On The Trickle Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics III: Acousmatic Sound And Authenticity At The 2012 Grammy Awards

by Thomas Brett

“All cultural change is essentially technology-driven.” – William Gibson

This year’s Grammy Awards featured the first ever performances of live electronic dance music, showcasing the DJs David Guetta and deadmau5 with R&B singer Chris Brown, rapper Lil Wayne, and the rock band Foo Fighters in what the Los Angeles Times aptly called “a confused, if well-meaning, picture of dance music’s place and influence in current pop.”

There were two catches to the performances. The first is that they took place outside the Staples Center in a tent designed to resemble a 1990s rave–complete with lazers and audience members wielding glowsticks. Evidently, turning the main auditorium into a club space wasn’t going to happen; better to keep “serious” popular music safe (for the moment) from electronic enchroachment. The second catch to the performances is that both DJs–Guetta and deadmau5–were paired with other artists, telegraphing the message that manipulating digital turntables still does not quite constitute a “performance.” What are we supposed to look at? And where exactly is the demonstration of instrumental virtuosity? So as Guetta worked his turntables on his infectious song “I Can Only Imagine”, Chris Brown and Lil Wayne stalked the stage in Auto-Tuned perfection to reassure viewers that this was pretty much like a traditional show—except that Guetta’s DJ rig replaced the whole band. The TV cameras occasionally showed close-ups of Guetta’s hands moving fast over wheels, buttons, and sliders. But unlike a typical epic DJ set, the song lasted just 3 minutes.

Next up were the Canadian producer deadmau5 and the Foo Fighters. deadmau5 had remixed the Foos’ song “Rope” in 2011 and their collaboration at the Grammys was a demonstration of how remixing works. First, the Foos performed one-and-a-half minutes of “Rope” in the song’s original rock incarnation. As the song’s finishing chords rang out, deadmau5 entered with a quantized (and slightly slower-paced) four-on-the-floor stomp, and the Foos played along as if resigned to the metronomic pulse. This collaboration lasted all of 55 seconds (hey, it’s for TV after all) and seemed to drain the song of its original energy. Then deadmau5 played one minute of dubstep from his song “Raise Your Weapon.” It was probably the most musical moment of the whole 6-minute performance–just pure dubstep groove–though Deadmau5 is known more as a house music producer than as a bonafide dubstepper. And just as Guetta had Chris Brown and Lil Wayne on hand to provide visual spectacle, deadmau5 wore his tradmark giant LCD-lit headpiece to give us something to look at. Unlike the Foos’ hands which could be seen picking away on those electric guitars, deadmau5’s hands and his DJ rig were hidden from view.

And it’s precisely this that’s at stake when people talk about what makes rock/pop music authentic and electronic music lacking in authenticity: we can see rock/pop musicians generating sound, while the techniques of electronic musicians are either hidden (we can’t see what they’re doing to make sound) or diffuse in the sense that their music making was done over the days, weeks and months of a solitary and private production process that assembled a track bit by bit. So when it comes to time to “performing” an electronic music mix, it’s not always clear to the concert-viewer what the DJ/producer is doing besides playing back a track and tweaking a few elements here and there. (Was Guetta doing anything substantial to “I Can Only Imagine” or were his rapid hand movements just to convey a sense of musical busyness?) This is most of all a problem of what the French musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer in 1955 called acousmatic sound: sound one hears without seeing its source, sound emanating from a loudspeaker without a musician in view who is the unmistakable creator of that sound. Even today, this makes some people in the popular music establishment nervous, especially considering that electronic music seems to be eating rock and pop music wholesale, one song at a time.

The complete Grammy performance of all five artists is here: