Dance Music’s So Called Progressiveness

Morgan Geist commented on a pretty scary NYT article on the commercial success of Electronic Dance Music.  For now i will leave the numerous serious problems with the article itself aside, and focus on the quote of a quote:

“Let’s remember a quote from a Detroit techno pioneer (possibly Jeff Mills) that I think of often: “At rock concerts, people scream when they hear something they know and have heard before. With techno, people scream when they hear something they’ve never heard before.”

While on the surface it rings true, the much applauded and alleged “progressiveness” and “open mindedness” of electronic dance music culture, now nearly 30 years on, is debatable to say the least. A more accurate description would be:

“techno crowds scream when they hear something they’ve never heard before, but which bangs exactly in the same manner as something which they have heard many, many times before.”

By now, to me at least, a lot of the innovative, genre-defying, unconventional and potentially insurrectionary energy of many forms of Electronic Dance Music such as house and techno has solidified and genrified into a stagnant, closed minded and xenophobic conservatism which still worships exactly the same few sacred recordings: for example, you will find ZERO Acid Techno since the release of Phuture’s Acid Trax* which pushes the genre further, in any significant ways, by even 1 centimeter.  Not that there is anything wrong with screaming at the recognition of a sound**, we are all creatures of habit after all, but if you play some EDM which is objectively, formally speaking at least equally as “banging”, “deep” and danceable as Jeff Mills, but which is truly rhythmically and sonically fresh, truly boundaries pushing in the context of western clubs in 2012, say, some Kuduro or South African Electro, at a techno party a lot of people will head for the door.  (i know from many personal experiences).

The illusion that Electronic Music is somehow “inherently, by its very nature, more progressive” than anything that came before will not benefit anyone, least of all electronic music makers or lovers — in the history of modern western Louis Armstrong was much more revolutionary than Derrick May.  But musicology aside, in the most-boring-argument-ever between “real music” and electronic music, if the EDM heads want their bleeps to be taken seriously, just like “real instruments”, they need to also, at the same time, realize and admit that just because it is done with synths and drum machines don’t make it necessarily any more wild and crazy and new and “futuristic”** than anything else.

* Actaully, now that i think about it, i do miss playing acid techno a hell of a lot.  Maybe will get back into it, nostalgically, a little bit :)

** This quote of a quote also embodies the kind of out-dated modernism typical in the serotonin depleted rhetoric of Electronic Dance Music — the self proclaimed but in fact disingenuous obsession with newness actually sets up a reactionary and conservative dichotomy between “new” and “old”, in which the essential truth of the nature of creative progress, that the ideas which drive the discovery and development of the new always arise from the old, is sidelined and dismissed.  Techno routinely wheels out the ideas of visual artists from 1910 – 1930 as if they were at all original or even relevant in the 21st Century; the geometric minimalist forms and surfaces betray a wholly retrograde consciousness.

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