Writing About Dancing: Disco Critics Survey
2. What do you try and get at when writing about dance music: beats, textures, words, voices--or some combination thereof?
All of them, and lots of other shit too, and if anybody gives any other answer to this question I no longer trust them (assuming I did in the first
place). (Though I guess with some instrumental dance songs, words and voices might not matter much.) (And, okay, I don't know if I' actually use the word "texture" very often, to be honest. It's always struck me as a fairly vague word. But maybe that's just me, you know?)
Yes, all of it. I try to convey as much as possible the mood the artist sets, the style they work in. For example, if they are a minimalist, I try to reflect that somehow, either through my own style of
writing, or through descriptions that vividly convey a piece of work that is sparse or stripped down. Unless I am writing for a hyper-informed underground audience, like Urb or XLR8R, I try to stay away from serious geek terminology or references to other obscure 12-inches that only a few hundred DJs own, because people feel alienated from dance music already--they don't need any further assistance from the reviewer. My goal is to get people interested in this music, to read the article with an open mind, and to hopefully go out and check the artist out with an open mind. We have enough people dissing dance music as not being "real" music as it is, I don't want to contribute to the problem by dancing with myself in an article.
Everything...you can still use the trad rockcrit arsenal of interpretive techniques too--you can do lit-crit style exegesis of sampled phrases and
catchphrases, the song titles can be decoded and unpacked, the artist names...there is always discourse around the music...then there's the question of the music as social text--the behaviors it is designed to trigger or enhance...you don't have to have field-researched it and actually heard it played out in a club, 'cos the records contain these behavioral cues, clues to how they're supposed to be used or responded to...you hear a trance record and the structure of it, with build, breakdown, hands in the air refrain, etc., tells you how it is used...what tableaux it creates in the club, out of the audience's bodies.
Well, obviously I don't try to get at these things so much as at what they do. But I'm also interested in the "how" of it--I used to be a musician, after all. The trouble is that anything I say on the subject is boring and unintelligible to all but a few. Sometimes I go ahead anyway, and I try to put in enough jokes or exciting stuff elsewhere so that I don't totally lose the reader. And of course I sent you--Scott--that long email about how changes in pitch and texture are also changes in rhythm (it's a snare drum's "texture" that differentiates it from a tom and that makes the snare stand out, which is why the snare is often used for the backbeat), and how both the wah-wah peddle and the 303 allow you to change texture within a note and so you can use them to create rhythm and syncopation within the note. (The wah-wah is the device used by the guitarist on "Shaft!"; the 303 is the acid-house machine, used recently by Timbaland on Aaliyah's "Try Again.") This is interesting to me, but I don't know if there's a whole lot more to say about it.
In my Phuture review I wrote:
"'Slam!' breaks the ['Acid Tracks'] pattern by breaking the rhythm--nearly abandons the one-two-three-four -- edges towards Afro-Caribbean syncopation but jams it between the measure bars. So it doesn't feel like a groove--more like a spring held tight."
Well, this comes close to the categories boring and unintelligible. What I meant by "Afro-Caribbean" was that the bass drum played on the two-AND instead of the TWO or THREE--have I achieved intelligibility yet? (In a four-beat measure, if you're hitting the main beats, they're "ONE-and-TWO-and-THREE-and-FOUR-and." If you're hitting what the Phuture drum is hitting, you're playing "ONE-and-two-AND-three-and-FOUR-and." Capitalization for the beats that get hit.) On the main riff to "Satisfaction," Keith and Charlie hit the TWO while Bill hits the two-AND, which helps the song to move, but my saying this conveys nothing of the motion.
What do I try to get at when writing about "dance music"? I try to get at the message or picture that it conveys and how it uses beat, rhythm, or the rhythm-and-voice duet that underlies all such musxic to convey it. Often, though, the message or picture conveyed by "dance music" is an active one, a kind of documentary observation of the lives of its fans--or of its own life...
On To Question 3