It became apparent to late writer Mark Fisher that around the mid-2000s, electronic music as a genre had failed to produce a new innovation. In the time since, electronic music failed to progress past tropes and stylings that had already been explored in the twentieth century. To some, this may simply sound like the bemoaning of an older generation that “music just isn’t as good as it used to be.”
It became apparent to late writer Mark Fisher that around the mid-2000s, electronic music as a genre had failed to produce a new innovation. In the time since, electronic music failed to progress past tropes and stylings that had already been explored in the twentieth century. To some, this may simply sound like the bemoaning of an older generation that “music just isn’t as good as it used to be.” It was not the quality of the music that alarmed Fisher, instead it was the lack of capacity to imagine beyond worlds and styles that already existed.
Fundamental to this music was the conceptualisation and aspiration towards a new future. As a result, the future as a concept itself was inherent to popular electronic music at the time of its creation both lyrically and instrumentally. Take Kraftwerk's 'The Robots' for example: Sonically it utilised instruments that had never been utilised in popular music up to that point. The lyrics conceptualised the future of Fordist work structures, and the servitude of robots at the whim of humans. Over time, these characteristics and the sonic palette became integral features of popular electronic music. Above all, it encapsulated the peak of modernity by proposing a future—an activity that was lost in the contemporary era.
Can electronic music still be considered futuristic? The genre has grown alongside humanity for the past 60 years or so, observing dramatic technological upheaval in human life. The bleeps and bloops are no longer hypothesising a future, they have become our present. What more is there left to imagine?
At this point in history, we depend on the past to hypothesise for us. By recreating sounds from a previous era of music, we are no longer hypothesising the same as they had been; we are rehashing a previously proposed crystallised future that had become intrinsic to the genre itself. Ignorantly adopting these sounds leads to pastiche and makes the production of future musical forms all the more difficult due to the sonic spectre of the past lurking within the beats. With the future put forth by Kraftwerk never arriving—or not going the way they had envisioned—we feel obliged to continue their work and daydream along the same lines. Spending too much time playing with the past means we ignore our responsibilities in producing our next future.
With specific reference to Melbourne, there are several unassociated groups that contribute to the “dehypothesisation” of the future. One aspect is the rise of DJ Papa Smurf and his “vinyl only” sets. In my previous writings, I discussed the finesse and skill required as a DJ to perform using analog equipment (imagine calling records analogue!), and the novelty of observing such skill. His prosperity does not lie in the recognition and observance of such skill, it instead lies in the trance and prog music he has taken the time to source on vinyl (another way of presenting capital). This is not an attack on the little blue gentleman nor his skills, it is defining a portion of his success as a symptom of the culture’s unhealthy obsession with the past in favour of guaranteeing its own survival.
As discussed briefly in my previous piece on DJ automation, it became apparent that the overarching electronic music culture is heavily dependent on the hospitality industry for survival. This was inadvertently touched upon in Fisher’s explanation of the role of neoliberalism in producing culture. To continue to make art, artists have to make money to pay for their living. As a result, the “well-established and familiar” that has proven the most profitable is more frequently expressed in culture than the provocative. In desperation, electronic music is retreating to the past to ensure itself a future.
One might counter the futurelessness of electronic music by pointing to the subgenre of PC music, famous for its squelchy exaggeration of Y2K pop music tropes. Surely PC music is different enough to what has come before, and represents a new future for electronic music? My answer is no. PC music is dependent on the defining characteristics of pop music to validate its own existence—it operates as an ironic counterpart. Its claim to the future is based fundamentally on the past, and while sounding like the future, its appeal is dependent on the ironic subversion of pre-existing types of music. It is not a full “shock of the new”—it is a shock of the near past rearing its head again.
So, what is the point of imagining further if the past already works for us? If it ain’t broke, why fix it? In borrowing pre-existing forms, we dig ourselves deeper into the hole of the collective unimaginative. It is important to create alternatives for our current that can be acted upon, as opposed to alternative versions of the past. We cannot go back in time to the Second Summer of Love. Moreover, assumptions that the cultural, political, and economic conditions can be forcefully recreated would be at the expense of the progression of new forms.
Electronic music, since its invention, has always been conjuring a specific future—a world where humanity is lifted up by the grace of technology. Yes, electronic music can conjure the future, but it has been reusing the same future for decades at this point. As time marches on, this specific future has become more and more detached from our present, to the extent that it is no longer relevant or healthy to consider it as a viable option. The creation of a new aspiration in electronic music is so long overdue that our ability to culturally innovate is at risk of being forgotten. Potential for change and worlds different to our current are integral to a culturally flourishing and progressing society, so we must not let that potential die with us.