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If you happen to be one of the 500-odd students who crowd into Fink‘s UCLA class on the subject, electronic dance music is alive and well, and even trance isn’t so bad. ”I can tell you that people in my class really connect to trance,“ says Fink. ”I think it really is effective, because it does some of the same things that classical music does, in particular the stuff that groove dance music is not supposed to do. It controls your sense of tension and release.“ Fink has played for his students tracks that weave Lakme‘s famous -- famous because British Airways exploited it -- soprano duet over trance tracks. His students loved it. Minimalist devotees of John Cage would call it cheap. Dance-music veterans despise it.
”In the criticism of electronic dance, there’s a suspicion of the build, and dance music is supposed to have this free-floating ecstasy quality to it -- the French word for it is jouissance -- non-articulated, three-or-four-hour plateaus of pulsation. Builds in that genre are considered tacky. But the two most popular forms of dance music, progressive trance and big beat, have builds.
“Progressive trance is called progressive because it goes somewhere. I would argue that Fatboy Slim, who is the master of the over-the-top build, got to be famous because his music is almost a parody of that. But people want that. We like that tension and release, that story, because it‘s a mirror of how we sense ourselves to be. Music that does that in a heroic, powerful way models our way of being.”
And a drug that makes you feel heroic, powerful and empathically connected to your fellow dancers makes that progressive trance build all the more rewarding, says Fink. “Why is this music good when you’re on Ecstasy? Why is it especially related to the MDMA experience? MDMA is an empathogen. How do you know you‘re feeling empathy? Because you look over at somebody and they’re feeling the same thing. When do you know? When the music cues you. In the movie Groove, DJ John Digweed is playing, and there‘s a moment where time slows down, and you know the Ecstasy is working, and everybody’s into it at the same moment. Trance helps people who haven‘t been in the scene for 10 years to grab on to those big, exciting builds. And when a group of staid, middle-aged people are sitting at the symphony, it’s happening for them, too. When the soprano goes up for a high note, we‘re all with her.”
No music has ever become popular without the build, Fink says. “I don’t like the either-or, that there‘s a cheesy, tacky way of doing things, and then there’s this jouissance way. In fact it‘s a continuum. No dance music can become really popular if it literally goes nowhere. Even Richie Hawtin -- who makes the most extreme kind of minimalist techno -- does have shape and structure to his sets. Every DJ I’ve talked to is very conscious of spinning a set that has structure.
”Make your peace with the builds,“ Fink advises me. ”If you‘re going to insist music be pure, you’ll have to listen to that guy banging on the frying pan forever.“
”You gotta have an anthem,“ DJ Irene says to me. ”What‘s your anthem? C’mon. You gotta have one. What‘s that song that just makes you go crazy on the dance floor?“
”Um, I don’t know. Madonna‘s ’Holiday‘?“
Irene cracks up. It’s a big, throaty, full-body laugh, and she claps her hands together using the power of her entire arm. ”That‘s it!“ she roars. ”That’s an anthem! Now, Madonna doesn‘t want to do that song anymore. But when her fans want it, and when she does it, they’re fanatical.“
Irene Gutierrez and I are sitting in her sunny apartment in the Hollywood Hills, with its shiny hardwood floors and upstairs studio, watching her new video on a large-screen TV. In the seven-minute video, produced by a young director named Bo Basic, DJ Irene dances, dresses up, plays for the crowd. She plays everything from house to trance to straight-ahead, amped-up disco. ”I can‘t be limited to one genre of music,“ she says. ”I’d get bored. I have much respect for other DJs continuing in one style for their whole careers, but it‘s just not me. When I was at Circus, my job was to keep people dancing. For a while I was being pigeonholed to hard-house, but it wasn’t right, and people knew it. I won‘t be pinned down. I mean, how do you think I made it through the ’80s? I changed with the times. Just like Madonna.“
There is no longer any drawback to being a woman DJ, says Irene. ”As girls, we are the best dancers, so why shouldn‘t we be the DJs?“ she asks in utter seriousness. And there’s no shame in having a hit. ”The best part about deejaying is that when you play the right song, you feel like you‘re changing people’s lives. For me that‘s System F. ’Dance Valley‘ is my biggest anthem. Some people think it’s corny. But if people are waving their hands over their heads and screaming, I must be doing something right.“