When the lineup for the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was announced in January, the reaction among a particular demographic of electronic dance music fans was swift and merciless, best captured on the festival’s message board by one user: “It’s like a VIP-bottle Las Vegas casino nightclub has taken over the Sahara.”
Translated: Many dance music snobs are disgruntled about the offerings in the big dance tent and elsewhere on the pitch.
That sentiment has since been echoed often, and with good reason: The presence of superstar DJs like David Guetta, Kaskade, Martin Solveig, Swedish House Mafia — all mainstream dance producers who have taken over the top of the Billboard charts or have sold out mega-tours in the past year — suggests to many that Coachella has lost sight of the dance music vanguard, running counter to the festival’s philosophy of bringing the best forward-thinking music to the desert.
It’s not a festival that would book Rihanna or Black Eyed Peas as headliners, the argument goes, so why are producers responsible for some of their biggest hits worthy headliners? Is Solveig, behind some of the least interesting moments on Madonna’s new album, a better pick than more acclaimed, and forward-thinking producers like, say, Omar S, Ricardo Villalobos, or (insert underground legend here).
Solveig, Guetta, Kaskade and the other dance acts in large font on the Coachella flier make dance music that’s best described as dumb and thumpy house music. It’s music with a relentless 4/4 beat, the rumble of a heartbeat rhythm and simple, repetitive lyrics ripped straight from the back pages of a high school diary: “Sometimes I get a good feeling, get a feeling that I never never never had before,” goes the only lyrics in AVIICI’s huge dance floor anthem, “Levels.”
“Dumb” is a strong word, so maybe “anti-thinking” is a better description of this music. After all, dance tracks by definition are more about the id and escapism than about verbal expression and impressing your professor. Seminal metal band Motorhead’s lyrics are dumb non sequiturs and cliches, but the music’s propellant energy transforms them. The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” is gibberish, but brilliant — as is Donna Summer’s transcendent “I Feel Love,” whose most compelling lyric is “It’s so good, it’s so good.” Plus, it’s not like anyone’s looking to do dissertations on the collected lyrics of Dutch prog-house king DJ Tiesto.
The music controlling the Sahara tent at Coachella is for letting go of logic and thought and embracing the body and movement. Not overly literary Decemberists ditties with grad school lyrics that you want to ponder. Music designed for that mystery place that the influential ‘80s and ‘90s British house music producers KLF dubbed the “3 a.m. eternal,” for late night out-of-body experiences.
It’s for this reason that much of the stuff has been dismissed over the years by rock critics who have never felt the rush of 4 a.m. on a packed, sweaty dance floor, when the mind goes blank and the body takes over, when the beats from the DJ seem shot from his or her heart to yours, and your dance partners are the sexiest people in the world regardless of how ugly they’ll look in a few come-down hours.
But still, surprise, innovation and evolution are necessary, and none of these is the music’s most notable traits. Daft Punk’s “Le Funk” was released 17 years ago — and sounds as innovative today as when it ruled raves.
The dumb thumpy house music genre has evolved over the years as a specific offshoot of Chicago house, Detroit techno, Italian disco and European house that has at various times been called trance, progressive house, progressive trance and equally vague terms — a repetitive rhythm that features what can best be described as “aspirational” synth melodies, little runs that anyone standing at a keyboard for more than 10 minutes can craft with a couple pointer fingers. Its king: Tiesto, who since 1998 has become the biggest progressive house DJ in the world. He headlined the Coachella main stage in 2010.
At its worst, today’s big dance music can sound like Air Supply remixed by an automated production plant (i.e. “Save the World,” by Swedish House Mafia). French dance producer Martin Solveig’s “Hello,” best known to most for its use in a chewing gum commercial, is virtually indefensible to anyone interested in non-cheesy music, and he’s got a prime time slot in the Sahara tent.
In Coachella’s defense, there’s a valid argument to be made that the mainstream has shifted toward Coachella’s all-inclusive, borderless philosophy just as much as the festival has “sold-out” the hard-core dance community. Coachella over the years has intentionally pushed rock, hip-hop and house music side by side; the festival has catered to a generation of kids who grew up with a convergence of sounds, who see no problem with mixing rock and big dumb house music.
As well, the anthemic, progressive sound at the top of the Coachella bill is just the biggest beat among many different subgenres represented: the minimal Berlin sound of Modeselektor will offer more unpredictable variety; the ever-inventive Amon Tobin brings his post-breakbeat, bass-heavy show to offer deconstructed rhythms. And commercial house producers Calvin Harris and Afrojack, while also chart-toppers (in collaboration with, respectively, Rihanna and Pitbull), seem interested in pushing commercial dance music forward.
The list goes on, and combined, offers evidence of an observation that Coachella’s president, Paul Tollett, told me in the summer of 2010, just prior to the apocryphal Electric Daisy Carnival debacle at the L.A. Forum: The Coachella demographic has evolved.
“In the first couple years of Coachella, the crowd was more separated by genre,” he said. “Some of the electronic-leaning people stayed in the [dance] tents for most of the weekend, and the more alt-rock leaning ones watched the outdoor stages. Now it’s all over the place. No one prefers just one specific type of music anymore.”
While true, as the commenters on the Coachella message boards confirm, that doesn’t mean that preferences will disappear — or that critics won’t speak up.