Why is there such a dearth of good dance music? [long read]
A couple of weeks ago, over a cup of coffee at his place, I was having a ‘how are you’ chat with Ctel. He looked weary, dejected, profoundly disappointed. Nothing new then, I thought, as the man has always exemplified the joie de sombre of life of which anyone who regularly reads his blog is well aware. I was expecting allusions to work, long hours, child care and what have you, so often the case, as the reasons for his deeply morose expression on what was a delightfully sunny day. On this occasion, however, his forlorn demeanour was the product of something more nuanced than the general vagaries and vicissitudes of life that, periodically, tend to drag down all but the most fortunate.
He explained that he had spent several long, tedious hours that day ploughing through dozens of new musical releases that were, almost without exception, stale, tired and deeply unsatisfying. It was a self-inflicted – though necessary, given that he has to write the blog – torture to have to listen to endless streams of formulaic, dull, completely uninspiring sounds until and only if he was really lucky when he might stumble upon a nugget of goodness amidst the dross. It was, he said, becoming increasingly difficult to find anything worth reviewing and instead was just plain exhausting and time-consuming when faced with a seemingly unending ocean of blandness. I nodded sympathetically. Several weeks earlier, Ctel had asked me why my reviews had more or less dried up entirely to which I responded that almost all the music sent to me was so unexceptional and humdrum that I simply couldn’t be bothered, a sad state of affairs that had been going on for some considerable time and continues to do so. I refuse to review for the sake of it. Inevitably, perhaps, this has led me to consider what is going on vis a vis contemporary dance music. Is it me (and Ctel) getting old, cantankerous and hard to please or is the dance music du jour really that bad?
I remember, in the early ’90’s, thinking how incredibly lucky I was to be around in an era that was producing such a phenomenal amount of great music. The re-emergence of the DIY punk ethic applied to dance music allowed just about anyone, should they wish, to start making tunes. The result was a trans-global torrent of bands and DJ’s that produced a tsunami of sounds, some of which were crap but many of which were great. There was a tremendous energy and innovation that permeated dance and club culture, hugely aided by E no doubt and sundry other narcotics, but the results were impressive. You couldn’t keep up with it all, such was the volume of high calibre releases on what seemed like a weekly basis. Nowadays I struggle to find anything that even begins to stoke my interest or excitement.
Why is there such a dearth of good dance music? It’s so bad that much of my time is spent listening to jazz or classical (which I’ve always listened to so don’t even go there) or stuff from ten or more years ago. If I do listen to anything contemporary it’s pretty much always limited to the likes of Max Cooper or Ukkonen or similar – those who consistently produce fresh, creative work or at least something that doesn’t sound like it was thrown together in ten minutes and stuck on a 4/4 – and the odd piece that Ctel is able to ferret out from the piles he gets sent every week. Yet I know that finding those pieces is becoming more and more of a struggle for him. Are we just getting old and crabby then, falling, inevitably, in to that ‘It’s not as good as it was in my day’ cliche of the older generation berating and bemoaning the younger or is there a basis for our ennui and disillusionment? Given the hundreds of records that Ctel is sent each week and the fact that he’s far less of a bigoted purist than me, I feel it says something that he is having trouble finding enough halfway decent tunes to fill the blog. Far too much of what we get now is monotonous, prosaic, derivative tosh lacking originality, passion, some depth even, anything that would make you sit up, take notice and want to hear again.
I expect there will be those giving it the ‘Well, you do it then if you think it’s so bad’ line but that’s not the point. I’m not a musician or DJ or music maker of any kind but, if you are and that’s your job, then you have to be prepared to take some stick with the praise. Ctel told me recently that he gently critiqued a track that someone had sent him to review only to have the person become apoplectic that he had been honest enough to say it wasn’t very good. Since then, he said, he only reviews tracks he likes because he can do without the grevious anger of hurt feelings. Maybe, however, being more honest or critical, instead of maintaining a pained silence, is what is needed if only to try and resist the avalanche of banality presently engulfing us. Maybe we need to say more often that this track or that simply isn’t very good or needs a whole lot more to elevate it into the pantheon of the good or the great. Or maybe, as Vincenzo Coccotti says, that’s it, that’s as good as it’s going to get and it won’t ever get that good again. Maybe the best came and went twenty years ago and what we’re left with is an endless regurgitation of essentially the same tune or the Guettas of this world pumping out million dollar making mediocrity of the lowest order to thousands of hysterically grateful people. I seriously hope not. Think of the children.
This is not a cri de couer for a return to the’90’s, a nostalgic desire to relive what has gone before. That would be truly depressing not to mention wholly unrealistic. I’m just venting my and, by extension, Ctel’s frustration and disappointment at the pedestrian and vapid nature of so much of what we’re hearing now. Where’s the passion or energy or innovation? Why do so many records possess all the excitement and inventiveness of a fucking dial tone? I don’t know if it’s laziness or a lack of talent or stimulus or what but, bar a few notable exceptions, it feels like a groove that far too many have been stuck in for far too long.
Essay by D