Around the World

Many years ago, I was standing in line for EDC (“Electric Daisy Carnival” for the uninitiated). A guy much younger than I, decorated much more vibrantly than I, and wearing much less clothing than I, struck up a conversation. Nothing too weighty. “Who’re you excited to see?” – “How many EDCs have you been too?” Commonplace banter virtually everyone engages in while uncomfortably waiting in line outside a music festival.

I had fairly flippant answers for his questions. The type of quasi-funny sarcasm that comes with age. But my answer to his last question was sincere. He’d asked “What kinda music you into?” and I reflexively answered, “Anything that moves both my body and my soul.” He didn’t much like that vague of a reply. He’d been hoping I’d name a specific type of electronic music, so we could then further discuss the minutiae of the various subgenres that’ve erupted over the years. Instead, I provided him with the sort of wide-ranging, non-specific answer that stopped the conversation dead in its tracks.

While I fired off the reply “Anything that moves both my body and soul” glibly, I did actually mean what I’d said. I meant it then and I mean it now. But that wasn’t always the case.

Growing up, my father’s idea of parenting (outside of mental and physical abuse) was to sit me down in front of the television. That’s unfortunately where I learned a lot about life and morality and all the things that parenting should have taught. That’s also where I was primarily exposed to music.

Television was fun and all, but it was its music that really spoke to me. Theme songs and commercial jingles. Classical music and opera in Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse cartoons. Disco and pop on dance shows like Soul Train and The Grind. Musicals like Wizard of Oz and Little Shop of Horrors. And various genres of music via music videos on MTV (back when the “M” in MTV still meant “Music”). I responded more to the audio than the visual of television.

I loved music. All genres. I didn’t discriminate. No one genre really spoke to me more than any other. Naturally, I went through phases every time I discovered something new. First, there was a classical phase. Then I went through a punk phase (listening to bands like Dead Kennedys and Social Distortion). That gave way to a grunge phase (with bands like Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots). That gave way to an alternative phase (Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins). That gave way to an electronica phase (Prodigy and Crystal Method). There was even a brief period when I was very young where I listened to nothing but Weird Al Yankovic.

During each phase I thoroughly enjoyed the music I was listening to, but nothing really shook me. Nothing I heard was transformative. There was never a “My life changed after I heard [insert song here]” moment. Until one morning, watching MTV while getting ready for school, this music video came on:

I’d never before heard something so repetitive, so hypnotic, so fresh, and so simple yet melodic. I’d never seen a music video that was so silly and weird and inspired and married to the music so perfectly. Other electronic bands on this growing new “electronica” wave didn’t move me as Daft Punk did. Their stuff didn’t touch me.

The world was on pause. I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. I was hypnotized. Mesmerized. Spaced-out melodies and a driving four-on-the-floor beat filled an emptiness in me I didn’t realize I had. That funky bassline. Those robotic words. Nothing else I’d ever heard was like it. The electronic songs of the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy leaned towards rock. Aphex Twin was experimental and chaotic. Disco was almost vapid in its simplicity. All paled in comparison to the sublimity Daft Punk displayed.

When that video ended, and the world unfroze, I had my new obsession. Music was always an important part of my life, but it wasn’t the main driving force until “Around the World” entered it. That song was my transformative musical moment I was subconsciously waiting for.

No longer would I sit idly by as any old music weaved in and out of my life, like the tide coming in. I had a mission to find more songs like this. To fully immerse myself in this newfound audio experience. But living in a small town with a population of just over 2,000 wasn’t quite the hotbed of musical availability I required. My pursuit had to be done over the internet, primarily through Napster.

I learned about different genres of electronic music: house, techno, trance, breakbeat, jungle, drum and bass, downtempo, hardcore, and all the genres that splintered off from there. Each one had its own power. Its own magic. I wanted to listen to it all. I wanted more.

There was a culture, an underground landscape that awaited exploration, that I didn’t have access to. Events where this music was played for hours for people to dance to: raves. I always knew small town life wasn’t for me. My heart beats to metropolitan rhythms and nothing in a small, mountain town could fulfill me. I moved to Las Vegas as soon as I was able and went to my first rave the very next day.

It was on the outskirts of Vegas, in the desert, miles and miles away from the shining neon of the Strip. Two makeshift booths set up at opposite ends of a faux-campsite, each with bright flashing lights blasting out in circular directions. I don’t remember a lot of that night in July of 2001, but I distinctly remember when a remix of Daft Punk’s “Around the World” was played by a DJ. The serendipity of that moment. The momentous coincidence cementing my place in this world. It was replaced only by hearing Daft Punk play that track live in Los Angeles 6 years later as part of their “Alive 2007” tour.

Over the years, electronic music has evolved (as all things eventually do). Even the catch-all term has evolved, from techno to electronica to the currently used EDM. But as the music grew and expanded, it started to lose its specialness. A lot of the electronic music coming out today feels diluted. There was a magic to it that’s no longer present.

There’s an emotional weight that’s been lost. As more and more electronic genres fractured off, they became more formulaic. Before, you could be listening to a DJ’s set and hear a broad range of musical styles. There could be vocal clips ripped straight from movies or TV shows appearing suddenly in a track. You’d be dancing to a driving techno beat and all of a sudden a loop from a country song would be playing. There was a time where there was no limit to what you’d hear under the umbrella of electronic music. But now, most of the songs are more of the same.

Perhaps when electronic music went from the soundtrack of dirty warehouse raves to main stage festival music, it lost its power. Decades ago, it was nearly unheard of to think about a career producing electronic music. People were doing it for the love of the music. Now it’s as much as money-making machine as pop music is.

Perhaps when the tools to make electronic music went from heavy, expensive hardware to cheap software, it lost its uniqueness. There was still a necessary musicality to producing electronic music and quite a financial commitment. Drum machines and synthesizers weren’t cheap. Now you can buy affordable software that emulates all the machines of old for a fraction of the price. And most of those programmes come with presents and loops that require little experience or musical knowledge.

Perhaps it’s simply a factor of electronic music losing it’s “cred” by going mainstream. We fans of electronic dance music were part of an exclusive club. The outside world didn’t know what to make of this strange, repetitive, mechanical, soulless music we admired so. They labelled us druggies. They thought we couldn’t appreciate real music. We used to comb through forgotten sections in the back of record stores for the slightest electronic trinket. Now Daft Punk is a Grammy-winning duo and colleges have courses in DJing.

Electronic music is still a major factor in my life. I did choose to go from a passive observer to an active participant and produce my own songs, after all. But it’s not as important to me as it was 20 years ago. I find myself listening to jazz more often than house music. 80s synth pop finds its way into my ears more often than drum and bass. Classical music accompanies me as I paint more often than techno.

Daft Punk’s “Around the World” woke me up. It put me on the path that shaped my life for the better. Sure, there are other songs I like more. There are other songs that are better made. Or better quality. There are greater musicians who create masterpieces for the ages of all genres. But without Daft Punk’s influence, I never would’ve been able to appreciate other music the way I do now. It took synthetic music created by a pair of robots to make me appreciate all forms of music. I was a light switch eternally turned off until “Around the World” turned me on. It was the first song that moved both my body and my soul. And every time I hear it, I’m brought back home again.