Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Old-skool style inter-blogg discourse action! A response to Jess’s response to my “Living Death of Dance Music” piece (not in fact about its death but its midlife crisis). It’s a clever argument, attractive for its optimism (achieved by various contortions, I’ll argue), and certainly it does the job of setting up its author in his favorite persona, “Mr. Positive” (resisting his essentially gloomy nature--don’t fight it, man, feel it! Whereas me actually being an optimist, believe it or not, means I can be more steely-eyed in apprehending and assessing the grim truth). Scrutinized closely, the argument gets a bit crumbly.


Disco was way bigger in America than rave or electronica ever were there. Bigger by a factor of ten, at a guesstimate. Let’s take the daftest comparison first: “Fatboy as rave's BeeGees.” The disco-era Bee Gees had seven Billboard Number Ones. At one point in 1978, “Night Fever” was Number One, “Stayin’ Alive” (which had already occupied the top spot earlier) then resurged and took over the Number 2 spot, cf. Frankie with “Two Tribes” and “Relax” at #1 and #2. Fatboy’s biggest album, You've Come A Long Way, eventually chalked up 1,800,000 sales in this country; the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack sold 25 million. American rave culture’s equivalent to the movie Saturday Night Fever is… Groove. Nuff said.

Disco achieved total pop hegemony in America, that’s why it was hated and feared. Disco-formatted radio stations sprang up all over the country, hundreds of them. In the New York area, the sole station that was playing New Wave succumbed to the disco format pandemic, which partly explains the discophobia of punks and why punk bands who went disco, like Blondie, were regarded as turncoats. Look, I’m not one of those rewrite-history types who say Electronica never happened in the USA, on the contrary, it was big here, and the expectations around it even bigger. The underground US rave scene was substantial. Even as late as 2000 people like Sasha could go to somewhere as unlikely as Denver and find 10 thousand kids buzzing for him. But to compare either 97-electronica-invasion or the American rave scene to disco is just silly. Artists like Chic, Donna Summer, Earth Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson (considered a disco artist circa Off The Wall) etc had strings of chart topping hits. There were scores of Billboard Top 20 disco hits, nothing like the smattering achieved by the Anglo-Eurotronica squad. Disco was a huge mainstream phenomenon, big enough to be satirized on TV and in song (Zappa’s “Dancing Fool”). All electronica got was Eminem making one snidy sneer at Moby and how nobody likes techno (it’s funny cos it’s true, boo hoo). Rave never achieved anything like the degree of name recognition here c.f. the UK where everygran knows what a rave is. For about seven years, every year, punctually, there’d be a Network TV show “introducing” raves and their dangers to American parents. The concept just didn't seem to be able to stick in mainstream consciousness. I remember doing a guest spot for a NYU class on electronic music culture, must have been 2001 or so, talking for about 20 minutes, doing my best job to be accessible, then throwing it open to questions, and the first question is (this from quite a young hip looking woman), “Mr. Reynolds, what exactly is a rave?”.

When the disco boom collapsed at the end of the Seventies its fall was precipitious, but on account of A/ the sheer vast scale on which it happened and B/ its indigenous American roots and strong gay base, what it fell back to was pretty substantial. Rave/electronica being essentially a transplant, an import (shoving aside the house/techno Chicago/Detroit argument for the time being), its purchase on foreign soil was not as firm. It has fallen just as precipitiously as disco did, but from a lower level of impact. This can be seen by comparing the post-disco bastions of “disco will never die” with their equivalent, cough, “strongholds” today. The Paradise Garage was the key bastion in New York (where it was just one of many, many postdisco clubs). I would estimate the Garage to have been at least ten times the size of APT, which appears to be its nearest equivalent today, if we want to equate disco with anglo-eurotronica, that is. I would wager--just a hunch, this--that the atmosphere at the Garage was approximately 30 times more fervent and full-on than APT. Same with the Warehouse in Chicago. But that’s in part because the Garage and the Warehouse served a function, as cultural spaces, zones where the doubly excluded gay/black audience could release the presha. (The part that felt truest in Jess’s piece was where he lets slip the Mr. Reasonable tone of measured optimism and launches into the stingingly accurate rant about NYC DJ bars where people just natter while beatmuzak bubbles in the background. It’s funny because it’s true… boo hoo).

The trouble with electronic dance music/rave in this country is that it never really came to serve such a sociocultural function, in the way that rave did in the UK and Europe. It was party music for middle class teenagers, drug-culture bohemians, and hipsters. As much as (some) hipsters might feel music based around presha-release, they don’t really have that much presha that needs releasing. Some would say, and they might be right, that those functions of presha-release in America are typically provided (if you’re black) by hip hop and (if you’re white working class/troubled teenager) by metal/grunge/punk.


I have the benefit here of having been around and into dance music of various sorts in the early Eighties. The first thing to note is that from a British perspective there was no “lull”. The Death of Disco that happened in America didn’t really take place in Britain. (Indeed disco’s purported Death was a totally unfamiliar concept when I first encountered it, which was most likely when I started coming to America frequently. I’d have been, like, “they burned disco records? The radio stopped playing disco?”) We didn’t have discophobia as this mass reactionary backlash in the UK. New Pop was heavily based on Moroder/Chic/etc. From the British perspective, it just seemed that disco more or less evolved seamlessly into the disparate dance/club fare of the 1980-85 period: the postdisco/synthfunk sounds of NY on West End/Prelude etc, electro, Hi-NRG, jazzfunk, et al. The second thing to note is that none of these musics had a retro element, a sense of harking back to disco, or to anything. They just felt like the next stage in disco/club music, a step forward because by the early Eighties most of them were so electronic, synthesizer/synthbass/drum machine oriented, whereas most classic disco-era disco was played by bands, had guitar solos, orchestration etc. So all this so-called lull period music--“Walking on Sunshine”, “Hip Hop Be Bop,” Let The Music Play,” “Don’t Make Me Wait”, D-Train, Sharon Redd, C-Bank, etc etc… some of which was floating over to the UK as import singles, some actually being licensed in Britain and reaching the pop charts (“Walking On Sunshine” got to Number 4 in the UK), just felt like properly modern and modernist dance music. It didn't particularly feel disparate or directionless either, at the time.

If you look at that 1980-85 period between disco and house, you won’t find any equivalent to the self-reflexive and auto-cannibalizing trends in electrodance/postrave music these past six or seven years: nothing that resembles acid’s eternal returns (each time a little wearier),
Soundmurderer-style retro-junglizm, kid606 and rephlex bods rave-nostalgia, nothing close to the whole electroclash fad, or Metro Area-style negroclash (harking back to the very 1980-85 NYC period I was just talking about), nothing remotely like shaffel or the industrial/EBM/Goth referencing going on. Not only was revivalism unheard of in dance culture in 1980-85, I would also venture to say that postmodernism and retro-eclectic pastiche was too. (Possible exception: ZE, who aren’t exactly typical). The place where you found revivalism and retro-eclectic pastiche of the sort that permeates current dance music was, of course, rock music. Rock had started eating itself. So I'm afraid I must re-insist on the applicability of the dreaded rockcentric analogy: what are outfits like Metro Area or Soundmurderer, or auteurs like Maurice Fulton, Michael Mayer, and James Murphy, doing if not something equivalent to sampling-without-a-sampler approach of Jesus and Mary Chain or Spacemen 3? Murphy recreating on a keyboard the synth-riff from Kraftwerk's "Home Computer" for his own "Disco Infiltrator" is almost exactly like Jesus and Mary Chain mimicking the "woos woos" from the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" on Darklands.

Incidentally, one of the things that confirmed my sense of this “record collection dance”syndrome was the way people write about dance music nowadays, you tend to get a density of reference points and convoluted microgeneric positioning that only too aptly mirrors what’s going on in the music itself. (Writing in the earlier phases of the electronic revolution tended not to use reference points because it didn’t feel like there were any--this music was coming out of nowhere, it seemed, and if you mustered all your imagistic resources you could just about keep up with it, gesture faintly at its sensation-al futurity). This shift reminded me of the hyper-referential turn that rock criticism and especially fanzine writing took from the mid-to-late Eighties onwards, again accurately mirroring the citational nature of the music made by bands like Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fan Club, etc. (My own writing of that period involved a battle between referentiality and the desperate quasi-messianic insistence on bliss-as-historical-ignorance: ‘Yes, yes, Loop use a wah wah pedal, but so mindblowingly it feels like it happening right here right now FOR THE FIRST TIME”). The wah-wah and the 303 are roughly equivalent, here. Both effects might, creatively used, trigger the same kind of intensity of sensation felt in their original heydays. But however hard its current deployers try, it will also always carry a period evocation, a patina of homage. As each year passes, the odds against its usage not being unutterably lame get higher.

This is the pathos of belatedness that accrues to all genres that build up a huge history behind them, a history whose highpoints and moments of virgin freshness get ever harder to rival, let alone surpass. It happened to jazz, to soul, to hip hop… I don’t see why dance music should be immune from this syndrome. A turning point in all genres is when it is possible to utter the words “old skool.”


As for the argument that electrodance music has triumphed indirectly through its seeping into the mainstream via hip hop and R&B, the whole “B Boys On E” phenom (modesty ought to prevent me from pointing out this was a syndrome I identified first, four or five years ago!)…. Hmmm, I’m sure that when Josh Wink contemplates his abortive major label career and Ovum’s annual turnover, it cheers him up no end that Lil Jon and Usher got to Number One using riffs nicked off house and techno. I’ll bet the jungle scene is over the fucking moon that Missy’s “Get UR Rinse On” got more radio play (and probably sold more copies) in America than the entire drum’n’bass genre did in its whole history.

A few final points:
Rockcentricity: rave and techno (maybe not house) easily have as much in common with rock as with disco. Two of the concepts--the ideas of “underground” and of “musical progression” --that underpin the whole electronic dance project (or used to--the point of my original piece was: whither now, given these no longer apply?) are if not owned by rock, then rockist as hell. A third key underpinning element, also largely fallen into abeyance--psychedelic drugs--has a history closely entangled with rock.

As for Jess’s final rhetorical flourishes:

>“Let them abandon it. Let the market shrink even more”
Jeez, if it shrank any further, it would be eight people in a dark basement with a Radio Shack music center. (One of the big problems with the contraction of the dance scene here is that a lot of this music is only experienced properly through a decent size sound system). I’ve actually been to a few events that are well on the way to this.

>”Rip it up and start again”.
It’s a nice catchphrase. I don’t see much evidence of the will or the ability abroad to do anything close to that. I see some people doing some very attractive rearrangements within the established vocabulary (most of the time there’s always that tinge of “mmm, niiiiiice… but haven’t I heard this before, really, honestly”). Nothing close to a tabula rasa, to the future shock of the now. That may come, I hope it will, but I’m not really sure how hunky-dory-ism is going to hasten its arrival.
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