The ascent of Marshmello, a young electronic producer known as much for his goofy helmet (white, cylindrical, two X’s for the eyes) as his chart success (four Top 40 hits in the past seven months, upward of 2 billion total streams), shows the enduring importance of arena-scale dance music in the pop landscape.
EDM’s fortunes have waned, it’s true. But as producers who ruled the charts in 2011 and 2012 lick their wounds at the bar in Hakkasan, the youngsters are capitalizing on a new set of opportunities. The walls that once stood between major-label pop and electronic music have evaporated, partially out of necessity: These two genres need each other’s support if they have any hope of keeping up with rap and R&B, which are streaming everything else into oblivion.
As a result, collaborations with electronic producers seem more essential than ever for singers looking to maintain a pop career. Why else would we see the Chainsmokers releasing singles with Daya, Halsey and Coldplay; Zedd appearing alongside Alessia Cara, Hailee Steinfeld and Liam Payne; and Marshmello joining forces with Selena Gomez, James Arthur and Anne-Marie? It takes a village to compete with a SoundCloud rapper.
The other major consequence of pop and EDM’s marriage is that mainstream electronic producers are afforded more stylistic flexibility. Marshmello may perform on the electronic music festival circuit (EDC, Electric Zoo, Tomorrowland), but several of his singles bear little, if any, connection to standard-issue EDM. “Friends,” with Anne-Marie, pulls from early-2000s R&B; “You & Me” resurrects the ghosts of pop-punk; “Wolves,” with Selena Gomez, is a finger-picked campfire ballad masquerading as a club-wrecker.
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Disappointingly, Marshmello ignores both these trends on his new album, Joytime II: No star guests are featured; nothing remotely unpredictable occurs. The LP unfolds in the same manner as its predecessor, 2016’s Joytime, which means that every song sounds like it has already been pre-leased for use by energy-drink companies or extreme-sports squads. The warmongering beats rely on the vocabulary of trap – quick taps, slow booms. The synthesizers sound impossibly fizzy – think fireworks filled with cotton candy. When the combination of these two sounds becomes overwhelming, Marshmello plays with tempo, decelerating to provide a brief sense of calm.
The tracks on Joytime II achieve their purpose: They are guaranteed to make a festival crowd go berserk. But the album is a sideshow, a placeholder as “Friends” enjoys its run on the Hot 100 (current position: Number 13). The real drama is in the hunt for Marshmello’s next pop collaborator.