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Quick Take: Electronic Dance Music

Graduate student focuses on EDM's shift from avant-garde to mainstream media.

Arts & Culture  |  Jun 9, 2014  |  By Paige Frank

Chris Conner, Sociology graduate student. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Photo Services)

Born in the nightclubs of Chicago and Detroit, electronic dance music (EDM) grew into a gangly adolescent in the California warehouse raves of the early 90s. and has now, some say, finally come of age.

Sociology graduate student Chris Conner is chronicling what was lost – and gained – during EDM’s almost 40-year transformation from deviant subculture into the legitimate corporate enterprise that, this month, will bring more than 400,000 attendees over three days to the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas. Conner hopes to complete his Ph.D. dissertation on the topic in May 2015.

Conner discovered electronic dance music in his 20s, and worked as a nightclub promoter while earning his master’s in sociology from Indiana University-Indianapolis. There, his work focused on gay nightclub culture. Searching for a dissertation topic after he arrived at UNLV, Conner learned that the Electric Daisy Carnival would be moving to Las Vegas.

The rave subculture, Conner says, once served as “a kind of political resistance strategy,” with groups of young people dodging the police, breaking into warehouses, and throwing parties. Now, electronic dance music festivals are professionally produced and welcome security patrols.

“One definite argument you can make is, yes, things have changed. The core values (of the EDM culture) may not necessarily all be there, but it’s now more accessible to a wider audience,” Conner says. “The negative thing you could ask is, if, by transforming itself, has EDM abandoned its original purpose? Has it lost its political edge? And what does that mean for the EDM movement?”

Conner’s dissertation adviser, UNLV sociology professor David Dickens, says the 32-year-old’s research “takes an angle that really hasn’t been done before. There are a lot of people who’ve looked at musical subcultures, but they haven’t looked at this process” when a music scene migrates from the fringe to the mainstream.

Conner employs mixed methods research. He attends electronic dance music festivals to observe the culture in action and he is reaching out to connections formed during his days as a nightclub promoter for interviews of EDM insiders. Conner also conducts documentary analysis of media coverage to trace how coverage has changed from what Dickens calls “moral panic” accounts of secret, drug-fueled dance parties to straight business stories about the economic impact of EDM festivals.

“He has really upped his game, methodologically,” Dickens says.

Conner says the way EDM has shoved aside its avant-garde to welcome the masses parallels the gay rights movement, as well as the punk counterculture.

“Much of the basis for punk’s arrival was to challenge conventional style,” Conner says. “However, once punk started to amass a following you see that the music took on a established form. As this form gets repeated no one ever questions the rules that the group operates under. The same process underlies the transformation of the EDM counterculture.”

Dickens also sees similarities to the environmental and homeless-rights movements.

EDM “matters because it definitely informs us about the status of politics in contemporary society and the role of identity,” Conner says. “It’s about what role art and culture play in contemporary society.”