11/21/2013 09:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Bro-ification of Dance Music


Once upon a time dance music was, like, totally gay.

Back in 2000 I went to New York City's gay dance club The Roxy for the first time. I trekked down from college in Rhode Island with my best female friend, the only person I had yet come out to. I was 21, intrigued, and terrified, with an "I'm not like every other gay" chip on my shoulder. (I wore a baggy button-down to the club to prove it.) Nonetheless, there we were amidst a sea of hundreds of shirtless gay men, who were writhing to the thump-thump-thump of the dance floor. At The Roxy I felt like a kid in a candy store, but on board an alien spaceship. I had never hidden my love for dance music, but my sexuality was another story.

Years later, as an on-air host for SiriusXM's BPM channel, I often find myself in settings that are similar to The Roxy, but with a major twist. At the major electronic dance music (EDM) festivals like Ultra and Electric Daisy Carnival, I've grown accustomed to seeing seas of thousands of shirtless men writhing to the thump-thump-thump of the music. But here they are fist-pumping along to the beat. In the crowd, instead of "hey, girl," it's primarily "what up, bro?" Many sit atop each other's shoulders, getting handsy, embracing as they watch and worship their favorite DJs. Although I'm aware that some of this warm-and-fuzzy behavior may be chemically induced, my "gaydar" consistently loses signal. Over a decade later I still feel like I'm on board an alien spaceship, but with a whole new set of passengers. At what point did the crew switch teams?

Gay dance clubs were the point of origin of modern dance music culture. After all, as lore has it, Madonna was a hat-check girl at Danceteria in New York City. Lady Gaga attributes her early success to the gays on Fire Island, where she performed before her career completely took off. Meanwhile, when EDM came onto the scene, it was gay clubs that embraced the genre. Recently, superstar DJ Afrojack said that electronic dance music was once "for gay and underground clubs," and that only recently did it become "cool" and thus mainstream. In fact, mega gay dance clubs seem to be a relic of the past; soon after I moved to New York, The Roxy closed for good. Gay circuit parties have had declining attendance for years. For the millennial set, dance music is not linked to sexuality in the way that it was in the past. In fact, if anything, dance music is now the straight bro's domain, with girls and gay guys just along for the ride. But how did the shift come about a decade later?

In the '90s and early 2000s dance music was all about the diva. The emphasis was on the vocalist, typically female and flamboyant: Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher, Amber, Crystal Waters. So no wonder gays -- who historically have loved strong, independent female diva types -- were the primary demographic. Nowadays dance music is all about the DJ/producer, who is predominantly male and bad-ass. To the hundreds of thousands in the crowd, EDM superstars appear as tiny specks on stage, but they perform from gargantuan DJ booths, basically modern-day pulpits, and are embraced by the crowd as virtual deities. Dance music has evolved into a massive worldwide phenomenon, but dance divas are a thing of the past: Despite the genre's heavy reliance on female vocals, only three women are represented in DJ Mag's 2013 list of the top 100 DJs/producers.

What's more, the EDM industry has become insanely lucrative. (Calvin Harris made an estimated $46 million last year.) On social media the leading DJs often flaunt their private jets and fancy Ferraris in Instagram pics and YouTube videos. Straight guys dream of having their toys and covet their lifestyle. They want not only to be in the presence of their favorite DJs but to actually be them. Girls (and gays) want to be with them, and most of the top EDM DJs are suspiciously good-looking. (Take a looksee for yourself.)

The bro-ification of dance music represents a generational shift in attitudes toward sexuality. With 74 percent of millennials saying they support gay marriage, it makes sense that appreciating a genre that was once seen as, like, totally gay is no big deal nowadays. After all, those guys I saw writhing on the dance floor at The Roxy were onto something. Whether the touchy-feeliness is chemically induced or not, electronic dance music brings people together, and in 2013 who goes home with whom is totally beside the point.