To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we continue with 2012, the year where a long-bubbling and recently rechristened genre finally found its way into all corners of the musical mainstream.
At the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, two of the three nights’ closing acts were fairly obvious gets. Radiohead, the most acclaimed rock band of their generation, finished off the Saturday lineup, while Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, the duo synonymous with West Coast hip-hop for the previous two decades, put a bow on Sunday’s festivities. But if you hadn’t been paying close attention in the previous couple years, the Friday night closers might not have been so familiar: dance music supergroup Swedish House Mafia.
The trio, comprised of veteran DJs Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso, were certainly not traditional U.S. superstars. Not only were they not celebrities as individuals — half of the 80,000-plus attendees at that year’s Coachella probably could’ve bumped into one or all of them outside the Sahara tent and been none the wiser — but they didn’t really have hits in the conventional sense, as none of their singles had then even reached the Billboard Hot 100. Which isn’t to say they were album artists, either: In fact, they hadn’t really released a proper album yet, just the 2010 singles compilation Until One, which peaked at an underwhelming No. 139 on the Billboard 200.
THE 2010S WERE THE DECADE THAT…
2010: Turbo-Pop Ruled the Radio | 2011: Adele Revived the Music Industry | 2013: Streaming Became Unignorable 2014: Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Discussion | 2015: 2015 Was the Year That… Canadians Ran Pop Music | 2016: Every Major Album Release Was an Event | 2017: Latin Pop Took Over the U.S. | 2018: Hip-Hop Took Its Victory Lap 2019: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Put a Bow on the Decade
But the group had combined their individual live followings, and continued to steadily build collectively from there over the course of four years — with a spellbinding, action-packed live show, a handful of club-slaying singles, and co-signs from star collaborators like Pharrell and Coldplay. SHM hit an early peak in 2011, when they not only became the first electronic act to headline New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden, but sold out the show in minutes. And then there they were in the Indio desert the following year, not only going on after nominal Friday headliners The Black Keys — old-fashioned rock stars with chart-topping radio hits and Platinum-certified LPs — but easily out-drawing and overwhelming that duo’s guitar-heavy set, with blinding pyro effects, massive beat drops, and six combined arms raised in the air.
By 2012, you might not have been able to find Swedish House Mafia on the radio or on the pop charts, but the impact of the All-Star trio and many of their rising DJ/producer brethren was undeniable. That group encompassed not only the arena-filling progressive house of SHM, but the skyscraping anthems of wunderkind producer (and fellow Swede) Avicii, the ceiling-rattling bass bombs of metalhead-turned-brostep-overlord Skrillex, and the tension-and-release epics of electro-house snarkist Deadmau5. All those ascendant dance stars (and many more) were featured in a epoch-confirming 2011 SPIN cover story — with Skrillex and his instantly iconic half-shaved haircut gracing the front page — which admitted that the mag had “prematurely declared an American ‘electronica revolution'” amidst the big beat boom of the late ’90s, but claimed that this time, the takeover was for real.
The SPIN story was titled “The New Rave Generation,” but America quickly came to group all these artists under the umbrella of “EDM,” or Electronic Dance Music. The acronym was a controversial one, largely rejected by many of the artists who came to define it. It was exceedingly reductive for the wide breadth of artists it musically summarized, and carried with it an air of corporate convenience — particularly with the late Robert Sillerman‘s foundation of scene-swallowing promotional behemoth SFX Entertainment in 2012, which seemed to put the entire scene at risk of coming under Wall Street’s thumb. Nevertheless, “EDM” provided an easy way to encompass a cultural moment which had started in the late ’00s, with the ease and accessibility of DAW software developments bringing the possibility of becoming a dance music pro to amateur DJs around the globe. Suddenly, the rock stars of tomorrow weren’t banging away on guitars and drums in their garage, but composing and mixing on Ableton Live and Pro Tools in their bedroom.
Like Swedish House Mafia, the breakout artists of EDM were all already considerable live draws, but few had scored massive crossover hits of their own yet by 2012 — Skrillex and Avicii had cameoed on the Hot 100 with their totemic dance hits “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” and “Levels,” respectively, but neither made the chart’s top 40. Still, their thumbprint was already visible on the musical mainstream. In early 2011, Britney Spears hit No. 1 with “Hold It Against Me,” the first major pop hit to feature a dubstep drop, in which the song’s previously conventional pop structure essentially went into a rollercoaster free fall of wobbly synths and belching bass. Meanwhile, though “Levels” would only peak at No. 60 on the Hot 100, pop-rap hitmaker Flo Rida swiped the bones of the song — most notably its soaring Etta James sample — for the much radio-friendlier “Good Feeling,” eventually hitting No. 3.
The most noteworthy EDM-influenced hit of 2011, however, came as Scottish electro-pop gold-spinner Calvin Harris and international superstar Rihanna teamed up for the euphoric “We Found Love” — a thoroughly irresistible hybrid single that topped the Hot 100 for ten weeks and was inducted into the classic pop and dance canons practically upon release. It was hardly unprecedented for a marquee dance name to work on a gigantic stateside chart hit by an established star: French house maven David Guetta had linked up with the Black Eyed Peas on “I Gotta Feeling,” a 14-week No. 1 in 2009, while American culture-masher Diplo had guided the wayward Chris Brown to a top 5 comeback hit in 2011 with “Look at Me Now.” But where those dudes’ names could only be found in the credits of their respective hits, Harris scored a rare coup for producers and DJs anywhere by getting listed as a featured artist on “Love,” giving him name recognition among U.S. crowds who couldn’t ID any of his huge-overseas solo singles.
By 2012, the names and faces of these star DJs and producers were suddenly unmissable. Guetta, who had already scored one top 10 hit as a lead artist at the turn of the decade with the Akon-featuring “Sexy B–ch,” added three more to his tally by the end of that year: “Without You” (with Usher), “Turn Me On” (with Nicki Minaj) and “Titanium” (with Sia, in a starmaking performance). Harris graduated to leading man status stateside in 2012 with his solo hit “Feel So Close” — the rare successful example of an EDM star singing on his own single — though he notched top 20 entries alongside Ne-Yo (“Let’s Go”) and Florence Welch (“Sweet Nothing”) shortly after. Deadmau5 was even one of the stories of the 2012 Grammys, pranking Skrillex by wearing a T-shirt with his phone number on it to the red carpet, and then performing in a televised medley along with Guetta, Brown, rap great Lil Wayne and rock flame-keepers the Foo Fighters, playing with the Foos on his remix of their rock radio hit “Rope,” and then doing his own power quasi-ballad “Raise Your Weapon.”
That overstuffed Grammys medley illustrated another offshoot of EDM’s suddenly massive impact: It had begun to seep not only into pop music, but to rock and rap as well. Kanye West & Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album — 2011’s most massive hip-hop release, at least in hype and largesse — sampled Flux Pavillion’s dubstep hit “I Can’t Stop” for the entirety of its “Who Gon Stop Me?,” and deployed a buzzing drop on its signature single, “N—as in Paris.” In 2012, recently minted rap superstar Nicki Minaj powered full throttle into EDM with the zooming, laser-synthed singles “Starships” and “Pound the Alarm,” continuing her winning streak with both. Meanwhile, British-Israeli singer-songwriter Alex Clare launched one of 2012’s biggest crossover alternative hits with the wub-wub?bing “Too Close,” and before year’s end, burgeoning arena-rockers Imagine Dragons had teamed up with London producer Alex da Kid for the similarly dubstep-inflected (and eventually, even more massive) “Radioactive.”
Just a half-decade after electronic dance music had all but vanished from the U.S. mainstream — siloed off as an underground and overseas concern, utterly absent from the year’s biggest singles — dance was not just back, but it had lapped rock (and was rivaling hip-hop) as the sound of American youth culture. The changing norms could be seen rather plainly in Project X, a 2012 teen comedy which proved a surprise hit for its pseudo-documentary framing and party scenes of increasingly anarchic and hedonistic revelry. While the soundtrack had its share of rappers and rock bands, the movie’s musical core was unquestionably one of dance music, with montage after montage of kids dancing, doing drugs and hooking up to rampaging remixes from producers like Steve Aoki, A-Trak and Benny Benassi. The year’s other most infamous youth flick, college-girls-breaking-bad saga Spring Breakers, also set the tone for the indecency to come by featuring “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” over its nudity-filled, slo-mo credit sequence, with Skrillex also co-composing the film’s score. Suddenly, parents across the country had a new genre to fear and misunderstand.
And as dance music got bigger, so did the venues in which it was featured. With more and more DJs growing to arena and headliner size, EDM saw a festival explosion, with longtime dance fests like Electric Daisy Carnival and Electric Zoo growing to three nights with hundreds of thousands of attendees, and the long-running Ultra Music Festival announcing plans to add a second weekend to its lineup. (Pop immortal Madonna graced Ultra in 2012 during Avicii’s headlining set, drawing criticism for her perceived attempts to pander to the attendees.) Meanwhile, Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn saw an opportunity and signed 34 DJs to exclusive residencies across his Sin City nightclubs in 2012, effectively turning the city into “the new Ibiza,” as Ultra records founder Patrick Moxey put it in a New York Times story about Vegas’ burgeoning EDM monopoly.
But it wasn’t just the live world where the appetite for dance necessitated room for expansion. Online, EDM was increasingly being shared and consumed through streaming services like SoundCloud and the newly arrived Spotify, bought and sold through iTunes and the dance-specific retailer Beatport, and covered by growing blogs like Dancing Astronaut, and startups like the much-hyped DJZ. Dance music was growing stateside at a rate well beyond the wildest dreams of Moby and the Chemical Brothers, and it seemed like the good times would just keep on rolling.
But if there was an act who seemed to see the bubble bursting before everyone else, it was again Swedish House Mafia. Just two months after their Coachella closing-slot performance, the trio announced that their upcoming tour would be their last, giving no real explanation for the imminent split beyond “We came, we raved, we loved.” And so, after five years, one more worldwide trek and one farewell single — the John Martin-sung “Don’t You Worry Child,” ironically the group’s first major U.S. pop hit, hitting No. 6 on the Hot 100 — the supergroup disbanded, apparently having accomplished all they set out to accomplish. It was a triumphant exit, but one that appeared so premature that it couldn’t help but feel like a portent of bad times to come for the genre that made it possible.
Even without one of its marquee acts, EDM stayed strong in the pop mainstream for the next few years — but never again quite reached the heights of omnipresence it reached in 2012. The genre’s biggest names still wound up on pop hits but became increasingly reliant on star vocalists (rather than the less-recognizable likes of Sia, John Martin and Foxes) to do so, shedding much of their own personality in the process. As the sound of dance was integrated into pop, it also lost a good deal of its edge and ability to surprise — as the jagged synth stabs, jackhammer beats and brain-scrambling drops of the early ’10s got sanded down to increasingly rote and timid trop-house shuffles and wordless vocal hooks, a 2016 Stereogum article accurately declared that EDM had entered its “soft-rock phase.”
Meanwhile, hip-hop rose to new heights of popularity and vibrancy in the decade’s second half; by 2017, rather than rappers looking to dance producers to give their sound a jolt, it turned the other way around. Dance festivals remained popular but were humbled by overexpansion and excessive numbers of drug-and-heat-related attendee deaths, while the list of DJs who could credibly headline a major North American festival shrank to just a couple of remaining names — becoming one shorter with the tragic death of Avicii in 2018. Increasing concerns over showcasing scene diversity led to influential electronic publication Resident Advisor shuttering its respected DJ poll in 2017, forcing the dance world to reckon with how dominated by straight white cis males it had become at its highest levels of visibility. We Are Your Friends certainly didn’t help anything. At the end of the 2010s, electronic dance music is only slightly more of a presence on radio and on the charts than it was a decade earlier.
Still, zoom out on the 2010s as a whole, and it seems entirely likely that when viewed many years down the line, the music that the decade will most immediately and inextricably be associated with — like the ’70s with disco, the ’80s with synth-pop and the ’90s with grunge — will be EDM. It’s the music that properly ushered in the 2010s, the music that defined the earliest days of the streaming era and the most defiantly hopeful days of the post-recession crash, the music that gave late millennials a cultural moment that they could entirely call their own.
Plus, while dance is no longer the default sound of young America, it’s once again in an exciting underground state, with a new and more well-rounded slate of rising talent, which could very well bubble over into producing the next Avicii or Skrillex early in the 2020s. And if all else fails, Swedish House Mafia also finally returned this year — though with questions swirling about when and if their reunion tour will happen, and electronic sounds moving in myriad other directions, whether or not the world still needs the trio to save them remains to be seen.
Next, in 2013: The iTunes era officially gives way to what comes next.