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Electric Zoo: Blurred Genres, Shifted Sounds, and Proof That EDM is Still Relevant

posted by Ingrid Pan on September 02, 2014

Electric Zoo 2014 via the festival

New York City -- While the rest of New York emptied out over Labor Day Weekend, Randall’s Island became a swirl of balls-out ravers. There, the mostly millennial crowd converged on Electric Zoo, a three-day festival devoted to electronic music in its many genre-blurred forms.

This year marked the sixth annual iteration of #ezoo, which has established itself as the largest festival showcasing the EDM genre in the Northeast. Some things haven’t changed since the earlier years - elaborate light shows, costumed self-expression, and performances by a long roster of DJs.

Meanwhile, a lot of things have changed. Since the inaugural Electric Zoo, the so-called genre of EDM has been like a virus in its multi-strain mutations and unavoidable contagion. If you live in modern American society, EDM has touched you - it has touched you in the car radio, it has touched you in the Budweiser commercial, it has touched you in your co-worker’s ringtone.

Some of the evolution of EDM is observable through Electric Zoo’s own changes over the years, as the festival is a rough gauge of the audience’s size and tastes stateside. Comparing the 2009 vs. 2014 lineups side by side, the market for EDM has clearly grown - marked by the festival’s number of days (2009: 2, 2014: 3), number of stages (2009: 4, 2014: 6), and number of acts (2009: ~60, 2014: ~145).

In my opinion, Electric Zoo this year was defined by a few interrelated themes which also mark EDM’s changes: (1) increased bleeding and borrowing of genres; (2) the growing popularity of both harder-edged sounds and “underground” (oxymoronically); and (3) self-awareness and retrospective irony.

What’s been happening in EDM, in music, and in the content world overall is that ideas spread and change faster than ever. Concepts are quickly co-opted, adapted, and redeployed. At Electric Zoo, it meant the proliferation of sub-genres such as trap house, which is what happens when growling Southern hip hop and synthesizers make a baby which then becomes hugely popular.

This year featured a heavy roster of trap-influenced DJs: GriZ, Gladiator, Brillz, Caked Up, etc., who played mostly in the Hilltop Arena, though some trap graced the main stages. In comparison, trap was barely a blip on EDM circuits a few years ago. Trap’s growth has arguably influenced other non-historically trap DJs to throw in hip hop influenced songs into their mix. DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” has been anthemic all year, and the track got played plenty of times at EZoo, one of which was by Kill the Noise (Who is really not that “trappy,” you know? But that’s the point.)

One could argue that associated with the wave of aggressive trap, is an increased popularity of hard-edged sounds overall that has filtered through to many forms of electronic music. Some of the featured acts this year on the main stages included Dada Life and Knife Party, who represent the harder side of electro house, with crescendoing bleeps and rumbles reminiscent of angry dial up modems, taking cues from dubstep. The epitome of these trends is Jack U (*note, the act was not able to play due to Electric Zoo’s storm-related shutdown on Sunday), another headliner this year, and the union of trap and dubstep through the team effort of Diplo and Skrillex. Contrast this year’s with 2009’s headliners: Armin Van Buuren, who played a set of pure trance, and David Guetta, who played mostly his own poppy hits.

Meanwhile, “underground” electronic music (underground, def. an awkward name given to a genre which loosely refers to techno and house from a certain aesthetic high ground) has seen activity shift from Europe to New York in recent years. In the past two years, more venues have been dedicated to underground artists (Output, Verboten, Sankeys, Space, TBA, Fridays at Marquee). Electric Zoo has always featured the Sunday School stage for these acts, and this year the festival added a second Vinyl Only stage.

The Sunday School stage revived the Spiegeltent from this year’s earlier Mysteryland festival. The setup involves a fully-enclosed and mirrored structure that turns warehouse party black at night, and is perfect for the sounds of technolords such as Chris Liebing. A highlight of the weekend was Dubfire’s closing set on Friday, intense with energy and get-lost darkness punctuated with percussive explosions.

At the Vinyl Only stage, crowds swayed in punch-drunk-love to Frank & Tony. The duo played smoothly stitched tracks of moody deep house, most of which were un-Shazamable, because as one attendee put it, “They are all vinyl rarities.” After Frank & Tony’s set, Detroit legend Norm Talley took over, opening with this bomb (Motor City Drum Ensemble - Raw Cuts (Marcellus Pittman Remix), if Shazam is to be trusted). Against the backdrop of the bridge and multi-colored lights from the trees above, the moment was ethereal.

Introducing a Vinyl Only stage to Electric Zoo for the first time isn’t just a marker of the growing importance of “underground.” I think it also signifies a current of appreciation for rare music on tangible mediums, and the art of playing full vinyl only sets which as an act in itself has become rare with technology, CDJs, etc. EZoo, a generally mainstream EDM festival, has matured enough now to view itself through a retrospective lens and offer a platform for older crafts… or maybe vinyl’s just cool/fetishized.

Other examples of the festival’s retrospection and maturity? When DJs bring back old cheesy hits, in a cheeky self-aware and ironic fashion. Like when Zeds Dead played some reggae dancehall beats then dropped Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie,” the crowd ate it up with a knowing this-song-was-awful-yet-awesome enthusiasm.

The overall best performance of the festival though was from Jamie xx, who perhaps encompassed all of these themes within one set. He played a thoroughly eclectic assortment of tracks, filled with mixes of his own productions (“I’ll Take Care of You,” “Sleep Sound,” “Far Nearer,” and The XX’s “Sunset”). Interspersed was dungeon-style techno (Randomer “Bring”), retrospective soul on vinyl (Bileo “You Can Win”), cheeky absurdist ironic awesomeness (Detroit Grand Pubahs “Sandwiches”), and some aggressive trap rumblings thrown in somewhere there, you know for good measure. Somehow Jamie was able to mix all of these wildly different sounds into one fantastic set, so that even bros were exclaiming of the Pitchfork darling, “He’s killing it! He’s KILLING it!”

Oh yeah, so Sunday was canceled due to weather. There was a lot of glitter, neon, and butt cheek. The food and drinks were expensive. All of this is to be expected and irrelevant at this point.

What Electric Zoo proved was that electronic music is still very much alive. It hasn’t gotten stale largely because it has kept on changing, adapting to new tastes, simultaneously retaining a shitty amorphous name (EDM) with its artists outmaneuvering a tyrannical taxonomy. EDM is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously. EDM is everything and nothing. And EDM will be relevant as long as people dance to music that’s electronic.

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