Writing About Dancing: Disco Critics Survey
By Scott Woods (March 2001)
“He tried pretending a dance is just a dance/But I see.”
— “Let the Music Play,” Shannon (1983)
Cineaste magazine recently ran a feature called “Film Criticism in America Today: A Critical Symposium,” in which they asked 24 well-regarded movie critics five questions primarily about the frustrations and rewards of writing movie criticism. It dawned on me that I’d love to do something similar for this site, and because there’s such an alarming (in my view) paucity of great writing about dance music to link to on the web, the subject of disco seemed like a natural direction to head in. To this end, I sent out ten survey questions to several music critics who I think write really well about dance music (which I defined in my original letter to them as “disco or anything influenced by disco”). I wasn’t looking for answers so much as for insights, jokes, arguments, better questions, genre and/or band recommendations, etc.
Many thanks to Chuck, Michael, Frank, Simon, and Tricia for their time and for their wonderfully suggestive ideas.
[note: bios submitted in 2001]
Chuck Eddy is the music editor of the Village Voice, and the author of Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe and The Accidental Evolution of Rock’n’Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music. Techno critic Tricia Romano says he dances with a “white man’s overbite,” but she’s wrong.
Michael Freedberg…born in Salem, MA long ago. Went to Andover Academy (6 years before President Dubya) & Princeton (seven years after Ralf Nader). Started writing about music in 1974 for Zoo World (!) two issues before it folded….wrote for Boston-based Pop Top, along with Jon Pareles, Don Shewey, Steve Morse…joined the staff ofNightfall, a Boston-based disco magazine (really!), where I did the first ever interview with Donna Summer…also one with Grace Jones.
It was while at Nightfall that I met my wife….at a disco, naturally…then in 1979 I was called to the Boston Phoenix, to write about soul music…in 1980 I was called to the Village Voice too…I wrote a LOT, for LOTS of publications.Crawdaddy, Phonograph, the New York Times, even Rolling Stone. In 1991 I did a book, a Guide to the Best of Disco. All Music Guide has it now…I’ve written for the Voice for many editors: Bob Christgau, Jon Pareles, Joe Levy, Chuck Eddy. I also did lots of record co. bios, esp. for Warner Brothers…
I’ve seen 100s of concerts and probably 500 DJ performances & reviewed at least 1000 records in my 26 years as a critic!
Today I am looking to do two more books…I have proposals waiting, at St Martin’s Press….We’ll see…
Frank Kogan paints white stripes on black zebras, black stripes on white zebras, and black-and-white stripes on plain zebras. In 4th grade he told a story. In ninth grade he bought a record. In 1987, when he was 33, his girlfriend said to him, “I’m sorry I’m being such a bitch.” Frank said, “Ah, but you’re my bitch.” The rest is silence. (Actually, it isn’t. I mean, not at all. Silence in my farts, maybe?)
Simon Reynolds wrote a book about rave culture called Generation Ecstasy and is the main content-provider for a website devoted to all kinds of electronic dance music that can be found by clicking here. His favourite dance tunes ever are “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Energy Flash,” and “Renegade Snares.” Sadly these days he doesn’t get out much and so does most of his dancing in the living room with son Kieran, aged 18 months.
Tricia Romano is the Club Crawl columnist for the Village Voice. She’s been writing about dance music for pubs like Urb, Spin, Paper, Resonance, and Artbyte, and likes to DJ for her cats in her spare time. At 27, she’s officially a Grandma Raver and refuses to believe that drum’n’bass is dead. She dares you to go dancing with her and Chuck Eddy to see for yourself The Famous Chuck Eddy Two-Step.
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1. Because house music and disco are conceived primarily for the dance floor, does this make them harder to write about than more “contemplative” or “conceptual” forms of pop?
Why should music for the dance floor be “harder” to write about than music “contemplative” or “conceptual”? First of all, one adopts, assembles, or accepts standards for appreciating music of whatever genre or format and applies them to whatever music one is asked to appreciate. Besides, who is to say whether a piece of music is to be danced or listened to? To me this question assumes its own conclusion. I know many folks who listen to house music resting. Sometimes I do it myself. I know others who dance to FM album rock…
No, and I don’t see how being conceived for the dance floor would preclude, or significantly diminish their chances of being, contemplative or conceptual in the first place. And why would a writer limit himself to what music is intended for anyway?
As U.K. house outfit K-Klass put it, “Rhythm Is a Mystery.” It is very hard indeed to write about why one groove or beat is more compelling than another. Even if you get into drummer’s lingo (triplets, flams, syncopation, etc.) or the technicalities of programming, the “it” — that edge of excellence or distinctiveness you are trying to capture — will just endlessly recede from your verbal grasp. For instance, it’s quite easy to write generalities about “breakbeat science” and apply them to whichever jungle producer you’re writing about — but almost infinitely harder to convey the signature that makes, say, a Dillinja or Doc Scott production instantly recognizable and special…Same goes for the particular rhythm traits or production hallmarks of the other genres — the finicky hi-hats in house and garage, the DSP (digital signal processing) timbre effects in Kid606 type IDM, the filter sweeps in French house, the 303 acid-riffs in hard trance etc., etc…What makes for one exponent’s instantly-audible superiority over another?
And even then, you can write about the programming and production and be strenuous in your attempts at exactness, but you might still fail to convey the electricity, the rush…what can you actually say about the nature of, and relationship between, the guitar, the bass, and the orchestral sounds, in a Chic song, that could actually tell you anything about how its magic works…
Mind you, it’s just as hard to say why in rock or pop, one melody is heart-rending and another isn’t, why one singer’s grain-of-voice reaches deeper into you than another…not to mention the great rock mystery of the Riff…
But dance music, by diminishing or stripping away altogether the other elements that one might critically latch onto (lyrics, persona/biography of the artist, relevance to the outside-the-club world etc.) as a bulwark against the ineffable does rather shove one headfirst into the realm of sound and its materiality. (Which a surprisingly large number of people still find quite discomfiting).
Kind of appropriately, really, writing about dance music does confront you in a very direct way with the old “dancing about architecture” futility/absurdity dilemma — because it is so purely musical, functional…what is there really to say? I suspect a lot of the people who might have made good dance critics, who have real taste and knowledge of its history, become DJs instead — because you can actually support the music and evangelize in a very direct way: playing it to people.
So if it’s so hard to do, so pointless, why bother? As an old comrade of mine Paul Oldfield once put it in a zine we did together, Monitor, because there’s “the possibility that words might fail interestingly or suggestively.”
Also true that this music is very site-specific…a lot of the sonic content in dance music is barely audible on a domestic hi-fi…so that with a house record played at home, the kick drum can sound tinny and weak and monotonous, but in a club, on massive system, the monotony becomes compelling because it’s so physically, viscerally impact-ful…the kick drum becomes a cocooning environmental pulse…similarly with jungle, the bass permeates your flesh…unlike rock, r&b, pop it is not mixed for radio or the home hi-fi.
I think writing about dance music is harder in some ways than writing about pop or rock or other types of music that have lyrics or actual personalities you can discuss. I mean, who didn’t have something to say about Eminem this year? And, who had anything to say about, I don’t know, Photek? I mean how do you describe something that’s so textural or so reliant on your actual dance floor experience? It drives me batty, and sometimes I feel that coming up with ridiculous metaphors or imagery just alienates the reader: 300 adjectives later, the readerstill doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
I simply reject the premise of the question, that you can separate out the dance from the contemplative, that these are different musics. Saying the word contemplative is like waving a red cape at me. For one thing, that a song has a dance beat doesn’t make it less contemplatible than if it didn’t. “Oh, this song has beats, therefore I’m not able to think about it”? Conversely, if I’m on a dance floor, working out steps and movements, responding to or avoiding other dancers, cutting some sort of figure for onlookers — for sure in all of this I am thinking. I’m not rubbing my beard and going “Hmmm,” but I’m thinking nonetheless. (Actually, there’s a dance called the “hmmm dance” in which I do rub my beard and go “hmmm,” but I also throw in a left-arm movement and a slight knee bend that I wouldn’t use in nondance situations.) In general, I don’t divide up my life into the “active” and the “contemplative.” If I’m a thoughtful person I come up with good ideas, but the ideas arise from what I do as a whole, not from a fenced-in little area called “contemplating.” Holding my head in my hands and puzzling things out is part of the process, writing words on paper is part of the process, hearing people comment on those words is part of the process, but these are hardly the whole of it. (By the way, I do a dance called “hold my head in my hands” where I hold my head while contorting my mouth into a “scream” shape, like in that Norwegian painting, and then I sink slowly to the floor.)
So, to approach your question, there’s as much subject for thought in disco as in anything else, in fact disco contains thought. And then to retreat from your question, I’ll point out the obvious, which is that the vast majority of the world’s music has a dance beat, or, if not a dance beat per se, a physical-response beat, a join-in-this-activity beat. Even if you want to get “contemplative” in your music, ragas have beats, Stravinsky has beats. (In fact, “Rite of Spring” is dance music.) The music you buy vegetables to at Albertson’s has a dance beat; the music you listen to in your car has a dance beat. Heavy metal has dance beats, country has dance beats, Adult Top 40 has dance beats, Radio Disney has dance beats (typical set on Disney: The Chipmunks’ version of “Achy Breaky Heart,” Stacey Q’s “Alphabet Song,” a Brooklyn Bounce techno track, ‘N Sync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me”). “Dance” isn’t so much a type of music as one of the things that can be done to almost any music. So if someone finds it hard to write about disco or house, this is not because disco and house are conceived for the dance floor.
I haven’t answered your question. But I’m not done with it, since I often think about how to write about music, and I’ve never come up with a consistent method. Some ideas:
(a) The sound of music is impossible to convey. Period. I don’t know why this is. Read a novel and you’ll get a sense of what the characters look like, what the landscape is like, the furnishings, and so forth. What the author leaves out you’ll supply from your own imagination. Your picture may not match what the author had in mind, but at least you’ll get a picture. But if the novel contains a description of music, you won’t hear music. You’ll get a vague sense of something — “airy and light” or “loud and pounding,” say (“airy and pounding”?) — but you won’t hear it.
And music’s technical vocabulary doesn’t convey sound at all: riff, motif, chord, interval, melody, tonic, subdominant, dominant minor, back to subdominant (which is the chord progression to “Louie Louie,” and see what I mean about nonconveyance?), backbeat, hi hat, snare, counterrhythm. Writing the words “Bo Diddley’s chunk-ah chunk-ah chunk, chunk chunk rhythm” might convey the rhythm to someone who already knows it (but then, writing the words “melody to ‘If I Fell’ ” may bring forth the melody to someone who already knows “If I Fell,” too, and so what?). I
In general, you’re stuck with a handful of genre names, overused adjectives, and metaphors, as well as clauses that begin “sounds like…” – e.g., “sounds like Deep Purple on Quaaludes, which is to say very Deep Purple.” So even when I want to describe music, I’m really going to end up doing something else, and often I’d rather do something else, anyway.
(b) The impulse to dance and the impulse to write are closely related, at least in me. When I’m dancing I’m locking into a basic beat but I’m also hearing the other beats and the riffs and melodies and what I’d call the general “arc” of the music, and I’m constructing my movements around these but also in response to what the other dancers are doing (if they’re not all staring into outer space). So the music is inspiration and source material for my dance, and so are the other dancers, though they also get to be audience for my dance, if they want. And when I write I do something analogous: I don’t lock into a main beat, but I use music as source material for my writing; and what other people have said, done, and written is also source and inspiration for my writing, and people are audience for my writing, if they want to be, and their response can be further source material and inspiration (or goad), etc. So in other words the page is my dance floor; or perhaps the page is part of a general dance floor composed of a lot of pages and computer screens and conversations and events. But note: when I say that music is source material for my writing – analogous to its being source material for my dancing – I mean it. Which is to say that, fundamentally, I’m not writing about music any more than I’m dancing about music. I’m just living my life on the page — except that, since Ilove to comment and analyze, there’s always a whole lot of “aboutness” in my writing. “Aboutness” is one of my dance moves, you could say.
But then, there’s “aboutness” in dancing too: adding a new dance move can tell you something about a piece of music — that it could provoke this particular move — and the move itself might in some way be “about” the dancer’s relation to the other dancers.
My point is that when I’m dancing to “The Real Slim Shady” I’m not doing something different in kind from when I’m writing down an analysis of the feints and traps and shock effects in Eminem’s lyrics. In my dancing I’m thinking by acting out my relationship to other human beings — in my writing I’m thinking by acting out my relationship to other human beings.
“Ah ha! There’s a difference! When you’re dancing to Eminem you’re dancing to the music, whereas when you write you’re drawing on his words and personality.” Yes. Not that words and personality aren’t part of the music, but yes. I’ll use music as source material for both my dancing and my writing, but I won’t necessarily use the same parts of the music for each. I use words and personality whenever I can — this is because they’re easy to use, and they’re powerful. I can quote words, I can use them, I can make them my own. Words are great. Even when I’m trying to convey sound, I’ll make lyrics and personalities my pathway, if I can.
O.K. Let’s go to the videotape; this is from a piece I wrote about Donna Summer, for Spin:
“No disco artist sang with such a raging coldness. Smart, funny coldness. In ‘I Feel Love’ she was out there and gorgeous in synth-cold outer space and no one could touch her. If she felt love, it wasn’t for me.”
All right, this has one root word to describe the music (cold/coldness), two that pertain to music (sang and synth), and the rest is sci-fi metaphor, a lyric with variations (“I feel love”), and Donna’s relation to me. This was as close as I’ve gotten in my life to actually describing a sound, and without the lyric and her persona I couldn’t have done it.
Now here’s my description of the disco ethos, from my Corina review:
“Disco managed to be audacious without being upscale in the usual sense, so it could incorporate cabaret, opera, kung fu, anything, and still not be ‘culture.’ It could be ambitious without leaving anything behind, without shedding its down-home mannerisms. ‘Down-home’ is probably the wrong phrase here. It’s like Elvis: Elvis never stopped being a truck driver with dreams; the point is, he dressed himself in the dreams, not in overalls. I’m not sure what I’m driving at here, of course. A disco is basically a Saturday night bar ‘n’ dance floor that doesn’t know its place. But that doesn’t make it a would-be supper club, dinner theater…It’s got its own style. It’s like Tony Camonte in the original Scarface, asking the sophisticate Poppy what she thinks of his jacket. ‘Kinda gaudy, isn’t it?’ she says, and he says, happily, ‘Yeah,’ oblivious to her sarcasm and winning her over. In my dream, disco doesn’t ignore the sophistication and the sarcasm; it incorporates it, discofies it. Again, what does this mean? How do we take sarcasm, knowingness, a sense of tragedy, politics, and make it gaudy, turn it into a circling disco globe? I’m working on it. A flash of glitter, dime-store glamour. The vision is made of scraps and probably won’t amount to much in the daylight. But fuck the daylight, that’s not what music’s about. The point of having a vision is to use it, not to check it for accuracy.”
So, words that pertain to music: two (cabaret and opera); phrases that allude to dancing: one (dance floor). And the rest? A 1932 gangster film; a 1950s rock ‘n’ roller — his clothes — and a flash of glitter, a dream, a disco ball.
And now here’s me describing a record that had no singer, no words, no personalities, no jacket photos (and I had no clue what the clubs were like that played this music, what the dancers looked like, or how they danced):
“Phuture’s 12-inch single ‘Slam!’ is ‘acid disco’ if by ‘acid’ you mean the stuff you throw in your estranged lover’s face, to disfigure it.”
And then towards the end:
“I’d like to hear it on the dance floor. It’s made for sudden, sharp movements — the moves I used to do at early ’70s glitter shows to prove I had an ‘edge.’
“It might provoke interesting dance-floor interaction — communal dance-floor frenzy if you take out the ‘communal.'”
So, if there are no human beings and no social intercourse in earshot, this doesn’t matter, I’ll invent them.
But one doesn’t have to invent. If you can’t hear words, voices, personalities, social life in the music, and you can’t imagine them, just play the record in a roomful of people. You’ll get words and personalities and social life, I guarantee you. And there’s your subject matter, if you want it: the music in action, what it does, how people use it. And of course the words and personality can be yours, in your room or on your dance floor: the page.
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2. What do you try and get at when writing about dance music: beats, textures, words, voices — or some combination thereof?
All of them, and lots of other shit too, and if anybody gives any other answer to this question I no longer trust them (assuming I did in the first place). (Though I guess with some instrumental dance songs, words and voices might not matter much.) (And, okay, I don’t know if I’ actually use the word “texture” very often, to be honest. It’s always struck me as a fairly vague word. But maybe that’s just me, you know?)
Yes, all of it. I try to convey as much as possible the mood the artist sets, the style they work in. For example, if they are a minimalist, I try to reflect that somehow, either through my own style of writing, or through descriptions that vividly convey a piece of work that is sparse or stripped down. Unless I am writing for a hyper-informed underground audience, like Urb orXLR8R, I try to stay away from serious geek terminology or references to other obscure 12-inches that only a few hundred DJs own, because people feel alienated from dance music already — they don’t need any further assistance from the reviewer. My goal is to get people interested in this music, to read the article with an open mind, and to hopefully go out and check the artist out with an open mind. We have enough people dissing dance music as not being “real” music as it is, I don’t want to contribute to the problem by dancing with myself in an article.
Everything…you can still use the trad rockcrit arsenal of interpretive techniques too — you can do lit-crit style exegesis of sampled phrases and catchphrases, the song titles can be decoded and unpacked, the artist names…there is always discourse around the music…then there’s the question of the music as social text — the behaviors it is designed to trigger or enhance…you don’t have to have field-researched it and actually heard it played out in a club, ‘cos the records contain these behavioral cues, clues to how they’re supposed to be used or responded to…you hear a trance record and the structure of it, with build, breakdown, hands in the air refrain, etc., tells you how it is used…what tableaux it creates in the club, out of the audience’s bodies.
Well, obviously I don’t try to get at these things so much as at what they do. But I’m also interested in the “how” of it — I used to be a musician, after all. The trouble is that anything I say on the subject is boring and unintelligible to all but a few. Sometimes I go ahead anyway, and I try to put in enough jokes or exciting stuff elsewhere so that I don’t totally lose the reader. And of course I sent you — Scott — that long email about how changes in pitch and texture are also changes in rhythm (it’s a snare drum’s “texture” that differentiates it from a tom and that makes the snare stand out, which is why the snare is often used for the backbeat), and how both the wah-wah peddle and the 303 allow you to change texture within a note and so you can use them to create rhythm and syncopation within the note. (The wah-wah is the device used by the guitarist on “Shaft!”; the 303 is the acid-house machine, used recently by Timbaland on Aaliyah’s “Try Again.”) This is interesting to me, but I don’t know if there’s a whole lot more to say about it.
In my Phuture review I wrote:
“‘Slam!’ breaks the [‘Acid Tracks’] pattern by breaking the rhythm — nearly abandons the one-two-three-four — edges towards Afro-Caribbean syncopation but jams it between the measure bars. So it doesn’t feel like a groove — more like a spring held tight.”
Well, this comes close to the categories boring and unintelligible. What I meant by “Afro-Caribbean” was that the bass drum played on the two-AND instead of the TWO or THREE — have I achieved intelligibility yet? (In a four-beat measure, if you’re hitting the main beats, they’re “ONE-and-TWO-and-THREE-and-FOUR-and.” If you’re hitting what the Phuture drum is hitting, you’re playing “ONE-and-two-AND-three-and-FOUR-and.” Capitalization for the beats that get hit.) On the main riff to “Satisfaction,” Keith and Charlie hit the TWO while Bill hits the two-AND, which helps the song to move, but my saying this conveys nothing of the motion.
What do I try to get at when writing about “dance music”? I try to get at the message or picture that it conveys and how it uses beat, rhythm, or the rhythm-and-voice duet that underlies all such musxic to convey it. Often, though, the message or picture conveyed by “dance music” is an active one, a kind of documentary observation of the lives of its fans — or of its own life…
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3. How much of a technical perspective about dance music (i.e., how it’s actually made) do you bring to your writing about the music? Is a technical perspective even necessary?
Try to, while being aware that a) it’s kind of dry and un-romantic and scientific so you need to be sparing ‘cos you can lose the lay reader and b) it’s simultaneously a crucial part of the way the music works and at the same time doesn’t tell you enough, i.e., all that stuff about signature, aesthetic eminence, why one track is better than another even when using the exact same techniques…often resulting in relapse into the superlative, the ineffable, the imprecise…terms like ‘funk’, ‘soul’, etc…
Most dance reviews, when you boil them down, all they’re saying is ‘this is a funky record’. Or that the guy/gal reviewing it finds it funky which doesn’t even tell you whether you’d find it funky.
My quick answer would be no. To drive a car you don’t have to know how the engine works; to write an email you don’t have to know how a computer works. My not-so-quick answer is that if a writer were to tell the story of a musician or a producer by focusing on the technical choices — why he hit this beat rather than that one, why he used this device rather than that, what adjustment he had to make to overcome a particular obstacle — the reader would get a better idea of what the music maker was doing in all ways, not just technical but social and emotional and intellectual. Just as if you were to examine why a writer uses an adjective here, verbs there, a particular sentence structure in a particular context, a certain rhetorical device, figures of speech, you’d probably get not only a good sense of his writing strategies but a much deeper sense of what he was saying.
Not really very much. I mean, unless you are talking about an artist or a track that revolutionized a genre, or became known in the genre for using a specific piece of equipment to create an identifiable sound (like the 303 or the 909), I don’t think it’s helpful for most people. Most folks don’t even know what a 303 is, let alone what it sounds like, (though you can break it down for them and give example of tracks that made the equipment popular). But again, I think these are exceptions. For certain producers, like Photek, or Thomas Brinkmann, the innovations they bring to the table technically are important, so you state that Photek’s beat programming is unrivaled, he’s the producer’s producer in drum’n’bass, and Brinkmann gives new meaning to minimalism with certain tracks, but you don’t want to concentrate too much on the technical aspect. It’s not what they used necessarily, but the sound they got out of it and why that’s important that should be stressed.
Well here again is a question like question one, that presupposes that “dance music” is a thing apart. But it is not. Techniques matter no less to the structure and motives of jazz than to “dance music.” Maybe that is because “dance music” and jazz inhabit the same continuum. Jazz was “dance music” for all of its useful life, viz 1900-1960…Which is not to say that rock & roll is not dance music: because it used to be always that, and still sometimes is…
To me the techniques by which rhythm-structured music are made are crucial to understanding it, appreciating & judging it. In “dance music” those techniques begin with the deejay — and (almost) end with him.
I basically bring in none (unless you count the fact that I know my daughter’s new drum kit is a Slingerland), and no, it’s not necessary at all. It might even in some cases be detrimental, because I would quite possibly fall asleep while reading it.
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4. Talk technology. Have technological changes in the recording industry — samplers, computer sequencer programs, etc. — improved, damaged, or made no difference whatsoever to the music?
Improved, but the difference has been overstated. The sampler just facilitated something that was already culturally and musically long underway, going back to reggae in the late ’60s and various DJs and mixers before then. As I said in one of my Top 5s, I don’t see a fundamental difference between copying, taping, splicing, looping, or sampling. And in itself I don’t give a damn whether I’m listening to a drum machine rather than a breakbeat, any more than I give a damn whether I’m listening to a Fender rather than a Gibson. Of course (see my answer to number 3), interesting individual stories can be told, e.g., how Jimmy Page’s guitar style changed when he shifted from Fender to Gibson, and so forth.
And I’ll say that I don’t like house and techno 2001 nearly as much as disco 1977, but I don’t blame this on the technology.
They’ve improved things in many ways. Just the accessibility and the affordability of the equipment has enabled scores of bedroom producers to come up and start mini-revolutions. Without this, much of what has happened in dance music in the last few years would not have been possible. Two-step and drum’n’bass, especially, have benefited from cheap equipment getting in the hands of 17 and 18 years olds. On the flip side, I hear a lot of grumbling from more experienced producers about the ProTools technology, or the all-in-one Groovebox, with its pre-set sounds, stripping away some of the creativity and making editing and mixing down too easy. This can create a lot more formulaic music, especially if the producers are not going out of their way to create their own beats, find their own samples, and make their own sounds. ProTools encourages simplistic, formulaic set ups, especially in drum’n’bass and house music, where there’s clearly an unofficial guideline that’s being followed. More access means more records, but also more crap to sort through. Dance music is so disposable already, and this can sometimes contribute to the problem.
The techniques you mention gave the “dance music” musician more devices to work with, yes, but they make no essential difference: any more than the sudden availability of band instruments in post-Spanish American war New Orleans made the jazz that was developed on them, or than the invention of the amplified gee-tar made 1940s R & B different. Additional techniques simply challenge the inventive musician to assert his already existent innovative instincts a bit more aggressively than he might otherwise have done…(I might add that the techniques you list belong to hip hop just as fully as they do to “dance music”…)
Well, people danced before those changes (and before electric guitars or fiddles, even), and people danced after them. So no, they haven’t made much difference at all. Isn’t that kinda obvious? Though okay, sometimes I do miss those cute little robotic analog synth sounds of olden times. But they’re coming back, aren’t they? And DJ P and DJ Z-Trip have even remembered that Pat Benatar and Rush and Phil Collins and Tom Petty have beats on their records, which is something hip-hop and techno sheep stopped understanding a couple years after Afrika Bambaata invented the turntable. (Before him, they were called “record players.” And I have just now decided that I’m gonna start calling “turntablists” “record-playerists” instead, just to be obstinate.) But okay, maybe I’ve gone off on a tangent here. Sorry. Actually, my very favorite songs to dance to are probably mostly soulful garage rock songs and garage-rocking soul songs of the late ’60s or so — you know, stuff like “The Oogum Boogum Song” or “Expressway to Your Heart” or “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” or “The Love You Save” or whatever — so maybe dance music has gotten worse over time. But I don’t know that technology is necessarily what I would blame for it.
When a new piece of tech comes on-line as it were, there is always a gap where the trad musically skilled don’t know how to deal with it, and the discursively sharp, culturally astute types — often non-musicians in that Eno mold — seize the time and surge ahead, finding unexpected applications for the new machine, ways of (ab)using it. But then things level out again as everyone assimilates the new technology and the old hierarchies of talent over non-musicality return…you can see it time again — with synthesizers (Daniel Miller of Mute/The Normal said the synth was only any good when used by non-musicians), with drum machines, with sequencers, with sampling…At first the canny ones move in and do stuff, perhaps superficially striking stuff, with it, and then the more musical ones come in and do stuff that’s more sophisticated, in key, arranged a la trad musical values…being an old punkie at heart I tend to valorize the surge moments when the sharp-witted DIY barbarians seize the new tools or think up new ways of bending existing tools…e.g., hardcore rave and early jungle, with the whole speeding up the breakbeats, using timestretching etc. thing. Because they don’t know the Rules of Music…you get all kinds of interestingly wrong-sounding music, improperly integrated fusions…when “musicality” comes back, it’s less interesting, because “music” has been done really hasn’t it, there’s no shortage of pleasant melodies or harmonious, euphonious stuff to listen to.
Ultimately though I tend to think in any era the really musical ones will rise to the top eventually once the new technology-induced commotion settles down… although a lot of musically talented folk get caught in the ‘wish I could make music like the golden age’ retro-trap and get pulled out of the innovation game, as it were.
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5. What are the biggest assumptions and misconceptions about dance music that a person writing about it must challenge or at least consider?
That it’s not real music. That it takes no skill. That the musicians are untalented. That it is somehow worth less than other forms of music. That you have to be high to like it. That it’s just drug music. That’s it’s going to be over and dead within a few years. That it’s gay music. That it’s shallow. That it’s just disco for the year 2001 (and we all know “disco sucks”).
That dance music is mindless, that dance fans are not listening closely — a dancer is “listening” with every sinew and muscle and nerve ending in his/her body.
That crowd responses are essentially de-invidualizing — well, they are, but what’s wrong with that? What’s so great about being an individual? That sort of dis is like saying I don’t like cheese ‘cos it tastes cheesy…the whole point is to get lost in the crowd, merge with something bigger than your paltry self.
You know very well which assumptions impede writing dance music criticism: that it is an inferior genre. Ever since the 1970s the view of the rockcrit clique has been that “disco” is a lesser genre, an imperfect, diseased, even illegitimate form of pop music.
Most editors still hold to this view. Editors of the coated-paper magazines (the ones whose paper has a slick, cloying odor to it) generally know nothing about music but do know a lot about “trends” and “trendiness,” and they look only for what is most obvious …Dance Music is less than obvious, because (in the U.S.A. at least) it cannot be heard on the radio and employs far less numbers of publicists and gives out almost no free records. Thus there are no inducements to editors to assigning articles about it, and no interest generated among editors in assigning writers to cover it. Knowing that, writers do not ask to write about it.
Fortunately I do not have that problem at the Phoenix, nor from Chuck Eddy, the only establishment rockcrit/editor who understands and even likes “disco.” Outside the U.S. it is a bit different. In Montreal, Milan, Barcelona, and Paris, dance musicis pop, and it gets some coverage (though not, of course, from the U.S./U.K.-influenced magazines — the ones who think the Chemical Brothers, Moby, and Carl Cox are dance music…).
Um…the idea that “dance music” is a genre, maybe? The fact that idiots at deejay magazines think Stone Roses were a dance band, and Guns N Roses weren’t? Or that they think calling Aqua or Toy Box “cheesy and gauche” is some kind of insult? (I mean, wasn’t one of the great things about disco that lots of it was gauche?) In general, I get the feeling that a lot of artsy techno subcultures (especially drum’n’bass and Intelligent Whatever It Is, maybe, but don’t quote me on that) are afraid of hooks. Which means they’re afraid of the pleasure without which parties wouldn’t be parties. Which is such a fucking stupid thing to think that I won’t dignify it with an argument.
Assumptions to challenge: that dancing is visceral rather than intellectual, that technology is “cold,” that “dance music” is only for dancing, that disco was just fluff and fun for the pop marketplace, that disco and rock have nothing to do with each other, that disco and hip-hop have nothing to do with each other, that other musics (e.g., rock, teen pop) are less scene-oriented than rave is, that techno and house are better than Europop, that techno and house are more innovative than pop is, that techno and house are more disco than teen pop is, that disco lyrics don’t matter, that disco lyrics are no good, that Kraftwerk is more important than Boney M, that you can’t understand the music if you don’t get high. To expand on a few of these points, here are some thoughts I had after reading Jon Pareles a couple years ago comment on the 20th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever. I was noting in general the tendency of professional intellectuals (though not necessarily Pareles, who’s normally pretty smart) to get it all wrong, to project the wrong grid, not to mention the most schoolmarmy one. I’m thinking here of their need to debunk a supposed “rockism” and “essentialism” and ________ (fill in the buzz word) and to celebrate disco as a trivial, “inauthentic,” celebration of artificiality. Which portrays disco as simply a photonegative of rockism.
(a) There is too much emphasis on the “simplicity” of the disco beat — I don’t think disco’s one-two-three-four was necessarily any simpler than swing’s one-two-three-four or the Velvet Underground’s one-two-three-four. It would have been simple only if the one-two-three-four were the only rhythm going on.
(b) There is too much emphasis on the rock vs. disco divide and hence on disco’s supposedly being artificial or synthetic in relation to rock. I have all sorts of problems with this emphasis. First, I don’t know if anyone who isn’t a critic or an academic sees it like this. Was a rock fan’s antagonism towards disco based on his perception of the music’s being artificial? Did he really think in such terms? (By the way, as a rock fan myself at the time, I didn’t see disco as any kind of a threat; I saw “soft rock” as a threat.) Second, no matter how the rock fan saw it, the disco-goer most likely did not see disco as synthetic in relation to rock. I wouldn’t say that disco never saw itself in some sort of relation to rock, but I don’t think it particularly saw itself through the eyes of rock. So to overemphasize “artificiality” is to not see disco on its own terms. I think that the disco synth (other than for comedians like Kraftwerk) was more about mastery and creativity than artificiality. And then there’s the whole gospel aspect of disco, which had nothing to do with artificiality. And the sex aspect, which for some people was absolutely meant to be as spiritual as the gospel (and for others was meant to be as spiritual as pudding).
I saw disco’s gaudiness and glitz not as “artificiality” but as reach, something similar to Dolls glitter or the Warhol superstars: three-chord glamour that anyone could play, if you say you’re a star, you are. And then for some it just plain is glamour. I think commentators would be more comfortable if it were merely about glamour.
(c) In discussing the differences between disco and rock, there is usually a misinterpretation of the meaning of “live performance.” Which is to say, there’s talk both of rock musicians constructing the music in the studio to make it sound live, to cover their tracks, to not emphasize the studio (is this even true? think of Electric Ladyland), and of rock musicians really playing their instruments in live performance (vs. disco divas singing to backing tracks or simply lip synching). Whereas, in fact, it’s disco that assumes a live setting — a dance — a public space. Disco is much more the live music, and disco records are raw material for this live show.
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6. Does one have to go out dancing — participate in the activity and culture of disco — in order to write well about it? Are you a good dancer?
Nobody can do the shingaling like I do. Nobody can do the boogaloo like I do…okay, I lied. I don’t even know what the shingaling or boogaloo are. But yeah, I’m a kick ass dancer, as long as the song’s pretty fast or pretty funky. I challenge any rock critic on earth to a dance contest; I will fucking dance all your butts into the ground, motherfuckers…Um, as long as it’s not, like, salsa, and there’s lotsa Hispanic people there, in which case I might get kinda shy to avoid looking like a complete clutz. (I’ve been told I don’t move my shoulders enough while Spanish dancing. So okay — I’m mainly good at dances that don’t have steps. in them. Dancing is about personal expression! So as for steps, I can’t go for that, no can do. Both my ex wife and ex girlfriend wanted me to take a ballroom dancing class, but I couldn’t be bothered.)
As for “participating in the activity and culture of disco”, um, well, I don’t know what that is. If you mean Chris Cook telling me that Harry Casey from KC and the Sunshine Band lives under his bed because he’s his boogieman — and God knows why you wouldn’t mean that — then yeah, I participate in disco activity and culture a lot. If you mean watching my daughter and her seventh-grade friends figuring out how to jump around to all those Destiny’s Child and Mystikal hits, then yup yup yup. If you mean dancing drunk to “Jive Talkin'” at house parties or weddings or office Christmas parties or even clubs sometimes, then yeah, sure, why not. (Friday night I danced til 4 in the morning with a lovely 23-year-old Russian-born Jewish girl at a Ft. Greene bar where much of the clientele was middle aged black men dressed like pimps.) But if you mean do I think one has to swallow ecstasy pills regularly and suck penises in hot tubs to write about disco wisely, then no, I would say that that would not be the case.
Honestly and truly I’d say, absolutely. Participation is essential… or at least, you have to have gone through a phase of being intensely into clubbing and dancing at some point to really undertand the appeal…the collective synchronized rush induced by certain tracks or certain DJ manoeuvres… dance culture is full of Gnostic refrains like “this is for those who know” or “hardcore you know the score” and so forth, and what they allude to is this physically-felt knowledge that comes from having experienced what happens on a dance floor when a certain kind of bass-drop takes place, or a certain drum build, or whatever…the way goose bumps ripple across the crowd-body…The crucial distinction: it’s not elitist, but it is tribal.
I can almost invariably tell from a piece of dance writing if the writer has experienced this stuff ever…or whether they are writing from “outside” the experience…they might have interesting insights through being totally detached but…well, I would never follow their consumer guidance tips, shall we say.
And needless to say, drugs play a big part in this as most dance styles are full of effects and sounds that play into, enhance, or trigger certain drug sensations…
A great piece of dance music, or a great DJ, makes me into a good dancer, I find… awakens the Dionysus within… the music dances you, as it were…Nietzche: “Now I am light, now I fly, now I see myself beneath myself, now a god dances through me!”…otherwise one can find oneself just shimmying along adequately as if at some office party disco, dancing as social ritual rather than flash of the spirit…
I think so. If we are talking about dance music and not IDM, I think the dance floor experience is very important. Even with some minimal techno, drum’n’bass, house, the 12-inch records are tools to be used by the DJ — and sometimes they really, really, really need the skill of a DJ to layer and build, add and subtract. Especially with minimal techno, the records are all building blocks that add up to a greater whole at the end of the night. Listening to a Hawtin track straight is a mind-numbing (and sometimes boring) experience, but when you put several of his tracks together, it all makes sense. I maintain that the musical movements in dance happen with 12-inches, not with albums, and most of this music is made (literally, engineered) to be played loud, on a massive soundsystem. Certain genres, like d’n’b, are very physical; they are made for the club, designed to be played loud, which is why it just doesn’t translate well to the home listening format. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone shopping for records and turned down certain tracks because they sounded lame or whatever, and then when I went out later that night and heard the same record on a big system, it was just like a revelation.
Recorded performance stands on its own merits. There is no need to go out dancing in order to appreciate properly a recorded dance-music set, any more than there is a need to see a live rock show in order to judge a rock CD. Still, that part of music that is live performance can only be appreciated live. It must be seen in action. Still, a live performance is a different animalentirely from a recorded performance.
As to my dancing ability, it depends on the music being played. If the music uplifts and illustrates and moves me, I dance well; if it does not., neither do I….
Makes sense, yes?
Well, you’ve seen my dance floor, whaddya think? But your question — surprise! — breaks into several questions for me. And I’d make your question plural: not the activity and culture but the activities and cultures. Say that someone who went regularly to Studio 54 is in the culture of disco. All right, well, what about the teenager in Fort Collins who’s only read about it and heard the records but decides to walk into his high school with the dress and attitude of disco — as he’s imagined it — and maybe gets the shit pounded out of him? Maybe he knows something about the music — its risks and possibilities — that the authentic club guy safe in New York bohemia doesn’t know. Or what about my ex-wife Leslie, who as a 5th grader back in Alexandria, Virginia, was terrorized by black kids in the hallways who’d call her “Lesby” and sing “Kung Fu Fighting” while doing martial arts kicks that came within inches of smashing her face? Or what about a friend’s little kids who changed Debbie Deb’s “You’ve got the music, here’s your chance” to “you’ve got the music IN YOUR PANTS”? (I’ve seen Debbie Deb perform, by the way, and I’m sure she’d love the in-your-pants version.) Or what about the kids’ mom? When I asked her once to recommend some History of Art books, she mentioned Gombrich and Jansen but thought that they were too dry and that I’d prefer Sister Wendy — you know, the nun who does the art analysis on PBS — because Sister Wendy was “more disco.” Isn’t this all the “culture,” too?
But my relation to disco is like Brian Wilson’s relation to the beach: I almost never go to dance clubs, so a lot of my writing on the subject is — you know — a work of the imagination. The sort of “disco” I went to back in the day was more likely to have a jukebox than a disc jockey. My favourite dancing has usually been in people’s living rooms. And in my room I’ll use “dance” music as background for almost anything: crossword puzzles, napping, doing the dishes. (I once changed an LL Cool J lyric to “You’re the type of guy who gets suspicious/I’m the type of guy who always does the dishes.”) Really, my only claim to disco authenticity — other than having read Sister Wendy’s analysis of the pre-Raphaelites — is the one time I saw Debbie Deb.
Now, my lack of knowledge doesn’t always bother me, but for sure I’m not proud of it. And you will notice a tension in some of my answers here, say between my response to number 1 where I talk of using disco as source material for my writing, and number 5 where I talk about wanting to understand disco on its own terms. The two endeavors are not necessarily at odds — in fact they can augment each other, inspire each other – but they’re not the same, either. I don’t have time to go into this — I have to cut short in a few minutes. But I’ll say here that (a) understanding disco “on its own terms” actually means understanding a multiplicity of terms, people, scenes, some of which may be in conflict with others, and (b) true understanding is a work of the imagination, too. Here’s a passage of Thomas Kuhn’s:
“When reading the works of an important thinker look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer…, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.”
This can be unsettling work, finding sense where you’d only seen absurdity. Kuhn is talking about how to understand scientists of the past, whose modes of thought are different from our own, but I’ll generalize this to music scenes — even the ones you know pretty well — by saying look for the unexpected, the absurd, the boring, the strange, the inexplicable, and ask yourself why interesting people would engage in such activities. Once you’ve found an answer, once these activities make sense, you might discover that the rest of what these people do — the part of their behavior that had seemed normal, that you’d thought you’d understood — comes to have a new meaning. In other words, if you’re reading someone, pay close attention to what he actually writes and to what doesn’t seem to fit. If you’re dancing, pay attention to the other dancers, and come and face the strange.
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7. What do you think is the most important development to have taken place in dance music in the last ten years?
The affordability and availability of the technology (samplers, etc.). See above. Musically speaking, I would say that drum’n’bass and two-step are the two most innovative forms that have come out of dance music lately. But, like anything, they reach a plateau in terms of development and just level off. I think we are all so spoiled, we expect a new innovation every three months, and if we don’t get it, we’re bored and, don’t you know, XX genre is so OVER!
Drugs — both the highs and the darkside — have massively mutated the evolution of the music and caused it to splinter as it adapts to different social-racial-sexuality-drug oriented factions — not just Ecstasy, but the ever more powerful forms of weed, relatively newer and nastier drugs like ketamine, the perennial amphetamine and acid…and also the rise of the polydrug culture that mixes and matches all of these substances.
Production — with ProTools, plug-ins, Virtual Studio Technology etc. — the level of intricacy and detail in production is staggering — rhythmic complexicity of accents and nuances far exceeding any real drummer’s capability…it does mean the music sometimes loses the power of a simple Big Riff though…
Growth of sound systems and a “big room” aesthetic in the music, with tracks designed to exploit the quadraphonic potential of the club space, the frequency spectrum…tracks that are sculpted in four dimensions, riffs like blocs of sound in motion that swoop through the crowd-body…full of almost a-musical wooshes and FX…the music becomes spectacular, a sonic spectacle.
The gradual emergence of a single unified bass-beats-bleeps culture, a trans-Atlantic confederacy of street sounds — whether it’s 2step garage coalescing as an only-in-London hybrid of house, jungle, ragga, and Timbaland-style R&B, or conversely, with techno-ravey-drum’n’bassy sounds and riffs infiltrating US gangsta rap (due to Ecstasy catching on with B-boys?), R&B, and even Jamaican dancehall.
The most important development to have taken place in the last ten years of “dance music” is, by far, the rise of the DJ as featured performer. Since about 1992-93, when the record labels started issuing DJ-mix CDs featuring big-name DJs, as a means of fighting off the street corner vendors selling home-made house-music bootleg mixes, the DJ has been able to record at length the way bands, singers, and solo instrumentalists are used to doing. Today Danny Tenaglia, Junior Vasquez, Cevin Fisher, and Todd Terry sell tons of full-length CDs and even 2-CD sets.
Um….fuck, I don’t know. But that first Britney video is probably way up there.
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8. Overall, do you think dance music is in healthy shape today? Why or why not? (Feel free to talk about this in comparison with the rock and pop – or any other – world.)
Despite the rise of the DJ to featured artist status, “dance music” is, no, not in good shape. At least not in the U.S.A.: overseas and in Quebec things are wholly different: there, “dance music” IS the pop mainstream. But not here in the U.S., where most “dance music” genres remain cult items at best. Some genres are actually declining. There hasn’t been a noteworthy diva-style CD since 1998, Eurodisco — which circa 1995-97 looked to be taking over — has lost its self-confidence, and even house music — the fundamental principle underlying club tastes — has shrunk down to one or two flavours only. 7 or 8 years ago there were “garage,” “hard house,” “deep house,” “Eurohaus,” and “traxx.” Today, except for hard house, you’ll listen long before hearing any of the above house styles in most U.S. club sets….
The disappearance of diva style is a drastic and unhappy development. Disco cannot exist as we know it without Divas soaring: think Loleatta Holloway, Donna Summer, Chaka Khan, Tina Turner. Yet where are the great divas of house music today? Barbara Tucker…Ultra Nate…Liz Torres…Sabrina Johnston…
The trouble with diva-style is that when the genre reigned it was SPECIAL, now everyone’s a diva. The word in its dance-music context (a show-off, a fashionista, a “Miss Thang”) had a place in the genre, as a danceable expression of self-esteem (“I am beautiful damnit”); today it just means anyone with an attitude. Well. If anyone and everyone’s a diva, who needs cult-music singers??? In addition, diva-style, like the rest of “dance music,” simply does not sell big numbers here in the U.S.A. Singers need to be paid. Ergo…Most dance-music record labels have barely enough money to pay the DJ, much less a chick singer too. Ergo: goodbye divas…(back in the early 1990s, when divas reigned, they barely got paid. how else could Strictly Rhythm or Champion have afforded to use Barbara Tucker & Sabrina Johnston?) Where there is money to pay a diva singer, as in a Danny Tenaglia session, they sometimes still appear…
Lastly, diva style has declined, like most of house music and all of Eurodisco because the dolts who program FM music radio here in the U.S. don’t think it plays to “their audience.” Like the people who like “dance music” are aliens or something…I go out to the clubs here in Boston A LOT and the 1000s of folks I see there look no different to me from the folks who go to “rock” shows. If anything, there’s MORE of them these days than there are of “rock” people. But the slick music magazines say “buy Radiohead. Buy Pavement. Buy Eve Six.” Or “buy Destiny’s Child. Buy ‘N Sync.” So…is it any surprise that the dolts who program U.S.A.’s FM music radio buy Radiohead, Eve 6, and Pavement or Destiny’s Child & ‘N Sync rather than Danny Tenaglia, Ultra Nate, and La Bouche? Hell, it’s hard even for Madonna to get her new MUSIC onto FM radio., much less club stuff. Of course this is true only in the U.S. In Montreal, Milan, Barcelona, Paris & Bologna things are just the opposite…
My favourite dance music tends to rock and pop, and my favourite rock and pop tends to dance. So again, Scott, why you’re accepting all these silly false dichotomies is beyond my comprehension. But anyway, I do like that so many producers have ripped off Timbaland. And I bet I heard 50 or 60 really good electronica CDs last year, and calling them “electronica” can still piss some people off. So yeah: good shape.
I’m not sure if it’s any more healthy or unhealthy than rock or pop or rap — 90 percent is shit is the general rule — if it has an edge, in terms of being alluring to youth, is that the drugs-loudmusic-brightlights-bizarrelydressedfolk combo of clubland is still an unbeatable leisure paradigm — and also, because the music is functional, even hackwork and clones can play their part by providing DJs with grist to the mixing mill, whereas lame copyist rock or pop is just lame…
I am hating dance music right now, mostly because there seems to be little of substance or longevity coming out. I am tired of the dance music industry, which builds mountains of hype around the worst stuff, only to knock it down three months later in favour of promoting more crap. I hate the trance movement, I wish it would go away, and I’m tired of the disposable aspect of dance music. But it’s a double-edged sword. I used to love the fact that every week I could go into a record store and a whole new world was waiting to be heard. Every week, I would ravenously attack the record store and blow way too much money, but these days, the whole DJ scene just depresses me. (I mean, what’s the world come to when PERRY FARRELL calls himself a DJ!!) But that said, even though I feel things have stagnated with too many of the same old DJs holding on to the throne (Derrick Carter, Sneak, Doc Martin, Carl Cox, etc., etc.), as long as there’s dance music and raves and club culture, there will be some kid sitting in his (or hopefully, her) basement making tracks, learning how to spin, and hopefully coming up with the next shit. It all goes in cycles, like anything else — I mean, I can’t wait for Britney Spears and all of that to disappear, I just hope she takes Paul Oakenfold and his cronies with her someplace far, far away.
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9. Where’s the best stuff in dance music today coming from? (You can approach this question in a number of ways: Is it happening in underground circles or on radio? North America or Europe? Is it taking place in some exciting new sub-genre?)
It’s quite possibly coming from Detroit (i.e.: Eminem, Kid Rock, ghetto tech stuff like DJ Assault, electro revival stuff like i-F and the Detroit Grand Pubahs), but I could be wrong. It’s not like I’ve done any worldwide inventories or anything. I would say the South is probably in the running too; lotsa dope back-your-azz-up beats down there. And never count out continental Europe — they’ve got Max Martin and Sven Vath too!
The best “dance music” today comes from Paris, where electronic dark funk REIGNS; from Montreal, where girly stuff rules; from Milan and Barcelona, where all of it is popular and much else besides, anything Euro and housey and dry and funky… Also from New York,. where the best DJs work and record even now (though Danny Tenaglia and his equals spend ever more time overseas).
re: dance floor oriented music, London pirate radio culture is still the cutting edge as it was all through the nineties: hardcore to jungle to drum’n’bass to U.K. garage to 2step. Time for another paradigm shift from that quarter.
Germany’s rockin’ it with the Cologne glitch stuff, weird house, Berlin’s dub-techno Pole-types, Timo Maas on the populist Sasha-with-balls tip…
America’s got it’s own post-rave vanguard with the kid606 and friends, Schematic, kit clayton etc. etc. types bringing in humor, personality, urgent opinions and emo-core venting to the rather sterile world of post-Autechre IDM — not sure if much of it really counts as dance music though.
Actually there’s good stuff going on all over the place, mavericks and hacks alike come up with the goods, so much it’s impossible to keep up with it. But at the same time there’s no obvious scene that has surged ahead of everyone else and is the obvious leading edge, as there was with jungle in 93/94/95…there’s no sense of revolution, no next big thing but lots of next medium-sized things.
England seems to be light years ahead of the States. Even our own artists like Derrick May and Stacey Pullen get more play overseas than they do here. And it’s always funny to see New York DJs that I’m so totally sick of get top billing in the U.K. at their super clubs. But, still, that country is the most progressive musically that I’ve yet to see; they are up for anything. At the same time, because dance music is so massive over there, instead of ‘ N Sync, you’ve got to contend with Tall Paul, Oakie, and Boy George as the big pop stars. What a nightmare!!!
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10. What are the greatest challenges and obstacles in writing about dance music these days?
Er, not being boring? Actually, not being bored is more like it.
Avoiding boosterism and developing a truly critical language for dance music. Most dance reviews are 7 or 8 in essence even when un-graded. there should be 3’s and 1’s and zeroes. Of course, the boosterism is based on feeling like the scene is underground and needs support, so it’s sort of understandable to an extent.
Resisting nostalgia for the early, less professionalized and more anarcho days of rave, before it became an industry. Things can never stay the same. Don’t fall into the Meltzer trap!
Learning that “vibe” migrates and that you can’t keep looking in the same place for your bliss. Knowing when to leave the party (and find another, more pumping one)
Retaining the capacity to be astonished. (So much stuff comes out that the landmark releases don’t stand out so starkly against the plains of lameness).
For one thing, major mags and papers play a fucked up sort of “affirmative action” with their sections, and apply this in a particularly heavy way to dance music coverage. I.e., an editor will tell you they can only run one dance music CD review in an issue, or that they can’t cover 2-step this month because someone wrote about it five months ago, or that next week we’re featuring the Chemical Brothers and so we can’t have another dance music article two-weeks running. It’s utter crap, and these same editors would never ever think of applying these asinine rules to rock or pop music. “OH WAIT, we just ran a Teeny Bop piece this week, can’t run another one for six more months!!” Or, “Wait, we can only slot two indie rock artists per section.” You get the drift. Am I annoyed? Yes.
I guess you could argue that the audience for dance music is not as large as the audience for rock, but it’s a two-way street (and I would argue that if you started running electronic music pieces/features on a regular basis, you would discover a whole new audience, which is larger than you think). I mean, NYC raves reach capacities of 10,000 with flyering as the sole promotion, and Twilo, the Tunnel, and the Limelight pack outs thousands of people on a weekend, yet can you find me a rock show that’s not Bruce Springsteen, that would be able to pack out a venue of that size with only word of mouth and hand-to-hand flyering and one month (or less) of promotion!!?. Most of these clubs don’t even bother taking out big ads in the papers, because they don’t have to. And considering how many venues are dedicated to dance music not rock music in NYC, I think the argument that there’s no audience and that no one will read it, and that it’s not important, is utterly absurd. There’s an audience, they just don’t buy records, they go raving or clubbing, instead.
See my answers to Question 9 especially. One of the greatest challenges for a U.S.A.-based writer is that we live in a kind of “no-dance music zone.” We have to travel, usually overseas, to hear the best “dance music,” to see it in action, and sometimes even to buy the music. Then there are the other challenges. The preconception most rockcrits have that dance music doesn’t count, because Spin, Gear, Vibe, etc. don’t write about it. The editors are often a challenge. One editor (at a publication other than the Phoenix and Village Voice, mind you) once told me I was not on his preferred dance-music assignment list because I’m not gay. Which is like saying that because I am white I cannot write about music made by blacks. Unhappily there are some editors who think that way too…
Sometimes one breaks through the fog of ignorance. Back in 1994 I wrote a scathing letter to Tower Pulse! complaining about their Dance Music column, which was being written by an enemy of the style, one Lorraine Ali. They called me, told me my letter was better written than any of her columns, fired her & gave it to me. (I wrote it for four and a half years, until a new, “typical” editor took over the magazine and fired me.) During that time I wrote about “deepest house and highest Euro,” as I told Pulse! that I would. Wrote about it and was glad of it! (Of course Lorraine Ali had no trouble making it to Rolling Stone, natch, and then on to the big time, where writers of her outlook are especially well received.)
Didn’t you already ask this question?? (See number five above.) I actually suspect the rock press is, if anything, more open to dance critics in the post-techno/post-hiphop era than it was back in the disco era. Which is definitely an improvement. Though I don’t know that most dance critics reek any less than most rock ones do.