Democracy Dies in Darkness

Music

How the death of EDM brought pop music one step closer to eternal life

August 3, 2017 at 8:30 AM

From left, singer-songwriters Halsey, Alessia Cara and Selena Gomez. (Washington Post photo illustration: Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post; Greg Allen/Invision/AP; Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Washington Post photo illustration: Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post; Greg Allen/Invision/AP; Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Today, we'll be discussing how a Selena Gomez song might foreshadow humanity's triumph over biological death — but first, raise your hand if you remember EDM. It was short for "electronic dance music," a style once poised to eat the planet for lunch and then eat itself for dessert. Five summers ago, as a new league of superstar DJs were being paid astronomical amounts of money to perform at packed festivals the world over, the music's sustainability didn't appear to be at the forefront of anyone's mind. In 2015, Forbes reported that the EDM bubble was about to burst . In 2016, Pitchfork made the case that it had .

But this unofficial collapse hasn't forced the star producers of EDM to unplug their laptops and register for the GRE. In fact, plenty are faring exceptionally well this summer, taking up residence on the Billboard Hot 100 after partnering with an array of willing pop vocalists — Calvin Harris with Pharrell Williams, the Chainsmokers with Coldplay, David Guetta with Justin Bieber. These kinds of genre-splicing collaborations aren't anything new, but with EDM now in decline, they've quietly reversed their polarity. Instead of making dance tracks that behave like pop songs, these producers appear to be making pop songs that behave a little more like dance tracks.

In most instances, the result is just a mirror-image of the same old thing, but for a certain class of pop singers, it seems to be changing the way they apply their physicality to a geometric dance rhythm. You can hear it on the radio this summer whenever Gomez goes hopscotching across the grid of Kygo's "It Ain't Me," or when Alessia Cara leans hard against the right-angles of Zedd's "Stay," or in the way Halsey seems to be gasping for air in the digital vacuum of her solo single "Now or Never." All three songs are delivered with mechanical clarity, with all three vocalists making direct lyrical references to eternity. Are they singing about ­transhumanism?

Zedd performs on ABC's “Good Morning America” at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park on July 21. (Greg Allen/Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

Not long after our species learned how to dream, we were probably dreaming of ways to exceed the limitations of our bodies. It's the stuff of religions and comic books. Now, it's the work of Silicon Valley, where a growing number of transhumanists believe that mankind's next evolutionary leap will occur once we figure out how to convert consciousness into code, allowing for a digital transmigration of souls. In his recent book, "To Be a Machine," author Mark O'Connell describes transhumanism as "a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself." That emancipation means eternal life inside a supercomputer. Heaven is a hard drive.

The idea isn't so shocking if you watch "Black Mirror" or if you listen to pop music. For well over a decade now, Auto-Tune software has been narrowing the musical gap between humans and machines, generating signature hooks for everyone from T-Pain to Future. However, whether we as listeners embrace Auto-Tune as a tool or denounce it as a crutch often depends on who's singing through it. When Kanye West uses computer software to manipulate his voice, he's an artist. When Britney Spears does the same thing, she's a girl who can't sing.

That double standard helps to explain why Ellie Goulding hasn't been recognized as one of the more significant pop vocalists of our time. The British singer always had bright ideas about phrasing, but it wasn't until she loaned her voice to a few juggernaut EDM singles that her singing began to feel totally frictionless. And it had more to do with Goulding's inflection than whatever digital processing she was applying to it. By the time she released her 2015 album, "Delirium," Goulding was weaving the curves of her voice through a world of clean-edged rhythms as if drawing a map to the future.

Related: [Ellie Goulding is singing from inside the pop machine]

Singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding. (Washington Post photo illustration Steve C. Mitchell/ EPA/Washington Post photo illustration Steve C. Mitchell/ EPA)

With "Now or Never," Halsey has that map folded up in her back pocket. It's a slower, stronger, smarter, more spacious song than "Closer," her massive EDM hit with the Chainsmokers, and it gives the 22-year-old the opportunity to do some captivating things with her breath. When she's breathing in, she's all human, taking sharp little hits of oxygen that dramatize the ballad's sustained romantic ache. But when she's breathing out, she's at least half-machine, singing about pain with precision. Listen close to how she lingers on the words "now," "time" and "forever." The grain in her voice sounds like it's pixelating.

Alessia Cara's "Stay" — a collaboration with the German EDM producer Zedd — addresses the gap between data and soul in the form of a simple duet, with a refrain that's delivered in two parts. First comes Cara pushing her voice especially hard into the song's rigid architecture. Then comes a gush of synthesized melodies pantomiming what the 21-year-old just sang. It's a game of call and response, but the call sounds big-hearted, and the response sounds no-hearted, giving the dialogue a sinister glint. Cara is singing about forestalling a separation, but she might as well be teaching the HAL 9000 how to sing "Daisy."

With "It Ain't Me," Norwegian producer Kygo isn't playing a game so much as conducting a test — one in which Gomez must first coo alongside a gently plucked guitar and then over the relentless thuds of sub-woofing bass. As the song builds its graceless crescendo, the coffee shop turns into a rave, with the most promising 25-year-old in pop showing us how she can make her voice feel artificial in an intimate setting and expressive in an anonymous one.

That so-real-it-sounds-fake quality in Gomez's singing is put to far better use over the uncluttered beat of "Bad Liar," a hit single about an affection that can't be suppressed. The song radiates such indomitable charm, even its bad lyrics ooze weird charisma. In the first verse, Gomez asserts, "just like the Battle of Troy, there's nothing subtle here." Sure. In the second verse, she purrs, "If you're the art, I'll be the brush." If she says so. And does she? Are these malformed bits of poetry the result of human error, or were they written by a buggy algorithm? It's hard to know for sure, and the pleasure is in the not-knowing.

You'll want to savor that confusion until Gomez reaches the bridge and blurts out the most metaphysical romantic advance to grace the radio in years: "Oh, baby, let's make reality." Amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing. The nature of her proposition depends entirely on whether she's pretending to be a machine, but either way, who's going to say no?


Chris Richards has been The Washington Post's pop music critic since 2009. Before joining The Post, he freelanced for various music publications.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing
Keep reading for $10 $1
Show me more offers