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Friday, August 29, 2003

++ Dance Music Is Dead

++ This column should probably be a commemorative top 10 list of famous last-calls and club closings — like the one at Barcelona's Moog club a few weeks ago where the staff, in the effort to expel several hundred sweating party-goers loath to leave the sounds of DJ Hell, Miss Kittin and Tiga, doused the crowd with cold water — since the news has come down from on high: dance music is dead.

That's right, it's all over. Sell the turntables, hawk the pirate transmitter, and for God's sake, get rid of the glowsticks, because dance music is dead. (Wait, getting rid of the glowsticks is a good idea anyway.) But seriously, it's kaput, finito, over and done with, the kibosh has been put — at least according to Alex Petridis, pop critic of London newspaper The Guardian, and his colleague Audrey Gillan.

"[D]ance music, the genre that revolutionised people's clothing, drinking, drug-taking and socialising habits beyond recognition, is battling for survival," writes Gillan in an article chronicling the fall of the superstar DJ and the megaclub, while Petridis — in an article unsubtly titled "Cynical, exploitative, and banking on ecstasy to mask the rip-off" — even more grimly notes that rave culture, born "in a burst of drug-fueled egalitarian idealism... swiftly became a relentless money-making exercise marked by blatant and unattractive cynicism." (This, presumably, in contrast to mainstream rock and hip-hop, which long ago exposed themselves as such.)

++ Where, o where, do I even begin. Part of me thinks it's not worth responding, simply because their arguments are so comically bad. But still, there's a question of accountability: The Guardian is one of the world's newspapers of record, not to mention a perennial favorite among left-leaning readers looking for an alternative source of news and commentary. The record, then, needs to be set straight.

Sometimes I wish — generally when the rent check comes due, and Amoeba is paying pennies for the crap CDs I'm selling back — that I got paid to write tripe like this, because it seems so, well, easy. Step one: come up with off-the-cuff allegation masked as cultural criticism (like, say, "dance music is dead"). Step two: skip step three (which normally requires the assiduous reporter or critic to look for supporting facts). Step four: make shit up!

It's not that Petridis' and Gillan's facts are wrong, necessarily. Gillan lays out the statistics: sales of Mixmag, Britain's "most popular dance magazine," have declined by 30%. Ministry of Sound's in-house publication closed after seeing its circulation fall below 50,000. Superclub Cream is closed, while Gatecrasher has gone from weekly to monthly. (Not mentioned in the article is that Muzik, which actually contained journalism and criticism, as opposed to Mixmag's and Ministry of Sound's endless parade of boosterism and self-promotion, also closed up shop this year — a far graver concern for people who actually like to read and think about dance music.) (Full disclosure: I once contributed to Muzik.)

No, the problem is with the inferences they draw — and the prejudices with which they pre-load their facts in the first place.

++ Petridis' thesis is that dance music's canny entrepreneurs-cum-titans-of-empire, like the superclubs and labels behind sub-par, branded DJ compilations (which I railed against last year), have exploited their fans more "brazenly" than any pop culture movement before. (I'm not sure exactly where mainstream rock/hip hop promoters like Ticketmaster fit into the picture, but I'll let it slide for now.) "It was as if the DJs and club promoters who 'ran' dance music simply assumed that audiences were too befuddled by the drug ecstasy to realise they were being ripped off." But from here he makes a bizarre leap into formal analysis: "As the dance genre now proves, they were wrong. The very nature of dance music — utilitarian, disposable, designed to provoke an immediate reaction on the dance floor rather than any lasting effect — militated against major artists emerging."

This, it seems, is Petridis' real argument against dance music; fortunately for us, it can be broken down as easily as it's thrown up, like a flimsy stage at a third-rate rock fest that was rained out anyway.

Dance music is utilitarian. Presumably, by this Petridis means that it's generally used for moving bodies and channeling emotions. Point taken, and we can proudly slot it alongside tribal musics, Baroque court compositions, hot jazz, and even Raymond Scott's cartoon soundtracks. (Anyway, whence this disparagement of the "utilitarian"? Aspiring for transcendence is all very well and fine — but Petridis' fear of the utilitarian, of the intentional, sounds like a strangely jealous attempt to keep aesthetic pleasure out of the hands of mere mortals like ourselves, with our quotidian rhythms and everyday desires. God forbid someone should set out purposefully to make moving music and actually achieve the goal.)

Dance music is disposable, designed to provoke an immediate reaction on the dance floor rather than any lasting effect. As anyone who's ever experienced a "club classic" in context can attest, this simply makes no sense: just check Kelefa Sanneh's excellent account of Carl Craig spinning his own Paperclip People track "Throw" to a howling crowd, and ask yourself how the experience could possibly differ from a stadium exploding in anticipation at the first chords of, say, The Who's "Substitute," or Radiohead's "Creep," or any other anthem since popular music discovered nostalgia. The current vogue for vintage acid tracks, early ragga-jungle, and even speed garage (reportedly going under the name "old school," in a curious example of the acceleration of nostalgia — after all, the music's only six or seven years old) only goes to show — perhaps even to the surprise of those of us within dance music — just how durable the canon has proven itself.

Dance music's site-specific nature prevented the emergence of major artists. This is straight poppycock. "In 15 years, only a handful of dance acts have found longterm success: they include The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and The Prodigy." This might be true if you define "success" as top 10 hits; but anyone taking a more realistic — dare I say, utilitarian — view of the concept might consider the hundreds of DJs and producers that earn a comfortable living (no worse, certainly, than pouring coffee, working in a call center, toiling away in middle management with no hope of advancement, or any of the other numerous jobs that corporate capitalism has given us) making records and performing for crowds hundreds to thousands strong worldwide.

++ The main problem with both critics' assessments is their conflation of a particular, hyper-commercialized sector within the dance music market with dance music as a whole — and of the dance music market itself with electronic music genres, which, as aesthetic propositions, have no causal relation to the economy. "'Dance is not dead, but it's resting,'" assesses former Mixmag editor Tom Whitwell, like an executive attempting to sugarcoat bad news for shareholders. Resting? I don't bloody well think so — not judging by the dozens of excellent house and techno releases I've bought this year, nor the excellent 2003 roster of established labels like Warp and Rephlex, nor the continual proliferation of groundbreaking upstart labels like Soot, Seed, Circus Company, and so on, and so on.

Petridis does concede that Dizzee Rascal's Boy in da Corner offers "proof that the genre can still produce some startling and groundbreaking music." Good on you, Al — maybe you should leave the business stories to the finance section, and use your position as pop critic to call out the fakers (like all those superstar DJs you keep harping on) and give support to promising artists like Dizzee. (One small point: to call him "east London garage act MC Dizzee Rascal" is a bit misleading — he did all the production on his album, in addition to rapping on it. It's a bit like calling Beck or Jim O'Rourke simply "singers," innit?)

"What seemed, 10 years ago, to be a sophisticated and stylish alternative to rock and indie music now just looks tawdry and uninviting," writes Petridis. For the fickle crowds who take their trend cues from the likes of the lifestyle press (and, apparently, The Guardian), this is perhaps true. And, sadly, there is plenty of evidence of this attitude both in the States and the UK, where the combined muscle of an opportunistic PR machine and a jaded press dictate mass opinion and obscure the reality of alternate tastes and tendencies. But analyses both quantitative (just look at the attendance figures for events as "elite" as Sonar and as "street" as Berlin's Love Parade) and qualitative (the screaming reception to Matthew Herbert dropping a classic Plastikman track in a recent San Francisco gig, to name only one example of a phenomenon visible nightly in a staggering number of clubs in every major city in the world) quickly make Petridis' argument look cruder than the simplest three-chord garage-rock rehash.

"As a youth cult, dance music seems to be in terminal decline," concludes Petridis, whipping himself to dizzy new heights of condescension. "And it has no one to blame but itself." And what of the media's responsibility to represent the true face of the phenomenon, without relegating it to a mere parenthetical or a sidebar? When Eminem spits, "Nobody listens to techno," he's either being confrontational or ignorant, depending on your perspective. Articles like Petridis', on the other hand, are something far worse: cynical, exploitative, and banking on hubris to mask the rip-off.


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