—are currently the most talked about producers in electronic pop.
They have provided the ultimate example of Emotional Dance Music in the shape of “Paris.” A top ten hit in the UK that leans on many of the aforementioned tropes: abandonment, getting wasted, a far-flung destination and a terrace. The song’s efforts to appear profound are so clunky the results border on surreal. For instance, consider this title card from the beginning of the lyric video. It reads: “Paris \ pa-rəs \ n 1: a sentimental yearning for a reality that isn’t genuine 2: an irrecoverable condition for fantasy that evokes nostalgia or day dreams.” The Chainsmokers approach to profundity can’t even be called copy and paste. It’s simply a case of flinging clever sounding words and the Eiffel Tower and seeing what sticks.
It’s more than that though. The Chainsmokers also present the inherent contradiction, or at least gross hypocrisy at the centre of all of EDM’s newfound feelings. For while they might spend their songs promising “If we go down then we go down together,” let’s not forget they spend real life promising “Even before success, pussy was number one.” Obviously it’s grim to hear anyone talk about their insatiable appetite for pussy, but it’s made so much worse when the same people produce such sanctimonious, self-pitying music. At least Mick Jagger was consistent.
Which sort of brings out exactly why EDM’s existential dread is so grating. The tales of heartache and strife at the centre of every song are little more than white male fantasies. Women are general fallen angels who have partied too hard and shunned the support of their loving man, to their detriment. Men, on the other hand, play up to every tortured artist expectation imaginable. Like millennial Danielle Steel characters, they are disillusioned and despairing to discover that it’s lonely at the top—like Drake, without any of the charm or any of the tunes. The lyrical content of current EDM hits rely on the myth that suffering is interesting, that the privileged producers making the songs are worthy protagonists, and in turn that anxiety or depression is a shortcut to artistic maturity. After all, what is “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” if not a half-hearted attempt at introspection from someone who has listened to 808s & Heartbreaks and figured “actually maybe partying is like, bad for my mental wellbeing?”
EDM used to be childish, wearing silly costumes and throwing cake at people. Now, as it enters adolescence, it has begun languishing in all the self-pity and trivial dramas that come with those awkward teenage years. Next stop: mid-life crisis.