15 June 2011
the Left and it's relationship with dance music
For many commentators, dance music is despicable, and its popularity only makes it more so. Of course it might be expected that the right would see dance culture as dangerous, or banal, or both. But the left too has failed to engage adequately with it.
For an older generation of intellectuals dance music's anonymity and hedonism can seem regressive. Yet dance music generates enormous credibility amongst those still committed to the notion of 'oppositional' popular culture.
How did dance music culture come to be understood as counter-hegemonic - as a resistance, as contrary to the prevailing fashion, especially in intellectual matters?
For the left, shift had to take place in the way the politics of popular culture were understood. A developing analysis of the relationship between pleasure, dance and politics in black music took place. This new politics of dance drew on feminist and gay activism's emphasis on the body as a potential site of 'resistance'. 'The politics of dancing' (1) slowly transmuted into a celebration of dancefloor sexuality. These new theories found new kinds of authenticities in dance music, around not only class but in connection with sexuality, gender and ethnicity too.
So, when the dance boom hit Britain in 1987-8, dance music had already come to be construed as oppositional. The terms 'rave' and 'acid house’ drew attention to discourses which putatively gave dance spaces an added radical edge in the late 1980s. For many commentators, 'rave' confirmed the subversive populism of dance.
Accompanying the well documented panic in the UK media at the time was an especially strong Utopian discourse of collectivism and equality within club and free party culture, which stressed the breaking-down of ethnic, class and gender differences. Dance events had long been viewed as rituals of togetherness and inclusion, but the new dance culture went further, and the rhetoric at least was genuinely democratising.
Some dancers attribute the feeling of unity and love entirely to the physiological effects of ecstasy. Such pharmaceutical determinism ignores the crucial role of subcultural discourse in framing such events, but there can be little doubt that ecstasy did help to bring about a strong sense of collective abandon on the burgeoning scene.
Musical cultures associated with British youth have had a complex relationship with political movements. The left in Britain has had a much more distant relationship with dance music culture. They have failed to develop an adequate understanding of dance music culture. The cultural left saw the significance of dance music in terms of innovation or as a matter of a new collectivism amongst club audiences. This focus on audiences was characteristic of a more general movement amongst intellectuals to reinvigorate left politics by looking to consumption rather than production, to leisure and play rather than work locating its politics mainly in what happens in clubs and raves - the sites of consumption. This has popularised a sophisticated aesthetics of the body.
Many academics have commented on the intense hedonism of club crowds. The postmodernists read this hedonism, which they term 'disappearance', using the fashionable jargon of Jean Baudrillard, as offering more threat than mere oppositional activism to the established order. This is because by refusing the whole idea of meaning, subcultures engaged in such regression refuse even to acknowledge authority. (2)
But when researchers started to bother asking dance audiences what they thought, it turned out that ravers saw the new dance culture as anything but 'meaningless'. (3) The political left's has treated dance music as a mere soundtrack for activism. They ignore how the music sounded, what these sounds implied about the culture, and how the culture was made, sold and circulated. Sarah Thornton’s critique of ‘moral panic theory’ (4) said that rather than providing a threat to youth subcultures, unfavourable coverage by 'mainstream' media actually sustains them, by generating credibility amongst potential audiences. Moral panic theory, says Thornton, failed to take account of the way competing niche media (such as the dance music press) use tabloid outrage to muster what she calls 'subcultural capital'. Such coverage can help to generate consent for the intervention of the state i.e. 1990 Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act. And Criminal Justice Act of 1994. The aim of these new measures was primarily to control a new culture of free parties, political protest and 'alternative' lifestyle.
There is reluctance on the part of the academic cultural left to engage with issues of production. This at a time when the commodification of culture and information is becoming an increasingly important part of the strategies of globalising multinationals. Those drawn to dance music culture feel strongly that its methods of production are counter-hegemonic. That so many dance fans are interested in the notion of 'underground' and 'alternative' production is significant: it suggests that dance music's utopianism is not confined to the club or the field. There's a fundamental subversiveness at the heart of dance music. No longer is dance music something produced and - crucially - owned by musicians recording 'original' tracks based on melodic and harmonic principles.
Dance is more concerned with texture than melody. There is no 'original'. Dance music can be imitated even co-opted, but it remains, by nature, subversive.' What emerges here is the idea that dance music production challenges notions of authorship and originality. Remixing acts as a subtle deconstruction of the notion of the 'original'. (5) Remixing can best be thought of as an attempt to extend authorship, rather than to challenge or disperse it.
Then there is the increased access to music-making allowed by the 'bedroom studio'. The emphasis on obscurity and secrecy in dance subcultures was always convertible into a form of elitism, an attempt at distinction this investment in secrecy is a mark of a male-dominated culture of connoisseurship, rather than a sign of democratic egalitarianism. (6)
The rising credibility of dance music academics and journalists are able to portray the compelling rhythm lines of house and techno as radical. Sequencing equipment meant that these repetitive beats could be reproduced relatively cheaply. Coverage in magazines of the speed and ease with which house-style records could be made encouraged musicians to 'have a go' themselves. So there is certainly some truth in claims that dance music has brought about a new era of ‘Do-It-Yourself’ music-making. But the bedroom and the cottage are romantic images of autonomous production, which evade the dialectical (definition: the art or practice of arriving at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments) complexities of music as a commodity. The notion of the bedroom studio draws powerfully on the Internet-driven technological utopianism prevalent amongst the US libertarian left. It neglects the importance of distributing and publicising these cultural goods to achieve significance beyond a small, self-contained niche. Dance music always has had a profound ambivalence about being popular, about being a mass form.
For cultural left commentators, the post-house British dance scene was validated by its roots in the work of (often gay) black American DJs, and by the supposedly high degree of racial integration at raves during its 'golden age' (1988-1990).
Meanwhile, in another lineage of dance music culture, a mystical antiintellectualism prevails. The most absurd ramblings of neo-hippie rave culture portray the DJ and other artists as magical shaman, rather than people who earn a living through cultural communication. Audiences are 'tribes' - and the preindustrial term reflects a sentimental nostalgia amongst its users.
But more attention will have to be paid to unfashionable issues about commodification, and the place of cultural production within changing forms of profit-making. As the cultural industries become an increasingly vital part of the strategies of global corporations and national governments, it will be all the more important to understand where emerging cultural producers are pinning their hopes of developing alternatives.
(1) Barthes and semiology, Hebdige and subculture, Kristeva and psychoanalytic feminism.
(2) Steve Redhead (ed), Rave Off, Aldershot 1993.
(3) Maria Pini, 'Women and the Early British Rave Scene', in Angela McRobbie (ed.), Back to Reality? The Social Experience of Cultural Studies, Manchester 1997.
(4) Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures, Cambridge 1995.
(5) Simon Watney, 'Cover Story', Artforum, October 1994.
(6) 'The Booth, the Floor and the Wall: Dance Music and the Fear of Falling', Public 8,1993.
Grateful thanks to: The cultural politics of dance music by David Hesmondhalgh