Friday, March 09, 2012

Dance music at the Grammys

This performance at the Grammys is somewhat old news, as is Philip Sherburne's fairly well-circulated take down (which has seemingly vanished from Spin's website and the entire internet, but here is a sample of what Sherburne wrote).  In case it disappears from those tumblr and other linking sites, I'll excerpt it again here:

There was David Guetta, flopping about like a Muppet behind the mixer, jabbing away at the controls in a pantomime of performance. What was all that flicking of the faders and tweaking of the knobs about? Why was he wearing his headphones over one ear, as though he were cueing up the next record? During the French superstar’s time onstage, only one song (‘I Can Only Imagine,’ from his Nothing But The Beat, which features Chris Brown and Lil Wayne in its album version) was played. Simply put, there were absolutely no services required of him that a DJ would traditionally provide. He might have tweaked a filter here or there or cut out the bass a time or two, but that was the extent of his interventions. (No matter what he’s doing with his hands, you never hear an appreciable change in the music or note any kind of cause/effect relationship.)

My rebuttal to that paragraph was written three months before the Grammys, in my review of the 2011 MTV EMA's:

David Guetta hits the stage to save the second hour of this show with Jessie J, Taio Cruz and Ludacris. I'm not sure exactly what Guetta is doing back there. He's sporting a pair of headphones (which probably aren't plugged in because he never uses them), pretends to tweak dials, and holds his hands in the air. But the laser light show is amazing, the songs are too, and the guest singers nailed their one minute each. Guys like Moby will be the first to tell you that DAT shows can rock too.  

I'm not exactly sure what Sherburne was expecting, especially since award show performances always favour spectacle and creative guest spots over musicianship.

I didn't mind that Grammys spot, sure, Deadmau5 and David Guetta weren't doing much of anything, but there were plenty of things going on (it certainly wasn't boring), and everybody was dancing (yes, they were on TV, but people do go out to dance to this type of music in real life).  There's a place for this kind of performance, and Sherburne certainly knows and respects that -- he wrote a feature on the most recent rise of dance music and DJ Culture in North America for Spin a few months ago.  

I hardly ever disagree with Sherburne, but I disagreed with him here.  Unfortunately, I have to try to recall his full argument from memory.  He wasn't objecting to the idea that people like listening to Skillrex rather than dancing at Berghain until 7AM on Monday morning.  It was not a "people prefer megastar X to semi-underground phenomenon Y" type of plea for authenticity.  No, IIRC, he was upset that far too many people will see the Grammys and think that "dance music" means this and only this, and it will never occur to them that it can also mean dancing to booming techno all night at Berghain.

To this, I still say "so what"?  Plenty of people believe that rock music means KISS -- makeup, fireworks, and sex parties.   Scenes blow up and it just creates more room for every kind of taste, and eventually those subgroups will themselves become so big that they'll never interact or even acknowledge the existence of the other.

Besides that -- and this is something that is woefully under-reported -- the scene inhabited by Skillrex, Guetta et al is far more inclusive and accessible.  One of the reasons they're so huge is because they're happy to slot themselves into the music industry's regular marketing model, where anyone can invest the time and money into buying their music, going to their shows, and watching their videos on the internet.  It's what every exec dreamed would happen when Prodigy and Chemical Brothers were hitting it big in 1997.  On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to gain admission to Berghain.  The number of people who try to get in every weekend is far higher than the number of people they can admit, but when all is said and done, most people don't get in and they can't go home and download the experience later on.  David Guetta's world is a world of hearing your favourite three minute song on the radio, the Berghain world is one where you need to invest six hours to get a taste of what it's about and you'll never find out the name of most of the songs you heard.

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