Yesterday I mentioned that terrible essay by Todd Burns about “dance music” that was published along with the 2007 Pazz & Jop critics poll in the Village Voice, but I didn’t really get into what I disliked about it. I mean, Jess Harvell already tore it to bits over on Idolator, but I feel that it’s such an incredibly wrong-headed piece of writing that I ought to respond to it in my own way.
If you’re the type of person who, for whatever reason, does not have any intention of actually reading what Todd Burns wrote in the essay, let me paraphrase it for you:
I love dance music, and the dance music that I love is the real dance music. Many of my peers — and a fairly large number of ordinary music fans — love Justice, Simian Mobile Disco, and other contemporary musicians who make dance music, but that stuff can’t possibly be real dance music because OH MY GOD YOU GUYS that music has a lot of hooks and shares some stylistic DNA with rock music! Ugh, rock music! Rock music is for total fucking idiots, and you can’t possibly dance to that shit. Even though a great many people from around the world get happy and dance to music by Justice, you cannot actually dance to it because…..uh, I’m not going to explain that. YOU JUST CAN’T DANCE TO IT, OKAY? Everyone knows that it is im-fucking-possible to dance to music that has a strong beat and catchy bits! The dance music I like is pure and authentic, and you rock-loving motherfuckers will never understand it! Real dance music lacks hooks, vocals, novelty, dynamic shifts, and just kinda blends together into an amorphous blob of sound, and only special people such as myself can appreciate it.
Okay, I admit that I’m not being very charitable, but I really don’t think I’m wildly misrepresenting anything Todd is saying in that essay.
One of the more depressing aspects of Todd’s essay is that he comes on strong with some anti-rockist sentiment, but seemingly without realizing it, he’s expressing all the most odious elements of rockism, but he’s just swapped out classic rock or punk or metal or indie or whatever for a strain of European electronic music specifically designed for a smallish subculture. He can barely conceal his reactionary zeal — check out that sneering condescension in the second and third paragraphs — but he seems entirely oblivious to the notion that he sounds exactly like the sort of provincial asshole he’s so vociferously deriding.
The bigger problem is that on a fundamental level, Burns seems to misunderstand the reasons why people dance to music. In his mind, dance music is a weirdly prescriptive thing — it has a specific sound, purpose, and context. It is a thing that is governed by rules, and those rules are primarily dictated by random people in Germany. It is a thing that is somehow naturally opposed to rock music, and when elements of rock — or presumably any other mainstream sort of music — enter into it, the aesthetic is compromised, and the experience is cheapened.
This is, of course, total nonsense. People dance to music because it moves them, physically, emotionally, and sometimes even, spiritually. If you’ve ever actually DJ’d for people — or better yet, have ever been to a wedding — you would know that people are most willing to dance to music that they feel connected to, and music that makes them feel connected to the people around them. When you start decreeing what people should or should not be dancing to, you just sound like a prick: People are going to dance to whatever they enjoy, and anyone who begrudges their pleasure in doing so is nothing more than an uptight snob.
The anti-rock thing is just baffling, at least on a rhetorical level. It’s not hard to figure out why Burns might feel a bit alienated by rock fandom, but it’s truly mystifying that a person who clearly has a wide frame of reference on both new and old music would so willfully ignore rock and roll’s roots as a form of dance music, or reject the notion that “dance music” could be improved by elements of rock and roll, and vice versa. As far as I’m concerned, much of the best music from this era comes from artists who embrace “dance music,” rock, hip hop, and any other genre that works in order to produce a bold, inclusive, super-dynamic, ruthlessly effective strain of pop music.
Justice “DVNO” – And that brings me to Justice, who do just that on this song, and a few others on their debut album. “DVNO” is one of the my favorite songs of the past few years. I listened to it almost every day in the latter half of 2007, usually when I was out and about. It is a reliable jolt of energy, and no matter how many times I hear it, it never loses its capacity to thrill me. I can’t be fully still when it’s on, and when that first beat hits, I always feel a sudden rush, like OH YES INDEED, IT IS ON. I love the way the vocals are bent and cut so that about a half of the lyrics are entirely unintelligible, and the other half hint at something fabulous and tantalizing. I put it on a mix for a friend, and she told me that it sounded like being en route to an event more than being an event itself, and I think she’s pretty close to it: “DVNO” is the excitement of anticipation and expectation, it’s the feeling of being so close to something amazing. Basically, it’s the moment just before the thing you want soooooooo badly is diminished by reality. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)