Sometimes random albums find their way into my hard drive, and one of them was Enigma's "MCMXC".
Yes, my friends; in my teen ages, before rock and roll slapped me in the face for good, I was a synthesizer greatest geek. I swore by the names of Jean Michel Jarre, Pet Shop Boys, Guru Josh and other heroes of the day.
In fact that's the period when I consolidated my first knowledge of harmony, melody, etc... I remember, for a period of my life, my secret pleasure was playing a keyboard in bed, in the dark, just fooling around, like a kid with a toy. I recorded 30-45 minutes worth of it on a cassette, and then relistened to it with joy and amazement, and always learned a lot. (This strategy may sound a bit like the typical narcissistic teenager -the musical equivalent of a selfie-, but there's a difference: when you take picture after picture of yourself you don't actually "learn" anything from one to the next; however, in the musical process, or in any other creative process for that matter, you need that "second time" or diastole, to reflect, evaluate and figure out what will the next step be. It's like the painter taking two steps backwards to see the whole picture, after brushing his heart out on the canvas for half an hour; sometimes you feel as if you just woke up from a trance: "what I just did?")
A lot has happened in the 25 years gone by since those nightly sessions; but the teenager is still alive somewhere within me, and he still listens to this kind music now and then. My recent relistening of Enigma's most famous record made me reflect about what is it that attracted me to electronic music in the first place in that age of purity, and what is perhaps different in the genre nowadays. (Of course I'm going to generalize big time or this post would acquire book proportions...)
I think an element that made "MCMXC" such a huge success in its day is that there is a "spiritual" element to it. The mixture of an ancestral kind of music played by monks in the 9th century, and the monotonic dance style of the 20-21st, the male and female voices, all was made in a seamless manner, that in a way made you think of a "full circle"; doesn't our fast, repetitive time makes all of us in a way some kind of "monks" of some weird, ugly cult? It is an album that is full of life, death and desire.
Now take that final sentence and think how many Skrillexes of today's world could boast such a thing.
That's what has changed. Electronic music, in its origins, counterbalanced its inherent "synthetic" (meaning: "artificial") quality with a deliberately accentuated "human factor". Neo-romantics a la Depeche Mode or Soft Cell, with deep lyrics about depression, perversion, mockery... Or even extremists who acted as if they were trying to break the machine by spilling enough guts into it: Suicide, Joy Division...
As another example, take Kraftwerk, one of the originators of the genre; very clever German guys who not only built their own instruments, but even robots for their stage personas... In their case, the "geekery" factor, the awe of "look at this new synthesizer thing that has come out it is so great" was self assumed, and it always showed in a pinch of self irony and healthy humor in their excellent, catchy songs (Glorious example: "I'm the operator with my pocket calculator"...)
I don't listen to a lot of current stuff right now because it gives me an instant headache, but from what I've gathered, I'd say the humanity part is becoming more and more absent from the genre, leaving only the electronic part.
You have the guys who make "beats", self taught people who perhaps know a lot about computers but haven't really listened to any music or read a book in their life; isolated in their own self complacency, they haven't been influenced by anybody, haven't built a vocabulary, and therefore don't really have much original to say... And then there are the more mainstream pop songs, so overproduced and depleted of any real emotion, that they all sound to me like some kind of creepy mating ritual taking place in an operating room. The kind of music for people who don't really listen to music, but who like to speak of music as something they own, as a symbol of status: "I'll wear this earring, I'll play this song in the car..."
In both cases, "electronic" seems to have become sort of a cop-out that allows the creators to hide behind the fluff of machinery, obey a few stiff pre-set rules, and so generating a "product" without having to bother too much. The results of such premises are not very attractive to me, but of course to each their own. The good thing is that you can spot them very quickly. And of course, if you consider all the previous examples, things don't have to be this way forever...
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it