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Do You Wanna Dance? April 8, 2009

Posted by dailyegg in 1.
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Fortunately or not, I can still remember hippies moving around in big smoky rooms doing something I was told was dancing. If I remember correctly, what I saw was sort of this free-form, hips-and-shoulder roll-thing that was great for two reasons:  it seemed to require very little skill. And it was sexy.

I was intrigued.

The point was, hippies wanted their dancing to be inclusive and free enough from past standards so that anybody could join in, unselfconsciously. Or, if the dancer happened to be really good, then they—whoever you were, man!—were free to let it rip. Solo-style. Let the preacher preach. Let the brother bring down the sun machine. Everyone could do his or her own thing. And none of it was threateningly pre-ordained or standardized. Everybody smiled, no matter how good or how bad it was. Good and bad themselves, in fact, were bad. It was all groovy. 

When the hippie ventured out into grassy dance floor of the music festival, if was with the belief that they were creating a freer, more just world. And for that you had to take your hands off your partner’s waist. In the hippie era, the dance partner, if they existed at all, orbited the other loosely, touching only long enough to pass the joint. The days of hooking arms and following coordinated, planned-out steps were over.  

By the time the mid- and late-seventies rolled around dancing, as it scattered through the suburbs, split into two distinct camps: disco and punk. Ideas like conformity still had credence in those days, un-ironical credence, and looking back it seems obvious that the two styles were saying deliberately opposing things about the larger culture. Disco said, Let’s Dance the Night Away. Punk said: Don’t Tell Me What the Fuck to Do.

If Disco was interested in demonstrating that its practitioner was an eager conformist, then Punk was interested in showing how its adherents rudely broke with the Establishment—another term that has lost its currency. For disco, state of body was valued over state of mind. Disco dancers often dressed in suits and danced in a way that was reminiscent of ’50s dancing, but their costumes, those chiffony Furstenberg dresses—and their counterpart, the immortal powder-blue Tux—were acceptable characterizations of a newly assertive sexuality, albeit one that too often choreographed its intentions to machine-driven beats. The Hustle had steps that you had to learn and practice, coordinated moves that came with a real difficulty quotient, prohibitively high to the uninitiated. You could solo in disco, but fundamentally you were anchored in a partnership, not overtly formalized perhaps, but partnership it was. In a word, Disco was Us. Incorporated.

While disco dancers were announcing their glide-and-slide commitment to money and marriageability, Punks were detonating their ties with any social rubric whatsoever (excepting the rubric of joining the rebellion). For the Punk, dancing had to be free and vigorous, expressive of a deep commitment to impulse. The thrashing and jumping up and down—pogoing—that these impulses became often turned violent in the mosh pit. And that was a good thing, generally. Because it provided a validity, of sorts. Violence was primal, not packaged, and anything primal was real, and therefore honorable. Dancing, for punks, was a way of reclaiming the individuality that was being denied them by the rest of the disco-conforming world. As long as your individuality remained within the confines of the overarching Punk ethos, you could do whatever you wanted to do. You had no other choice.

Then break-dancing came in and reminded everyone about race and class and the difference between urban hipness and suburban blasé. Break dancers had taken acrobatics and skill in an entirely different direction and dancing became so insanely difficult that for most  people the only way they could participate was to become An Officially Avid Spectator. Or ridiculous imitator. This sort of set the dancing scene back to square one: right where music had been at the beginning of the 20th century, when black sounds became Blues and Jazz, and white people, intrigued but mystified, could participate  only through . . . avid spectatorship.

Until they figured out how to steal it and make it white-enough-to-sell. Which happened again in the ’80s, as break-dancing and rap began mixing with the drum machine and the MC, and coalesced it’s own themes of urban dislocation with a kind of punk disenchantment-with-the-establishment attitude. The result was hip-hop. As the market opened up, break dancers stood up. And worked some of their moves into more disco-like formalities, every now and then adding a dash of hardcore whiplash to keep the mix from getting stale. 

By this time, though, Video Killed The Radio Star and all this music was making its way onto TV in massive generation-influencing doses. And the watching-the-tube-since-we-were-babies spectator culture assimilated it hugely, bringing it home in the form of the tattoos that are now mandatory for all Americans under the age of 35. LL Cool J, Tupac, Run-DMC, NWA, Rakim, Ice-T, Dr. Dre, you name it. Public Enemy. Fight The Power. Ganstas were introduced and pimps were emulated—worshipped, basically—largely for the appealing fantasy of their relentless braggadocio, which was the ’80s way of saying Fuck You to the Man, who at this point was well on his way to becoming a brotha.

By the early 1990s, you could dance structured and difficult (MC Hammer), or you could go earthy and free-form (The Spin Doctors) and either one was as acceptable and as meaningless as the other. You might like to cue “Saturday Night Fever” for a blast of nostalgic Hustle. Or you could bump-and-grind pimp-style to bootilicious ‘hos beside the hip-hop barbecue. Or maybe you preferred to step inside Feminist Pop, and “Vogue” with Madonna. It was all good. Especially if you wanted to go sincere and New Bohemian with Edie Brickell. If that didn’t staunch the ache in your heart you could pogo in the mosh pit, this time with Nirvana at the helm. Or you could lose yourself in some sketchy acid at Lollapalooza and not know what the hell you did. Which may or not be the case with the ecstasy you took at the rave in that hard-to-find warehouse, dancing—or appearing to dance (those strobes sure helped a lot)—night after night, week after week, until you began developing pre-Parkinsonian-like tremors in your frappuccino serving hand. 

Either way, by the mid 1990s, you might just skip it altogether. Skate boarders and graffiti artists don’t dance. They mug while they listen, and watch for what’s whack. Or maybe they Grind. Or wait their turn to Grind, handrails be damned. Either way—cop what you can and keep it crispy. Something those who were listening to InSync or Boyz II Men surely did not know how to do.

Which brings us to the millennium and the current era of supersaturation. Not only is there more diversity of music than ever before, there is so much more of it that it’s impossible, literally, for a single human being listen to, much less dance to, even a small percentage of it. The whole early 2000s DJ phenom was, by one manner of thinking, the only logical response to this problem. Instead of making more original music, the DJ’s effectively said, let’s recombine the shit that’s already there. Thereby satisfying the need for newishness while also staying within the comforting bounds of the semi-familiar. New and nostalgic? How? Mash it up. It wasn’t a conscious process. No musical direction is ever planned out in advance. But, like any musical direction, it was a response to what was going on out there. Like it or not.

So why do we produce so much music? Why do we consume so much? Both production and consumption, aided by new technologies and delivery systems, has gone sharply up in the last four decades. We’re talking Mathusian projections here. 

In 1980, twenty percent of Americans were regular purchasers of music; by 2007, that percentage had gone up by a third. But even that mildly impressive-sounding rise is hugely misleading because the population of available buyers had in the meantime also increased: 30 percent of 60 million (2005) is way more music buyers than 20 percent of 10 million (1980). In terms of raw numbers, there are 50 million more people buying music now than there were in 1980. 

And that’s just the conventional vinyl, tape, and compact-disc market. Add to that downloadable Internet rips and the numbers swell further. In 2005, Internet downloads were triple what they were the year before, which accounted for 6 percent of total record industry sales. Last year 420 million single digital tracks were uploaded from the Internet, totaling 1.1 billion dollars. That’s up $600 million from the year before. In 1999, the market peaked at almost $15 billion. As the number of rips rise and the sales of physical media falls, the numbers are still huge but they don’t translate into the huge profit margins the industry is used to. The managers are worried. Profits are trending down. The industry hasn’t figured out how to make money off a generation that buys from the Internet. But give them some time. (They will.)

Because dance is something that most sociologists agree is hard-wired into our social brains—one of the ways we can make a bid to be a part of certain group. Plus, it’s fun. Officially informal, it nonetheless informs on many levels. We dance to celebrate special events with our friends and relatives; we also dance to introduce ourselves to new families and new ad-hoc communities. It’s a collective undertaking, yet it doesn’t squash individuality. You can be yourself while also being a part of the group—and you can accomplish both in the space of a single song. 

But there’s not much point to dancing if there’ no music playing. And as the spectrum of available music has widened, and differing musical styles have been invented, rediscovered, or synthetically joined together, it seems the voice of music itself— its power  to speak through the cultural noise and touch new neuronal ground—has become, for some observers, significantly less potent. 

But this could just be a phase. 

I like to think of it this way. The 20th century saw popular music move from Stephen Foster tunes (I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair) to Blues to Ragtime to Jazz to Swing to Teen-Idol Crooners to Country to Honky Tonk to Rock-and-Roll to Folk to The Beatles and Motown to Psychedeila to Acid Rock to California Country to Funk to Disco to Punk to Heavy Metal to New Wave and Hardcore to Rap to hip-hip to Grunge then back to hip-hop and over to Boy Bands and into Manufactured Princess Pop to DJs—to name only the dominant genres—before it went back to boys with guitars and cute hairdos. In the middle of all these dominat genres there are tons of sub-genres and other eccleticisms. Emo and Elliot Smith, and shape-shifters like Beck, or new-sincerity old-sounding artists like Iron and Wine fill up some of the in-between places that Sufjan Stevens can’t fill. But the era of Big Transcendent Acts like The Beatles or The Supremes appears to be stalled. No wonder it’s hard to keep moving those hips across broad demographics. 

Presently, it’s possible that too much self-consciousness about Demographics and Identity has created divisions in the listening-and-imagining population—everything’s very targeted—curtailing a visionary invention expressive of mass unity. Maybe we’re all too individualized now to rock together as one. 

One day, when the ruins of our civilization are unearthed, some unsuspecting post-humanoid life-form is going to come across trillions of CDs and wonder what sort of lunatic civilization liked creating round mirrors with holes in the middle. Maybe some of these humanoids will speculate that The Lost People produced so many of these kooky mirrors because we worshipped the holographic rainbow that leaps from shine when the disc is tilted just so. 

They wouldn’t be so far from the truth. 

 But eventually they will figure out a way to make all those discs burn, and thus begin a whole new economy based in plastic file-fuels. Needless to say, the music encoded on those mysterious long-burning substances will most likely never be recovered, since no one will know how insert them into the right machine, or how to turn on those machines and get them to operate. Motherboards? Huh? Read-only memory? Don’t make me angry.

If we’re lucky, some of these unfortunate beings will stumble across a dance video still connected to a battery that works. As they listen they wont be able to understand our words but they sure will understand all those kinky bodily gyrations. If we’re lucky, they’ll laugh. If we’re not so lucky, they’ll be, like, What the devil is that?

 And then they’ll go back to howling at the moon, dreaming up their own incipient Waltzing Matilda.

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