Writing About Dancing: Disco Critics Survey

4. Talk technology. Have technological changes in the recording industry--samplers, computer sequencer programs, etc.--improved, damaged, or made no difference whatsoever to the music?

Improved, but the difference has been overstated. The sampler just facilitated something that was already culturally and musically long underway, going back to reggae in the late '60s and various DJs and mixers before then. As I said in one of my Top 5s, I don't see a fundamental difference between copying, taping, splicing, looping, or sampling. And in itself I don't give a damn whether I'm listening to a drum machine rather than a breakbeat, any more than I give a damn whether I'm listening to a Fender rather than a Gibson. Of course (see my answer to number 3), interesting individual stories can be told, e.g., how Jimmy Page's guitar style changed when he shifted from Fender to Gibson, and so forth.

And I'll say that I don't like house and techno 2001 nearly as much as disco 1977, but I don't blame this on the technology.

They've improved things in many ways. Just the accessibility and the affordability of the equipment has enabled scores of bedroom producers to come up and start mini-revolutions. Without this, much of what has happened in dance music in the last few years would not have been possible. Two-step and drum'n'bass, especially, have benefited from cheap equipment getting in the hands of 17 and 18 years olds. On the flip side, I hear a lot of grumbling from more experienced producers about the ProTools technology, or the all-in-one Groovebox, with its pre-set sounds, stripping away some of the creativity and making editing and mixing down too easy. This can create a lot more formulaic music, especially if the producers are not going out of their way to create their own beats, find their own samples, and make their own sounds. ProTools encourages simplistic, formulaic set ups, especially in drum'n'bass and house music, where there's clearly an unofficial guideline that's being followed. More access means more records, but also more crap to sort through. Dance music is so disposable already, and this can sometimes contribute to the problem.

The techniques you mention gave the "dance music" musician more devices to work with, yes, but they make no essential difference: any more than the sudden availability of band instruments in post-Spanish American war New Orleans made the jazz that was developed on them, or than the invention of the amplified gee-tar made 1940s R & B different. Additional techniques simply challenge the inventive musician to assert his already existent innovative instincts a bit more aggressively than he might otherwise have done...(I might add that the techniques you list belong to hip hop just as fully as they do to "dance music"...)

Well, people danced before those changes (and before electric guitars or fiddles, even), and people danced after them. So no, they haven't made much difference at all. Isn't that kinda obvious? Though okay, sometimes I do miss those cute little robotic analog synth sounds of olden times. But they're coming back, aren't they? And DJ P and DJ Z-Trip have even remembered that Pat Benatar and Rush and Phil Collins and Tom Petty have beats on their records, which is something hip-hop and techno sheep stopped understanding a couple years after Afrika Bambaata invented the turntable. (Before him, they were called "record players." And I have just now decided that I'm gonna start calling "turntablists" "record-playerists" instead, just to be obstinate.) But okay, maybe I've gone off on a tangent here. Sorry. Actually, my very favorite songs to dance to are probably mostly soulful garage rock songs and garage-rocking soul songs of the late '60s or so--you know, stuff like "The Oogum Boogum Song" or "Expressway to Your Heart" or "Double Shot (of My Baby's Love)" or "The Love You Save" or whatever--so maybe dance music has gotten worse over time. But I don't know that technology is necessarily what I would blame for it.

When a new piece of tech comes on-line as it were, there is always a gap where the trad musically skilled don't know how to deal with it, and the discursively sharp, culturally astute types--often non-musicians in that Eno mold--seize the time and surge ahead, finding unexpected applications for the new machine, ways of (ab)using it. But then things level out again as everyone assimilates the new technology and the old hierarchies of talent over non-musicality can see it time again--with synthesizers (Daniel Miller of Mute/The Normal said the synth was only any good when used by non-musicians), with drum machines, with sequencers, with sampling...At first the canny ones move in and do stuff, perhaps superficially striking stuff, with it, and then the more musical ones come in and do stuff that's more sophisticated, in key, arranged a la trad musical values...being an old punkie at heart I tend to valorize the surge moments when the sharp-witted DIY barbarians seize the new tools or think up new ways of bending existing tools...e.g., hardcore rave and early jungle, with the whole speeding up the breakbeats, using timestretching etc. thing. Because they don't know the Rules of get all kinds of interestingly wrong-sounding music, improperly integrated fusions...when "musicality" comes back, it's less interesting, because "music" has been done really hasn't it, there's no shortage of pleasant melodies or harmonious, euphonious stuff to listen to.

Ultimately though I tend to think in any era the really musical ones will rise to the top eventually once the new technology-induced commotion settles down... although a lot of musically talented folk get caught in the 'wish I could make music like the golden age' retro-trap and get pulled out of the innovation game, as it were.

On To Question 5