Throughout the years, popular music has always influenced the mainstream country music scene. With both seasoned and young artists featuring electronic dance music influences on tracks, what does this say about the future of country music?
While purists may write off the introduction of EDM as a passing fad, it should not be underestimated. Even though the genre's current popularity may dwindle and be replaced in time, the new accessibility and creative opportunity that EDM has given to young country artists and fans is something to be appreciated and admired.
The core qualities of a good country song lie in its content and message, but are fans ready to replace the sound of banjos and guitars with loop pedals and keyboards? If artists and fans can find a happy medium of experimentation and tradition, the opportunity for an evolution in terms of sound and production is waiting to be clutched.
With young artists like Sam Hunt and Avicii bringing the genres together in their own unique ways, the door has been opened for a new era of popular country music.
How did country music arrive at this crossroads, and will it ever be the same?
The rise and fall of "hick hop," and how it opened the door for EDM
The introduction of EDM into country music could not have been possible without the emergence of country-rap. Although hip-hop and rap purists would likely scoff at artists like Colt Ford being called "rappers," they are bravely attempting to introduce previously unused artistic elements into country songs, although maybe not for the right reasons.
"Hick hop," as critics have coined it, is an acquired taste, but speaks volumes as to the overall progression of modern country music. Jason Aldean's 2011 "Dirt Road Anthem" broke the barrier of introducing rap into mainstream country, and was followed in 2013 by Luke Bryan's wildly popular "That's My Kind of Night." Although rap-infused country seemed to hit its peak after Florida Georgia Line and Nelly remixed their smash "Cruise," the elements of auto-tune and punchy beats featured in the song made EDM more accessible to country fans than ever before.
What is EDM and why is it invading country music?
Electronic dance music has seen a huge gain in popularity over the past few years. The genre features repetitive, punchy beats, heavy bass and synth effects. Dubstep, a sub-genre of EDM, features lots of syncopated beats and has a more reggae-influenced sound.
Both of these genres have taken over the mainstream pop charts, with artists like Deadmau5, Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia making dance music accessible to the general public. With its huge impact on pop music, it's not a surprise the influence has made its way into country.
Who's listening and why?
The newest generation of country fans has access to more music than any other before it. With a swipe of a finger, you can access a seemingly endless amount of songs across all genres. There are no barriers when it comes to exploring music, so it's not a surprise to find a teenager's playlist has everything from a current Luke Bryan hit to an older hit from Beyonce. This freedom has made country fans, young and old alike, more open to other types of music. If you're used to shuffling between Pitbull and Jerrod Niemann on Spotify, you might be excited to find out they did a remix together.
Also, most popular country songs feature the exact same elements of a good EDM track: a pounding beat, emotional vocals that draw you in and a catchy melody. If the beat is good enough to make you want to get up and dance, does it really matter what genre it is?
No one is a bigger name in EDM right now than Avicii, a 25 year old Swedish EDM DJ and producer. Two of his most recent hits, "Hey Brother" and "Wake Me Up" are founded on distinctly traditional country elements. If either song swapped out digital effects for pedal steel, you would be left with two emotional, honest ballads that are inarguably country. "Hey Brother" even made its way onto Billboard's Country Airplay chart, which shows that what defines a song as "country" is changing.
Authenticity is essential, regardless of genre
Few country artists have been able to introduce EDM elements like Sam Hunt, whose 2014 album, "Montevallo," combines expert songwriting with synth-tinged beats and vocal distortion that stays accessible to young mainstream country fans. His track "Ex To See" even features a breakdown that could have been plucked from a Top 40 David Guetta song.
The issue that tends to derail any real progression in country music is the usage of rap and EDM as a gimmick. Creating a truly great EDM song takes as much artistry and skill as crafting a country ballad. When artists like Brad Paisley decide to do an "EDM influenced album" because it seems like the cool thing to do, they are really doing themselves and the genre a disservice. Sam Hunt didn't choose to make an EDM influenced album; he instead drew from what inspired him creatively, regardless of genre.
If you take a listen Paisley's album "Moonshine In The Trunk," which he touted as an experiment with EDM and dubstep, you'll find that it sounds more like a caricature than anything inspired. Dance music is not simply an adventure in overproduction, but an intricate puzzle of melodies and beats that take a keen ear and immense technical skill to create. While I don't doubt Paisley's talent and good intentions, if he had taken more time to truly explore the genre he could have produced something groundbreaking.
Is this the end of traditional country music?
While EDM will likely carve its own niche into country music, traditionalists need not be worried. Influences from pop music tend to cycle in and out of country, whether it be in the form of Shania Twain, Garth Brooks (remember Chris Gaines?), Taylor Swift or Avicii. As long as there are recordings, whether they are physical or digital, there will always be a new generation of purists raised on Cash, Waylon and Williams.
The true heart of country still lies in bold, honest storytelling and musical authenticity. The artists who become true country legends can convey those feelings and emotions with an acoustic guitar or an electronic drum pad. If the industry continues to become more open and accepting of artistic experimentation, it will benefit both listeners and artists alike.