Virtual Self & the State of Electronic Music: Keeping art authentic in the face of a swallowed up culture

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porter robinson

Porter Robinson is either a tortured soul, or the “tortured artist” personae is one that works to his favor. His love of electronic music and simultaneous disdain for “EDM” culture is a complicated and genuine struggle, much like his highly self-critical relationship with his own music. But there’s something authentic and thoughtful in the way Robinson goes about creating art. Here is a guy who publicly lambasts his own style for becoming too stale or no longer honest. He has also been both artistically and commercially successful at once — something producers may work their whole careers to achieve, which Robinson had already accomplished at the ripe age of 21 when he debuted his electrifying Worlds project.

Porter Robinson incorporating live vocals on his Worlds Tour in 2014

Revered by his fans and respected by industry veterans alike, the now 25-year-old artist embodies a legacy much bigger than his music or visuals could convey. Over the years, he’s fostered a creative space for a global community to connect with spirituality and find purpose in his work. With an artistic inspiration entrenched in video gaming and Japanese anime, Robinson stays ahead of the game by not bothering to compete with anyone.

“I didn’t have this goal to be the next number one DJ in the world. I just kept taking the opportunities that we given to me and doing my best,” he once told BeatsRadio. Because of this, he’s developed a niche that allows him to be wholly genuine in his approach, consequently influencing fans and fellow artists to value substance over surface and to pursue their passions at all costs.

Just weeks after a surprise performance on Holy Ship! and one month prior to his debut festival appearance at Buku Music + Arts Project, a certain e-mail was leaked in which Robinson introduced his Virtual Self project and his rationale for making such a move. The letter itself was revealing and personal, but so is Robinson despite his aversion to the public spotlight. Robinson speaks to pop’s infiltration of electronic music and his concern over how artists are compromising authenticity for the safety net of a chart-topping hit. His ultimate goal with the project, per the email, was to reignite creative risk-taking.

 “[E]lectronic music is at its best and its healthiest when new, exciting, unexpected things are happening. This is a genre that thrives on novelty.”

Yet, while he certainly alludes to such, Robinson never explicitly discusses the state of art in the context of latent capitalism. And that is precisely what is missing in his lamentation over the loss of artistic originality.

This begs the question: Why are artists quick to discount, or often times uncomfortable even mentioning, art’s relationship with money and capital?

Art for art’s sake? Or art for money’s sake? 

“As electronic music essentially converged with pop in 2016…I think it’s pushed a lot of artists away from risk-taking and passion projects. In the last two years, for most artists, all they really had to do was compromise their style by like 30% and add a safe, inoffensive tropical vocal to have a chance at having a hit — and I think for many, that temptation was too much.” – Porter Robinson

In today’s hyper-commercialized culture, some musicians hold steadfast to the notion that art is art first and foremost. That is, money comes secondary to creating a genuine expression of one’s self. This creates a quandary for artists like Porter Robinson. First, because it’s a luxury only commercially successful artists can afford to make. Second, because it’s a claim that rests on an outdated, modernist mode of thinking.

The fact is, Robinson wouldn’t be in a position to take huge artistic risks had he not garnered the widespread support of prominent labels like OWSLAAnjunabeats, Universal’s Astralwerks and Ministry of Sound. How did he do this? By hopping on the “big room” train and playing packed-out stadiums on Tiësto‘s Club Life: College Invasion. Robinson was able to go onto pursuing future passion projects like Worlds, his “Shelter Tour” with Madeon, and now his Virtual Self alias — all the while enjoying monetary success — precisely because he had compromised artistic identity at the onset.

Porter Robinson plays Tiësto’s Club Life College Invasion tour stop in Los Angeles, California.

It’s no secret that Porter Robinson grew quickly tired of a commercial EDM scene centered around formulaic songs with their timed builds and beat drops — a scene which was also responsible for his success. The point of disconnect for himself, and other artists, lies between the passion for creating art and disdain for the ubiquitous money-making side of the music industry. Therein lies an inescapable truth: music is an industry, through and through, and the pervasiveness of capitalism plays a vital role in how one’s art reaches the masses.

Therefore, art doesn’t exist in subservience to money, or vice-versa. The postmodern collapses this distinction. In a postmodern world, money and art exist in a cyclical relationship — they are constantly coming back to one another, fighting with the other, and, yet, are codependent on each other.

This is the intersection at which Robinson’s outward struggle with art and authenticity lies. It’s a problem of postmodernism. Or perhaps it isn’t a problem at all.

Art is a copy of a copy. So what is authentic anymore? 

“I tried to authentically incorporate IDM-y, jungly drum breaks, era-accurate trancy super saw sections, early hardcore and j-core elements, but all morphed into something that sounds kind of ‘big’ and thoroughly produced.” – Porter Robinson

Porter Robinson poses for the American Dream Issue of CLASH Magazine.

Exposed, vindicated, and honest, Robinson is poised as a tastemaker to influence dance music trends. The producer has dabbled in big room, complextro, and now seeks to fuse trance and happy hardcore with his Virtual Self identity. Robinson states his new project’s objective is to morph 2001 tropes of dance music and update them for a 2017 production sensibility.

The stance reflects the very contradiction of postmodern art that we’ve been encountering since Andy Warhol’s famous depiction of his Campbells Soup Cans. Crucially, Warhol showed that art is a commodity and a commercial business, and that the commodity is a fetish in capitalist society. Like Warhol, Robinson finds himself knee deep in the thick of postmodernism — by imitating art. The act of imitation sanctifies art as a commercial activity, affirming and celebrating its commodity status.

Inevitably producers will soon piggyback on the style of Virtual Self just as others mimicked the style of Robinson’s Worlds, especially as they see his new formula successfully selling records. By this token, capitalism is the same metaphorical beast that The Beatles evoked in Yellow Submarine — a beast that swallows up everything in its path and, as it runs out of things to swallow, ends up swallowing itself.

This is the state of art in latent capitalism, as “new” art becomes a copy of its original, and then a copy of a copy, until consumers have forgotten where the art originated. Likewise, how many dance music enthusiasts can describe what classic genres influenced the birth of techno? Or what city house music was born in? How many can even name the multitude of genres that fall under the umbrella of EDM?

Electronic music is, by its very design, a postmodern process, as evidenced in how producers pastiche various styles and genres of music together to tell a different story.

 I want to convey a certain kind of ‘new nostalgia’ and resuscitate some things that have fallen out of fashion, especially from the early 2000s.” 

The postmodern collapses not only the distinction between the old and the new, but also the gap between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art. By the same token, the work of Virtual Self isn’t something new or original; although it may be an exciting spectacle to behold.

The quandary for Porter lays in his pursuit of the authentic, resting on the modernist belief that what Virtual Self is doing is somehow “high brow,” or more authentic; while making the inference that those who pursue “safe, inoffensive” artistic choices, by not taking risks, are pursuing lower forms of art.

Revive, Reinvigorate, Renew: Making the old sound new 

“I really, really, truly, love electronic music, and I want it to be as good as it can be. I hope that by doing something unexpected, I can shake things up and hopefully inspire other artists to do something weird.” – Porter Robinson

So what do we do as creators and consumers of art to preserve its sanctity?

Ideologically, we might stand to collectively change the way we think about art and authenticity. Authenticity is not some modernist dirge, but a postmodern undertaking. What is authentic to one’s artistic process may not be to another. Authenticity then boils down to whatever is honest to one’s own human experience. Given how his Virtual Self identity is rooted in the fragmented nature of online identity, Robinson seems to understand what it means to live a postmodern life. Yet, Porter’s struggle over authenticity is evidence to the fact that we are still coping with the modernist sentiments of yesteryear in our postmodern time.

“And to be totally clear, I don’t think that Virtual Self, early 2000s trance, or digital abstract art are the solution or the future at all.”

Artistically, Porter is doing everything right! That is, he is evoking his Virtual Self identity to change the way music is experienced. At the same time, he is evoking his privilege as a commercially successful artist to package a different sound to the masses — a feat that would be much more difficult without the name recognition he earned from his earlier, safer pursuits.

If, as the postmodern turn suggests, the sanctity of art lays in its commodity status, then what is hallow about songs packaged onto iTunes for $1.99 a pop? Why the experience of course! The experience is the key to the spiritual domain, or the feeling of human connectedness. That is something capitalism can never imitate or reproduce. What Porter Robinson and artists like him understand so well is that the solution lays in experiencing music live.

Porter Robinson performs with Zedd on their 2013 Poseidon Tour. Photo cred: Rukes.

Thus, we return to the original point at hand: Robinson is neither the first nor last artist to straddle the contradictory space between art as a tool of honest self-expression and art as a commodity good. The aim of this observation is certainly not to condemn anyone who pursues art to make a living, but rather to unearth the many contradictions associated with living in capitalism.

Distilling the dance music world with Paul van Dyk [Interview]

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“We’re all worthy of a brighter sun, and everyone needs love.”

The words ring out over the crowd. It’s day two of Dreamstate with just over an hour left of the festival, and the energy at the main stage is positively electrifying. The song reaches its crescendo, breeding even more fervor as anthemic saw-synths cut into the audience’s psyche. They’re left with little choice but to dance together in a mutual embrace.

Fueling this ardor is none other than a living legend, and the leading creator of the audio experience unfolding in front of them: Paul van Dyk. The track is his new single “Everyone Needs Love,” and it proved the perfect ending to the hour of pure euphoria he’d just served fans. Primarily, its message is one that he feels is more pertinent than ever to pass on: “We have all this hate that we’ve seen recently that has to be overcome,” he explains about the track’s inception. “This song is about tolerance and loving one another – we only function when we work together.”

Messages like these are highly characteristic of Paul van Dyk. After all, he’s known as one of the most outspoken electronic musicians in the industry, which makes sense given his background. “I grew up in East Germany –  a dictatorship, where you weren’t allowed to speak about what you were thinking. There was simply no freedom of speech. You couldn’t do what you wanted to do,” he describes.

Such an oppressive background gave way to his staunch belief of using his popularity as an artist to stand up for various personal freedoms. In this case, we see a need for unity in “Everyone Needs Love.” In another case, the first Politics Of Dancing mix album in 2001 was inspired by police crackdowns of club culture in New York.

Aside from politics, the topic Paul is most outspoken about is what he holds most dear — music itself. “I was always a freak when it comes to music, and I still am,” he states. His animated tone when discussing anything around it indicates just how monumental it is to his life. “When you wake up in the morning and you hear a song you like that makes you feel happy, the whole day is better. This is that amazing feeling it creates.” He goes onto make a valid point about its unique power over fans, describing how excitement over an upcoming show alone can “drive a person’s momentum.”


Dance music, of course, is the genre he holds closest to his heart. Having been an intrinsic part of it for over 20 years, Paul recognizes how revolutionary electronic music has been since its fringe beginnings on the outskirts of society. It’s a globally unifying phenomenon, he believes. “I’ve seen places such as Israel where people are enjoying the music and having a great time together. In Ibiza too. Music draws these people together and fosters a friendship that’s beyond any sort of political boundaries. Ultimately, we are all similar, and that’s what it’s all about.”

“When you look at the characteristics of electronic music fans, you’ll see they’re so open-minded, so cosmopolitan. The people that go to, and love and really understand this music have it almost implemented into their character. So they are open, and they are able to understand the other side and therefore, there’s an element of respect and kindness towards each other. It’s always peaceful.”

These effects are amplified within the trance scene, where he’s resided the vast majority of his career. The “trance family” is one of the more overtly zealous, tightly bound groups of the electronic spectrum, and Paul van Dyk is a beloved figurehead. When asked what makes trance in particular so special, he responded that “it asks much more of you as a listener – it’s not just a catchy melody you hear on the radio. It’s music that goes a bit deeper, that leads you to evolve as a listener.”

Moreover, soundscapes existing in a trance composition “provide somewhere to lose yourself, to dream in a way.” All these factors combine together to elucidate a powerful reaction from listeners, one he deems is special to watch. In addition, it’s why the “people that love this music are so passionate about it and can tell you for hours about why they love it” to a degree rarely seen anywhere else within the electronic sphere. “It is unique,” he finishes.

Trance was also there for Paul van Dyk in a notorious profound way this year. On February 28, during his ASOT Utrecht set, thousands of people around the world watched the live stream in horror as he suddenly disappeared from the screen and was later announced as having endured a life-threatening fall from the stage. During weeks spent with a sole focus of survival, the global trance community at large united for his well being, reciprocating the years of love he’d given the scene with an outpouring of support in the form of messages, videos, and gifts. Their love, paired with the strength from his family and fiancé, helped fuel his triumphant recovery.

Van Dyk’s own passion and determination to get back into what he loved expedited his healing process internally. “The pure fact of actually being able to make music, and find myself and music again was very important in helping give me a direction,” he recalls. Sadly, he still has a ways to go, and things will never fully be the same. “The diagnostics from the doctor already state that if I would be able to do 50%of what I used to, it would be considered a huge success.”

That said, he’s refusing to let this disappointing outcome take over him, and instead is focusing on doing as much as he can in what he loves given his new limitations. In fact, he feels as fortunate as ever for the level he’s at now, given things could have been far worse. He emphasizes the impact felt by all the support he received from those close to him and the music world: “The overwhelming and amazing good that I experienced in people, and the surroundings that I had, is something that will be with me forever.”

The optimism, in his words, is inspiring. He adds: “I’ll definitely keep doing and making music, general. Let’s put it this way – we’re in the good part.” Of course, his fans are beyond grateful for his continued presence in the dance scene, and their immense loyalty to him was certainly observable at his most recent performances at the Southern California and Mexico editions of Dreamstate. It’s safe to say that being granted the opportunity to see him perform after potentially losing him was as moving of an experience to them as it was for him.

Paul van Dyk Dreamstate


Paul van Dyk in turn has always been there for trance as well. His core artistic values have remained unchanged since 1991 essentially, where he distinctly remembers the rush he felt on the Berlin subway holding “the first S-pressing of my first record in my hands.” Integrity and authenticity are his primary laurels. “When I’m making my music, I’m making it as passionately as I can. And I’m not offering my music either. People either enjoy it or they don’t, but I’m not making any compromises with it,” he states.

His music is thus a pure extension of his character. He asserts, “I have to be completely believable with what I do, and it has to come from my heart, from my soul. It can only come from there.” This steadfast attitude toward his music is palpable in all of his productions, and is precisely why to this day he remains one of the most respected and admired figures in dance music. Not to mention, his humility is incredible. Of being invited to play at Dreamstate, for example, he feels “just amazing as an artist to have the honor to be there and play.”

As his performance at Dreamstate wound down to a close, his audience was left with a lingering, unforgettable feeling of awe. Watching him navigate flawlessly through his signature, complex live set up was truly surreal given what he’d been through. His own joy was infectious, fusing with that of his fans to spark a multifaceted display of emotion erupting from the stage’s confines. Without saying a word, his steadfast confidence in the face of tremendous trauma is enough to effectively communicate that as long as he’s able, he will never stop giving his all to the music he loves.