Until very recently, the term “EDM” to pretty much anyone who knew it meant a particularly loud, aggressive, and drop-filled blend of dubstep, moombahton, hardstyle, and trap … and that was it. Over the past year, though, dance music culture’s most mainstream-facing aspect has given itself an extreme makeover based around gently throbbing drums, mellow synth melodies, and a breezy mood better suited to sipping frozen cocktails on a Caribbean beach than packing into a sweaty club.
The explosion of tropical house has turned the aesthetics of EDM completely upside down, but while the rapid pace it’s been working at may be remarkable, what it’s doing isn’t exactly unprecedented.
By the late 70s, Led Zeppelin, Rush, and a legion of prog bands had evolved “rock ‘n’ roll” into “rock music,” a bombastic, overwrought, bloated genre that had little in common stylistically with the lean, sharp style of 20 years before (sound familiar?). Then, seemingly overnight, the tide shifted abruptly, as everyone from hard rockers to folk singers latched onto a groovy, laid-back soul-pop sound that audiences couldn’t get enough of. Arena rock had been supplanted by yacht rock. Helllooo Kenny Loggins!
Flash forward into the present … and tropical house is just the yacht rock of today.
The stylistic similarities are uncanny. Tropical house actually borrows more heavily from yacht rock than it does Balearic beat, which it’s most often compared to. Tropical house is full of yacht rock signifiers like steelpans, bongos, marimbas and kalimbas. Its biggest star, the barely-legal Felix Jaehn, incorporates a smooth sax solo into “Push,” while his cover of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” sounds like it was designed specifically for DJs to mix it into Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen.”
Synthesized flute parts that sound like they could have been sampled off of Toto’s “Africa” have become so prevalent that they’re almost a requirement for a track to even qualify as tropical house.
Check out the creepy similarities between Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” and “Africa” …
The similarities between yacht rock and tropical house extend further than a weakness for New Age-y flute patches, though. Both are the byproducts of behemoth genres that got so caught up in their extravagant stylistic quirks that they threatened to lose touch with the mainstream pop audience they’d cultivated. A chillaxed reboot is an easy way to give artists a fresh palette to work from that also happens to be much more commercially viable.
This kind of mellowing-out phase is a common characteristic among genres that reach a certain level of popularity. Jazz went through it when cool jazz sprang out of bebop’s arcane musical explorations, and again when knotty jazz fusion led to the rise of smooth jazz. The first wave of gangsta rap in the late ‘80s led directly to the rise of hippie-leaning acts like P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development, just like the most outrageous sonic excesses of the Bling Era led to the rise of minimalist rap that followed in the wake of Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreaks.
These kind of large-scale aesthetic shifts can be a sign that a genre’s in trouble–that it’s become so aesthetically stagnant that it’s willing to try anything to figure out something new, even if it means doing the exact opposite of what it’s been doing for years. It can also be a sign of stability, though. The fact that the pop charts can sustain two entirely different approaches to EDM reflects how deeply the genre’s penetrated into the mainstream. It suggests that popular taste in dance music is maturing, and becoming more nuanced. It may be a quiet revolution, but it’s still revolutionary.