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The Chainsmokers Celebrated Peak 2016 EDM At The VMAs

A genre with an on-and-off history at the awards show took center stage

This year, the MTV Video Music Award for Best Electronic Video went to Calvin Harris & Disciples’ “How Deep Is Your Love.” Last year, no award was given in the category. In 2014, Zedd’s “Stay the Night” video took home the intergalactic trophy. In 2013, no Moonman took flight. 2012: Calvin Harris’s “Feels So Close” won the cosmic statue. 2011: No Moonman, again. The yes-no-yes history of the award parallels pop music’s broader engagement with EDM. Seemingly every year, someone predicts impending doom for the genre, but nearly as often, a new crop of stars rises to quiet the naysayers. This year, the cycle is in an upswing, as was evident at the VMAs last night. When Best Electronic Video nominees The Chainsmokers performed their new chart-topping hit “Closer” along with Halsey, who recently filled Madison Square Garden with her own solo tour, it felt like a welcome-home moment for a musical style that’s tiptoed in and out of MTV and American pop culture at large for decades.

The Best Electronic Video VMA's history goes back to 1989, when the Best Dance Video category was inaugurated with a trophy for Paula Abdul's “Straight Up.” For the first few years, the award focused on actual dance performance, with early Moonmen going to MC Hammer (“U Can’t Touch This”) and C & C Music Factory (“Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”). Even so, the category marked out a space for dance music in its broadest definition, and by the late 1990s, when electronic dance music broke into the American pop mainstream, there was a ready place for it to fit at the VMAs. The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim were nominated in 1997 and 1999 respectively, and the Prodigy won in 1998 with their controversial video for “Smack My Bitch Up.” Soon after, though, as the first EDM boom crested and fell, the award slipped back toward Top 40 pop. In the mid-2000s, it was almost completely dominated by hip-hop hits like Usher's “Yeah” and Missy Elliott's “Lose Control.”

When The Chainsmokers hit the VMAs last night, they showed how far EDM has come since then. The New York City duo were perhaps the least-well-known faces onstage the entire night, because they're not the real stars of their music — their production is. They've been making songs you'd know if you heard them since 2014, when "#Selfie" became their first Top 40 hit (a bit of Chainsmokers history that Kim Kardashian West perhaps nodded to when she struck a selfie pose as the group went to the stage on Sunday). The snarky single about women striving for the right angle on their smartphone camera wouldn't be their calling card for long: Its follow-up single, “Kanye,” was a far more commercially oriented electro-pop jam. Though not as successful as “#Selfie,” the song’s style pointed to where The Chainsmokers would find sustained success. They smoothed out their more abrasive side even further with their recent run of singles, "Roses" featuring Roses, "Don’t Let Me Down" featuring up-and-coming teen-pop singer Daya, and now "Closer" with burgeoning alt-pop star Halsey. These 2016 singles all exemplify the post-EDM mold that's become pop's preferred variation on the genre, with DJ Snake's "Middle," Omi and Felix Jaehn's summer 2015 hit "Cheerleader," and the mellow rise of trop house in the mainstream.

Back in 2010, when the VMAs brought back the Best Dance Video award under the new name of Best Electronic Dance Video, the show tapped Deadmau5 to act as its in-house DJ — a forward-looking choice, prior to Skrillex's crossover success and Swedish House Mafia's breakthrough on American radio, and well before EDM was codified as the catch-all phrase for electronic music. This year, instead of showing pop's future, The Chainsmokers' VMAs performance was a potent snapshot of the now. Electronic music will surely continue to evolve from here, but hits like "Closer" show that America isn't close to done moving to EDM's rhythms.

Check out all of our 2016 VMAs coverage.