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EDM Is Dead; EDM Will Live Forever: One Man’s Dance Floor Confession

With the return of two-thirds of Swedish House Mafia, a closeted EDM fan comes to grips with loving the genre.

I couldn’t remember the details. All I knew was that it was Swedish House Mafia’s debut show in New York and that the date was February 5, 2010. Combing through my old emails, I’d unearthed a chain about getting tickets for the show, the details of the purchased ticket, and some pictures with friends outside the venue, Manhattan’s since-closed M2.

There were emails linking to @swedishousemfia tweets, adding to the absurdity of the anticipation, and the wonderfully hyperbolic, self-mocking commentary of 23-year-olds.

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They’re gonna set the confetti on fire and rain it down on the audience cuz fire from the sky is probably the name of their new song and that shit is super housy.

I dug for more information about the show, stumbling on this hilariously budget YouTube promo video, until I found my answer. It was in an email received the following morning, from a friend with whom I traveled to the show.

I cant even fucking believe they kicked you out for having like a drag off of that stupid cigarette. And I feel especially terrible because I also had a drag of that cigarette right before that dude came over to me and got all intense.

Suddenly, it was all coming back to me: I didn’t even see the show. I was thrown out before Swedish House Mafia started their set. Standing outside, chilly because it was February, I asked the bouncers who had thrown me out if they would retrieve my jacket from coat check. They said I could get it tomorrow. All of my belongings were in my jacket, so I walked 45 minutes home, pressed down on the entire keypad of my building so someone would hit the buzzer, broke into my own apartment with an expired MetroCard in my pocket, and fell asleep.

That night was my true introduction to EDM.

Coachella, April 2010: Two months after ThrownOutTheClubGate, things were different. This is when Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was being performed in its entirety, when Miike Snow was a thing, when the promise of a first night headlined by Jay Z got me to spend what little money I had, travel across the country, and camp in a tent in the name of live music. But these things aren’t the things I remember most, not even Jay Z bringing out Beyoncé to sing “Young Forever.”

My takeaway that night was Tiesto.

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The veteran Dutch DJ was the closing act on the Saturday mainstage. Knowing very little about him, but watching a crowd grow as midnight approached, I stuck around to see what would transpire. After about 20 minutes of standing in near darkness, the music started, slowly at first. Then white lights came up. Then a flash of colors. And then, Tiesto emerged. The buildup for his first song was slow, but to those around me — hands up, begging for it like they were on the roof of that skyscraper in Independence Day, waiting on the aliens to take them away — it was clear that this show was about to turn into something.

The song was “Kaleidoscope,” and five minutes and 22 seconds into the song, it got there.

When the beat dropped, I got it: why this music existed, why it had become so popular, why it felt so cult-like, so ritualistic, so spiritual. It was a wholly sensory experience, so overwhelming that the outside world had become fully blocked out. You feel untouchable, and behave in a way your normal self would scoff at, allowing this DJ up on his mountaintop to dictate your movements, your emotions, your feelings.

It took two years to get back to Coachella, but in those two years my life drastically changed. The next time, I attended Coachella 2012 in an official capacity, for Grantland. I’d begun writing about music professionally, so my music tastes were now subject to critique, interpretation, judgment, ridicule. What you think is good matters to some readers. You take that seriously.

At Coachella, my mind was on high-profile, generally well-respected acts that provoke conversation, like Kendrick Lamar, Florence + the Machine, Radiohead, Dr. Dre and Snoop, and Tupac Hologram. These were the performers I wanted to write about. But I really wanted to see Justice. Because I listened to Justice. Often. And my connection to their album Cross led me to believe that if I could see them live, I’d have another memorable Coachella moment.

On Coachella Saturday, I saw Justice. And I was exactly right. The following day, I came out and wrote about Justice, giving my first public hint that I liked this type of music.

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Two years after that first Coachella show, I still got it. But I also understood why so many people disregarded it. It’s not “good” music. There’s not much to argue about, not a lot of takes to be had. Good often implies meaning — meaning that can be broken down and analyzed by the fan, the critic, history. But its success is less “what it means” and more “how it makes you feel,” which is even more subjective than the rest of the highly subjective “what constitutes good” music universe.

I’ve found displaying an affection, an appreciation for EDM in your personal life to not be a great look professionally. To many, this is music for impressionable teenagers and those who love party drugs. And even if you liked it for one stretch of your life, it’s supposed to be out of your system by a certain point, like Snapchat and hunting for open bars and having birthday parties. But when I realized it wasn’t out of my system — after years of writing about universally-accepted-as-good songs, albums, artists — I could feel myself pushing my affection for the oontz deeper and deeper. EDM was that Facebook picture you hope no employer finds, that college story you hope never resurfaces, that tweet you hope no one digs up when you’re trying to become the next host of The Daily Show.

When it would resurface, however, it was a freeing moment, a reminder that I could get to that place, even if for an hour. At some point, the show is over, the festival is over, and you’re back at your desk, trying to figure out when you can get to that point again. And again. And again. Euphoria is a drug — finding it creates the addiction.

We were in line for more than an hour. It was SXSW 2014 and time was always of the essence, because there are always fun things to do. This day, while I was standing in this line, a DJ set from the Neptunes’ Chad Hugo was happening. I sorely wanted to attend. But instead I’d chosen to see a documentary about the end of Swedish House Mafia, their final tour, the last time DJs Axwell, Sebastian Ingrosso, and Steve Angello would play music together.

My friend Dan stood alongside me. The last time we talked about Swedish House Mafia was in 2010, as we brown-bagged Four Lokos on the subway down to that fateful show at M2. I took Dan because it seemed like an appropriate way to experience this film, alongside someone with similarly nostalgic feelings about this music and the ability to relapse. And also someone who, like me, was rapidly aging out of the target demographic.

Watching a documentary about the final world tour for an EDM act seemed more mature than actually being at that world tour — it was almost as if we were growing up. But as the movie progressed — as the buildup of the film mirrored the confetti and lights and sound buildup of the shows we had watched, we could barely contain ourselves, repeatedly tugging on each other’s shirts, giggling at the shiny thing in front of us. We had come to terms with this euphoria being part of our past, but it was clear the desire for that feeling was still there.

Between that Justice show and SXSW 2014, my connection with EDM had peaked. Yes, I still enjoyed myself if I stumbled on a show, but I was beginning to see the young dumb versions of myself everywhere I turned. It sucked much of that euphoria out of the experience; instead, I was giving that 19-year-old kid my water, hoping he or she doesn’t get heatstroke and/or a molly fit by the time the concert begins.

Every now and then, I’ll throw on the Cross album or cue up the Tiesto performance — in that same way you go back and read old texts, look at old pictures, read old blog posts. You don’t want to go back to that place, but you’re glad it happened, that getting it is your little secret.

The first line of an email, from last week:

Hey Rembert, I’m coming to NYC on Monday 3/30 for the Axwell^Ingrosso show at T5.

The email was from a publicist I trust who tends to send me things she knows will interest me. But even in this note, I could tell she thought it was a stretch. My immediate thought, after reading it: How did she know? 

Because I knew her, I told her the truth. I told her about my history with Swedish House Mafia, about seeing the documentary, and that I was thrilled that two-thirds of the group had gotten back together. She was surprised when I told her my truth, which meant I’d done a good job of hiding it. But she also reached out because she thought there was a chance.

At the concert, all of the things that give me pause were present. The drunk crowd of kids outside, the sea of fist pumps and voluntary screams for no reason once finding my way inside, the summer attire on a cold March evening, the fact that “Is Long Island in the building?” got the loudest cheer in the requisite preshow geographic scan.

When Axwell & Ingrosso began, I was into it, in that focused head nod way. Everyone in the venue was so happy, which made it hard to be cynical. Yes, the mass of humans was collectively acting a fool, but it felt like a safe space to act as such. The music was loud, the light show was spectacular, and while not knowing a single song they were performing, it felt good. It felt familiar. 

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It was music in its purest form — a wall of sound. Looking down from my protected, roped-off area, I couldn’t help but marvel at the sea of people responding to that sound in the most honest way possible. They were uninhibited. I didn’t mind not being in that sea on a Monday night at 10:30, but I wanted to feel like I was in that sea. I watched as Axwell & Ingrosso, who had that crowd confidently in the palms of their hands, slowly built up to a moment. It rose, it pulsated, it dripped with anticipation, and then they let it go.

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Euphoria, again. One hour in, they’d unleashed the confetti and I couldn’t hold back anymore. I wasn’t literally in the pit, but I was in the pit. My shoulders and my hands and my legs and my face and my heart were behaving as if I were in the pit. Every now and then I’d just turn around and smile at strangers, as if they were my best friends. Thinking the confetti signaled the end of the show, I relished this last song, the perfect amount of time, I thought, to go back to that place I once loved, the place that I missed, the place that I truly understood, but had to let go.

And then they played for another hour.