Electronic dance music, in just my lifetime, has proclaimed itself pop cultural emperor at least three times: early '80s, mid-'90s, now early '10s. Each time, fans and artists were overly confident in the prowess of their beloved blips, and the first two waves eventually (and inevitably) fizzled.
But this time, it's sizzling.
Last summer: Lollapalooza's rave tent, Perry's stage, was the hottest part of the annual pop music smorgasbord in Chicago's Grant Park. Once the square peg in Lolla's round niches, Perry's stage in 2011 expanded to a 15,000-capacity, open-air pavilion and remained overflowing all three nights of the festival, attracting far more than just diehard fans.
Last week: The creator of Live Nation, Robert F.X. Sillerman, told The New York Times his concert conglomerate had purchased a Southern rave production company, rechristened it SFX Entertainment (the name of his original concert business, which eventually became Live Nation) and was in talks to create a network of up to 50 more electronic dance promoters. Total amount he expects to spend during the next year backing and booking the genre: $1 billion.
This weekend: Chicago -- birthplace of house music, one of the strongest pillars of modern dance music -- gets its first serious, multi-day, electronic dance music throw-down, the Spring Awakening Festival, June 16-17 in and around Soldier Field. Skrillex and Afrojack are headliners along with Benny Benassi, Moby, Flux Pavilion, Carl Cox, Wolfgang Gartner, Diplo, A-Trak and more.
SPRING AWAKENING FESTIVAL
• 1-11:30 p.m. June 16-17
• Soldier Field, 1410 S. Museum Campus Drive
• Tickets: two-day passes $199.99 (VIP $239.99); single-day tickets $70 (VIP $120)
• (312) 235-7000; springawakeningfestival.com
The event originally was planned for the green outside Soldier Field; however, ticket demand allowed promoters to move the main stage into the stadium. The festival now has a daily capacity of 30,000, which promoters are confident will sell out.
"We'll still have the other [three] stages outside on the green, but the main stage will be in the north end zone," says Zach Partin of React Presents, the chief promoter behind this festival, with assistance from the Congress Theater. "To hear the big acts, fans can walk into the stadium the way the Bears do."
React Presents started up in 2009 and has been booking a parade of the world's hottest DJs -- Skrillex, David Guetta, Deadmau5, James Murphy, A-Trak, Bassnectar and more -- mostly at the North Coast Music Festival (in which React is a partner with several local promoters), the Congress Theater and the Mid nightclub in the West Loop.
"Maybe this finally is dance music's time to shine," Partin says. "What might be sticking it out there a little more is the way radio has made dance music more . . . I don't want to say accessible, but they're playing dance-oriented songs. These producers and rappers have been borrowing already popular beats from the 'underground world,' and by using them in music already destined for radio people wind up listening to dance music and enjoying dance music -- and then realizing, hey, this is dance music!"
Afrojack, the Sunday night Spring Awakening headliner, cites quality and a newfound energy as the reason dance music is finally breaking through to the mainstream.
"I do know the music coming out these days, with producers like Deadmau5 and the Swedish guys, is so tight and has such good production. It doesn't just blow you away as a song but with the energy, which is in the mixing," says the Dutch DJ, born Nick van de Wall.
"Other music misses that oomph. Dance music producers have that pow, that in-your-face sound. ... It's not like disco ever died. Nothing dies away. The drum-and-bass has been around for years, disco for so long, and pop music has been very dancey the last few years. I listen to radio now, and I'm happier than I used to be listening to radio. It's not the same old chord progressions. It's electrifying and surprising. People like being surprised."
As Afrojack, the very tall van de Wall quickly became one of dance music's most sought-after DJs and producers. At one point in 2011, he had four notches on the Billboard Hot 100, including "Give Me Everything" (with Pitbull), "Look at Me Now" (with Chris Brown) and his platinum solo single "Take Over Control." He's recently collaborated with Shakira and Jason Derulo and adds, "I just did a remix for someone, like the biggest thing in world music. It's insane, but I don't want to say anything about it. Contracts aren't signed and I'm not allowed to play it yet. But it's, like, so huge."
Bigger than his previous high-water marks? Like his Grammy for his remix of Madonna's "Revolver" with Guetta, or his contribution to Beyonce's wild new sound on her single "Run the World (Girls)"?
Afrojack's appearance at Spring Awakening is in the middle of his own 30-city "Jacked" tour, a roving dance party featuring mates from his own label such as R3hab, Bobby Burns, Shermanology and Quintino.
After that, he goes back to work on his debut album. Right: he doesn't even have an album out yet.
"For the album, instead of the single songs, there's a certain line," he says. "There are different genres and hard dance drops, but beautiful instrumental parts and nice songs. I've tried to keep it personal and close to myself, not just 10 random songs on a CD. The album has to be like an album was 20 years ago. You have to make an experience."
The album is due Sept. 9, van de Wall's 25th birthday.
He remembers when dance music first entranced him, at age 14.
"That's when I went to my first club and saw the DJs play and went, 'Wooooooow, this is cool. I don't care I eat bread with no cheese and sausage as long as I can make music like this and play it for people.' Luckily," he says, "I've got cheese on my bread."