By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Dance-music artists sell cars these days at roughly the same rate aging TV stars do late-night infomercials; the automotive industry hasn‘t had such able allies since Doyle Dane Bernbach managed to convince the world that the Volkswagen bug was for love, not war. The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds” sells Fahrvergnugen, the Propellerheads accompany the Jaguar, Moby lends himself out to Nissan. The song that underscores the Ford Focus ads, in fact, is Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins‘ “No UFOs,” the 1985 track that some say launched the current electronic-music revolution.
“Sometimes the artists and DJs in that underground culture, they’ve been making music their whole lives, and they might be getting married, having children,” says Lynn Hasty, who in addition to founding Green Galactic has also run a DJs‘ record pool since 1993. “They might be wanting to make a living at their art -- and what’s so wrong with that? When that Ford Focus commercial came out with a Juan Atkins song, I thought, Right on, poor Juan Atkins is finally making some money! The Detroit automotive industry is finally recognizing and even embracing this other phenomenon that‘s happened in the city in the last 15 years.”
Detroit, she says, is a lot like Los Angeles: “You’ve got a way prosperity next to way poverty, and amazing art and culture was coming out of the way-poverty area. The Detroit techno guys felt dissed, like they weren‘t getting the notoriety they deserved.”
Besides, says Robert Fink, a UCLA assistant musicology professor, techno and electronica are the perfect underscoring for cars. “The big car-commercial metaphor is that the music also has the feeling of finely tuned machinery,” explains Fink, who has spent the last five years studying and teaching others about the myriad manifestations of electronic dance music. “Just the sound of a techno track sounds like machinery -- we’ve been educated to know that cars have been made by machines; I can‘t imagine using electronic music to sell milk.”
I called Fink because I’d seen him give a presentation at a local conference of socially conscious ravers called “The Gathering of the Tribes.” He spread a large sheet of yellow paper across the wall and began to draw on it a genealogy of electronic dance music -- Afrika Bambaataa on one end, Brian Eno on the other, house in the center and, as people contributed to the tree, many splintering categories of trance, ambient and trip-hop. “I try not to go so deep into it that it gets absurd,” he says, “but you need that in electronic dance; you need those labels to precisely describe a piece of music without any vocabulary. It‘s instrumental, it doesn’t have lyrics, and to a Dave Matthews fan it all sounds the same, so it‘s important to find a way of sifting through all this stuff. You end up searching for genre names that have a musical experience.”
Increasingly, electronic dance music’s ever-splitting genres are becoming marketing categories. At the Billboard conference, the buzz centered on “two-step,” a heavily R&B-influenced style based on two-beat bars, pioneered by England‘s DJ act Artful Dodger. Two-step, also known as U.K. garage, is officially the latest dance craze in England; overseas, Artful Dodger has sold more than 700,000 copies of its single “Re-Rewind” since November 1999. But the most pervasive electronic music gone mainstream is trance. My DJ friend John Hernandez, who hosts nights of “headbanging techno,” calls trance “mall techno” and can mimic it with his voice. I associate it with Melrose shoe stores and bad movies, and find it impossible to dance to. But there’s a whole other record-buying crowd, says Fink, that consumes it like air. “For some of the older people in the scene,” Fink says, “trance has become associated with a sort of evolution that they want to stop. If you‘re into house, it’s a soulless, manipulative type of music; if you‘re a breakbeat person, into drum ’n‘ bass, it’s rhythmically boring. If you‘re an avant-gardist, it’s too pretty. But there‘s always a group of people saying it was so much better 10 years ago -- there’s always this pervasive sense that whoever‘s getting into the scene right now is ruining it.”
Fink compares what’s happening now in the dance-music scene to what happened a few years ago in the realm of serious electronic music. “There used to be ‘tension-Nazis,’” he says, “who pounced on music that had any suggestion of a build. If you were a partisan of minimalism, part of a small clique of downtown composers who felt themselves under attack from the establishment, you rejected composers who dropped in tension and release. La Monte Young did a piece called X: Any Integer, in which a x is any integer and you make a sound the same way.” Young banged on a frying pan for a few hours, and, Fink says, “You know after the first 50 times nothing is going to happen.
”No one‘s doing that anymore in classical music. Could the same sort of cycling be happening in dance music? It’s possible.“