Photo by Julia Wollenhaupt
There are some incredibly smart people
making contemporary house music. Armand Van Helden isn’t one of them. It’s impossible to read an interview with him and not be blown away by the co-dependent relationship between his arrogance and low-watt intellect. What makes him fascinating as an artist is that his best work, the groove that hits you viscerally, dragging you onto the dance floor and daring you to leave, is almost accidental, springing unencumbered from his subconscious. That stuff is dazzling, it’s frequently faggy, and it seems to unnerve him. His latest musical endeavor, Killing Puritans, comes from his hyped-up consciousness, from the front of his flamingly hetero brain. And with the exception of only a handful of moments — most of which are more interesting in theory than in execution — it’s a very bad album, both in its politics and its sound.
Killing Puritans is all over the place — heavy-metal riffs, thudding hard house instrumentals, Van Helden’s sneering taunts scorching across the grooves — but it’s painfully contrived. The raw, dirty sound and feel of it are often assaultive, with no aim except to piss off old-school househeads in clichéd, knuckleheaded metal fashion: It’s Macho House. The album’s pointed genre-hopping, contrary to its obvious intention, doesn’t demonstrate breadth of vision or an organic, purposeful linking of wildly different types of music (the way, say, the late
Larry Levan did when he’d throw left-of-center choices on his turntable) so much as come off like a bratty kid throwing his toys at you to try and draw blood.
To be fair, Van Helden does earn a few props. He’s on the money in realizing that much of the wretchedness of modern dance fare is due to its pronounced lack of sexual heat. Blame a generation of DJs and producers who came of age in a time of AIDS-induced repression, in a culture that is paradoxically oversexed yet steeped in fear of sex. Blame a generation of dance-music fiends who can’t envision their much-vaunted “positivity” encompassing the liberating roil of bodily fluids. Whatever the cause, it’s as though a “check your dick at the door” policy were in effect for almost anyone trying to construct a groove or dance to one. Armand is clearly tired of blue balls on the dance floor, and who can blame him? But his solution is pathetic: On tracks like “Koochy,” the album’s first single, he dips into played-out Luther Campbell territory for sexual healing: caricatured, pimped female sexuality as the solution, with the hip-hop ho pushing drag queens to the sidelines. It’s already a big club hit.
Van Helden deserves credit for acknowledging the depth and harsh reality of racial divides within the culture, for not falling for the “colorblind” rhetoric that clubland’s Benetton short-bus posse espouse even as they perpetuate age-old pop-culture racial hierarchies. Van Helden works hard to bring devalued, discarded blackness — black sounds, vibes and consciousness — back up in the modern house mix (next to his rock-star and thug posturing). The problem is that his notions of blackness, like his ideas on maleness and sexuality, are more often than not reactionary cartoons rooted in the bullshit chic of ghetto realness and hip-hop ghetto fabulousness. Check out his bling-bling b-boy photo spread in the current issue of Urb magazine, with video ho’s lounging in headphones around him.
Van Helden’s shaky credentials as a visionary spokesman for the house generation are revealed most clearly in a couple of quotes from that Urb interview. In one passage he says, “House is built on a vibe and an atmosphere, not built on a message or anything political.” Later he states, “The thing that bothers me is that people have forgotten or refuse to acknowledge the
history . . . They don’t do the research, and the elders are just falling out of the loop and not giving back in any way . . . History is here to teach us, and if you don’t let it, then you’re just going to . . . go through the same motions without evolving.”
Taken together, the quotes reveal both his ignorance and hypocrisy. Many of the house elders he speaks of have been lost to AIDS or drugs; those that are left have been cast aside by a new dance culture whose exponents pride themselves on being beyond the grasp of corporate America and its manipulation, but in their self-chosen terminology — touting themselves as a “youth culture” movement — show how thoroughly they’ve been shaped and bought by the thing they rail against. That very terminology — with its built-in barriers, ageist dismissals and constant quest for the new at any cost — is what has squashed the intergenerational dynamics that were once found so easily in disco and house, and that once allowed for the kinds of exchanges Van Helden says he longs for.
And the politics of house — like disco — may not have been yelled out with the fury of punk or hip-hop (they exist beyond the narrowly conceived definitions of “political” that we’ve come to accept), but they were among the most potent and radical of any musical movements in this country. They celebrated sex and sexuality in all its manifestations; they removed the straight boy and the white boy from the position of cultural nexus, not to erase or deny him, but in pursuit of real equality for all, new terms of coexistence. But now the music and the culture have fallen victim to the ridiculous but rigidly enforced notion that the cultural spaces and subcultures carved out by sexual and racial minorities only evolve and make progress by the presence of whiteness and heterosexuality. New-school househeads have fallen before the beliefs that brutal macho energy is more daring and radical than that which is fluid and ambiguous, and that youthful exuberance and narcissism are enough to build and sustain culture. Van Helden benefits from and feeds these delusions more than he knows, and with his caveman music and politics he pisses all over house’s truly revolutionary impulses.
For a far more enlightening and entertaining take on dance music, its history and complex sexual and racial politics, pick up the new book My Life and the Paradise Garage: Keep on Dancin’ by Mel Cheren (as told to Gabriel Rotello). Cheren was a co-founder of the influential disco label West End Records. His lover, Michael Brody, founded the Paradise Garage, forerunner of the multiracial boundary-smashing dance tack and philosophy of rave and electronic cultures. Initially, the book elicits groans as it recounts a personal narrative that has already wilted into cliché: A good Jewish boy struggles to emerge from under his mother’s suffocating wing, giving furtive blowjobs to sailors as a teenager and feeling like the biggest freak on the planet. But it slowly evolves into a fascinating look at the inner workings of the music industry (Cheren’s Rolodex of business peers and acquaintances reads like a Who’s Who of the business), as well as a detailed overview of the gay-rights movement and the birth and decline of disco, as well as a riveting account of the people and tales behind the Paradise Garage (including much space devoted to Larry Levan and Tom Moulton, a founding father of disco and a hugely influential presence in modern dance music).
What’s most striking about this book is not the wealth of pop-culture history that is so richly laid out, not the gossip and name-dropping that fill the pages, and not even the painstaking remembrances of how the art of deejaying came to be, but the outlined utopian vision that dance music’s early fans were so sure they were ushering into existence. Beneath the endless drug use and sexual musical chairs is a heartbreaking naiveté. Cheren and Brody actually thought they were going to integrate the races, break down the forces of homophobia, and bring about a consciousness full of love, brotherhood and endless possibility. For a brief moment, with the help of some classic music, and in a hallowed space, they did just that.
ARMAND VAN HELDEN | Killing Puritans (Armed)
MEL CHEREN | My Life and the Paradise Garage: Keep on Dancin’
24 Hours for Life | 495 pages | $25 hardcover