Sunday, September 02, 2018

Let's dance

There was a time when this long-time lover of white men with guitars would have had no inclination whatsoever to listen to a podcast all about dance music and the culture surrounding it. However, my snobbish, dismissive attitude has gradually fallen by the wayside and my stance has softened over recent years. You can probably attribute the change to LCD Soundsystem (and to a lesser extent Fuck Buttons and Factory Floor), as well as to randomly attending a trance night back in 2014. So it was with genuine interest that I listened to Episode 32 of Sounding Bored for the perspective of a couple of friends with a long-term appreciation of dance.

The episode traces its origins in Chicago and Detroit, its movement from the underground to the mainstream and the curious phenomenon of the superstar DJ. David is certainly right to suggest that, in the US and the UK at least, club culture was in some respects a response to the political climate. The hedonistic aspect is undeniable (particularly in contrast to the rather dour late 80s indie scene - The Smiths, The Wedding Present, The Jesus & Mary Chain) but, rather than merely being mindless escapism, dance was actually form of protest music. It may not have had the direct sloganeering of punk, but it effectively performed the same function and prompted the same sort of moral panic among the establishment - as evidenced by the furore over Leah Betts' death and the Tory crackdown in the form of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, and its infamous reference to music "characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats".

David identifies four DJs in particular - Pete Tong, Carl Cox, Sasha and Paul Oakenfold - as pioneers who took dance music to the masses, though also makes a persuasive case for the importance of Madonna as a finger-on-the-pulse artist who brought dance trends to a much wider pop audience. He has a riposte to anyone like the twentysomething me who scoffs at the idea of DJs being considered as artists, pointing to the difficulty of cueing up records to match keys and beats seamlessly, and the skill needed to take an audience on a journey by taking the temperature of the room and improvising in real time. It's worth adding that in one sense the DJs were to all intents and purposes the performers, in that many of the white-label tracks they spun were never actually performed live by their creators.

The transition from underground to mainstream did inevitably take its toll, though. In the late 80s, dance culture was like a utopian antithesis to Thatcher's Britain - all about solidarity and community rather than individualism, egalitarianism rather than inequality, outward-looking internationalism rather than narrow-minded nationalism. By the era of the superstar DJs and the enormous superclubs they played (Cream, Gatecrasher, Ministry Of Sound, Godskitchen), a rampant neoliberalism was at work: hefty door prices, VIP areas, dress codes, corporate branding. Those early ideals became corrupted, and a laddish culture crept in.

That era may be largely over, but what Rob and David don't discuss on the podcast is that dance music hasn't gone away - it's simply retreated back underground, making way for pop and rap to rule the roost. Dance culture certainly isn't dead - not even in its original forms. The Criminal Justice Act may have been specifically designed to stop illegal gatherings, but it hasn't succeeded. Raves still take place within the M25 as well as further afield. A few years back, some of my friends regularly used to head into the Welsh countryside for all-night sessions, and last night I found myself in what is effectively an unlicensed club right in the centre of Cardiff. There might not have been much of a dancefloor, and there were no glowsticks - but the warehouse setting and convivial atmosphere would have been familiar to any survivors from the late 80s acid house scene.

No comments: