The IDentity Festival couldn't have happened five years ago, not when techno was popularly understood as the inscrutably minimalist machine-music favored by pretentious urban elitists; house music as the obnoxiously gauche four-to-the-floor bleats played at Guido-filled meat markets; and drum 'n' bass as the anarchically percussive soundtrack for Ecstasy-numbed teenage candy ravers. The electronic music diaspora was fragmented by a bewildering number of micro-genres, each attended to by a small yet fervent number of fanatics saddled with a unique set of cultural stereotypes. Only critic-approved picks with a rock bent, whether it was LCD Soundsystem's catalog or Justice's "French touch" nostalgia, seemed to appeal to an audience beyond its acolytes. The irony is that nearly all of those subsets took pride in being "underground" — yes, even trance superstars such as Paul van Dyk and Tiësto — as if to explain away a lack of mainstream attention in the U.S.
It's worth remembering that chaotic state of affairs as electronic and dance music (or EDM, as it's often called now) experiences a wave of interest not seen since the late 1990s and the halcyon days of Chemical Brothers, Paul Oakenfold, Moby and Basement Jaxx. The resurgence began with Lady Gaga's 2008 album, The Fame, which riffed on Euro house clichés for crossover smashes like "Just Dance" and "Poker Face"; and David Guetta's 2009 album One Love, which wedded airy progressive house melodies with vocal anthems from Kelly Rowland ("When Love Takes Over") and Akon ("Sexy Bitch"). Subsequent hits from Rihanna ("Only Girl in the World") and Pitbull ("Give Me Everything") cast the current fad as a shamelessly pop-oriented one, resulting in jarring expositions such as Beyoncé swooning over a dubstep track on her recent 4, and Pitbull humping like a horny toad throughout his recent Planet Pit.
With the specter of hundreds of thousands rolling on pills at the West Coast's annual Electric Daisy Carnival and the cartoon characters on MTV's "Jersey Shore" pumping their fists to Deadmau5 and LMFAO, it's safe to wonder if EDM is just another banality of our ongoing aPopcalypse.
IDentity's organizers undoubtedly hope that as EDM swells with followers, the tide will rise for all artists, not just those with radio-friendly pop songs. It's been years since a touring electronic music festival hit the States — Moby's short-lived Area Festival of 2001-2002 comes to mind, with its polyglot bill of Paul Oakenfold, Derrick May, OutKast and New Order. And despite its erroneous claims of being "the first touring electronic ONLY music festival," IDentity brings more than two-dozen artists of varying styles. There are old-school pioneers like breakbeat duo the Crystal Method and hip-hop collagist DJ Shadow; dubstep beatmakers Rusko and Nero; and club-pop acts Afrobeta and Hercules and Love Affair. (Unfortunately two of the tour's biggest names, Skrillex and Afrojack, won't be at the Atlanta date.)
German duo Booka Shade has come to America for performances since 2006, when its album Movements landed on numerous best-of-year lists. "It's always been a bit of a niche music in the States," says Arno Kammermeier, who claims that Americans view electronic music as "rather exotic."
"I think Americans see David Guetta as an electronic artist, and of course he's very poppy and for a very broad market. We are more in the underground music [scene]."
Booka Shade isn't immune to trends, however. Years ago, "Mandarine Girl," a light and whimsical tech-house melody, summed up the irreverent sensibility of the group and its label, Get Physical Music. Its recent material, including last year's More, hews toward a darker, sensuous perspective reminiscent of Depeche Mode. "We DJ a lot to check out new grooves and what works for us," says Kammermeier, suggesting that their DJing experiences led them to evolve out of the "Mandarine Girl" ethos. As a result, he says, "the sound has a bit of the 'tech-ier' sound instead of the light disco sound."
Closer to home, Atlanta-based DJ Le Castle Vania explores his EDM niche. He sums it up as "a fusion of indie and alternative rock sounds and electronic dance music, so it's kinda like indie-electro." His glittery remix of Cee Lo Green's "F*** You!," which he proudly notes is "the only official remix of that song," hybridizes a throwback disco tempo and an electro-funk breakdown.
"Electronic music keeps diversifying into different areas, so there's a lot of sounds that can appeal to different types of people," he says. "It's all about what you choose to listen to and how deep you want to dig."