DJ Culture in the Mix: Power, Technology, and Social Change in Electronic Dance Music
Rhodes University (South Africa)
It is feasible that Dancecult readers have already grabbed a copy of this book, which might defy the point of reviewing it here in the first place. I will try anyway, taking advantage of this space to highlight some of the topics covered by this collection. Suggesting that one of the strengths of the volume is the plurality of its voices, I will initially comment on a sample of chapters that I find especially noteworthy. I will then conclude with some remarks that are intended to problematize the association between DJ culture and EDM.
I will start with Fontanari’s chapter, which grasps the complex and multifaceted cultural and political economy of EDM. By focusing on poor working-class areas in the largest city in Brazil, São Paulo, he presents a grounded exploration of an only apparently marginal scene, thus managing to reinstate a sense of reality about the DJ experience. Regardless of the scene in which they are operating, the vast majority of DJs, who might be invisible to the mediated world of EDM but who contribute substantially to sustain the nightlife industry in every corner of the world, will probably relate to Fontanari’s account of struggling EDM practitioners and promoters.
If Fontanari's study is grounded in a local scene, Attias’ reflections apply more generally to DJ practices and, in particular, to the authentication of audio formats. His chapter further develops a debate that has already gained momentum in this journal (Attias 2011; van Veen and Attias 2011, 2012) and that will also engage scholars from other fields of music studies as well as performers. Here, Attias discusses critically the discursive negotiation of values about automation and human creation in DJ practice in order to debunk arguments for or against the adoption of specific technological devices: “For essential to such arguments is an unstated warrant: musicianship is a matter of human skill, a techne in the classical Greek sense, a creative practice, that nevertheless seems corrupted by the influence of technology” (29), concluding that, “[u]ltimately, the formats themselves are less important than the creative discourses that surround them” (39).
Also, Fikentscher’s chapter, a taste of which was given during the IASPM biennial international conference in 2013 in Gijón, demystifies many assumptions about DJing, putting the role of technology in perspective and, by comparison, reassessing the importance of music programming, a point that is also advanced in Lawrence’s essay (see below). Fikentscher sheds light on the diverse dimensions of music programming, which involve not only “what songs to play (selection), [but also] when and how to play them” (136). While doing so, he argues for research that will redress an imbalance in DJ culture studies, which so far, claims the author (124), have mainly favoured macro-level approaches.
Lawrence, in a chapter about the Saint in New York that has been previously published in this journal (2011), looks at particular instances by which partygoers exercise pressure on DJs and club managers, hence influencing not only music selection and mixing aesthetics but also, ultimately, employment dynamics. Lawrence inscribes these pressures and the resulting uniformity of the aesthetic within the framework of market-driven neoliberalism in the 1980s, which “positioned DJs as hired entertainers whose primary function was to serve the community and the setting” (224).
Yu, based on the assumption that “technology has lowered the costs and the financial barriers of entry are significantly diminished” (163), looks at issues of value and authenticity among DJs as far as the adoption of new technological tools and the discontinuation of older ones produces a contested cultural terrain. While I am not keen to endorse the “technological democratisation” thesis, this chapter provides a good complement to Attias’ more theoretically-based chapter with its insights on the experience as perceived by a handful of Melbourne DJs.
On the other hand, Rietveld, notwithstanding her established professional involvement as a DJ, quite intriguingly decides to focus on her experience as a club-goer instead. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, she outlines a phenomenological reading of the clubbing experience that shows how it activates the confluence of contradictory elements that are modulated according to the prevalence of either sonic dominance or spectacular culture.
Back to the perspective on DJ practice, Gavanas and Reitsamer examine gendered dynamics in EDM culture and networks, paying attention to the role of the accumulation of social and cultural capital in supporting or hindering DJ careers as well as the inherently conflicting negotiation of female DJs’ self-image. The main thesis of the authors is condensed in this passage: “We argue that this scarcity of women artists originates partly in the gendered social construction of technology and partly in the informal character of working environments and social networks in electronic dance music cultures, dominated by images of male artist/musician/producer/entrepreneur and the sexualized images of (young) women” (54).
A merit of the book consists of its insights into particular scenes, which is in itself a characterising trait of DJ cultures. Valuable field research, historical research and interviews with scene operators and participants spot light on various contexts, including New York City (Fikentscher; Lawrence), Sydney (Montano), Melbourne (Yu), London (Rietveld; Gavanas and Reitsamer), São Paulo (Fontanari), Berlin (Gavanas and Reitsamer; Fikentscher; Paulsson), Stockholm and Malmö (Paulsson). The importance of scenes for EDM and DJ culture demonstrates that, as much as they constitute global phenomena that, up to a point, exceed geographical boundaries, they are also inextricably tied up with place. At the same time, each contextual analysis might reveal certain recurring patterns and processes that can inspire new research about different scenes.
In this regard, Montano’s chapter provides a thorough theoretical discussion of EDM scenes as an intersection of local dynamics and international flows of EDM that travel through trajectories of trade and imperialism. Through field research about DJs performing in commercial venues in Sydney, he shows how the production of locality is also the result of conflicts and alliances between local and international DJs involving issues of authenticity, value, identity, cultural flow and cultural capital.
As we have seen, the authors included in this collection approach DJ culture from various critical perspectives that manage to challenge laymen’s beliefs and media accounts, which are often inaccurate even when they don’t take either of the two extreme forms of moral panics or glorification. Yet, there is at least one issue that possibly has not been problematized enough. This concerns the topic of the book itself—DJ culture—and whether it can actually be identified as a distinct entity also through an association with EDM. While the focus on EDM is the volume editors’ legitimate decision—besides, one that is made explicit already in the title—such self-imposed constraint partially frustrates the contentment to finally see the release of a book of this kind. The intrinsic value of these essays should not lead us to ignore a pressing question: why is there hegemony of EDM scholars over DJ studies? On the one hand, it is undeniable that the relationship between various EDM styles and DJing is intimate, in that it invests specific aspects like techniques and aesthetics of performance, sound amplification, music distribution, dance styles and so on—aspects that are discussed in depth in the book (for example, formats by Attias, mixing aesthetics by Lawrence, the configuration of dance spaces by Rietveld). Nonetheless, taking these aspects as proof of a privileged link between EDM and DJing is but a naturalisation of certain historical DJ practices.
Different kinds of features might be relevant for different DJ cultures, for instance the fact that some cultures favour style and define themselves also in subcultural terms, while other more loosely-based cultures are more extemporaneous and gather people together mostly around a common music taste rather than around values that endure beyond the situation of entertainment. As a matter of fact, DJ culture or, even better, DJ cultures (this is the point I am trying to make: I would have gone for the plural instead) are variously rooted in different musical genres and local contexts, each with its own specific norms, and all showing intimate links with technology, the disciplining of the body and musical aesthetics, including mixing techniques and music programming.
I have the impression that the topic itself of DJ culture, especially when considered as a singular noun, is somewhat a fallacy in that it does not account for the autonomous development of contexts or scenes that might have only spurious links to each other. If the contemporary music industry is apparently characterised by an unprecedented pace of change, EDM especially epitomises this due to its strict dependence on the latest technology, marketing strategies and consumption fluctuations—which might explain the need to anchor the definition of the subject to this specific kind of music as a way to secure theoretical strength and coherence. Nonetheless, the risk is to produce a homogenised and, possibly, even hegemonic understanding of phenomena where distinctions might prevail as compared to the fact that recorded music is reproduced through PA devices to a public.
This collected book includes other chapters that, due to space constraints and personal research interests, are not dealt with in this review. Specifically, Hall and Zukic draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of refrain to establish the function of the DJ as a deterritorializer of “power/knowledge spaces of EDM culture” (106); Christodoulou deals with the ritualization of speed at social dance events within drum ‘n’ bass, thus offering a concrete illustration of Paul Virilio’s idea of a “regime of speed” within contemporary capitalism; Paulsson investigates the adoption of military aesthetics within Swedish so-called synthscenen and the political economy of sexuality that is thereby constructed; and Morrison engages the reader in an excursion into literary reinterpretations of DJ culture by Irvine Welsh and Pat W. Hendersen. Also, notable scholars of EDM, DJing and club culture, including Mark Butler, Rebekah Farrugia, Simon Reynolds, Graham St John, Will Straw and Sarah Thornton, may not be included in the list of contributors, yet they are often evoked throughout the various chapters.
Overall, this makes for a kaleidoscopic look at DJ culture. After all, Rietveld makes it clear from the first words of the introduction that the EDM DJ has many dimensions, being at the same time “party leader, sonic entertainer, auditory artist, music programmer, record mixer, beatmatcher, cultural masher, music producer, creative music archivist, record collector, sex symbol, role model, upwardly mobile brand, youth marketing tool, dancefloor parent, witch-doctor, tantric yogi, cyborgian shaman, the embodiment of studio-generated music” (1). To conclude, this is a collection of (mostly) original contributions that succeeds in capturing the dynamic nature of both DJ culture and EDM.
Attias, Bernardo Alexander. 2011. “Meditations on the Death of Vinyl”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 3(1). <http://dx.doi.org/10.12801/1947-5403.2011.03.01.10>.
Lawrence, Tim. 2011. “The Forging of a White Gay Aesthetic at the Saint, 1980-84”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music 3(1): 4-27. <http://dx.doi.org/10.12801/1947-5403.2011.03.01.01>.
van Veen, tobias c. and Bernardo Alexander Attias. 2011. “Off the Record: Turntablism and Controllerism in the 21st Century (Part 1)”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 3(1). <http://dx.doi.org/10.12801/1947-5403.2011.03.01.08>.
———. 2012. “Off the Record: Turntablism and Controllerism in the 21st Century (Part 2)”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 4(1). <http://dx.doi.org/10.12801/1947-5403.2012.04.01.09>.