EDM and folk music seem to be on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. So why does Avicii make it all sound the same?
by Vincent Kwan
If I have one cultural crusade in life, it’s to preach the legitimacy of pop music. It really doesn’t bother me that our Top 40 songs are Frankensteins, focus-grouped tested bits and pieces that are sewn together for maximum brain candy appeal. The only thing I ask is that artists put in a little effort to hide the Dr. Luke algorithm that was designed to play to all of my base desires. I imagine the feeling is similar to (HYPOTHETICALLY) picking up a cross-dresser. You know it’s a dude; you already made peace with your god and whatever other qualms you might have had with that fact on the lonely car ride over. That said, presentation is still important. It’s that smear of lipstick and push-up bra that stops you from falling into complete despair. The cheap perfume allows you to stave off self-loathing, if only for a precious few moments.
If Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” was a cross-dresser, it’s hairy chest would be popping out over a tube top, package clearly protruding from a pair of Daisy Dukes. The song’s carefully calculated appeal sits behind glass walls; it’s pretty clear how the pop sausage is made. There’s an oft-circulated story about how Talladega Nights came into being. Reportedly, the pitch was simply “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver” and production was greenlit. “Wake Me Up” feels the same way. GUYS: Mumford & Sons…but for the club. Leave it to Jimmy Clausen lookalike Avicii to man the turntables and Aloe Blacc to lend a voice and prepare to Scrooge McDuck in that money.
The remarkable thing about “Wake Me Up” is not how it brazenly jams together Mumford-folk and stadium EDM, but rather, that it highlights just how damn similar its constituent genres are. The cultural perception of the two genres couldn’t be more different. Read Jessica Pressler’s profile of Avicii and you’ll get an image of the Swedish DJ that’s both unsurprising yet flattering. By virtue of being a (allegedly) fakest button twirler in a genre of button twirlers, Avicii is someone’s not too invested in musical integrity. First and foremost, Avicii is there to make the party bump, and at a jaw-dropping $20M a year, there’s considerable financial encouragement for his aesthetic. Yet, man cannot exist on oontz oontz alone. We scream out in the electro-wilderness for a taste of something real. And after all, what’s realer than a banjo? For the Mumford set, authenticity is the name of the game. You can’t listen to a Mumford/Of Monsters and Men/Edward Sharpe song without thinking that the fucking merry-go-round is going to break if they strain themselves any harder on the choruses. If the pulsing synths of EDM is all about sex and the groin, folk is for body parts of caring: hearts and hands.
So, one half of “Wake Me Up” is defined by commercial excess and the other is almost a conscious rejection of it. How does “Wake Me Up” work so well? Well, because despite cultural framing that suggests otherwise, pop EDM and folk sound nearly identical. As I was writing this post, I remember an old Steven Hyden column on Mumford and Sons’s Tim Tebow-ness that pretty much makes this point but with far more concision. Hyden highlights the Mumford formula: “quiet verse, roaring sing-along chorus, emotionally overpowering climax.” Listen to “Little Lion Man” and see the formula at play:
The Mumford Formula could just as well be applied to EDM. Remember Avicii’s ubiquitous “Levels”?
With a slight alteration to the form – a “quiet verse,” the Etta James sample, is simply cut of the beginning of the song – the formula applies just the same. When the genres are pressed together in “Wake Me Up,” the result is seamless. The verses are the sort of power folk strum you’ve come to expect of the genre. When the beat drops for the chorus, it’s the EDM earworm we’re accustomed to hearing from Avicii. The forms merge on the bridge and the prechorus. The bass drum quarters are equally prevalent in both genres and the transition is made even smoother by synths that have the twang button TURNT UP. The first couple times I heard “Wake Me Up,” I kept looking at it as some sort of mad scientist creation. But the more I think on it, the more natural, and lucrative, of a pairing it seems. To horrifically paraphrase Gertrude Stein, A pop song is a pop song is a pop song is a pop song. It’s been a while since EDM’s given up its shame to wade in the pools of pop success. It’s time to jump in Mumford Folk, the water feels just fine.