Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Scaling up the Dance

‘Are you ready to party even harder’ - David Guetta, T in the Park, July 14

I had told myself No after Glastonbury but I did it again at the weekend – slumped on the sofa, indulging in vicarious festival experiences and making peremptory judgements. This time on the dance acts at T in the Park, 20 years old this year and as much a site for extreme Scottish hedonism as it ever was. My beady eye focused on French globetrotter David Guetta and local, but long estranged hero Calvin Harris. Welcome to enormo-rave. Enter the Big Dance.

While the first wave of festival rave acts like Underworld and Orbital broke through rock festival terrain on the latter’s terms, in some cases effectively becoming rock acts a la Prodigy, today’s top acts are just one man with a digital box of tricks, a hard-drive of their own work and Traktor. Calvin Harris has long dispensed with pretensions of a live act, choosing the Guetta route and in doing so helping to revive the ‘superstar DJ’ talk of the late 90s and turn of the millennium. BITD, no one guessed that the modern version of a DJ with just his own tunes would be enough to slay a huge summer festival audience, but add in the fireworks, develop the sound and deploy occasional crowd hyping by the DJs themselves (keep all your fee), and a bloke on his own on a huge stage more than meets the crowd’s expectations. The overall effect is scalable, very scalable.

Part of me wants to praise the likes of Guetta for fearlessly divining the true mass potential of ‘our’ dance music, the other wants to string them up for shamelessly exploiting and commoditising the sound, and therefore the raver’s experience. Yet whatever your sentiment, you can’t help but be amazed by the sheer fuckoffness of the crowd reaction. Customised and pimped out for this environment as the sound is, you cant help notice too that the crowd are not dancing as such but basically jumping up and down – if they’re not on someone’s shoulders – arms extended ready for another huge climax. This music, with the hard riffs of techno isolated and ground even harder over bastard drum rolls, sledgehammer kick drums and either euphoric vocals or catchy party-rap lines, has little need of subtle dancefloor movements.

Clearly in sonic affect and crowd reaction, as well as sound commercial base, there is also some crossover with the US dubstep and EDM inspired rave-event scene led by jocks like Deadmau5, Skrillex, Steve Aoki, Zedd and co, as documented by Simon R in his updated Energy Flash.

So while observers have rightly detected in some strands of modern dance music an anhedonic pulse, there is none of that here. To every young man and woman the crowd camera pans round to, everyone is fully going for it, feeling the communal experience of 20,000 bobbing up and down, hands in the air, going wooh-woo – all pretty uniform really; the sound demands that. In this ultra-commercial music, rave and therefore modern youth convinces itself it is in fine fettle, no generational slacking, or intrinsic melancholia.

(Guetta doing Titanium on a TV show last year)

Now no genre-specific name quite captures the macrocosmic sound of DJs like Guetta or Harris and, yes, Swedish House Mafia – neither house nor techno just Dance. Big Dance. Or High-Fructose (a punny compound name would be good). However, this generalisation rather than genre-isation in no way hints at the Death of Rave; this is just one more mutation amid infinite change and broadening out of the culture – unpalatable for some who will get their kicks elsewhere but the real deal for many others.

Nevertheless those for which American EDM fests or UK festival blasts are their introduction to dance music may struggle with the kind of specialist do in a dingy warehouse or stripped back club where people usually earn their rave stripes. There different spaces and moods exist among the peak-time Pavlovian exhilaration that may have ingénues pining for the next festival season.

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