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The difference between the way electronic-dance audiences perceive dance music—contemplation-worthy, the locus of a cabal-like subculture—and the way pop audiences think of it—fun party music, the epitome of a mindless good time—pretty much says it all about their intersection in 2011. Or lack thereof: This year, each side gave the other something it needed, without anything so unseemly as a real mixing of audiences, processes, or aesthetics. Just cut, paste, and close tab.
Right on time for neo-rave’s crashing of the concert biz via various Electric Daisies, Zoos, and whatever other karazay names they can throw in there, pop intensified its raid on electronic-dance’s large book of sonic trickery. For the fourth year in a row, radio sounded more and more like a vintage anthems compilation with some reality-TV stars sprinkled on top. The epic-trance synths that dominate early-’10s radio the way they did late-’90s superclub dot Pazz & Jop’s singles list as surely as they did Billboard‘s Hot 100 for the year: Britney’s “Till the World Ends” (#27 on Billboard‘s list), LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” (#2), and Pitbull and pals’ “Give Me Everything” (#5), with honorable mention to Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” (#40), which got 13 P&J votes.
Still, that buzzy sound is the least of it—ask Rihanna, whose “We Found Love” (#69 Billboard) was helmed by credited dance-star guest Calvin Harris. He replaced synth swarm with circus organ, giving the song’s inevitable filtered build some room to breathe. “Look at Me Now” (#21 Billboard), by the worst pop star around (sorry, Jessie J), had just about nothing but room thanks to a delectably spare track from Pitbull pal Afrojack and Diplo, who produced P&J’s 2008 #1, M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”—and, more to the point sonically and otherwise, Major Lazer’s club smash “Pon De Floor,” which got four mentions in 2009, and five more this year, thanks to Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” which utilizes it wholesale.
By “otherwise,” I mean the common article of faith among electronic-dance fans that even the arcane stuff winds up feeding the pop machine eventually, something manifest lower down on the Pazz list. The smirking MDMA reference of “How I Roll” could fit either a ’92 breakbeat-hardcore record or Missy Elliott in Miss E mode, but no kidding: Remove Britney Spears from its skittering instrumental track and Vocodered-up background dude, and it could fit on an early-’00s cuddly-IDM comp. And a 303 line that old-school ravers (or Fatboy Slim fans) could pump their Mickey Mouse-gloved (or beer-gripping) fists to powers LMFAO’s ridiculous “Sexy and I Know It” (#57 Billboard).
This borrowing has limits, though—that’s where aesthetics come in. For months I took it for granted that Britney was simply singing the “Whoa-oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, AHHH-oh!” on the chorus of “Till the World Ends” (#27 Billboard) in approximate real time. Listening closer, there are hard stops between each syllable—audible edits. Hardly uncommon in pop, but on a straight electronic-dance record those edits would jump out at you—they’d be more aggressively at the forefront, essential to the fabric of the arrangement.
Like on Jacques Greene’s “Another Girl” (my own #1)—Greene warps a Ciara vocal line throughout, using her voice as a composition tool. Ditto Blawan’s “Getting Me Down,” which distends a verse from Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” over a heaving bass line and cracking percussion for seven minutes, its beginning and end built for DJ-mixing, not radio play. Dance site Resident Advisor’s track of the year, “Getting Me Down” tied for #46 in P&J with, among others, those critical/mainstream paragons Adele (“Rumour Has It”) and Lady Gaga (“You and I”). Brill Building-inspired songcraft, the ’80s power ballad, the limited edition white-label 12-inch—you know, those rustic constructs.
Seriously, though, 46 is pretty damn good for a tune that’s more tool than record, more track than song. It’s also representative. Many of 2011’s big club records were steeped shamelessly in R&B. The year’s biggest dance label, Crosstown Rebels, kicked last January off with “Vibe Your Love” by Maceo Plex, a Stevie Wonder cover (of “For Your Love,” from 1995’s Conversation Peace), while Hot Creations, another London imprint, scored big with tracks like Danny Daze’s “Your Everything” (three P&J votes) and Hot Natured’s “Forward Motion” that recall mid-’80s synth-funk.
Still, you don’t have to be a techno purist to wonder what, precisely, there is to gain socially or aesthetically with these clean swipes. Something more direct occurs on SBTRKT’s “Wildfire,” whose guest appearance by Little Dragon counts as R&B crossover, the latter’s Gothenburg origins or no. But that’s a comfortable join—their boho audiences likely encounter a healthy overlap. In a gaudier way, so do those of Dipset beat-maker AraabMUZIK’s and the fluffy Euro-trance hits he sicced his MPC on for Electronic Dream (30 album points from four votes). “Streetz Tonight” (five singles mentions) is the reverse-negative of Greene and Blawan, retooling Kaskade’s perfunctory E-trigger “4 AM” into something far eerier and more lustrous.
But that too is ultimately a cult record—so far, anyway. Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” which got five singles votes (the album that shares its title got one), doesn’t count as one anymore. It’s not quite as unsubtle as his detractors claim, but it’s close. Those mangled bass noises are like the sounds that accompany CGI effects, set to a beat, and his taste in sound bites is tired (is that “Oh my god!” a young Macaulay Culkin?). But he’s hookier and more skillful than the dance lifers who foam at his “cyber” name and/or Jonathan Davis haircut will admit, and it isn’t hard to imagine him becoming a musical force as well as a populist one, even if you’re allergic to Korn.