Who's in Charge of the Culture?
a.k.a. Intergenerational tensions in dance music are rarely about the music itself.
At some point during the late ’90s, the word emo entered my vocabulary. I’m not quite sure exactly where I heard it first—although there’s a good chance that a blustery, mid-concert conversation with fellow teens on the back patio of San Francisco venue Bottom of the Hill had something to do with it—but as soon as I had the most tentative of grasps on the term, I was all in. Bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Far, At the Drive-In, Knapsack, The Get-Up Kids, The Promise Ring and countless others quickly rocketed to the top of my favorites list, and emo became one of my personal calling cards. As a kid who was barely out of high school, emo was more than just music; it was an entire subculture, and one whose mere existence seemed to validate both my budding sense of individual autonomy and corresponding desire to reject all things mainstream. (Remember that this was when the Top 40 was anything but cool and the stigma of “selling out” was arguably at its height.)
Of course, all of this is somewhat embarrassing to admit now, especially given emo’s trajectory in the years that followed and the word’s current status as a kind of universal shorthand for “depressed drama kids in eyeliner at the mall.” Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, however, I wore the music—and my (admittedly limited) knowledge of it—like a badge of honor, loudly proclaiming its greatness to anyone within earshot. I’m eternally thankful that social media didn’t exist back then, just as I’m grateful that the tape of my interview with At the Drive-In vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala is now nowhere to be found, as I definitely asked him something along the lines of “So… what do you think about emo?”
That interview was for my weekly radio show at KALX 90.7 FM Berkeley, a place where my emo enthusiasm didn’t always go over particularly well, especially with the volunteers who were a bit older than me. Although they weren’t actually old—most of the more vocal objectors were in their mid-to-late 20s—they were old enough to have lived through prior iterations of emo, and knew that the “emo” I was championing was miles away from Rites of Spring and the genre’s more overtly punk / hardcore origins. (It also didn’t help matters that the other style of music I was really excited about—electronic music, and specifically day-glo trance and rave music—was something most indie / punk / emo fans of that time would never listen to, and in fact tended to openly mock. For what it’s worth, many of the more veteran electronic music fans at the station, who tended to gravitate toward styles like Detroit techno, jungle and IDM, didn’t much appreciate my tastes either.)
Simply put, I was a brash, overconfident kid, and like many brash, overconfident kids, my enthusiasm outpaced my actual knowledge of the music I was shouting about. When it came to emo, trance or any other genre I was into, my frame of reference essentially began at the moment I “discovered” the music, and didn’t go back much further. The idea of doing some research and properly learning about the roots and history of a genre? That wasn’t something that fully took root in my brain until years later.
More than two decades later, I myself am no longer a young person, but the behavior of budding music fans in many ways hasn’t changed all that much. By and large, young people—even those whose tastes veer away from the mainstream—are still most excited about the contemporary artists they “discover” themselves. Although streaming, social media and the general memeification of culture have arguably moderated this dynamic somewhat—the Stranger Things-fueled success of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” and the TikTok-fueled success of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” are things that likely couldn’t have happened even five years ago—there’s still no changing the fact that each generation wants to assert its own identity, and does that in part by building up and celebrating its own cohort of artists and icons. The “newness” of said artists and icons is arguably their most important feature, even when the music that they’re making is little more than warmed-over versions of genres and styles that were popular in previous eras.
This is particularly true when it comes to dance music, a genre that bills itself as a bastion of futurism, but in reality has spent the bulk of the past two decades endlessly recycling sounds, styles and techniques from the ’80s and ’90s. New producers pop up all the time, but how many of them are genuinely breaking new musical ground? Not many, and that’s likely part of the reason why current conversations about things like Web3, behind-the-scenes industry machinations and cringey Reddit confessions about what tracks people like put on when having sex tend to generate more passionate discourse than talk of new music itself. It’s fair to say that things in dance music feel a bit stale right now—at least stylistically—and yet, new tracks continue to blow up into anthems and fresh-faced artists are consistently being invited onto international DJ circuit.
Young ravers want their own heroes, and many of them don’t really care what prior generations have to say about it. This isn’t something that’s unique to dance music, but it is interesting that even as the genre has largely stayed the same—or at least ceased to innovate with the same gusto that drove its development and initial explosion during the ’80s and ’90s—old and aging dance music heads continue to criticize younger generations anyway. Those critiques might be framed as claims that kids these days are churning out “shit” trance, “cheap” old-school jungle knockoffs or inane rehashes of happy hardcore, but it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see that many of these complaints aren’t about the music at all. They’re about control, and the anxiety one generation feels when that control passes to those who’ve followed in their footsteps.