I can be insufferably pretentious about house and techno, and returning home to the Bay Area always brings out the worst in me. At some point, I am inevitably forced to explain my taste in music to high school friends, parents, cousins, and siblings, none of whom know much about dance music. Each time I launch into a weary answer, I’m overtaken by High Fidelity levels of Brooklynite music snobbery, and in an attempt to convey that I don’t like EDM, I start using words I would never say to anyone in New York, like “underground” and “experimental.”
See, I used to go to loft parties populated by the type of people who think that LIES Records is already well past its prime, and who consider Visionquest mainstream. Leaving my tiny techno bubble for the Real World always feels like being air-evacuated from an isolated island where everyone worships Ben UFO. Returning to the Bay reminds me that most people have never heard of things like Sónar or Berghain. For them, EDM is their only reference point for terms like “house” and “techno.” I hate explaining my taste in music to these people, because I know what they’re thinking. To them, all dance music sounds the same—and all ravers are half-naked, horny, and on drugs.
So, I start these conversations by carefully explaining that not all house music is EDM. I tell them about Traci, a girl I sat next to last semester in one of my cultural studies seminars. On the first day, eager to relate to me, she told me that she “loves house music, too.” She recounted a story about going to a festival in Europe where she saw “all the DJs you would want to see, ever,” a category she summarized by name-dropping Steve Aoki, Martin Solveig, and Ferry Corsten. I was scandalized at the idea that anyone would call these dudes "house" producers—but I bit my tongue and managed not to say that they were in fact a far cry from those who gave the genre its name. I probed her with a few names to get a sense of what she considered and knew about “house music.” Moodymann? Never heard of him. Frankie Knuckles? Not familiar. Perlon Records, or Ricardo Villalobos? Nothing.
To Traci, I realized, “electronic dance music” is an umbrella term that covers all forms of club sounds; in her mind, house, techno, and drum n bass are all styles of EDM. This assumption, I explain to the Prius-driving plebes of the Bay Area, is wrong. With the cocksure attitude of a Youtube commenter arguing over whether a Kevin Saunderson track is house or techno, I inform them that “dance music” would be a more fair way to group them all together. “Electronic dance music” refers specifically to those styles that have garnered commercial success in the US over the past few years—styles that cater to traditional pop songwriting conventions with verses and hooks and come from a lineage of overwrought rave sounds that goes all the way back to the 1989 summer hit “Ride On Time.” So, while Traci and I both love house music, she likes the ravier stuff, EDM progressive house, and I like the stuff that plays at small clubs instead of massive festivals—the underground, experimental stuff.
Having proven my own sophistication by distancing myself from Top 40 trance and reciting bits of knowledge I collected from Energy Flash, I’m usually asked to provide examples. “Play us something,” they say, and for parents or friends who listen to older music, I tend to choose something from the 1980s or 1990s, because Chicago deep house cuts and New York garage tracks provide that draw from familiar disco and funk-based elements they recognize from artists they already like.
Older brothers and judge-y pricks can be harder to convince; in these cases, I go for muted, self-serious styles of techno that provide the most stark contrast to the skyscraping trance melodies and auto-tuned hysterical pop hooks ignorant curmudgeons (and in my experience, straightedge guys from Jersey who only listen to hardcore) associate with the idea of dance music. I’ll pull out a grim noise-influenced burner with an undulating bassline that coils around deep kicks and beady percussion, or a weird and dreamy little fuzzball Acido beat.
What I’m trying to do with my barely captive audience is highlight the qualities that drew me into house and techno when I was first getting into it: its hypnotic appeal, the way it evokes a mood instead of being “about” something in a more literal sense. But all of this is, invariably, lost on whomever I’m talking to. “This is boring,” they tell me. No matter what I play, no matter whom I’m talking to, it always ends with those three magic words. And I’m always stoked to hear them say it, because it means that I’ve managed to convince them that the style of house I like is different from EDM—it doesn’t sound like “robot farts”—but it’s still alienating and uncomfortable to most ears.
After all, even I had to learn to love techno. In the beginning I remember feeling overwhelmed by ultra-specific musical and regional references like “Chicago house” and “Detroit techno.” I remember asking one of my editors how to identify a 2-step beat. Over time, my listening habits adapted to the meditative experience of sinking into a DJ mix, dragging me further away from genres that rely upon traditional songwriting structures. Like me, my friends and family in the Bay Area are used to one way of listening to music, and they tend to have trouble understanding mine.
The more I go through the motions with this conversation, the clearer it becomes that I love house and techno because it’s hypnotic, because it’s abstract—but also because it sounds boring to most people. Music taste often has little to do with what it actually sounds like, and more to do with how it reflects upon who we are. And despite their condescending attitude towards everything I love, my family’s rockism allows me to feel like I’m in on a secret, like I'm an enlightened listener who has discovered the beauty of techno’s mantra-like nature. Yes, it’s annoying to give a dissertation every time someone asks me what music I like. Yes, it really chaps my ass to have to convince people that I’m not one of those girls who wears fluffies and touches a stranger’s penis in exchange for a kandi bracelet, but these frustrations are some of the main reasons that I love house and techno in the first place. I don’t even want them to understand why I love dance music—I just want them to respect it, and I want them to know that it’s not EDM.