Ok, I’ll try to keep this as brief and concise as possible, but who knows how far it’ll spiral out: if we’re going to say that “electronic music” is currently a worthwhile phrase, we should probably figure out what exactly it means. The way I see it, “electronic music” can be divided into two main categories:

1. Music which could have been made using a variety of means, but was, for the sake of convenience/taste/curiosity/fashion/etc., made electronically.
2. Music which could only have ever been made electronically, and is centered around the specific idiosyncracies of electronic sound generation and the organizational avenues opened thereby.

Definition #1, for me, refers to things like Depeche Mode, ELP, jazz fusion - yes, electronic instruments feature heavily in the music, but they’re being used in fundamentally the same ways as one would use traditional instruments: a person is playing a piano-style keyboard to produce equal-tempered musical notes, arranged in a more-or-less conventional song structure coming from one established cultural tradition or another (rock, jazz, cod-classical, take your pick). The point is, you could play this music on other instrumentation and the core structure/content/meaning/whatever would be preserved (as the numerous covers of Blue Monday, Enjoy The Silence and other synth-pop classics can confirm). Even groups like Tangerine Dream, fully-synthesized as they are, still have more to do with Philip Glass or Terry Riley than they do with a properly-electronic mode of musical expression (in the paradigm-shifting sense, at least). The main thing here is that, if a sufficiently-skilled and properly-equipped group of humans can make music-theoretical sense of what you’re doing, and could convincingly reproduce it through non-electronic instrumental means, you’re covered by definition #1.

Definition #2, on the other hand, would refer to things like post-Confield Autechre, Oval, John Oswald, Eliane Radigue, etc. - essentially, the GRM-and-onwards school of avant-garde music tag-teaming it with the Warp Records / Mille Plateaux zones of the 90s/2000s. I’d also throw a fair amount of noise music in here, and industrial music as well (at least Coil and co. - not the Hot Topic kind). The main idea with this definition is that it describes music that could not be convincingly reproduced in any way other than the way it was, in fact, actually made. This definition covers music that is essentially electronic, that could not have been conceived of prior to the invention of the relevant technology, and that results more from childlike engagement with new/alien-seeming sonic materials than from writing music.

(Please note that these definitions, salient as they are, are not evaluative of the music categorized into either one: there’s plenty of beauty and plenty of garbage in both categories, and I don’t make these divisions to pass judgement on the methods or results of either side. Do what thou wilt, verily, but it’s still worth considering how things align themselves).

Things are complicated somewhat by the question of where to put the various dance musics, i.e. techno, house, jungle, etc. I’m generally inclined to put them into definition #2, at least in their pre-EDM forms, though I can see them fitting under #1 as well - let’s say they straddle the line pretty effectively, as on the one hand, each was, at the time of its birth, an absolutely new and radical form of musical production, centered largely around the inhuman timing of an x0x sequencer and the generally irresponsible textures of a sampler on overdrive. On the other hand, however, all of these genres and the resulting sub-/micro-/nano-splinterings thereof did rather quickly develop concerns about legitimizing themselves through increased comprehensibility and engagement with musical traditionalism (Bukem/4Hero jazzin’ up the hardcore continuum, vocal/diva house in its entirety, sad-sack German technoid orchestral samplings, and so on). I’m unsure how to properly categorize these elements, and generally do so on an artist-by-artist basis, which, though time-consuming, is generally the mode I find myself most comfortable with.

So anyway, now that we’ve established these two general zones into which we can chuck most of the stuff that gets called “electronic music”, we can start trying to figure out if either one of them is really still worth its salt as we approach the third decade of the 21st century.

Definition #1 - how much salt is it worth? Not much salt, simply because this definition now covers basically all popular music (and lots of unpopular music as well), save the most willfully-nostalgico-regressive examples. The musical landscape of the 21st century is so thoroughly infiltrated by electronic instruments, production styles and aesthetics that the only things that escape it are those that take as their central tenet the idea that “we can just pretend it’s still 1970” - I’m thinking here of that strange time in the early aughts when definite-article bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes made their bid at redeeming the horrors of nu-metal and other Woodstock-99-ery.

As far as I see it, the majority of even vaguely-popular music is, at this point, “electronic music”, if definition #1 is to be accepted. EDM, hip-hop, “bass music”, synthwave and the like do appear to be the defining musical “movements” of the last decade+, and so from this perspective, I would assert that they’re more accurately defined as “popular music” than as “electronic music”. The point I’m trying to make is that calling EDM “electronic music” is like calling rock n roll “guitar music”, or perhaps “electric music”, or like calling jazz “saxophone music” - sure, that’s the instrumentation, the means of production, but that’s not actually the heart of the matter, now is it?

This is complicated a bit by the aspect of my definition that deals with the music being able to be reproduced by other technological means - although I contend that most of what’s going on in contemporary pop music is, music-theory-wise, the same as it ever was, I do admit that things like auto-tune and the battery of Omnisphere presets at play in 2010s EDM hits would pose something of a challenge to someone attempting to arrange them for acoustic instruments while preserving their general sonic qualities. That said, I feel like I’ve heard enough sensitive-ballad-y Güëttä schlock to know that these supposed technological futurisms are being used utterly superficially, as a way to cash in on a moment, and do not contain any essential, irreducible artistic information.

(Please note that now I definitely am being evaluative, judgemental, and certainly derisive. There’s a time and a place for derision - the time is now, the place is here.)

In summary: all popular music is, at this point, electronic music, therefore the distinction is meaningless when applied in this manner.

Definition #2 - how’s that salt lookin’? It looks...fine? I’m unsure, but feel like we have other, better descriptors for the various subdivisions of “unconventional music” than simply slacking our jaws and wetly-drawling, “well lookey here, they’s got them synth-ee-syzers, paw ”. When it comes to the whole notion of genres, labels, categories, etc., I’m of two minds (two fishes do swim within the body of man, yet the fishes, they are one): on the one hand, like all us insufferably-sensitive artist-types, I find them hopelessly reductive and destructive to the true creative spirit, while on the other hand, I love concocting genre nonsense as an extension of the fundamentally D&D-like practice of coming up with track names, artist monikers, fictional backstories and the like. I’ll also hesitantly admit that genre terms are occasionally practically-useful when trying to talk to other people, but I think a solid sense of humor and awareness of the goofiness of the entire situation is required for that dynamic to avoid the death spiral of aenemic Pitchforkana.

So, definition #2 still has a bit of life in it, if only in the sense that the music in this zone is compositionally-weirder than that of definition #1. The last few squiggle behemoths that Autechre have put out are pretty fuckin’ electronic, in a way utterly divorced from both whatever Diplo’s up to and from whatever music of the 1980s ex-midwestern-noise-scene dark bros are trying to “revive” so they can keep the withdrawals at bay. That said, even if the structure and implications of contemporary bleep-bloops are convincingly-distinct from mid-20th-century popular songwriting styles, I’m still not sure “electronic music” is the best phrase to use when talking about them, if for no other reason than that that term has been applied to so many different things at this point that no one’s gonna know what you actually mean by it until they hear the music. This is where I make a vague case for being simultaneously more-and-less specific: if you’re making ambient music, does it matter if it’s electronic? Probably not. Noise music - is the electronic-ness essential? I don’t think so. Experimental/drone/industrial/etc. - gotta be electronic? Nah, not buying it. I think it’s more useful to just say “it’s ambient music” whether you mean Erik Satie, Stars of the Lid or Biosphere. Coil Presents Time Machines or LaMonte Young, it’s drone either way. Early Merzbow, late Merzbow, the operative quality is Merzbow, not if he’s got a computer or a contact mic. Categorize generally, and then just talk about the specific thing in question.

In summary: weird music is better defined by other terms, since even if “electronic music” remains technically-applicable, it’s become much too general to really mean anything of substance.

Looking around, I see I have managed to spiral this out pretty far, and it seems unlikely I’ll manage to properly reign it in to some kind of satisfying conclusion (but then, that was never the goal here - this is riffing, not a manifesto). All I want to get at by way of an ending is this notion that, in 2019, all music is in one way or another electronic - even the music of renowned old-man-yelling-at-cloud Keith Jarrett, with all his well-documented ideological opposition to electricity, can still be streamed off your phone, right to your bluetooth speakers, so there’s clearly not much point in fighting electronic-ness, though I’d also caution against getting too attached to it either. So much of the cultural baggage of electronic music has to do with its status as “the music of the future”, which is bound to all the sketchy fascism-alikes of Futurism itself. With electronic music traditionally cleaving itself to “the future”, and acoustic music holding steadfastly to “the past”, what’s an eternalist like myself to do? For me, neither past nor future actually exists, nor does the present, since “the present” is still reliant on a positioning between these refuted pasts and futures, and on a belief in the objective existence of time (which does not exist). Music, electronic or otherwise, like seemingly everything else, just is.
© 2019