Q's by Scott Woods
Monday, April 1, 2019
writing about dance music
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 (triplets, flams, syncopation, tresillo, clave, 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 magic works…
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 the Riff…
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 or suggestively.”
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 audience’s bodies.
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 dancer?
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 Riff though…
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 spectacle.
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 Sasha-with-balls tip…
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 it.
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).