If We Want to “Save Nightlife” We Have to Look Beyond House and Techno
Saving club culture doesn’t just mean protecting buildings.
Dance music, as a term, is reductive, unhelpful, ungainly, and largely unhelpful. You can dance to anything you like: bird song, arguments, the amorous cries of aroused dolphins, chirruping self-service machines in Spar, a Radio 4 documentary about the IMF, the relentless drone of your own breathing patterns, literally anything.
When we talk about dance music in 2017 we're still, largely at least, talking about house and techno. These are inherently danceable musics, created with dancing in mind, that much is obvious. They push and pull and prod and work on our primal instincts to pound the floor to a flat 4/4. And that's why we like them, that's why they've become most people's immediate idea of what dance music is: things you can dance to easily in sweaty clubs late at night. The human body is capable of more, though. And the human brain deserves more, too.
It's all too easy to think of, and use, nightclubs as places which prioritise a kind of cultural comfort. You book the same DJs, who play the same sounding records, to the same crowds, and everyone's happy, right? Well, yeah, largely they are, but that doesn't stop us from expecting more from venues, from DJs, from the whole experience that is clubbing.
That sense of expectation has many guises, and we've explored some of those in a pair of essays by Tom Glencross published earlier this year, both of which examined the socio-political machinations that underpin the contemporary nightlife experience. What we're looking at today, though, is slightly less serious, though no less important: the actual music itself that people could or should expect to hear in clubs.
We all know by now that the vision of a nightclub as a truly utopian space is somewhat of a fallacy; there are too many immutable forces at play for that to ever be an actual livable possibility. What we can think about moving towards is a musical utopia, the eventual instigation of a structure-altering attack on the house and techno hegemony. Because, think about it—you can play anything you like in a nightclub. You can play Merzbow and Modest Mouse, Chino Amobi and the Caretaker, Shirley Collins and Soichi Terada. You are a DJ; you swim through a world of possibilities.
The thing is, not everyone goes to the club to be entertained in the traditional sense. Not everyone wants to paddle in the shallow waters of the breakdown-into-banging-it-out of dancefloor classicism. Not everyone dances, for a start, but it goes beyond that, beyond the simple idea of entertainment and immediate physical reaction. We go to clubs for a variety of reasons: to drink, to take drugs, to talk, to unwind, to forget, to reminisce, to be alone and with others simultaneously. Our predilections for certain people draw us to certain clubs just as much as certain sounds do. And, to be blunt about it, the fact that most big clubs and most big festivals are dominated by artists whose Rekordbox crates stretch from techno to house, via tech-house, creates a stagnant artistic environment.
The hunger for nights that go beyond the greyscale limits is palpable. Over here in Europe, London's underground currently hums with the fractured, off-kilter, brain-and-body-reconfiguring sounds of deconstructed club music, produced and played out by the likes of Akito , Loom, and TSVI . Over in Paris, Teki Latex's Bérite movement is seamlessly fusing Afrotrap to Baltimore house, ballroom to kuduro, gqom to grime. Its success is resounding evidence of an audience who want more from a night out than hearing the same rinsed-to-fuck Masters at Work remixes, or whatever gloopy, gloomy Giegling product we're being told is revolutionary that week.
The parties where you'll hear these musics—and that sense of plurality is important—are likely to be small affairs, taking place in high street basements rather than the bustling superclubs of city centres, attracting devoted crowds who, in their own way, are irrefutable proof of the power and importance of an alternative approach to contemporary clubbing.
Look at how the Bala Club events in London became arguably one of the most exciting things to happen to the city in years; these are intentionally disorienting, strange, unconventional parties hosted by and for art students, wrestling obsessives, and the kind of liminal figures who make nightlife what it is. It is genuine outsider art, soundtracked by kizomba, auto-tuned auteur loves songs, rap, club music, and grime. It steadfastly refuses to play the 4/4 game. This resolutely isn't dance music with one eye on Beatport and the other on fabric.
It isn't just Europe that's showing signs of a growing generic discontent. In recent years, the American underground has been dominated by two figures that couldn't be further from the heteronormative house and techno heavy hitters if they tried: Venus X and Total Freedom. The former's GHE20G0TH1K parties—New York events that she founded with Hood By Air main man Shayne Oliver—are hi-octane combinations of high-fashion, high-art, and the kind of brain-melting pan-genre experimentation that really shows up the majority of the big room proprietors for being criminally conservative.
In her recent, and incredibly illuminating, interview with Resident Advisor as part of their fantastic "The Art of DJing" series, Venus X succinctly described the situation her style as a DJ and the ethos of the party she ran was borne out of; a mixture of economic frustration and a desire for artistic progression:
"No one had jobs, so the party was two dollars or three dollars to get in, and what do you expect when you're paying two or three dollars? You wanna hear what you might hear at Output? Go pay some guy 25 dollars to play you elevator music, because that's what that shit sounds like to me. If you're gonna pay two dollars with us, you're gonna get what the fuck we want to give you."
That drive to go beyond a subversion of big club booking into a territory where those clubs, those festivals, those brands might as well not exist is a completely admirable one. And yes, there's an argument to be made that GHE20G0TH1K in the US, or the Evian Christ hosted Trance Party events, which Total Freedom is very much aligned to, have been as well marketed as, say, elrow's latest dabble with cultural appropriation and tech-house. The difference is that the former parties are a necessary opposition to the vice-like grip that the latter has over the contemporary clubbing landscape.
I understand that promoters have to make money. I understand that people don't necessarily like being challenged on a night out. I understand, too, that some DJs genuinely get a kick out of playing the kind of music that sounds to these ears like a hellishly eternal after-party. I accept that there's an audience for this.
What I don't quite accept, not whole-heartedly at least, is that audiences want to settle for safety. I would like to believe that the majority of people who take an interest in clubbing as an activity—from the "I'm here to get fucked up and don't care who the DJ is," crew through to the green-tea sipping lifers, and everyone in between—are open to experimentation, are happy to hear DJs go beyond their usual ken. If we can't change the system clubs have to work within, we can at least demand they do something different with the music at least. Right?
The hierarchies that have set about turning club culture from a radical practice of self-expression into a viable means of selling cocktails to wristband-wearers have resulted in a climate in which the anodyne has become prioritized. While this in itself is sadly the story of entertainment at large, and you only have to have a cursory glance of any bestselling books list or the films currently showing at your local multiplex for proof of the mundane's gruesome grip over mainstream culture, it doesn't mean we should settle for the mediocre and the unadventurous. Especially within the context of a world which would like to be seen as pertaining to some kind of revolutionary spirit, even now, thirty years after the second summer of love's promises melted into nothingness—like a child's ice cream cone on a hot day.