Are we witnessing the next mainstream electronic wave?

Following on the theme explored in the post on the success of Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow” (and tip: don’t listen to the song right before work in the AM, lest you be hearing the song running through your head all god-damned day!), I continue to wonder about the growing sense that we are entering into another period of mainstreamization of electronic music. 

Electronic music occasionally witnesses the co-opting of its themes by a mainstream artist here and there but the last time it reached across genres onto the mainstream charts was in the early 90s, when everyone and their dog was recording a so-called “techno” album (never mind that few of these albums were anything of the kind – REM’s Up and The Cardigans’ Gran Turismo were not “techno” albums, despite the label given them by the mainstream press who seemed utterly befuddled by the movement at the time). Since then it’s been sporadic, but as is always the case, music has its natural ebbs and flows. One day it’s all boy bands, the next it’s country rock, next it’s roots rock and sometimes, occasionally, electronic music becomes in vogue.

Of course this forces us to revisit our definition of “electronic music”. As Softsynth has mused before, it’s a tricky thing to pin down. We distinguish between mere “producer music” and real electro. Producer music is wallpaper meant to either augment or cover up elements that define a given artist. You are not meant to pick out the instrumentation in a meaningful way, it’s just machines used to build some kind of pastiche. I posit that Rhiana is such an artist, as has been Britney Spears until very recently. Real “electronic music” makes the sounds as key as the artist (witness the instrumental bridge in “Boom Boom Pow”), said sounds are prominent and a key part of the fabric of a given sound. And suddenly we are seeing this kind of music slipping onto the charts (for our purposes, we are referring to the US Billboard charts;European charts have a different flow to them, sometimes much more diverse, other times more amorphous, though in a completely different direction than the US charts at any given time).

I was watching MuchMusic recently (similar to MTV in Canada) and caught a song by UK artist Little Boots called “New in Town” and before I could change the channel, the stop-start stutter of the opening synth lines grabbed me. The song is starting to get radio play and make an impression on various charts. And it’s pure electronics, and it’s pretty awesome. As a consummate music snob that’s an odd thing for me. At the same time Phoenix are making their own chart waves with their synth-influenced pop-rock, and as I listen to the album while I type I am struck by how ubiquitous this sound has become. I realize hearing music this electronically influenced mixed into to otherwise mainstream pop sensibilities has snuck up and started to penetrate the charts. 

And much of it is pure crap. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga (number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 at this writing), the bulk of Britney’s most recent album (her second in a row that is nakedly, brazenly electronic), a lot of it isn’t to Softsynth’s taste but that doesn’t alter the fact that the musical morays have shifted again and the synth is (for this week at least) king. (And it’s healthy to have diversity within the genre; I don’t enjoy all blues, or classical, or alternative pop, but I do much of these genres, why should electronic music be any different?).

So what does this mean to more traditional artists within the genre? Well, not a lot probably. It’s still mainstream tastes that govern what gets radio play, or what sells in the ever-dwindling music market, and an alternative artist is still an alternative artist, even if their given genre is in vogue at a given moment. But it’s interesting to occasionally go through a period of time when a heavy synth line doesn’t raise eyebrows as something lacking in musicality or unworthy of being part of the fabric of the day’s music. Sometimes it’s nice to be a little closer to being on the inside looking out…

Watch: Little Boots – New in Town

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One Response to “Are we witnessing the next mainstream electronic wave?”

  1. pteittinen Says:

    Good post. I’ve noticed the same thing. I’ve actually been telling my friends for more than a year that electronics are coming back properly, and 2009 seems to be the year for that.

    Little Boots, yes. Her YouTube videos caught my attention a while ago and it’s certainly nice to see this cute British electro-geek (she’s REALLY into synths and technology) get a recording deal and some chart success as well. Some of her tracks have been somewhat overproduced, unfortunately, and I’m pretty sure she would’ve preferred a more 80s pure synthpoppy approach. That said, I’m sure she agrees with the record label that sound wouldn’t sell. “New in Town” is nowhere near the best track of the album, mind you.

    In case you weren’t aware, Christina Aguilera’s forthcoming album will be very electronic indeed.

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