Electronic dance music is having a watershed moment in the United States. It’s the undisputed musical youth movement of the millennial generation — an exponentially growing cultural shift driven by technology and interconnectivity. But what will we have to show for it beyond the music and live events?
As a DJ, artist, radio host, label owner, executive and co-founder of the International Music Summit (IMS), I’ve been championing dance music for more than three decades. I’ve watched it grow from Chicago basements to mainstream festival stages, and traced the DJ’s evolution from background club curator to modern-day rock star. It frustrates me that we haven’t made an impression in film and TV the way that genres like rock, hip-hop and R&B have. There’s no shortage of award-winning documentaries or films scored by electronic producers — so where is the cinematic reflection of our culture? Where is our Spike Lee or John Singleton?
Let’s hope we will not be waiting long. Projects like Eden — a biopic about the rise of the French electronic music scene in the 1990s, with portrayals of Daft Punk and others — show that we are seeing a new generation of filmmakers who have lived through the rise of EDM and are eager to make their mark. The upcoming Max Joseph-helmed We Are Your Friends, starring Zac Efron as a young DJ, and an in-development dance-music-themed HBO comedy with music by Calvin Harris are steps in the right direction. Direct-to-consumer streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Yahoo have opened up significant new opportunities to capture our music and culture. But we need to be doing so much more.
Granted, part of the problem is institutional. The majority of the decision-makers in Hollywood probably come from a generation that dismisses EDM as a fad, and DJs today may not have the same sort of underdog appeal seen in, say, 8 Mile.
Also, in America we’ve been hindered by a troubling lack of context, history and narrative. In my native United Kingdom, the rise of dance music in the ’90s was a cultural milestone akin to punk rock in the late ’70s. But many in the United States believe it all began with the current boom in Las Vegas. They don’t know about legendary DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Derrick May, or classic New York venues like Twilo and Paradise Garage, or that the first Electric Daisy Carnival took place in 1992.
Underground DJ Seth Troxler caused controversy at the 2014 IMS when he attacked mainstream EDM for its shallowness. Most people missed the point: He wasn’t ignorant of the genre’s visionary artists, but didn’t want it defined by fist-pumping DJs blowing things up onstage, as brilliantly parodied by Andy Samberg as “Davvincii” on Saturday Night Live.
Inspiring music is being made and compelling stories are going untold. The clubs of Ibiza, Berlin, London and New York are rich and vibrant settings. Tiesto played at the Olympics, Paul Oakenfold at the Great Wall of China. Our history is rich with colorful characters and tales.
Where’s our Saturday Night Fever? Where’s our Empire? Where’s our Do the Right Thing or Hustle & Flow? The challenge is on — we need to create an artistic legacy of which we can all be proud.
Pete Tong is a DJ and host on BBC Radio, iHeartRadio and Beatport. He is the founder of FFRR Records, co-founder of William Morris Endeavor’s electronic music division and co-founder of the International Music Summit. IMS Engage will take place April 15 at the W Hotel in Los Angeles.
This op-ed first appeared in the April 18 issue of Billboard.