Guest Column, Then & Now, Industry Insight

Electronica: Then & Now

Seth Lorinczi
Seth Lorinczi on Jul 17, 2018

Of all the musical styles jostling for their place in the spotlight, perhaps none is as all-encompassing as electronica. In many regards the first truly global genre, electronica isn’t bound by any specific language, cultural boundary or geographic limitation.

As the name suggests, one could define “electronica” simply as “music made using electronic instruments”, but even that’s not so simple! There’s a counterargument that electronica need not even be electronic in nature, as modern artists like GoGo Penguin or truly ancient styles such as Balinese Gamelan suggest.

So what, then, is electronica exactly? What makes it so vast and nebulous while remaining rooted to a specific scene? In large part, much of what makes music electronica is its intent. Historically, it’s been a simple one: To make people—often very large numbers of them—dance. Or to relax. Or even to fall asleep (not to be confused with music that’s simply, well, dull.)

Perhaps it’s this sense of purpose—often only hinted at in other genres—that defines electronica. It’s one of music’s paradoxes that while its name suggests cutting-edge technology—sequencing, MIDI control, IC chips and other tools of 21st-century music creation—its goal is as ancient as that of the creator of the "Divje Babe Flute,” a 43,500-year-old cave bear femur that may be one of the oldest musical instruments. It’s supposed to make you move.

Early Precursors of Electronica

In the dim hope of not losing focus completely, we’re going to constrain ourselves to electronica actually produced by electronic instruments. This keeps us squarely within the last 100 years or so, which is a (relatively) safe place to be when writing about a vast genre of music!

Electronics, of course, require electricity. Safe, reliable household and commercial electricity was a fact of life in developed countries by the end of the 19th century, and with the 1904 invention of the electron-conducting—or vacuum—tube, electronic musical devices weren’t far behind.

Many of those early devices were lost to history (at least until Radiohead and Gotye decided to do something about it). But with the advent of cheap, reliable, and miniature transistors in the 1950s, the stage was set for a revolution in electronic music. Though the 1960s saw the creation of several synthesizers—instruments that could create audible waves through purely electronic means—only one survived to become a household name: Moog.  

Of course, these new electronic instruments required musicians to play them. Because the early synthesizers came with prohibitive price tags—the “affordable” MiniMoog of 1970 cost roughly $10,000 in today’s dollars—their use was largely confined to composers such as Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnik working in music schools like Mills College in Oakland, CA, as well as by more established musicians such as Keith Emerson of ELP.

Of all the artists to make the leap from the conservatory to the stage, none had so profound an influence as Kraftwerk, formed in Düsseldorf, West Germany in 1970. Refining their early experimental efforts into a finely tuned, minimalist style they dubbed “robot pop,” Kraftwerk brought synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers—devices or computer programs that control, trigger, loop and edit music in analog or digital formats—into the mainstream. And while English was the predominant language of pop music, from 1977’s Trans-Europe Express onward all of the group’s albums were released in German, and occasionally other languages as well. It was a small but significant step towards the globalization of pop music.

The 1990s: Electronica Hits the Mainstream      

Kraftwerk had played a large part in developing and popularizing the vocabulary of electronica, but it would take a new generation of artists—armed by leaps in musical and computer-based technologies—to truly bring it to the masses.

Just as with punk, the ‘80s were a crucial time of behind-the-scenes development and refinement in electronic music. Throughout the decade, regional and highly individual club scenes developed all over Europe, the UK, and the United States. This was nothing new; genres like Northern Soul were long-established by that point. But the rise of affordable musical samplers such as the E-Mu SP-12 and the Akai series meant that for the first time, the tools to make electronic and sample-based dance music were in everyone’s hands.

Soon, global currents were allowing genres to cross-pollinate. Chicago’s homegrown acid house scene found a willing home in Manchester and other European cities, with dance parties attracting thousands of attendees at a time.

Musically, the genre was adapting to its mission. If Kraftwerk’s lyrics teetered between a sort of wide-eyed wonder at the trappings of contemporary life and a sense of alienation from society, the music at these increasingly huge events was about one thing and one thing only: Dancing.

Often eschewing traditional lyrical, melodic and harmonic approaches, bass and rhythm took center stage here. Embracing cutting-edge technology, music creators were hearkening back to a very primal and elemental human need: To feel the impact of rhythm on the body, and provoking the ecstatic release of the dance.

It wasn’t long before more mainstream artists took note. Though hardly a household name in 1995, Bjork had earned a reputation as a fearless, eclectic artist. With the release of her second solo album, Post, her foothold in electronica became a solid pillar, propagating the genre far and wide as well as bringing her major commercial success. But it would fall to an American artist to push electronica over the threshold and into the public’s consciousness for good.

Already a major figure in pop and dance music, in 1997 Madonna was 39 years old and seeking a page turn in her career as well as a broadening of her spiritual life. After abortive sessions with other collaborators, she teamed up with English electronica producer William Orbit and engineered a stylistic and commercial coup with Ray of Light, released in 1998.

Though the album to some extent recast Madonna as a singer-songwriter, it employed electronica, rather than the more mainstream treatments her audience had become accustomed to, as a sonic palette. Debuting at #2 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, Ray of Light has since gone on to sell over 16 million copies worldwide. Electronica had officially arrived.

Electronic Music Today: Electronica by Any Other Name

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a category as broad as “electronica” would eventually collapse under its own weight. The term is still widely used today, but as its sub-genres bubble up into the mainstream (or sink back beneath the depths), those labels tend to take hold of the public imagination. That’s one reason true aficionados may be more apt to use terms like trip hop, techno, dubstep or big beat to describe their favorite styles rather than the catchall “electronica.” Other subgenres one might encounter in a “chillout” area include downtempo and ambient.

And because not all electronica is dance-oriented, electronic music that is more often categorized as “EDM,” or electronic dance music, is now linked to a more specific set of sounds or artists rather than a catchall phrase. 

Perhaps more to the point, once electronica joined the mainstream, the name began to lose some of its specificity. Whether that’s a positive or a negative depends, of course, on your perspective. While a 2-step or grime purist might scoff at the term “electronica” occasionally being applied to an otherwise primarily pop artist like Emma McGann, for others the embrace of such a broad label is license to create music free of preconceptions, rules, and boundaries.

And at the end of the day, this expansiveness is electronica’s greatest paradox, and its greatest gift. In developing musical instruments that were free from the traditional constraints of technical and even physical ability, the men and women who gave birth to electronica created a nearly edgeless genre, one that almost anyone can not only enjoy, but participate in. Even if you don’t much care for electronica yourself, chances are you agree that it’s a good thing.  

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