Post with 4 notes
For a media outlet everyone likes to insist has slid into irrelevancy somewhere around the time people were still using 56k modems to upload to the ‘tubes, Rolling Stone still seems to carry a lot of cachet. Otherwise, why would anyone entertain a larger conversation on one of deadmau5’s polemics than they usually do? But no, deadmau5’s statements about the fallacy of a truly live, spontaneously constructed EDM performance, mentioned in his interview and later expounded upon in a blog post right here on Tumblr, continue to reverberate throughout the interwebs, inspiring tactful disputes between him, A-Trak and Skrillex and giving everyone an ideal opportunity to give a good speech o pieces n what happens next. However, I initially wasn’t going to weigh in on it. People have been disputing this issue since the early ’90s - a very old argument between Moby and the alt.raves usergroup over the use of pre-recorded material in his live show at that time shows those arguments could get pretty heated. Yet they don’t change, so for me, they don’t really amount to much.
What finally slapped my backside to write this is a piece recently penned by my former editor over at Club Systems International (later Club World)/Billboard dance music columnist Kerri Mason’s piece “Press Play? Hit Start.” It touched a nerve amongst both music industry professionals as well as EDM newcomers with her autobiographical treatise on the towering influence a DJ - in her case, longtime NYC EDM legend Danny Tenaglia, who started out himself as a Larry Levan devotee at the Paradise Garage - can wield over his flock. I’ve never talked to Kerri about religion, but I wouldn’t be surprised, judging from this piece, if she was raised Roman Catholic. Replace the Pope with Danny and the Holy See with Vinyl, and presto - you’ve just sold out Giants Stadium.
While it’s a seductive narrative, and it means well, it ultimately does dance music a great disservice. I, too, have been a dance music lifer since my very first warehouse party in ‘91. And I want anyone, especially the young people who will inherit this world from me and her, to know this: the most powerful and transformative experiences and lessons this movement has shown me have almost always taken place well outside of the nightclubs and the selfish agendas they serve. They’ve happened at the raves and festivals where the opportunity to create the social vistas EDM enables can be put into practice. And as deadmau5 so rightly said, those social vistas are ultimately created by the audience who attends, not some overpaid DJ or producer. We forget this at our gravest peril.
You see, dance music had to break through loads of ugly cultural programming to get to me. Music subcultures in the ’80s, when I was a teenager, could be quite provincial, and if you were partial to punk, which I was, disco sucked, end of story. Goth and industrial were cool, but anything else outside of those confines was pure pop and pure pap. When I finally got to NYC in the early ’90s, the era of floating clubs like Mars as well as Michael Alig’s Disco 2000 was in full swing, but I had just escaped private school. Barricades, dress codes and elitist, contemptuous attitudes were something I saw a lot of in my teenage years, and they don’t tend to bring out the best in people. And to top it off, I didn’t drink, and to this day, I still don’t. So what the hell did they have to offer me?
What brought me into the mix were the raves, which took place outside of the nightclub’s stifling confines and rigidly enforced class distinctions. I can still remember seeing the acronym PLUR for the first time online in a discussion on the events on a Usenet group (for you young’uns, these groups were essentially the precursors to BBSes, where you could initiate a discussion amongst other, likeminded sorts.) When I discovered what it stood for - Peace, Love, Unity and Respect - it literally blew me away that dance music could allow for these sorts of values, and that there were people in that world that thought in terms of community and family. Before I embraced the music or became a part of the larger industry, I fell in love with that notion. I never would have become part of the scene if it were not present.
Now that I’m 41, I’m long past the point in believing that EDM is going to turn the world into a perfect place. Much of the initial euphoria raves rode in on back in the ’80s and ’90s came alongside many huge cultural shifts, from the rise of personal computing to Communism’s fall and the emergence of the internet, that also brought with them intimations of a new utopian world order that never quite materialized. Yet over time, many of the dance music lifers, especially those who have gone pro, have long since forgotten about what really brought them out to the parties in the first place. That’s understandable - oftentimes, most people initially coming to these parties don’t really know exactly what it is they’re looking for. But they definitely know it when they see it and feel it for the first time. I can still remember a rave promoter many years ago in Baltimore during a press conference marveling about how “in a world where people are scratching and clawing at each other to get ahead, that a few thousand people can get together to just… relate.” This is especially important for young people entering a phase of Western civilization replete with jobless recoveries, crushing student loans, global warming and austerity programs designed to bury them alive. Faced with the stress of leaving their own familial units and heading into such uncertainty, many of them will seek out and create family units of their own. Whether it’s the Rainbow Family, the Juggalo Family or the Trance Family, those bonds are of paramount importance for young people in particular. Those people you share them with are not just fun people to get wasted and have sex with. They are a vital tribal component to one’s own survival.
Eventually, I went to Burning Man in 1999, urged on by many like Simon Rust Lamb who would later take on leadership positions within the EDM industry (in Simon’s case, he eventually became COO of Insomniac, while my former ‘04 campmates Josh and Jesse Flemming would go on to found the Do Lab). And while Burning Man is a huge social experiment I’m not about to fully unpack right now, I have personally seen creative ideas launched on the playa, from fashion to fire and lighting and toys, enter into the nightlife/festival industry over the years without the kids who adopt them ever guessing that many of them were initially given away in their ideal environment. After all, nothing is ever given away in nightlife, unless it’s for promotional purposes. But Burning Man discovered long ago that spaces have to be reserved in culture for activities that are not driven strictly by top-down decisions and profit motivations. The audience itself needs to feel that the experience is theirs, and they possess a direct stake in its growth. Otherwise, the gathering grows stale and people move on.
On the first night of EDC, I entered in from the artists gate and ran into a burner, who, like many people I know, is now finding gainful employment at the festivals and parties the EDM boom has funded. Yet he warned me before I entered onto the Speedway that I would be entering the “default world” - meaning that I would be seeing the same wasteful, corporate pageant we are often subjected to in America, even though it looked like Burning Man and many of the art installations, like the massive daisy and the Flaming Lotus Girls sculptures, were initially developed for the playa. And sure enough, that’s what I saw: macho bros leading around scantily clad neon-hued girls around as if they were on leashes, yellow-shirted event staff carting away mounds of trash in plastic carts and throngs participating in a spectacle that would have given Guy Debord a coronary.
But that’s what you get when you relocate the cultural base of EDM to a city like Las Vegas, a city that underneath the vapid glitz of the Strip groans along with the rest of Nevada under the weight of 12% unemployment, graduates the least amount of high school students of any state in the union and possesses acres of unused retail space in half-empty strip malls. I conducted an interview with former Romney ‘07 campaign staffer for VICE while I was in town, and I still remember feeling a chill when he told me “Being this bad is our new normal.” That’s why this struggling resort town has named the time we’re here EDC Week, I thought. They take us in because they have no choice.
This is a big reason why burners resent ravers and clubbers. Back in ‘99, a group of ravers hosted a huge village on the playa called Boomtown, but you haven’t seen it there since, as it left mounds of trash and drug emergencies in its wake. Still, I think it’s a mistake to abandon these newcomers. They’re coming to these events wide open, and if they’re just watching the DJ and all the pretty lights like it was some big television, then IMO, we’re just training them to be mindless sheep, passive accomplices in the destruction of our planet.
There is another way, though. Again, I am from a culture that emphasizes the creativity and agency of the individual and the collective over the machinations of a corporation, but then again, so is a significant chunk of EDM’s heritage. And the good news is that there are still parties, events and festivals going on all over this country and elsewhere that operate just like the ones I once went to, and there always will be. (Take, for example, this recent listing by socal-raves, which has been running nonstop for decades, and will be long after the investment bankers and Live Nation have moved on to the next hype-fueled financial bubble.) You may never have heard of any of the DJs or producers that are playing, and quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that YOU showed up, and that you are playing an active role in the creation of your community. And it is all of you, not Danny Tenaglia, Michael Rupino, Pasquale Rotella or myself, that ultimately holds the fate of the dancefloor in your hands and your hearts. Don’t ever forget this.