"there are immaturities, but there are immensities" - Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion)>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
"the fear of being wrong can keep you from being anything at all" - Nayland Blake >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> "It may be foolish to be foolish, but, somehow, even more so, to not be" - Airport Through The Trees
Thursday, February 21, 2019
writing about music #5
specifically, writing about dance music
aka my replies to a 2001 survey by rockcritics.com of "disco critics"
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?
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 (tresillo, clave, 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
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
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
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.
2. What do you try and get at when writing about dance
music: beats, textures, words, voices — or some combination thereof?
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
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.
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?
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.
5. What are the biggest assumptions and misconceptions about
dance music that a person writing about it must challenge or at least consider?
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.
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
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…
7. What do you think is the most important development to
have taken place in dance music in the last ten years?
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 complexity of accents and nuances far exceeding any real drummer’s
capability…it does mean the music sometimes loses the power of a simple Big
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
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.
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.)
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…
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?)
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
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.
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
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).