Etymology of EDM: The Complex Heritage Of Electronic Dance Music

The latest label comes from a long line of linguistic difficulties

It was every record store clerk’s biggest headache. The customer was in his late teens, perhaps early 20s. He was dressed in baggy raver jeans, with a skate brand t-shirt and baseball cap. All crisp and new. He was looking for a style of electronic music he could only refer to as “hardcore house.”

The year was 1999, and I had found myself working at a record store in suburban Detroit well known for its dance music selection. The American rave scene was hitting an apex, and because of that, my coworkers and I were used to dealing with newbs to the music.

I knew that a specialist store like ours could be intimidating to the uninitiated. It had only been a few years since I’d first braved the massive stacks of vinyl myself, utterly unfamiliar with the thousands of names that appeared printed on the sleeves. What sort of music did these mystery discs contain? How would I learn these thousands of new artists and imprints? Most importantly, how could I identify the records that contained the music I had so recently and deeply fallen for, heard for the first time in warehouse parties, devoid of any clear descriptive characteristics? It wasn’t like you could hum these tunes (thump-thump-pew-pew-PEW) or recite the lyrics of these mainly instrumental cuts. It felt like something you had to know. And if you had to ask…

Empathizing with the enthusiastic consumer, I tried my best to identify what he was talking about. Our well-sorted selection contained a few “hardcore” records, which in electronic music terms meant fast, heavy and aggressive beats—almost metal-esque in its aesthetic. There was also “happy hardcore,” which took ridiculously sped-up breakbeats and added chipmunk vocal samples to the blend. It only took a few seconds of each to realize this wasn’t the “hardcore house” in question.

Focusing on the “House” portion of the description, I pulled a few records from Bad Boy Bill, an upbeat DJ from Chicago who was a huge draw in the area and often one of the first DJs that new fans were drawn towards. My client spent a few moments with each record before sheepishly admitting this wasn’t quite what he was looking for either.

Sensing my growing frustration at his inarticulate description of the music he wanted but that’s name he did not know, the customer offered to just browse a bit on his own. I agreed to let him explore and excused myself to go back to the cash register.

Several minutes passed when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught the customer excitedly nodding his head at the listening station, clutching the headphones against his ears. I walked over at took a glimpse at the rotating sticker at the center of the record. It was a track by local techno hero Richie Hawtin—a stone cold classic of the techno genre to be sure. I chuckled as just as surely no one had ever called that record “hardcore house” before.

A French discothèque in 1979

All music has labels attached to it. But no style is as dependent upon those labels as dance music. It’s a result of the performance model, where DJs play mostly songs created by other producers, rather than their own compositions. Furthermore, the music is meant to be seamlessly mixed together, creating a single musical experience greater than the sum of its parts. Because of this, music is gathered and sorted by the nuances of the sound, rather than simply a listing of the songs. A band might be able to play an upbeat rocker or two followed by a ballad in concert. But a club DJ can rarely take such stylistic liberties. He is expected to select a style and stick with it, letting changes evolve slowly, and never veering too far from the central sound. This is essential to both the clubbing experience on the immediate level, and the DJs reputation on a wider scale.

That’s why dance music retail relies so heavily on genre designations to offer consumers an easy entry point into the sound they are seeking out. With literally thousands of songs become available each week—the typical economic barriers to entry have been eliminated by the MP3 distribution model—one has to start somewhere. Even if that somewhere is an imaginary genre called “hardcore house.”

This is one of the reasons why EDM, the latest term being used to describe dance music, is so problematic. The letters stand for Electronic Dance Music, a blanket term if ever there was one, meant to cover the myriad of sounds and styles of music made by electronic instruments for people to dance to. Many chaff at the terms clear commercial insinuation. Electronic music (or EDM) is huge in America right now, with millions of young people answering it’s energetic and hedonistic clarion call. And with that popularity comes what many assume to be a bubble called EDM that will eventually burst.

So what does EDM mean, and where did it come from? And is the name itself in danger of becoming a liability to the very interests it purportedly represents? To best answer these questions, one should look at the history of genre names in dance music. Clear patterns emerge that might be able to save EDM from its name.

It began with disco, a word derived from the French word discothèque, meaning a place for discs. Those discs were vinyl records. In this particular case, music banned by the Nazis during their occupation of France. The places were underground venues where French youth would gather to dance to the forbidden sounds of jazz and swing. The word remained after the war, spreading through Europe to refer to any nightclub-type establishment where dancing took place. It traveled to America — likely in the mind of returning GIs — and began to take root in North America as well.

Playboy magazine referred to a nightlife venue itself as a disco in 1964

Use of the word discothèque as a place (rather than a thing) would continue throughout the 50s and 60s. It’s shortened version, disco, at one point described a type of dress worn to such establishments. Playboy magazine referred to a nightlife venue itself as a disco in 1964. By the early 1970s in New York, disco as a genre name began to take hold at underground parties like The Loft and The Gallery, used to describe the new sound which blended elements of funk and soul (along with Latin rhythms) to create a steady dance floor beat that could go on all night.

The disco “sound” was codified by the mid-70s and quickly became a buzzword thanks to the massive success of Saturday Night Fever and mega-hits by the Bee Gees and other top selling groups. The word soon took on a negative connotation to many who considered the ethnic and effete audience of disco and affront to the increasingly conservative and masculine attitude of rock & roll. By the late 70s, “Disco Sucks” became an increasingly loud meme, climaxing in the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago, when local rock DJs Steve Dahl and Garry Meier encouraged attendees to bring their disco records, which were then detonated in the outfield.

Frankie Knuckles would play a mix of traditional Disco and the more primitive sounding dance records

Disco might have become a pariah word by the early 80s, but it didn’t matter as several others had taken its place. The first was “house.” House music was named after the WareHouse, a nightclub where resident DJ Frankie Knuckles would play a mix of traditional disco and the more primitive sounding dance records being created by local musicians using a new generation of cheaply priced electronic instruments, including synthesizers, drum machines and early samplers. House music would become a local phenomenon in Chicago by the mid-80s, broadcast daily on several local stations. In the city that had become famous for it’s Discouragement of Disco less than a decade earlier, this was proof that often all a style of music needs to survive is a slight update in sound and some rebranding.

The second new style was electro, an up-tempo offshoot of New York’s fledgling hip-hop scene, which was constructed almost entirely out of electronic instrumentation and relied heavily on themes of afro-futurism, as best personified by Bronx-based DJ Afrika Baambaata on his 1982 hit “Planet Rock.” Crafted by Boston-born producer Arthur Baker, “Planet Rock” essentially combined parts from two different songs by 70s German electronic music auteurs Kraftwerk into a seminal piece of dance music that still resonates today.

A third style, “techno” was born in Detroit, and acted as a stylistic medium between the New York and Chicago sounds. Named after the term “techno rebels,” which pioneering techno artist Juan Atkins got from futurist Alvin Tofflers book, The Third Wave, techno took an austere approach to a sound typically considered party music. It addressed, among other things, issues of industrial decline in the inner cities. This was a message missed by many in the music’s lyric-less approach, but the melancholic undertones of most classic Detroit techno are hard to miss.

Of the three labels, techno became the dominant term to describe electronically produced dance music. Unfortunately for it’s original practitioners, the term became a catchall which included a great deal of forgettable 80s dance pop, the UK act Technotronic’s 1989 hit “Pump Up the Jam” being a prime example. Ten years after the disco demolition in Chicago, techno was now as maligned as its disco predecessor. But again, that wouldn’t stop the music from spreading.

Trance is a mix of taunt American techno and more melodic sounds of European-bred musicians such as Giorgio Moroder

By the early-90s, rave music—as it was now being called to refer to the all-night parties taking place in the U.K.—was rapidly gaining popularity across the U.S. and Europe. Techno might have been a dirty word to rock-loving Americans, but the sound in its originally-inspired form became hugely popular in continental Europe, along with house and trance (the latter a mix of taunt American techno and more melodic sounds of European-bred musicians such as Giorgio Moroder and Vangelis). In England, the various rave genres were joined by regional styles such as drum & bass, a blend of rapid-tempo breakbeats and Afro-Caribbean influenced sounds, and big beat, which, named after the bombastic 1980 Billy Squire hit, squeezed elements of rock back into the dance music mold. Unsurprisingly, that sound made significant strides in the U.S., marketed this time as “electronica.”

By 1999, electronica was pegged for the next big thing in America, capturing the imagination of the media as the eventual successor to rock & roll. However, like disco and techno before it, the music’s appeal proved short lived, and by the early 2000s was overtaken, not by rock, but by hip-hop and country music as the mainstream’s music of choice. For an industry that had now seen three decades of rise and fall, the electronica crash felt particularly acute. The scramble to regroup brought along a slew of names for the music, all of which failed to gain traction, perhaps because they almost exclusively relied upon references to previous genres.

Electroclash was the most egregious failure, in part due to the overt marketing aspirations of its coiner, New York DJ Larry Tee. Micro-house was another media-invented term (this time by American journalist Philip Sherburne in UK mag The Wire, writing mainly about German Techno producers). Disco-punk was obvious in its meaning, a direct reference to two sounds joined successfully by mid-00s New York acts like the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, while blog house took things linguistically retro by referencing not the sound or style, but the platform, in this case, dance music promoted and popularized on blogs. It was disco = disc all over again.

In an interesting twist, the word electro was revived to describe a new wave of synth-heavy club killers lead by house music veterans Daft Punk, despite the fact that the sound had very few similarities to the original electro music of the 80s.

For a popular movement, it seemed as if artists, media and fans had simply run out of new words to call the music.

None of these styles or signatures would last very long on their own, but combined they slowly began to create a new generation of music fans willing to give dance music a shot. Dubstep was the first out the gate in terms of approaching mass popularity. On the one hand, this is surprising, given the music’s most origins as the dark and moody younger nephew of U.K. drum & bass, which failed to ever find much of a footing in America. On the other hand, the gut-punch bass and hands-in-the-air melodies of former rocker Skrillex’s particular brand of dubstep made him an obvious first star of the scene, appealing to kids raised on rock, but unafraid of drum machines. Coming from the other direction, headliner acts like Deadmau5 and Kaskade drew from a far more female-friendly dance pop sound, and were joined by their European ilk like Hardwell and David Guetta, all working working under the progressive house umbrella,. With tides rising on both sides, unifying term was again needed to cover the various (and often divergent) sounds that shared a similar audience. Enter EDM, a term that, to many, not only encompasses these newly popular dance sounds, but also historical styles like techno, trance and house, as well as emerging subgenres such as trap, hardstyle and moombahton.

Born in Chicago, with roots as a house DJ, Kaskade draws from a more female-friendly dance sound

Like electronica before it, the term EDM does not have a clear etymology. What is known is that it was in use as early as 1985, as a corporate term used to envelope the disparate sounds into one easy-to-market department. EDM largely serves the same purposes today. Perhaps that’s why everyone seems to dislike the term, even those who make the music.

EDM in its current form has two uses. The first is as a narrow genre name meant to indicate the most pop-friendly end of the dance music spectrum. The sonic signature of an EDM song are generally clear—shrill melodic synth lines and over-the-top pop choruses (frequently sung by mainstream singers or rappers), broken up by dreamy sonic lulls and swelling builds.

If EDM were only used in this form, it likely wouldn’t ruffle so many feathers. It is the use of EDM as a catchall term is far more problematic, refusing to distinguish between the sing-along songs of Avicii, the taunt techno of Carl Cox, and the destructive dubstep of Skrillex. The reason for this consolidation of classification has a great to do with the economies of scale necessary to activate large scale festival events in the U.S. These multi-day, multi-stage, 100,000 person-plus gatherings have been the engine driving the popularity of EDM for the past half-a-decade. The need to attract enough ticket buyers has meant casting as wide a net as possible over the full expanse of dance music (minus only the most niche forms).

The positive view of this trend is that the wide exposure of a vast audience to the beauty of repetitive beats will lead to an appreciation of all forms of dance music. And this seems to be playing out in many parts of America, with even the toughest European techno DJ able to draw audiences exponentially larger than just a few years ago. But it has also lead to some exasperating incidents when well-respected underground acts such as Mark Farina and DJ Shadow have been literally removed from the decks for not playing music mainstream enough for the uneducated audience suddenly filling the VIP booths at clubs in Miami and Las Vegas. How to handle the delicate delineation between music meant for mass consumption and more obviously outlier sounds has sparked a debate that is currently being had across the dance music industry, with some major players embracing the EDM flag as a unifying expression of a movement, while others attempt to distance themselves from the term entirely and retreat into their own insular and accepting audience.

History would have you believe that the later group of EDM extricates is placing the wiser bet.

Electronic music’s past is full of fallen phrases intended as simple shorthand for a variety of sounds—always at a time when the music’s popularity begins to crest.

Other umbrella terms used to describe musical genres—rock, jazz, hip-hop—all came early in the music’s annals, creating a clear trunk upon which additional subgenres (punk, be-bop, G-funk) can grow. Electronic music, on the other hand, suffers from too many tributaries, not enough clear shipping lanes.

In England, electronic music and its myriad subgenres has had a much smoother sail than it’s American counterparts. This could be partially because all this music has, for decades, been referred to as “dance music” — an irrefutable fact for 90% of the releases in this category. Adding an “Electronic” to the beginning of the phrase might not seem to mean much, but the linguistic challenge of what to call this type of music reflects the music’s uneasy history of boom and bust in America. For all we know, it might even be causing it.

Illustration by Sean Clauretie

Follow Joshua Glazer on Twitter @JoshuaGlazer
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