Other than the music journalists who get something to post about, does anyone win when artists get into flame wars? In hip-hop, the competitive spirit of public beefs has led to some great diss tracks, but other genres don't tend to yield any results of back-and-forth battles having an identifiable effect on the music itself. But maybe there is a trickle down effect that's less easy to spot.
As tensions rise between the old guard of dance music DJ/producers and the new stars of EDM (that's Electronic Dance Music), there's been a steady stream of public squabbling between the two camps. The arguing and name calling has been so constant for the past few years that it seems it will eventually lead to cultural and aesthetic changes in response. It could force listeners and music makers to pick sides, leading to an unnatural exaggeration of stylistic differences. Or, on the other hand, maybe the petty tone of the debate will encourage listeners to support musicians who refuse to go along with the us-against-them mentality.
This week's beef between Canadian EDM superstar Deadmau5 and Toronto-based Chicago house veteran DJ Sneak is an interesting case study. It's pretty widely known that Deadmau5 (aka Joel Zimmerman) doesn't do a lot of self-censoring when it comes to calling out what he sees as bullshit. Going after Madonna (and most of your EDM competitors) in a Rolling Stone interview will go far in getting you a name for stirring up the shit. Even back when I interviewed him in 2008, Zimmerman was implying that there was something fishy about even his own Juno win, and cheerfully admitting that he "doesn't get DJing."
Given all that, it wasn't particularly surprising that he called out DJ Sneak in a Billboard interview for being stuck in the past. Nor was it particularly shocking that DJ Sneak then freaked out on Twitter for a few days, as he's particularly fond of going on twitter rants about what "real house music" is, and calling out big name EDM artists for being too commercial and fake. The only really surprising thing is that Deadmau5 didn't bother responding much to Sneak, and apparently blocked him rather than continue to engage.
Does any of this matter? It's all a bit childish, but as NYC DJ/producer Tommie Sunshine said of his own previous public spat with Sneak, "This [incident] seems petty but maybe there is something bigger to learn here about us moving forward and the growing pains of it all."
As corny as that sentiment might seem, I'm inclined to think that Sunshine might have a point. This push and pull between traditionalists and the new school is nothing new in dance music (or any subculture), but putting yourself on the side of the diehard purists is always a losing position in the end. The entry point for new listeners to underground music will always be the mainstream end of it, and that side will always be more based on traditional pop/rock strategies and attitudes. That doesn't mean that those new listeners won't be receptive to the underground though - many will eventually end up immersing themselves in the larger tradition, especially if the old guard doesn't push them away with elitist attitudes and get-off-my-lawn grumbling about the kids.
The pre-disco underground was horrified by how tacky and unsubtle commercial dance music became by the end of the 70s. The veterans of the early years of Frankie Knuckles at the Warehouse said that late 80s acid house was too unmusical, fast and aggressive. I remember hearing house-heads in the early 90s complaining about how they couldn't dance to rave music, and that it didn't even sound like music anymore. Aging original ravers later laughed at the clumsy marketing term electronica in the late 90s, and then the cycle repeated itself through the 00s with electroclash and bloghouse taking their turns as the disrespectful newcomers. Now it's dubstep (or brostep, if you were a fan of the early years of dubstep and still holding on to those years) and more broadly, EDM, that's in the crosshairs of the previous generations.
Maybe I'd be more willing to stand up for DJ Sneak if Deadmau5's snarky shit-disturbing didn't contain a kernel of truth. After all, if Sneak weren't continually going after people for not playing what he perceives as "real house music", he wouldn't have opened himself up to this attack. It would be one thing if Sneak were dedicated to preserving house in its original form, but he's a second wave Chicago DJ (some would even argue third wave), and came onto the scene in the 90s with a sound that was far removed from the beginnings of the genre. Sneak's sound is essentially frozen in that moment in time, and that's fine, but it's no more "real" than any other moment in the genre's history.
Being of the age group that spent a lot of time dancing at clubs like Industry to people like DJ Sneak and Derrick Carter, I enjoy their particular style more than what Deadmau5 does, but I'd have given up on dance music a long time ago if all I was allowed to listen to was filtered disco loops over 909 drums.