I’ll Fly With You
In defense of electronic dance music
There was a blast of hot summer air and something like the smell of flowers as Brendan opened the window that led to his roof. Four of us crawled on all fours through the modest opening, careful with our footing to not trip and fall a story or two to the concrete below.
After a dangerous Parkour-esque leap and one last harrowing hurdle, we summited the top of his roof and lied on our backs to watch the world around us.
In front of us the Bay Area stretched out like a giant band of flickering red and orange lights. The ribbon of fire looked like a galaxy that swirled around us in a coruscating cascade of electric stars, stretching from San Francisco to San Jose.
And above the horizon was the haunting night sky: a deep, ebony sea that was marked out by bright blasts of white starlight. The dark firmament blazed in its full glory. Staring at the sky was thrilling. It was so big and so vast that as a teenager I felt helpless against it, and would trade views back to the horizon of glowing urban sprawl when the thrill got to be too much.
We all had our own rituals when we sat on his roof. I went about rotely conducting mine. Once I found a position on his slanted roof where I felt secure, I fished out a Microsoft Zune from my pockets. Silently I slipped on a pair of black plastic earphones, and against the blazing effulgence of starlight and the fiery horizon I blasted a new song I had just downloaded.
The year is 2002. I’m fourteen years old. And that song is a trance remix of a J-pop song by a then-new British trance group named Above and Beyond.
The horizon became a light show of red and orange that seemed to shimmer on beat with the song. I felt thrilled by the visual and audio symphony I was attending in my mind, but at the time I struggled to describe it. It would be years before I knew the vocabulary of music — I didn’t know what an arpeggio was, what builds or breaks were, and I even barely knew what the genre “trance” was.
That didn’t matter though; what mattered was that I was soaring. Feeling naked against the precarious edge of his roof, watching the sea and stars flicker on beat, I was no longer on Bren’s roof. I was somewhere else — somewhere very, very far away.
Above and Beyond wasn’t my first foray into trance, or even electronic dance music for that matter. Years before I came to California, my friend Mario and I would sit in his room and burn incense while we listened to roaring Drum and Bass (or “DnB” as it’s better known).
We would roar music from The Prodigy, DJ Shadow, and AK-1200 on his PC’s meager speakers while we played violent characters in online text-based roleplaying games called MUDs, letting the heavy beat and dark lyrics inspire our writing.
But Above and Beyond, and really trance in general during the early 2000’s, was different. Unlike DnB, trance was exploding into the mainstream. DJ Sammy and Yanou’s Heaven, a trance remix of Brian Adams’ 80’s pop ballad, broke 31 in the Billboard Top 100 that year.
This was readily apparent at my high school, which was almost 40% Asian American when I attended. Trance songs like Heaven, British Pop Band’s I’ll Fly With You, and the still-famous Sandstorm like Darude were staples of our school dances.
When the beat started to quicken from down-tempo hip hop into trance’s staple 138BPM, my classmates and I would draw high intensity glowsticks and photons from concealment like swords and battle each other for glory.
Knowing how to flow or “string” with glowsticks (what ravers now call “poi”), or flare photon lights on strings called orbitals, was a surprisingly big part of Asian American teen culture in the Bay Area. As a nerdy half-Asian kid, school dances became my opportunity to show off the acrobatics I had been practicing in my room to the music that made it easy to “disappear” into my head (as well as something to do when my high school crush inevitably rejected dancing with me).
It also provided me with a unique sense of community — something that was really important to me as a relatively new transplant in California. As a smart but somewhat underachieving gamer who spent a good portion of my time in a computer, I didn’t have much in common with a lot of my sports-focused, academic superstar Asian American friends in my AP classes.
But we all loved trance music, and learning how to tie a glowstick to a string or execute a reverse-butterfly transition from a figure-8 was a social exercise that helped reinforce what we had in common versus our differences.
For us, trance was an audio escape. The steady beat and harmonic vocals felt like the classical music we had all strangely grew up on. The lyrics and content also provided us an emotional escape: an opportunity to drown in teenage angst and explore how we felt.
Trance was critical in this pursuit. Deep emotional exploration isn’t necessarily something that’s promoted in most Asian American families, particularly first-generation American ones where functional pragmatism and success is prized above all else. Years later, many of my high school friends even confessed that trance was their only way to try and explore and understand their feelings.
I didn’t have a traditional Asian American upbringing. My dad is white, and my Asian mother was in Seattle. Instead my emotional blockage was the result of childhood trauma. I came to California from a household of physical abuse, and even with years of therapy learning how to explore and deal with my emotions as a teenager was very difficult.
Trance became an outlet for me to safely “drown” in emotions I was repressing like sadness, fear, or anger. And when I was ready, it also became a way to pull me back or lift me up. All I needed to do was choose a different song.
There and back again
It’s been almost a decade and a half since I carried glowsticks in my breast pockets to school dances. In the past few years trance has started to marched back into the mainstream in force. Above and Beyond has become a household name for teenagers and twenty-somethings, and the group that once only made remixes for pop songs now regularly sells out venues like the Staples Center and Wembley Field for their shows.
Unlike the early 2000's however, it’s not just trance music — it’s electronic dance music as a whole.
Once fringe genres like deep and tropical house are now critical parts of the pop music scene and are well represented on the Billboard Top 100 by artists like Disclosure and Kygo. Modalities from electro house have become elemental in pop music as EDM DJs like Calvin Harris and Zedd have become top producers for mainstream pop artists like Rhianna and Ariana Grande.
Even dubstep and drum and bass, the “heavy metal” styles of dance music that were underground even during EDM’s first rise in the 90’s/000's, have made their way firmly into the mainstream. Whether it’s Skrillex winning a grammy or Taylor Swift using a dubstep song as the base for her music, even the underdogs of EDM are seemingly having their day.
Coinciding with this surge in popularity is a rise of the modern music festival. EDM festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival (or EDC) and Tomorrowland — festivals that began as underground raves when I was a teenager — consistently gross millions of attendees each year worldwide. This year’s EDC Las Vegas hosted around half a million attendees, and the upcoming Tommorrowland EDM festival in Belgium is likely to have similar attendance.
“Something is rotten in the state of [trance]”
EDM’s rise to popularity has been controversial. Many within the media have stigmatized EDM based off of the behavior of underground raves in 90’s. Fox News has frequently commented that EDM is “dangerous”, and the New York Times have highlighted EDM’s “druggy past” as a systemic cultural problem that modern EDM has yet to kick.
Even Anthony Bourdain has jumped on the anti-EDM train, noting that afficianados of expensive Las Vegas EDM shows are “lords and princelings of douchedom.”
To be fair, some of this controversy is well earned. This year’s EDC is the first year with no fatalities, as every previous EDC has had at least one death related to drug overdose. Many EDM shows are very expensive to attend. My ticket to EDC was around $400, and the cover to attend Las Vegas shows in clubs like XS and Omnia is usually around $70–$100+ for men.
Yes, EDM’s rise to popularity has been bumpy. Yet such criticism of EDM fails to appreciate history. Dissenters have seemingly forgotten about the 90’s, when rap was declared dangerous because groups like NWA were thought to be promoting gang and drug warfare among the suburban youth that embraced them.
It’s not just hip hop and EDM that have had issues in their rise into the mainstream.
The Rolling Stones are considered of western history and culture. In 1969 they hired a biker gang to provide security during their set at the Altamont Festival east of San Francisco, a mistake that led to one of the band’s security murdering a crowdmember during an altercation. 3 more people died at Altamont later in the festival.
Even seemingly stoic genres such as classical music have had their brush with inciting violence and death. Stravinsky’s 1913 performance of the Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris that led to 40 people arrested and at least one duel. Rachmaninoff’s piano music was used by Bolshevik revolutionaries to incite fervor in their rallies. And let’s not even talk about Wagner.
None of the above is, as many EDM fans would note, very PLUR.
Together under the electric sky
EDM’s entrance into the mainstream is not without its faults. But critics of modern dance music fail to realize that the music and culture behind EDM isn’t about promoting drug usage or criminal activity: it’s about providing a positive, powerful, and radically inclusive environment to explore human emotion and enjoyment.
Above and Beyond and other uplifting trance artists’ rise are great examples of this. AnB’s 2012 mainstream breakout album Group Therapy was so named because the band chooses to focus on uplifting music. At their last acoustic performance at the Berkeley Greek Theater, AnB frontman Tony McGuinness noted this in saying that he was overjoyed that their music was, “helping people through hard times.”
This is not a unique function of trance or EDM. One need only remember hip hop songs like Tupac’s Keep Your Head Up or Jazz like Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World to see other genres promoting positive messages. But EDM music and culture has always been almost singularly focused on pleasure and positivity.
Certainly different subgenres interpret these pursuits differently; a Steve Aoki show is probably going to focus more on the hedonism of pleasure than reminding attendees that everything is going to be okay. But the culture behind that show is going to be similar to Above and Beyond and other genres of EDM.
Whether you’re at EDC or in some smaller local show, it doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight, whether you’re black or white, or where you’re from in the world. You’re welcome because you enjoy the music, and the people around you want you to be there to enjoy it with them.
This last weekend I listened to Above and Beyond live at EDC Las Vegas. It’s been almost 14 years since I sat on my friend’s roof listening to them while staring into the summer night.
Things were a little different at EDC. AnB’s show was certainly louder than my Zune could have ever hoped to output. It was also a little bit more crowded with 100,000+ people around me, and the Circuit Ground stage’s lightshow and fireworks had higher production values than anything close to Brendan’s roof (or even my high school dances).
But even in that environment so much was the same: I was with some people I love, lost in music that reminded me that no matter what happens that everything was ultimately going to be alright.
Trance and EDM have had a profoundly positive impact on my life, through good and especially through bad times. I’m glad that a new generation has a new opportunity to appreciate this style of music, and I’m excited to see where the next few years take us all.