Unearthed: Scuba— Personality
Posted in Unearthed
JUST DANCE MUSIC
A lot of things in life are very techno 2 me. When I run, I have to push myself to focus on exactly what’s happening in the moment and make an effort to sustain it and remain engaged with it for as long as possible—that’s techno 2 me. The fact that the seasons occur in repetitive, predictable cycles is techno 2 me. The patience involved in sitting through a boring class or staying entertained throughout the entire duration of a long party is techno 2 me. Getting through 40-page readings about post-Marxist media theory without letting my eyes glaze over is techno 2 me.
But it took me quite a while to ~*connect*~ with techno the way that I do now, the same way that it took me a long time to figure out how to enjoy the stretches of downtime at parties and years to train myself to tap into the endurance and focus required for a long run. Techno and its close musical relatives can take some getting used to, and they’re easy to misunderstand. Take Tom Hummer and Jake Jackson, for example, two guys who do a series of video music reviews under the name Velocities in Music TV. A few months ago they tackled Personality, the third album by British DJ, producer, and label boss Scuba.
To watch VIMTV's critique unfold is to witness two dweebs explain how rock fans typically misunderstand dance music based on a few basic preconceptions that every born-again house or techno lover has to overcome. They’re the same misgivings I wrestled with throughout my ~*transformation*~ into a lover of stuff like airless Berghain techno, the laid-back jazz-tinged grooves of Detroit house, and the sputtering, visceral, arrhythmic beats of Hessle Audio’s future bass-techno-post-dubstep, and most of them can be located in a phrase Jackson uses at the beginning of his review: “Just dance music.”
“We’re not the biggest fans of just dance music,” Jackson says at the beginning of the review. That much is LOUD AND CLEAR from Jackson and Hummer’s complaints—not to mention their wardrobes. These lil nerd-os couldn’t get IN to the clubs Scuba plays in order to experience his music in what they consider to be its “context.” I know that’s bitchy to say, but the phrase “just dance music” pisses me right off. Here are some GIFs that express my initial reaction to the phrase “just dance music.” The general theme is “Hold up—what’s that supposed to mean?”
(Note Flavor Flav in the background of this one, he really makes it.)
The phrase “just dance music” implies that the kind of songs Scuba makes are inherently less valuable than others because they’re made for a specific purpose, and a petty, cheap purpose at that. “For what [Scuba] was going for, he did it well,” Hummer explains. “If you’re just setting out to make some fun dance music with some good builds, some good comedowns and all of that, then yeah, he achieved that. But is that really saying much? I just don’t think so.” VIMTV gave Scuba’s album a D, which means that even well-executed dance music is an artistic fail.
Personality deals in adroit, glossy ‘90s throwbacks, a style Scuba’s been exploring since he released “Adrenalin” last year. It was a marked departure from his past albums, which pioneered the crosshairs of techno and dubstep (even if he hates to admit it or talk about it now). The record strings together cramped heaters driven by serrated synths (“The Hope”) with immaculate, bright big-room ebulliance on “NE1BUTU” and fluttering, surly low end (“Cognitive Dissonance”). As Hummer and Jackson put it, it's “big, gaudy, 80s-sounding dance music” with “thick, thick beats, lush synths, and just immaculate production.” But since they think the album is solely appropriate on the dance floor, none of that really matters.
There are a few problematic ideas at work here. The ultimate reason Hummer discredits Scuba's music is because he thinks the sole and/or primary intent behind the tracks on Personality is to make people dance rather than relate to them on an emotional level. According to Hummer's ideology, dance music can't be used as an expressive art form because its creators use machines instead of traditional instruments and because the format of house and techno songs—what Hummer calls "some good builds, some good comedowns and all of that"—confine producers to a hackneyed style. He’s one step away from tossing aside the whole catalog of dance music because it “all sounds the same,” which is another attitude that pisses me off.
Hummer goes on to say that the songs on Personality “serve a certain purpose in context” and that if he were “out clubbing,” he would love the album. That’s one of the biggest problems with the term “dance music”: It’s misleading because it allows condescending nerds to discount several decades of creative and innovative music based on the assumption that so-called “dance music” is made to inspire highly-evolved monkeys to grind their crotches into other monkeys’ butts until their pants get all chaffed around the groin and look like rawhide. It’s a mentality that confines certain strains of music to the dance floor, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy that limits how you perceive the music’s functional and expressive limitations. That is, when you expect “dance music” to only be appropriate on a dance floor, it’ll probably sound more like shallow tunes aimed less at introspection and more at getting people in the mood to get fingered in public.
Before I argue that inspiring people to get their freak on in public is a legitimate use and goal for music, I have to point out that dance music can do a lot more than get people to boogie down. Instrumental club tracks might not tell a specific story, but they do convey a host of specific and powerful moods, and they’re not always—or ever—as sterile as they can seem to an unfamiliar ear. In a DJ set, they’re used to guide the dancers’ from stretches of dark, churning paranoia to moments of steamy sensuality or uplifting catharsis or, yes, balls-out, rage-face, mind-blowing jubilance. Anyone can experience these vibes, on or off the dance floor. And some of the songs that inspire those emotions wouldn’t readily be considered “dance music,” like beatless minimal techno with layers of spaced-out, brooding ambience.
Okay, now I can argue that producing music with the intent to make people wild out is a legitimate artistic goal. Getting rowdy and letting the world fall away and focusing on feeling the undulating groove of a sick Moodymann cut with a fat throbbing bassline and jacking hi-hats isn’t a less valuable experience than listening to an Elliot Smith song and ruminating about drug addiction and suicide.*
Dance music isn’t limited by the machines used to produce it or the clubs where it’s often played—it’s limited by the mindset of individual listeners who don’t expect sampled kick drums and 909s to be able to express the same emotions as another song made with a guitar and a drum set. I mean, rock-based music isn’t the only style that can be appropriate in daily life. And techno can blend into a lot of daily moods that occur off the dance floor, which is what I mean when I say that things are techno 2 me.
I feel awkward dancing and I think clubs are full of lame, self-absorbed blowhards and I don’t like people sweating on me and I don’t like making out in public but I love dance music. Not all of it—I’m really picky, but increasingly open-minded—but the dance music I do like is my number one steez. I listen to it whenever: When I’m on the train, when I’m in my house, when I run, right now while I write this, and when I’m on dance floors.
When I stopped thinking of dance music as dance music—just dance music—was when I started to notice all the subtleties that differentiate one producer’s work from another and all the minute, endless ways a producer can express emotion, mood, and life within the grammar of repetitive beats. I don’t find club music automatically sterile and robotic—I mean, think about how sterile dance floors are. They’re not, at all. Dance floors are packed full of groty people writhing all over each other. Some of them have a cold, some of them have icky, sweaty beards and a lot of them are on drugs that make them even grosser and weirder. Dance floor environments are more primal and disgusting than they are sterile and robotic. But whatever—it’s not like dance music is only appropriate for dance floors, anyway.
*This thought is complicated by the fact that I would consider both of those experiences more valuable than listening to something like scream-o festival bang0r dubstep or reformed-brostepper trap fad beats.