Friday, February 11, 2005

Music and message

Recent “interblog action” on the state of play of Dance Inc, incorporating House Holdings, Techno Securities and Breakbeat Futures, inspired some thinking. It strikes me that we are in a similar situation to the mid-80s, dance as cottage industry, underground cool, but they were arrived at through asymmetrical paths related to socio-economic development.

Early-late 80s house, as well as non-rap electro and techno, was developed primarily by marginalised black and/or gay men in completely alternative sets, people after alternative settings to escape the reality of exclusion. The music was primitive futurism – the blunt tool of 4/4 was laced with sentiment about the future or escape or the cyberworld, gleaned from Toffler or Phillip K Dick or just instinctively felt, because this was preferable to the Stark Reality. The lingering disco scene was also escape, but continued to prefer the hedonist release of a more humanised disco. This was anti-market business. Nobody got rich from this clandestine enterprise, disused urban venues were hired at minimal costs, vinyl produced on dirtcheap presses. Nevertheless the white mainstream, particularly in the UK, the land of the great referrers, co-opted the sound.

As the 80s ended we entered a post-political world. Without a cold war ideology of MAD fear, Kapitalism realised an expansion of products and consumers was necessary to keep its momentum going (as K-Punk says it’s always changing, the incessant roadworks the most basic symbol of that. “What are you improving”. “I dunno, but we’ve been told to spend our budget”). So black (or later ‘urban’) and gay cultures were officially waved through into the mainstream. Please enter on our terms. The process parodied identity, but now the impetus and the need for whole swathes of society to escape underground was now greatly diminished. More people are enfranchised. This results in the grotesque parade of visual r&b/bling, which is all about a black culture that realises it’s getting paid and is going to make damn sure that everybody knows about it. Why should ‘they’ care about being a major label plaything any more than the rest of us work in mediated industries and buy Burberry and Whoppers? Earlier, as house and techno went overground, the original beta testers toured the world to deservedly get payday for their R&D. The music and the culture – catalysed by British hedonism - became pavlovian. Riffs got bigger, venues got bigger, an “industry” developed. People who’d blunted reality at the Hac in the late 80s were amazed that the four-four beast still lived, but everyone wanted their moment. Dance is still so big that the entire mainstream press can review the Chemical Brothers LP as evidence that it’s alive or dead, without realising that anybody with a depth of knowledge of techno and house has seen them as irrelevant since, ooh, they changed their name at least.

There was a boom but never a bust of Dance Inc. Because an explosion creates thousands more fragments. A vital contingent development was in technology, both in the means of production of music (Reason is apparently the new bomb of music software) and the online means of disseminating the files and the buzz about it. What we have now is a healthy underground in a modern, cybernetic context. This is why genres like electro-house can come along and still be relatively fresh. In infinite space and time we will never have every sonic cadence covered. And ever more sophisticated means of production/reception mean it can prosper while satisfying an audience of only a few thousand worldwide; rather than a few thousand in Chicago. Black or gay men still make wonderful music, but no longer as part of a homogenous movement. There is less need for that identification now. Now the choice for Consumer no 1 – white western male (who constitutes the majority of the blogosphere) – is as mind-blowing as some of the music being made. In fact, as the update mails hit the inbox from the record shop portals, I have to choose NOT to engage with some of this output – I like surfing on the surface of every pool not drowning in one.

Kap is so accommodating now – look at all those people who now COMBINE the normal life of working to pay the bills and have a second life as a producer or musician. Can’t imagine Dylan doing that. Or Ron Hardy. I can write this here now as my work allows for creative downtime. Kap is so diverse too. With such a multitude of genres – eg, early hardcore, Ixxy & Sharky hardcore, new hardcore, eg – one thing is clear: Dance is not dead. Dip in to taste. But now we are just making music or consuming it. No protest, no escape... Grime has rage, but its testosterone hustle is not against the machine. Without much of a context (rave lost its next-level potential, eg), dance is pure commodity fetishism. As the fin de siecle 19th century writers and painters talked about l’art pour l’art, for us now it is mostly music and rhymes for their own sake. [Perhaps, as the west despite its wishes continues to absorb diverse ethnic minorities and subcultures are created, in a generation’s time perhaps we will see music being formed out of the genuine margins again].

What’s interesting is how nominally ‘dance’ sounds fertilise with the non-dance microscenes of post-rock, illbient, dance sounds not used in dance ways, etc. This is probably because they are still seen to be progressive. Whether as producers or consumers of these sounds, there is an implication that these scenes are more progressive or modern than the mainstream. But, though possibly slightly more discerning, we should be aware we are playing the consumption game in virtually the same way.
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