Putting it simply, dance music is trash. It blighted the 1980s and 90s and it continues to blight the 21st century. But why is it trash?
After all, it keeps hundreds of thousands of young people happy. But popularity shouldn’t be equated with quality, and the evidence for the prosecution is stacked mile high…
There is the bland "music," to begin with. DJs design it to be danced to, not listened to. It only makes sense if you jerk about in a spasm and don’t pay too much attention to the beat. This defeats the point of music itself, which is to make something structured and beautiful out of the everlasting capabilities of sound.
But there is no structure to today’s dance music. It just repeats the same few notes or samples again and again, what is beautiful about that? It is written to be as popular and as inoffensive as it can be. What ends up getting spat out of recoiling speakers is as bland as gruel. It is designed to be in the background, musak, if you will. It’s designed to only be paid enough attention to jig to. Apemen whacked two rocks together and liked the noise. Ravers writhe and sweat to monotony for a few hours and like the noise. Plus ca change.
And then there is the sampling.
If dance music is not a few notes repeated ad nauseum or an old tune sped up or slowed down then it is a tune stolen from somewhere else. The sampler age, which began c.1979, was a disaster for music. Received logic now seems to dictate you could have a hit not by making your own music but by nicking the tune, doctoring it a bit and then selling it to the public, who are sold hook, line and sinker. This is not unlike stealing a car, hacking it up and sticking it back together with parts from other cars before selling it on as new.
But while a car thief in Dagenham gets six months of porridge – if he’s lucky – an ecstasy-addled DJ from Surbiton who steals other peoples’ tunes gets paid lots of money, and maybe even a platinum disk or the main stage at Glastonbury. But then, and I apologise for my forgetfulness, such use of someone else’s music is "homage."
Dance music is also the last great triumph of postmodernism. Nothing’s new! Everything’s the same! Recycle everything! Steal someone else’s music! Nothing matters as everything and nothing is real! Postmodernism is a suicide note from dejected romantics, and it has given licence to people to rip off the hard work of others. "Dance music" is the end result. It gives us nothing but just more of the same, gobbed out again and again.
And if the music is bad, the culture that has sprung up around it is even worse. For dance music sprung up in the ’80s, and so it grew up along with, and was part of, Thatcherism. What that means it is unadulterated consumerism. It is meant to gratify just enough to keep ’em coming back. (After all, club owners have to lure the punters back in the following next weekend, and record producers have cigars to smoke, everyone understands that). It is also a one-size fits all product, meant to attract as many people as it can. So you don’t have to work on being a raver, you just go with the flow and let the style mags and your ‘peers’ do the thinking. Like the music then, it is froth with just a hint of pollen to suck in all the hive insects.
Of course, something this dull can’t work on its own. So it has a magic ingredient: drugs. You can’t dance for hours to such bland noise without dulling the bit of the brain that gets bored and wants something more. And you need something to keep you dancing for hours without getting tired. Enter the drugs. Drugs keep dance culture going. Without them, only masochists could keep on dancing and only cretins could enjoy the music. The only way to enjoy this garbage is to be stewed out of your brain. After all, a rave or a nightclub or a trip to Ibiza without drugs is just plain silly. tragically unhip "clean" raves do happen, but they’re usually run by concerned parents’ groups and few kids can be expected to turn up.
The populist intellectual, Michael Moorcock, summed up drugs’n’dance best. In October 1998, he wrote in Time Out magazine that dance is the very worst breed of hedonism: a hangover of the ’80s that just won’t go away. He said: "For [clubbers], drugs have become no more than a way of contemplating a good time, of dancing the night away. Acid, which had powered the idealism of a generation, became a pleasant substitute for ecstasy. The drugs we used to help us confront the world became a means of avoiding it. Ecstasy and Prozac joined Valium as drugs to keep the issues from ever really coming up. Stasis. Good old-fashioned decadence."
The conformity of dance culture is also a cage. Look at the average rave, club or beach party. The same cut of clothes all around. The same scanty clothing for the pretty young things and the same baggy fashion plate gear as advertised in Loaded magazine for the boys.
It is of course fitting that "School Daze"-style raves, where everyone dresses in school uniform, is now in vogue. Schools are there to crush the self. They are about having your clothes chosen for you. Your time and energy herded about by someone else’s choices. And schools are where your every action and thought is controlled. It’s just like a nightclub but traditionally with less sex, though I hear things have changed since I was there.
And who hasn’t met two ravers and got mixed up with who’s who? They all get "touchy-feely" after a handful of Mitsubshis. They all talk about the Criminal Justice Bill as if it were an act of mass murder. They get an intense surge through their veins when talking about "dance anthems" or "banging choons", Ibiza last year or "The Chemical Generation." They all talk about rich DJs like Tall Paul, Boy George or Slit and Slut in glowing terms. As if being able to change LPs and keep it all at the right pitch is a great act that only someone from a supernatural master race could do. And ravers are the most drab, dumb, indifferent bunch of sheep anyone could meet. They have next to no opinions at all, and those who do, apart from "who’s best on the turntables," are dreamy, loose homilies from people who don’t think very much. The worst part about 1999’s self-indulgent drug‘n’dance film, Human Traffic, was not the shallow, drugged-up posturing of the hip young things, but the presumption that we, the audience, were supposed to take such pitying navel-gazing seriously.
"Aah," begins the raver’s argument, "but we’re a broad church and everyone’s welcome."
Go to one of their raves and you will see black, white, brown, yellow, perhaps even green skin all writhing together. Gay and straight. Working class, middle class, Upper class. Women and men. At first glance it seems to be the cure for Britain’s ills. Class and race and division: all gone with a turntable’s mixing and a handful of pills.
But this little Utopia isn’t perfect. The only reason this Ministry of Sound has such a big congregation is because everyone sings from the same hymn sheet. Everyone wears the same clothes. Everyone has the same tastes. Everyone thinks, acts and dances the same way. There’s no room for the old, the different or those who can’t afford it. But that’s how dance culture thrives. The price for this unity is no choices apart from what the market offers. Rather than live with and accept "the other" they tell us to sweep it under the dance floor and take some more Es.
In a weird sense, the pulp horror writer H P Lovecraft might well have foreseen what a rave would entail. He did, perhaps graciously, die 50 years before modern dance music began. But look at a rave and you will see Lovecraft. His Demon Sultan, Azhaboth, could have been a DJ. It, like a DJ, is a bloated, faceless entity that is always changing its shape and image. And like a DJ, mindless servants surround it. For as Azhaboth is attended to on his throne by shapeless, mindless things that writhe and ooze and dance so the DJ on his platform is equally hailed by mindless, writhing, oozing ravers. And both Azhaboth and the DJ are the centres of the Universe, whether that is in the "cosmic" sense or the drab wasteland of today’s pop culture.
The most awful part of dance culture is that it is part of the new establishment.
In one or two decades whole swathes of people in power will have been raised on it, its shabby drugs culture and its empty conformity. After all, mostly everyone under 35 has taken part in it. It’s also the ideal soundtrack to New Labour: bland, cheery, shallow, soulless, mercenary, commercial and completely risk-free. Needless to say, the New Labour machine has done its best to woo the clubber vote.
Peter Mandelson is even a good friend with the owner of the Ministry of Sound, James Palumbo. It all makes sense. Blairmania and dance music are the natural children of the 1980s: a time with no soul, conscience or good ideas.
But isn’t youth culture meant to be about rebellion? Yet, how can you be a rebel if you go to a club that charges you £25 to get in, with sponsorship by Bacardi Breezer, doormen manning the entrance and Advertising Executives googling at the bar?
But it is also the soundtrack of the new aristocracy.
As Tony takes the hereditary peers round the back of the Palace of Westminster to line them against the wall, a new nobility takes their place. This new blue blood is bred in the most fashionable bars and coffee shops of Islington, Noho, Brixton, Hampstead or wherever else one can buy a shed for a snap at £200,000. It likes dance music. It wears nothing that The Face has not told it to. It likes dance music. It reads Mixmag for all it’s worth. It likes dance music. It even carpets its house as per how Wallpaper tells it to. It likes dance music. It sets the trends. And we all doff our caps in deference to its coolness. It likes dance music.
But the Islington trendy is a pathetic thing.
It needs to be cutting edge at all costs. Never mind that the trends it chases leave it looking like a fool in nine-months time. It pays no attention to what takes place outside its posh goldfish bowl. And it never quite finds what it wants. There has to be more fads to follow. More fashions to plug into. It has no fears but ageing and not being the trendiest little beast a-going. And the soundtrack to this brave new world is dance music; a sweating mass of flesh crammed into an overpriced club writhing around under strobe lights and the latest bangin’ tunes.
Solutions? There don’t seem to be any. Perhaps people should stop taking so many drugs and start thinking for themselves. Perhaps they could listen to music that means something for a change. Or perhaps we should wait for a new generation to rise up and sweep it away. For If today’s youth are a disappointment, there is always tomorrow’s little rebels, after all.