What exactly constitutes “electronic” music?

I have been asked following my posted review of Lily Allen’s great new album, what do I consider electronic music? Where does the line get drawn? Why is it that many bands lumped in as part of the electro universe only possess a tentative link at best? There are obvious rock bands that some consider part of that universe and other artists that clearly find themselves driven by electronic soundscapes but would never be considered part of the electronic scene. What gives?

In 1964, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously tried to explain “hard-core” pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it .” It’s become an oft-repeated quote (or some version if it) to explain that which we are challenged to effectively explain. I gesture wildly at that same quote with regard to what constitutes electronic music.

Anything by Swedish bit-pop band Thermostatic is clearly electronic music. Anything every recorded by Kraftwerk is electronic music. Komputer’s Synthetik album is unquestionably electronic music. Apparently any band that replaces a “c” at the beginning of a word with a corresponding “k” is an electronic artist.

But what about Zeromancer’s new song, “Doppelganger, I Love You”? They have long been considered part of the electronic pantheon though often that connection has been tenuous and never more so than on a (great) new song that is pretty straightforward guitar/drum propelled rock.

Is the absence of guitar? Well, obviously not. Electronic pioneers Ultravox used guitars prominently, as did Bowie during his “electronic phase”. Depeche Mode added guitar to the mix in 1988 and bands like Mesh, De/Vision and Apoptgygma Berzerk all started as pure electro acts and pretty seamlessly folded in guitar to the point that it’s standard operating procedure now.

Is it the absence of drums? Well, no, was there ever a more influential electronic artist than Gary Numan or Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark? And both used drums (often mixed with programmed drums, to be sure) throughout their careers. Ditto Ultravox again.

On the flip side a band like Keane has no guitar yet I would not have classified them as an electronic artist. The Kills have no drums but, again, would anyone consider them an electronic band? Hardly.

So what is it, other than the whole swapping the c for the k business?

One standard I tend to apply is the prominence of electronics vis-à-vis everything else they do. Often, in fact usually, a keyboard player has a certain role in a band. Other than the occasional fill or riff, they are part of the overall sound, part of the wallpaper, often playing the role of a rhythm guitar. A truly electronic band flips that formula, whereby the electronics, usually synths, are responsible for the principle sound of a song while the guitar or drums play the filler/wallpaper role. All the above-mentioned bands use this formula. If the programmed drums are prominent and a key part of the music, or the sythesizers are key to the sound of the band (the reason why purely producer-driven artists of the Spears variety wouldn’t be electronic artists per se, because it’s *all* wallpaper except for the manipulated, auto-tuned vocals and more imporantly, the accompanying image of the artist in question.)

So is Depeche Mode still an electronic band? Yes, because their sound is driven by electronics, despite the presence of so much guitar these days and even drums in the live show. Are the Killers an electronic band? No, because though they are clearly influenced by early 80’s new wave their use of keyboards is purely atmospheric and part of the wallpaper, not the dominant sound. Are Nice Inch Nails an electronic band? Sometimes. On a track like “Survivalism”, clearly not, on ones like “God Given” or “Closer”, you betcha.

At the end of the day the thing that distinguishes an electronic artist is if they claim the distinction. If Lily Allen decides her new album is a synth driven exercise, then so it is. If Zeromancer decide they are leaving that part of their past behind, then so it is also (I haven’t heard the rest of the new album, Sinners International, so I withhold my judgment). Sometimes this community will claim as our own artists that have left us behind or were never ours to begin with and other times we will reject those that want entry, but ultimately it’s a sliding scale, and as Justice Potter once noted, I know it when I see it.

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One Response to “What exactly constitutes “electronic” music?”

  1. […] a good live electronic act or when we produce lists and more specifically we addressed the more holistic issue. Worth reading again if you are speculating where we’re coming from with our classifications […]

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