Bridging the Divide Between EDM and the Underground... with Daft Punk's Help
a.k.a. Writer Gabriel Szatan talks about his forthcoming book, the current state of electronic music and the complicated legacy of those famous French robots.
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a newsletter focused on electronic music and the larger scene / industry that surrounds it. This edition of the newsletter has first been made available exclusively to paid subscribers. If you fall into that category, thank you so much for your support!
If not, please consider signing up for a paid subscription by clicking the button below.
I don’t like EDM. If you’re reading this, you most likely don’t either, and you’re not alone. Over the past decade or so, an entire swath of “real” electronic music fans have battled against the EDM behemoth, decrying its shallowness, inauthenticity, overtly commercial orientation and largely ahistorical approach to what was once an “underground” music phenomenon.
It’s a natural response. Whenever a niche scene, community or cultural movement moves towards the mainstream, there’s going to be a backlash from the folks who were already involved. If you feel like you helped to build something special, and likely centered your whole identity around that effort, newcomers often aren’t to be trusted, especially when they’ve been led through the gates by some crass or diluted version of the thing you love. Punk, indie, hip-hop, emo, goth, ska, even swing music—so many genres have fought this fight over the years, and during the ’90s and 2000s, the conflict was seemingly constant as the mainstream hoovered up one subculture after the next.
In most cases, however, some sort of equilibrium was eventually reached. Stubborn diehards would of course continue to stand their ground, but the larger community usually accepted some sort of new status quo, acknowledging a genre’s roots without entirely excluding the newcomers from the conversation.
With EDM, that bargain was never struck. Despite its massive impact—not just on electronic music, but on the pop sphere and the entire global music industry—EDM continues to be shunned by the true believers of the electronic underground. Even amongst music journalists, whose job literally revolves around storytelling and analysis, EDM has rarely been treated as something more than a target for scorn and ridicule.
Again, I’m admittedly part of the problem, and a pivot to EDM-centric storytelling likely isn’t in my future. At the same time, it does seem odd that there’s been so little critical engagement with that world, especially now that we’re living through the heyday of poptimist journalism. Most serious electronic music writers have basically spent the past decade ignoring EDM, and while mainstream journalists and publications have occasionally attempted to pick up some of the slack, few of them (especially in the US) have the tools or knowledge to approach the electronic sphere with any real depth. (Of course, this only worsens the disconnect between EDM and the music / communities that spawned it in the first place.)
Enter Gabriel Szatan. Many First Floor readers are likely familiar with his work already, but the London-based writer is easily one of today’s most prominent electronic music scribes. Operating in a genre that’s often overly serious, Szatan is someone who brings quite a lot of humor and lightheartedness to the table, both in his work and especially when it comes to his public persona. That might rankle some of electronic music’s grouchier contingents, but it’s also part of what makes his writing such a pleasure to read.
Despite being only 30 years old, his resume already includes contributions to places like The Guardian, Pitchfork, Resident Advisor, DJ Mag, Crack, Dazed and The Economist. He was previously part of the team at Red Bull Music Academy (full disclosure: he and I worked together there for a time, albeit in separate departments) and notably spent a number of years doing editorial at Boiler Room, where he memorably (and somewhat goofily) hosted countless broadcasts.
Last week, Szatan announced the forthcoming release of his first book, After Daft, which is slated for a 2023 release. As the title implies, the book will focus on Daft Punk and their legacy, tracing the group’s influences back to Chicago and Detroit and charting their gradual path to global superstardom, a journey which helped rearrange electronic music—and arguably the entire music industry—as we know it. EDM is obviously part of that story, as are the robot costumes, the mind-melting Alive tour and the “Teachers” Daft Punk famously shouted out on Homework, many of whom haven’t experienced anything close to a similar level of success.
We have a ways to go before the book comes out (although it can be preordered here), but I figured that Szatan would still be able to provide a window into how he’s approaching the Daft Punk story. During a long conversation last week, we dug deep into the group’s history, legacy and influence, while also discussing Szatan’s own journey (both professional and personal), the current state of music journalism and the undeniable chasm that still exists between electronic music and EDM.