A Resolution for Us

Hi, America. This year is supposed to be all about "change," right? Permit me one suggestion. Please change this:
There's a lot of encoded ideology in this goofy little TV spot. The point, obviously, is the binary opposition between masculine Middle American Greg and the flamboyantly effeminate European "techno twins." Ever hear the word "eurotrash," clearly the absent center of this ad's discursive world? An ugly term, as cruelly smug as the equivalent classist slurs that affluent liberal Americans use for their working-class countrymen, and as distasteful as the implicit cultural heterosexism that accompanies it here.

No one could blame Europeans if they accused us of being rather chauvinistic in our characterizations of European ravers. But I doubt they very often do, because they know that the joke is on us; indeed, the American role in the creation of dance music as a medium of cultural production, exchange, and reception is well known everywhere but America. I do not use the word "medium" rather than "genre" lightly; it's only by overlooking the DJ model of musical performance, absolutely crucial to dance music's development, that the majority of the credit for techno can be granted to Kraftwerk, for house to Italo-Disco. Besides, no disrespect to German and Italian techno ancestors, but for every Ralf and Florian there was a Larry and Fonce, for every Giorgio Moroder a George Clinton, and for all of them an Ikutaro Kakehashi--in other words, techno doesn't have a Mississippi Delta, as in a commonly drawn parallel. Its origin is international, fragmentary, and its subsequent proliferation equally so, but its historical nexus is the American midwest.

Today, it's strange that "techno" has become an umbrella term of some kind; the pummeling, invariant, obnoxiously "euphoric" sound that is too often associated with the word in the U.S.--refer to Exhibit A, above--is trance. The way most Americans use the word "techno" would be akin to calling Jack Johnson and Coldplay hardcore punk, or something. As Simon Reynolds has pointed out,
The urgent distinctions rock fans take for granted--that Pantera, Pearl Jam, and Pavment operate in separate aesthetic universes--make sense only if you're already a participant in the ongoing rock discourse. The same applies to dance music: step inside and the genre-itis begins to make sense.
What is it, exactly, about dance music that makes the majority of Americans so unwilling to step inside? Perhaps its aforementioned cosmopolitanism is irreconcilable with the widespread ideology of American exceptionalism? Perhaps its inauthentic, cyborgian subject positions are too antihumanist, too contrary to the whole "folksy" thing that the McCain/Palin campaign made scarily evident? Perhaps its anti-auratic network of exchange is too threatening to commodity reification and the spectacular model of monopoly capitalism? To be honest, none of these are entirely convincing, given American culture's complex historical engagement with all of these issues.

A frequent point of criticism of dance music by Americans--or rather, a frequent object of ridicule--is the beat that forms its foundation. The base to its superstructure, if you will (I would). By this I mean the BOOFTA or TAKA or OONCE or [INSERT ONOMATOPOEIC TRANSCRIPTION HERE] thump of the bass drum that is the rhythmic engine of house and techno. This beat is, of course, a legacy of disco, and is what has permitted the style of mixing that makes performance of this music so dynamic and exciting. What's critical about this subbeatomic division is the way it deconstructs the measure of western music, splitting it into discrete, equivalent bytes of rhythmic information. One is no longer of primary importance, nor are two and four subordinate. The new rhythm is not 4/4 but 1/1: a new musical language, with its elements running in code at a bitrate somewhere between 120 and 130. This is the sound of the information age.

So is there just something un-American about Roland, a Japanese immigrant?

Actually. Consider recently released year-end statistics on music consumption for the year. (Those of you delusional enough to think that chart music doesn't matter should report directly to David Ramsey's remarkable article on Lil' Wayne and schedule a follow-up appointment with jane dark.)

At the end of 2007, Rich Juzwiak noted the resurgence of house beats in pop and R&B, and regardless of contrarian interjections, the trend has persisted. On many key tracks of the past year, from the enjoyable (Rihanna's "Don't Stop The Music," aptly described by Juzwiak as "so housey, it might as well come with its own gay-pride float," Kanye West's magnificent "Paranoid," Ne-Yo's "Closer," even Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me") to the ordinary (Rihanna's "Disturbia," Chris Brown's "Forever," Britney Spears's "Womanizer") to the repulsive (Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold," Coldplay's "Viva La Vida," Kevin Rudolf's "Let it Rock"), it's been time to jack. In fact, the whole of Kanye's fascinating 808's and Heartbreak--produced almost entirely with analog synths, that dystopian electro voice, and our favorite drum machine--evokes electronic music in a more reflective, domestic manner.

Let's hope these really are signs of change--something like what Nick Sylvester has speculated on in a post about Hercules and Love Affair, a potential progression in which
industry moves away from (for lack of better) rock-type commerce (event-as-spectacle, non-functional one-way products, more overhead and initial investment, fewer but bigger acts) to something like a dance-type commerce (non-spectacle events, functional decentralized and debureaucratized two-way musicmaking, less overhead and forcefed "artist development" more but smaller acts).Link
Author as producer, from work to text, as the O.G.'s would say.

This year, with Juan Atkin's seminal Classics compilation, his mind-blowing Deep Space album (both as Model 500), and Derrick May's potent Innovator compilation finally reissued on CD and mp3, with some of Carl Craig's greatest productions collected on his excellent Sessions mix, and with the increasing infiltration of techno sensibilities into contemporary music both "alternative" and "mainstream," there's no excuse for all the bullshit anymore.

So fuck you, Greg.

(Americans with catching up to do should check out French documentary Universal Techno [Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4], British documentary Pump Up the Volume [Parts 1, 2, and 3], and look back to this mix of American jams that deal with American themes.)


  1. Damn! You're off to an incredible start here. Looking forward to more.

  2. A great read.

    I'm not sure i follow your broad assertion about the 'deconstruction of the western measure', but it is an interesting concept - perhaps you can offer more insight on this?

    These things are something I have often thought about as well, and you have made several interesting hypotheses: the subject position, cosmopolitan/cultural stigma, etc. (one time I was handing out fliers at a street corner and I explained to someone that I'd be playing house music, and he handed the flier back to me and said, "aw, man! that's gay music!".

    I think first and foremost the psychological barrier around dance music in the United States is a kind of mass cultural image sustained by the media and by bigotry (as in the video you posted).

    Cultures consist of a system of symbols and signs and as you have rightly pointed out, the oon-ts oon-ts oon-ts oon-ts is a very powerful and loaded symbol.

    I think at the core of this is a social-anthropological problem, and that is the fundamental human reaction to rhythm and numinous sounds. I think it's frighteningly easy to dance to this and when its unmistakable sound is heard, leads to a quick reaction. This reaction can be divided in a few ways due to different conditioning 1)immersion for those conditioned to dance music (within the psychological threshold) 2)amusement for those outside the psychological threshold who make sense of dance music by understanding it as a kind of novelty (the people who ask you to play daft punk - one more time at every party) 3)revulsion for those conditioned against dance music/culture (like the guy who knocks on the wall in my house every time I push the fader up)

    I would recommend the following reading on the social anthropological problems associated with rhythm and drumming:

    Needham, Rodney. Percussion and Transition. Man, Vol 2. No 4. (Dec 1967) pp 606-614

    Tuzin, Donald. Miraculous Voices: The Auditory Experience of Numinous Objects. Current Anthropology. Vol 25. No 5. (Dec 1984) pp 579-596

    I have to question Nick Sylvester's speculation on this 'industry movement'. It's kind of strange to say that anything is 'decentralized and debureaucratized' while using the word 'industry' in the same sentence.

    In dance music there is only a tendency towards the spectacle, whether you are talking about an Ed Banger show in MSG or Ricardo Villalobos at a theater in Naples...

    The internet has brought more standardization and hype to music than ever before: in the post-capitalist global consumer environment it has become nothing short of an epidemic.

    A curious thing has happened. Despite the fact that technology and education have advanced to the point where literally anyone has the ability to make things that sound like music, people are all deciding to make things the same thing! People all around the world cling more than ever to cultural conditioning and illusory symbolic structures that protect them from the hopeless and abysmal reality of the nothingness of which they are made.

    Nationalism, Globalism, Religious Fundamentalism, etc - all these isms - are the symbolic thought structures that cover up a miserable need to belong, to identify, to assert the self.

    True change and revolution is the radical destruction of the self, of the ideological structures, whether we are talking about spiritual matters or matters of music (they ought to be the same - they both are concerned with truth)

    As such, I don't believe we are seeing any signs of change, but rather a tighter form of cultural bondage restricting true creativity. The established 'industry' is nothing more than a recursive meta-reference, also known as a circle-jerk.

    This is a force of destruction, not a force of creation. I like to compare it to the catabolic process in biology. What we are experiencing now is a dominant catabolic process where music as a form of energy is deconstructed, broken down into tiny pieces, gift-wrapped, if you will, and consumed. This is the state of architecture as deconstructivism and eclectic postmodernism as it is the state of music and film - retrospective, parodical, referential, etc

    The opposite process of course is anabolic, that is it is creative. Anabolism is the creation of complex forms from raw energy - in short it is the creative process itself.

    When catabolic processes outweigh anabolic processes, excessive consumption occurs, and eventually death. When anabolic process outweigh catabolic processes we have growth, or life.

    So I believe the only way to shift this balance and to realize creativity on a larger scale is to destroy the cultural structures which thrive on consumption/destruction/compartmentalization/stratification/etc.

    Before we seek change with regard to dance music, I think we need to seek total revolution on an individual basis. Then, after this, dance music will change itself, it will unfold and grow in complexity naturally.

  3. hi anonymous. i think i know who you are, but do us all a favor and use your name, so everyone can follow the conversations that i hope we continue to have.

    to briefly address the very significant issues you raised (which will all come up again in the future, i'm sure):

    western music is typically based on cycles of 4 beats (forming measures) that repeat with a certain regularity; the typical rock beat, with bass drum on 1 and 3, snares on 2 and 4, and hi hats on every eighth is probably the most basic, common example. when we hear it, we know where we're going to be at the end of the bar. this is not to say dance music doesn't often apply a cyclical approach, but consider tracks with a rigorously minimalist aesthetic (e.g. robert hood, basic channel, etc.) in which no beat stands out from any other. there's no 1-2-3-4, it's an endless progression of ones. the rhythmic clarion call of funk was to be "on the one"--techno is the realization of this ethic in totality.

    as for sylvester's point, i think you're missing that it's a speculation on his part, a potentiality that remains unrealized. and certainly ed banger style junk and experimental chamber techno (c. craig and m. van oswald's recent collab also comes to mind) are exceptions; dance music generally disperses authorship amongst dj's and producers, complicates the relationship between performance and reception, and emphasizes the interactive engagement of dancers and psychonauts.

    where i think i may disagree with you can almost be marked down to one word--"individual." the idea of "total revolution on an individual basis," to my mind, is a contradiction in terms. recalling louis althusser's insistence that "ideology has no outside," i am deeply skeptical of the notion of the individual as autonomous and immune; it seems more reasonable to think that individuals are constituted BY the institutions and systems (apparatuses) in which they participate.

    this is only pessimistic if one takes views institutions as invincible monoliths, rather than as networks fraught with conflict and flux. a revolution (whatever that may actually mean) by definition calls for collectivity, of the kind that today only occurs in the networks of commerce. again, this is only bleak if you think capitalism is infallible.

    further, don't overlook that language is itself an institution that precedes individual involvement; it is the primary system constituting us as subjects. for this reason i tend to question any "sounds the same" generalizations like your "illusory symbolic structures." what would be left of us without them?


  4. shuja,

    thanks for your thoughtful response and the clarification. i really appreciate the sincerity and sophistication of this blog. i think it's off to a great start.

    let me be clear that i don't regard individuals are autonomous by any means. as i've said, i think the notion of the self is tricky and possibly dangerous. (ie who am i, what is my purpose, how important am i, who am i better than) i think the only meaningful existence is to be found in relationship with others.

    the problem with collective action is that it tends to merely substitute one system/formula with another. i suppose you could view these as stepping stones but i think immediate, actual revolution in every aspect of life is the only way to do it (in other words, be skeptical of everything, including skepticism itself :p)

    it is completely rational to say that individuals are constituted by the systems in which they participate. i guess what i am suggesting is that first step is to look behind the curtain and realize that it is an illusion, however necessary it might be to hide that terrifying silence, (certain types of plants and funguses have helped mankind to do this for a long time) but the silence remains either way.

    you make a great point about language. it is interesting that you come to such a conclusion without becoming too much more philosophical, i think this kind of silence is precisely the thing spiritualists have been seeking for ages - the only way 'outside' of ideology.

    i think music can penetrate outside (or inside, depending on how you look at it) of ideology. However, when music is loaded with several layers of symbolic systems it becomes rather confusing and distracting.

    Which reminds me of a point I had wanted to raise in my earlier post, but had forgotten:

    If I may speculate, I think this weird psychological boundary around dance music, this 'edge of the wood' could have something to do with anglo-saxon attitudes towards music (ie the song/hymn/anthem), and other latent repressive cultural conditions that came with the colonization of america.

    the funny thing is, in england and germany where the tradition and repression was the strongest, the people actually did manage cultural revolution, and it manifested itself in unbelievable ways: thousands of people tripping in cornfields dancing to the sound of malfunctioning circuits, etc

  5. damn, if i could get some responses like this... but i guess that would mean tat i would need to actually talk about something

  6. i agree that the revolution needs to happen on an individual basis. there's a difference between the values that are given importance in a genre of music due to shared culture and people simply trying to ape the sounds of a "formula" that seems so simple. the individuals need to look beyond the obvious and dig deep into the feeling of the music, only then can they create something that is at one time brand new and a result of their individuality as well as something that is based in a culture and resonates with people within that culture.

    i'm not so sure about the use of words to describe dance music, it always seems to fall short. but i do like the idea of "genre" names actually MEANING something (though to me, that something ends up being a style or approach moreso than a formula of sounds and structures), which is why i get angry when unrelated subgenres steal the names of things like "techno", "house", or "electro". those names accurately describe music made from a certain set of cultural norms and ideals.

    the good part about this is that culturally, all of these styles are not particularly far from hiphop and r&b. of course plenty of people simply consume that music instead of living within the culture that created it, but they can at least understand it a bit. i'm sure that something similar will happen with dance music (even on a mainstream level) as the "gayness" of house and disco that is undeniable fades into the past as gay culture seems to have largely abandoned those styles.

    at this point, mainstream hiphop mixtape deejays who really do nothing at all have some degree of fame so it doesnt seem far fetched that dance music deejays could one day have a profile that is similar. the idea of "artist" or "performer" doesn't seem to matter so much anymore even to the mainstream. they understand the idea of "the remix" pretty intuitively.