Writing About Dancing: Disco Critics Survey

1. Because house music and disco are conceived primarily for the dance floor, does this make them harder to write about than more "contemplative" or "conceptual" forms of pop?

Why should music for the dance floor be "harder" to write about than music "contemplative" or "conceptual"? First of all, one adopts, assembles, or accepts standards for appreciating music of whatever genre or format and applies them to whatever music one is asked to appreciate. Besides, who is to say whether a piece of music is to be danced or listened to? To me this question assumes its own conclusion. I know many folks who listen to house music resting. Sometimes I do it myself. I know others who dance to FM album rock...

No, and I don't see how being conceived for the dance floor would preclude, or significantly diminish their chances of being, contemplative or conceptual in the first place. And why would a writer limit himself to what music is intended for anyway?

As U.K. house outfit K-Klass put it, "Rhythm Is a Mystery." It is very hard indeed to write about why one groove or beat is more compelling than another. Even if you get into drummer's lingo (triplets, flams, syncopation, etc.) or the technicalities of programming, the "it"--that edge of excellence or distinctiveness you are trying to capture--will just endlessly recede from your verbal grasp. For instance, it's quite easy to write generalities about "breakbeat science" and apply them to whichever jungle producer you're writing about--but almost infinitely harder to convey the signature that makes, say, a Dillinja or Doc Scott production instantly recognizable and special...Same goes for the particular rhythm traits or production hallmarks of the other genres--the finicky hi-hats in house and garage, the DSP (digital signal processing) timbre effects in Kid606 type IDM, the filter sweeps in French house, the 303 acid-riffs in hard trance etc., etc...What makes for one exponent's instantly-audible superiority over another?

And even then, you can write about the programming and production and be strenuous in your attempts at exactness, but you might still fail to convey the electricity, the rush...what can you actually say about the nature of, and relationship between, the guitar, the bass, and the orchestral sounds, in a Chic song, that could actually tell you anything about how its magic works...

Mind you, it's just as hard to say why in rock or pop, one melody is heart-rending and another isn't, why one singer's grain-of-voice reaches deeper into you than another...not to mention the great rock mystery of the Riff...

But dance music, by diminishing or stripping away altogether the other elements that one might critically latch onto (lyrics, persona/biography of the artist, relevance to the outside-the-club world etc.) as a bulwark against the ineffable does rather shove one headfirst into the realm of sound and its materiality. (Which a surprisingly large number of people still find quite discomfiting).

Kind of appropriately, really, writing about dance music does confront you in a very direct way with the old "dancing about architecture" futility/absurdity dilemma--because it is so purely musical, functional...what is there really to say? I suspect a lot of the people who might have made good dance critics, who have real taste and knowledge of its history, become DJs instead--because you can actually support the music and evangelize in a very direct way: playing it to people.

So if it's so hard to do, so pointless, why bother? As an old comrade of mine Paul Oldfield once put it in a zine we did together, Monitor, because there's "the possibility that words might fail interestingly or suggestively."

Also true that this music is very site-specific...a lot of the sonic content in dance music is barely audible on a domestic that with a house record played at home, the kick drum can sound tinny and weak and monotonous, but in a club, on massive system, the monotony becomes compelling because it's so physically, viscerally impact-ful...the kick drum becomes a cocooning environmental pulse...similarly with jungle, the bass permeates your flesh...unlike rock, r&b, pop it is not mixed for radio or the home hi-fi.

I think writing about dance music is harder in some ways than writing about pop or rock or other types of music that have lyrics or actual personalities you can discuss. I mean, who didn't have something to say about Eminem this year? And, who had anything to say about, I don't know, Photek? I mean how do you describe something that's so textural or so reliant on your actual dance floor experience? It drives me batty, and sometimes I feel that coming up with ridiculous metaphors or imagery just alienates the reader: 300 adjectives later, the reader still doesn't know what you're talking about.

I simply reject the premise of the question, that you can separate out the dance from the contemplative, that these are different musics. Saying the word contemplative is like waving a red cape at me. For one thing, that a song has a dance beat doesn't make it less contemplatible than if it didn't. "Oh, this song has beats, therefore I'm not able to think about it"? Conversely, if I'm on a dance floor, working out steps and movements, responding to or avoiding other dancers, cutting some sort of figure for onlookers--for sure in all of this I am thinking. I'm not rubbing my beard and going "Hmmm," but I'm thinking nonetheless. (Actually, there's a dance called the "hmmm dance" in which I do rub my beard and go "hmmm," but I also throw in a left-arm movement and a slight knee bend that I wouldn't use in nondance situations.) In general, I don't divide up my life into the "active" and the "contemplative." If I'm a thoughtful person I come up with good ideas, but the ideas arise from what I do as a whole, not from a fenced-in little area called "contemplating." Holding my head in my hands and puzzling things out is part of the process, writing words on paper is part of the process, hearing people comment on those words is part of the process, but these are hardly the whole of it. (By the way, I do a dance called "hold my head in my hands" where I hold my head while contorting my mouth into a "scream" shape, like in that Norwegian painting, and then I sink slowly to the floor.)

So, to approach your question, there's as much subject for thought in disco as in anything else, in fact disco contains thought. And then to retreat from your question, I'll point out the obvious, which is that the vast majority of the world's music has a dance beat, or, if not a dance beat per se, a physical-response beat, a join-in-this-activity beat. Even if you want to get "contemplative" in your music, ragas have beats, Stravinsky has beats. (In fact, "Rite of Spring" is dance music.) The music you buy vegetables to at Albertson's has a dance beat; the music you listen to in your car has a dance beat. Heavy metal has dance beats, country has dance beats, Adult Top 40 has dance beats, Radio Disney has dance beats (typical set on Disney: The Chipmunks' version of "Achy Breaky Heart," Stacey Q's "Alphabet Song," a Brooklyn Bounce techno track, 'N Sync's "It's Gonna Be Me"). "Dance" isn't so much a type of music as one of the things that can be done to almost any music. So if someone finds it hard to write about disco or house, this is not because disco and house are conceived for the dance floor.

I haven't answered your question. But I'm not done with it, since I often think about how to write about music, and I've never come up with a consistent method. Some ideas:

(a) The sound of music is impossible to convey. Period. I don't know why this is. Read a novel and you'll get a sense of what the characters look like, what the landscape is like, the furnishings, and so forth. What the author leaves out you'll supply from your own imagination. Your picture may not match what the author had in mind, but at least you'll get a picture. But if the novel contains a description of music, you won't hear music. You'll get a vague sense of something--"airy and light" or "loud and pounding," say ("airy and pounding"?)--but you won't hear it.

And music's technical vocabulary doesn't convey sound at all: riff, motif, chord, interval, melody, tonic, subdominant, dominant minor, back to subdominant (which is the chord progression to "Louie Louie," and see what I mean about nonconveyance?), backbeat, hi hat, snare, counterrhythm. Writing the words "Bo Diddley's chunk-ah chunk-ah chunk, chunk chunk rhythm" might convey the rhythm to someone who already knows it (but then, writing the words "melody to 'If I Fell' " may bring forth the melody to someone who already knows "If I Fell," too, and so what?). I

In general, you're stuck with a handful of genre names, overused adjectives, and metaphors, as well as clauses that begin "sounds like…" - e.g., "sounds like Deep Purple on Quaaludes, which is to say very Deep Purple." So even when I want to describe music, I'm really going to end up doing something else, and often I'd rather do something else, anyway.

(b) The impulse to dance and the impulse to write are closely related, at least in me. When I'm dancing I'm locking into a basic beat but I'm also hearing the other beats and the riffs and melodies and what I'd call the general "arc" of the music, and I'm constructing my movements around these but also in response to what the other dancers are doing (if they're not all staring into outer space). So the music is inspiration and source material for my dance, and so are the other dancers, though they also get to be audience for my dance, if they want. And when I write I do something analogous: I don't lock into a main beat, but I use music as source material for my writing; and what other people have said, done, and written is also source and inspiration for my writing, and people are audience for my writing, if they want to be, and their response can be further source material and inspiration (or goad), etc. So in other words the page is my dance floor; or perhaps the page is part of a general dance floor composed of a lot of pages and computer screens and conversations and events. But note: when I say that music is source material for my writing - analogous to its being source material for my dancing - I mean it. Which is to say that, fundamentally, I'm not writing about music any more than I'm dancing about music. I'm just living my life on the page--except that, since I love to comment and analyze, there's always a whole lot of "aboutness" in my writing. "Aboutness" is one of my dance moves, you could say.

But then, there's "aboutness" in dancing too: adding a new dance move can tell you something about a piece of music--that it could provoke this particular move--and the move itself might in some way be "about" the dancer's relation to the other dancers.

My point is that when I'm dancing to "The Real Slim Shady" I'm not doing something different in kind from when I'm writing down an analysis of the feints and traps and shock effects in Eminem's lyrics. In my dancing I'm thinking by acting out my relationship to other human beings--in my writing I'm thinking by acting out my relationship to other human beings.

"Ah ha! There's a difference! When you're dancing to Eminem you're dancing to the music, whereas when you write you're drawing on his words and personality." Yes. Not that words and personality aren't part of the music, but yes. I'll use music as source material for both my dancing and my writing, but I won't necessarily use the same parts of the music for each. I use words and personality whenever I can--this is because they're easy to use, and they're powerful. I can quote words, I can use them, I can make them my own. Words are great. Even when I'm trying to convey sound, I'll make lyrics and personalities my pathway, if I can.

O.K. Let's go to the videotape; this is from a piece I wrote about Donna Summer, for Spin:

     "No disco artist sang with such a raging coldness. Smart, funny coldness. In 'I Feel Love' she was out there and gorgeous in synth-cold outer space and no one could touch her. If she felt love, it wasn't for me."

All right, this has one root word to describe the music (cold/coldness), two that pertain to music (sang and synth), and the rest is sci-fi metaphor, a lyric with variations ("I feel love"), and Donna's relation to me. This was as close as I've gotten in my life to actually describing a sound, and without the lyric and her persona I couldn't have done it.

Now here's my description of the disco ethos, from my Corina review:

"Disco managed to be audacious without being upscale in the usual sense, so it could incorporate cabaret, opera, kung fu, anything, and still not be 'culture.' It could be ambitious without leaving anything behind, without shedding its down-home mannerisms. 'Down-home' is probably the wrong phrase here. It's like Elvis: Elvis never stopped being a truck driver with dreams; the point is, he dressed himself in the dreams, not in overalls. I'm not sure what I'm driving at here, of course. A disco is basically a Saturday night bar 'n' dance floor that doesn't know its place. But that doesn't make it a would-be supper club, dinner theater...It's got its own style. It's like Tony Camonte in the original Scarface, asking the sophisticate Poppy what she thinks of his jacket. 'Kinda gaudy, isn't it?' she says, and he says, happily, 'Yeah,' oblivious to her sarcasm and winning her over. In my dream, disco doesn't ignore the sophistication and the sarcasm; it incorporates it, discofies it. Again, what does this mean? How do we take sarcasm, knowingness, a sense of tragedy, politics, and make it gaudy, turn it into a circling disco globe? I'm working on it. A flash of glitter, dime-store glamour. The vision is made of scraps and probably won't amount to much in the daylight. But fuck the daylight, that's not what music's about. The point of having a vision is to use it, not to check it for accuracy."

So, words that pertain to music: two (cabaret and opera); phrases that allude to dancing: one (dance floor). And the rest? A 1932 gangster film; a 1950s rock 'n' roller--his clothes--and a flash of glitter, a dream, a disco ball.

And now here's me describing a record that had no singer, no words, no personalities, no jacket photos (and I had no clue what the clubs were like that played this music, what the dancers looked like, or how they danced):

"Phuture's 12-inch single 'Slam!' is 'acid disco' if by 'acid' you mean the stuff you throw in your estranged lover's face, to disfigure it."

And then towards the end:

"I'd like to hear it on the dance floor. It's made for sudden, sharp movements--the moves I used to do at early '70s glitter shows to prove I had an 'edge.'

"It might provoke interesting dance-floor interaction--communal dance-floor frenzy if you take out the 'communal.'"

So, if there are no human beings and no social intercourse in earshot, this doesn't matter, I'll invent them.

But one doesn't have to invent. If you can't hear words, voices, personalities, social life in the music, and you can't imagine them, just play the record in a roomful of people. You'll get words and personalities and social life, I guarantee you. And there's your subject matter, if you want it: the music in action, what it does, how people use it. And of course the words and personality can be yours, in your room or on your dance floor: the page.

On To Question 2