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If You Can't Dance At The Revolution... :

The Implicit Politics of Techno

by Clint Small (clintsmall@hotmail.com) continues...from here

.... continued ...

The fracturing of Western society and the increasing irrelevance of governments
in daily life has led ordinary people to establish new forms of community in
which governments and their corporate masters, while present through their
already established ubiquitousness in the forms of laws, currencies, available
technologies and the state of a nation overall, are subverted through
strategies of appropriation, misuse, civil disobedience and a general disregard
for the demands of a dominant culture.  As such, these forms of community, even
if they have no overt political agenda or position, are sites of resistance and
acts of empowerment against the everyday alienation of modern living.  These 
communities may be based in a local geographic context like, say, a child-care
co-op, while others may be, "new formations of transnational local communities
[that] emerge in the spaces of capital's intense but uneven global
localizations."  These communities spread across a wide geographic area, 
forming a kind of diaspora.

In their particular acts of culturally expressive resistance, young people have
always used the technology of the time.  From the mid 1980s this has come
increasingly to mean the microchip and all that goes with it.  Through computer
technologies, young people are creating and distributing their own music, 
publishing their own zines, creating their own works of art, or exploring -
digitally at least - new ways of conceiving an environment through nascent
virtual reality experiences.

One form of activity being created by young people today and which is an  
increasingly integral part of their cultural expression is rave with its host
of musical genres and sub-genres - techno, house, trance, jungle, drum 'n'
bass, hardcore, garage and so on.

If one were to try and define what rave culture is all about, I, as an outsider,
would have to say that it appears to be about transcendence.  About
transcending the mundane frustrations of everyday life.  It's an experiential
culture.  Music, fashion, drugs (particularly ecstasy), the ambience of a
physical space and dancing are all of equal standing.  No one element can be
singled out as being able to convey the totality of that culture.  It is the   
combination of all these things working together that constitutes rave.  To   
understand it properly, you have to participate.

Nevertheless, music is a significant factor in drawing new participants into
rave culture.  And there are stylistic, historic and musicological factors
within the music which can be drawn on to help illustrate some of rave's
cultural tenets.  To address the question of techno/rave culture's radical
potential we will look at the history of techno/rave music itself, how it is
created and distributed, then examine and assess how it is used within and
beyond the confines of that particular subculture.  By doing this may we be
able to arrive at a conclusion that can indicate whether this subculture is one
of significant resistance.


It's The Music Man, You've Gotta Get Into The Music

Although influenced by the 1970s German electronic groups, Kraftwerk and
Tangerine Dream, and American funk acts like Parliament/Funkadelic, the
beginnings of techno are well and truly placed within a localized
socio-cultural context by one of the music's earliest creators, Derrick May.

May links the creation of techno to the Detroit industrial and post-industrial 
scene on a personal level, "...industry is the main focus of just about  
everybody who lives here.  At one point or another, everybody has a family
member who works in the industry.  So the effect is indirectly there.  It's not
necessarily a positive effect.  It's also a very unaffectionate, cold effect.
A machine has no love, nor any feelings and, sometimes, the people that work
with these machines end up having no feeling or love.  Because they're working
relentless hours, they're putting in total commitment to something that's
giving nothing back......we took these same ideas of machinery......the sound
of the synthesizer [and] we created our own sounds.  And all these sounds,   
subconsciously, came from the idea of industry, of mechanics, of machines, of
electronics."

May and his compatriots were also building on an electro-dance symbiosis forged 
in black gay clubs - by their very existence, sites of resistance by an
arguably doubly marginalised subculture - in New York and Chicago, that came to
be known as house music.  By doing this they were taking a form of cultural
expression that was already infused with the politics of sexuality and place
and recontextualising it within their own perspectives of urban wasteland and  
the tyranny of automation by adding their own artistic aesthetic to the music's
stylistic evolution.  These elements have become background constants in the
fast and fluid evolution of rave culture.  Over time, as house and techno
developed and evolved into the host of genres that feature at raves, the music
retained at its core that it was, a) for dancing, b) electronic in nature, and
c) reflected that particular point in time.


Through the use of samplers, "real" sounds, ranging from the sounds of
videogames, TV and radio broadcasts, cars, static, machinery, music already
recorded, and so on, were incorporated with the "artificial" sounds of drum
machines and the "created" sounds of synthesizers to make a music that, at
least technically, has no sonic limits.  All these sounds can be stretched,
played backwards, edited, flanged, phased, delayed, compressed and morphed into
things that have no relation to where they originally came from.

Generally speaking, most genres of rave music are instrumental or mostly
instrumental.  This lack of lyrics allows the listener to interpret the music
in his/her own way, thereby giving them a sense of ownership of the meaning of
a particular piece of music.  By denying it a significant vocal, the music
attains a kind of virtual existence.  That is to say that techno music cannot
be readily identified as originating from a particular place or from a
particular group of people.  It seems to exist without the usual frameworks   
within which we can place popular music and identify it with a particular time,
place, race, etc.

The creators of the music, whose names are well-known within the rave diaspora,
keep low profiles and may go unrecognized, even by their fans.  This is also
true of the other "stars" of rave culture - the DJs (who may also be
composers).  The DJ's role is important in that she/he is responsible for the
successful "performance" of the music at a rave, by playing the right records,
mixing them in an exciting way, sensing the mood of the crowd and adjusting the
music accordingly.  But in reality, the DJ is there simply to help facilitate
the overall experience of those attending.  Having the right DJ is integral to
the success of a rave, but so is an adequate water supply.  The lighting may or
may not highlight the DJ's area as if it were a stage.  This will depend on    
whether the DJ is famous enough to be a major draw in his/her own right. For in
rave, as in disco, the focus is generally on the dancefloor and those who are  
on it.  At larger raves the DJ - famous or not - is a distant figure, hidden 
behind equipment, who rarely indulges in overt, larger-than-life showmanship.



Headspace and Realspace

While much is written about the drug ecstasy and its supposedly fundamental role
in rave, I do not see it, or any other drug for that matter, as being an
element that defines rave as being radically different to other youth
subcultures.  Most, if not all, subcultures (and not just youth ones either)  
have their favoured drugs, from alcohol to heroin, and all are, or have been,
the subject of government regulation and political contest, depending on the
social mores of the day.

As ecstasy expands out of its rave context and takes its place as just another
drug alongside marijuana, speed, etc., within the overall, if still illegal,   
drug culture, for me, the temporary appropriation and recontextualisation of
private and public property for the sole purpose of enjoyment is a far more
publicly radical act than dropping the latest chemical down your gullet.  By
staging events in derelict factories, on farms, in parks, or on major
thoroughfares, participants in rave are undermining the intentions of those who
control these spaces - corporations and governments - by redefining them, 
however temporarily, away from their original purpose.  It is also integral to
the culture of rave that new spaces are continually found, used and abandoned
so that the culture remains mobile, "unpredictable" and "forbidden" - for those
in the loop.




Think Global, Dance Local

Like all diasporas, rave works on two levels.  Ravers themselves like to think
of their subculture as a global one and this is certainly true to a large
degree.  Having found large audiences in North America, Europe, Australasia and
Asia and by incorporating, through sampling technology, the music of just about
any culture it can lay its hands on, rave certainly gives the appearance of a  
worldwide community.

Moreover, rave presents itself as an altruistic culture, with concerns of a
global nature being voiced from within it about the environment, the concerns  
of indigenous peoples and presents itself as a kind of spiritualistic
experience.  However, these things must be taken with a grain of salt.  The
manufacture of silicon, necessary for the production of microchips, is one of
the most polluting processes in existence.  Rave composers and DJs may take a
piece of music originating from some "exotic," indigenous "tribe," incorporate
it into the rave experience and possibly debase it in the eyes of its
originators.  This is particularly likely if the music originally had some
religious purpose, thereby killing the supposed concern for indigenous peoples,
and a respect for the spiritual rights of others, in one fell swoop of
ignorance and insensitivity.  For while particular people within rave may also
engage in political or spiritual activities, the culture itself is not overtly
political or spiritual.  No one person, or group, can claim to speak on behalf
of rave.

On a local level, rave manifests itself according to the constraints of a local
environment.  In the UK, rave has been subject to heavy and sustained
government regulation through the, "employment of old, sometimes obscure
by-laws, such as the Private Places and Entertainments Act, and the
introduction of new legislation, such as the Licensing Act 1988, or the
Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, 1990," culminating in the Criminal
Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which specifically mentions raves twice   
within its content.   As a result, raves conducted outside of acceptable
licensed venues (which kind of defeats the purpose) have had to become even
more secretive.

In the United States there does not appear to be any direct government
opposition to rave culture, but the country's ongoing War On Drugs, with the
extraordinary powers it gives to police, probably provides them with enough of
an excuse, if they wish, to harass ravers, as it would with any other youth
subculture.

The German face of rave stands out because of its pride.  DJ/composer Sven Vath
explains that, "Techno music gave [Germans] a sort of identity which had been
missing for so long.  In Germany we'd always copied the Americans or the
English in terms of music.  Techno music is really an extension of what people 
like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Eberhard Schoener started doing years
ago.....Now we have something of our own here in Germany and the sound that we
went for is something we can be a bit proud of, I think."   While he is correct
about the German contributions to the birth of techno, Vath's comments ignore
the fact that there was no significant interest in rave culture in Germany     
until the early 1990's, long after its arguable heyday in Britain.   

The Germans, however, have made rave almost a mainstream phenomenon which       
culminates each year in the so-called Love Parade, which is held in Berlin,
despite disputes with the local government over the true nature of the event,
and which in 1996 attracted around 750,000 people.  The dispute with the
Berlin authorities centres around whether the Love Parade is a political march
or not.  Organisers claim it is a kind of peace march, thereby making it the
responsibility of the city to supply security and clean up afterwards.   Given
that there are none of the traditional signs of a political march in evidence -
placards, political chants or speeches, etc., one can hardly be surprised at
the attitude of the authorities.  On the other hand, there is no reason why a
political march must conform to traditional expectations, and the Love Parade 
is appropriating public space for the enjoyment of people, denying roads and  
thoroughfares to traffic (including the transport of goods for capital), and
making the government foot a substantial part of the bill.  So there is, at the
very least, a playful kind of subversion going on here.

Rave Goes Mainstream

While rave appears to be peaking in Germany, it is probably fair to say that its
time as an unappropriated subculture in America, Britain and Australia is over,
or just about over.  While rave culture continues, its position as an "outlaw"
subculture is being eroded through the assimilation of various aspects of its
makeup into dominant culture.  Various aspects of the music, for example, are
now regularly heard in Top 40 recordings like those by Aqua.  Even in so called
"alternative" acts like Portishead and the Chemical Brothers, we are beginning
to find traditional song and musical forms evolving to accommodate the techno
aesthetic.  Mainstream fashion has well and truly absorbed aspects of rave,
from clothes to hairstyles and established nightclubs the world over sell at
least one night a week as a "rave," the issue of appropriated space quite
forgotten.


Conclusion

While rave is now being commodified and marketed like never before, it remains  
the only major form of new popular music/youth subculture to emerge in the last
fifteen years.  As such, it is the subculture that makes the most diverse use  
of current technology, not only in the creation of the music, but, as a music
that can be stored on a floppy disk purely as software, particularly as MIDI
files.  It is the music-related subculture that has taken the most advantage of
that other nascent use of microchips - the internet - by being among the first
to significantly exploit Real Audio, MP3 and other audio compressing tools.  As
result, at least for the moment, rave culture is the best placed music-related
subculture to take advantage of the dissident potential of the internet.

But this relationship with machines is an ambivalent one.  On the one hand, a  
form of expression designed to make music, specifically for dancing, out of the
sound of machines, created by people using the latest technology and          
transmitted through even more high technology would seem to indicate a         
celebration of the triumph of the machine.  However, I would argue that by  
appropriating the sounds of machines and organizing them into forms of
expression to be enjoyed by humans is, in fact, an act of resistance.  By
making music out of the sounds and demands of the process line, the typing
pool, the factory, the microchip, and the white noise of the mass media, then
expending physical and mental energy in ways that are non-productive - in
capitalist terms - in relation to this music (eg. through dancing, creating the
music itself, staging events etc.), techno/rave culture, even if it is without 
an overt political agenda is, in itself, a significant response to the late  
20th century environment of global capital movement, reduced workers rights, 
the marginalisation of non-approved forms of leisure and the generational     
deafness of today's adults in response to current youth subcultures.


And, I would argue, rave is a community and is as diverse as any community.  Its
participants may be attracted by any number of rave's ingredients - the
festive-like gatherings, the drugs, the dancing, to create music, dress up,   
meet people - and they encompass a wide range of classes, genders, sexual
orientations, occupations, races, etc.  I have pointed out that rave seems to
have peaked in some places.  This is exactly the kind of evaluation one could
make about particular places within a greater cultural context - about New
York, for example, or London, or Paris.

If techno/rave's radical potential is more significant than youth cultures of
the 1960s, it is only because of the access it has to more advanced
technologies.  As outlined, techno/rave exists in a very different world than
previous youth cultures and as such, everything about it is different.  While  
there are superficial similarities to hippie and punk movements, rave lacks
something tangible to contest - a Vietnam War, a Thatcher government.  That    
doesn't mean there aren't issues to dispute, but how does one mount a protest
in the traditional sense against, for example - global capital movement?  As a
radical movement in a traditional sense, rave doesn't really make it.  Because 
the things that it subverts are both well entrenched and intangible, rave
opposes them in oblique ways.  Hedonisitic leisure in the shrines of capital - 
roads, factories etc.  Music that no-one but ravers understand.  New drugs.   
And technology the Olds can't work yet.

That rave is now the regular subject of mass media attention and comment and is
being co-opted into the mainstream on all fronts may mean that it's heyday as a
self-directed subculture may well and truly be over.  But, on the other hand,
rave culture has a number of positive things to say about tolerance and
acceptance of difference, which, even if diluted by its place in the mainstream
spotlight, makes mainstream popular culture and the discussions carried on
within and about it, richer.  And in a political landscape of division and    
uncertainty, that does make a difference.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bove, Paul A.  "Afterword : Global/Local Memory and Thought,"  in Global/Local :
Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary, edited by Rob
                Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake  (Durham and London : Duke University
                Press,  1996).

Collin, Matthew with contributions by John Godfrey,  Altered State : the Story
of Ecstasy
                Culture and Acid House,  (London, New York  :  Serpent's Tail,
                1997).

Evans, Kathy,  "The Ecstasy Effect,"  in Sunday Life! : the Sunday Age Magazine,
(Melbourne : David Syme & Co.,  14 June,  1998).

McKay, George,  Senseless Acts of Beauty : Cultures of Resistance Since the  
Sixties,               (London : Verso,  1996).

Richard, Birgit and Heinz Hermann Kruger,  "Raver's Paradise? German Youth
Cultures in the 1990's",  in Cool Places : Geographies of Youth Culture 
edited by
                Tracey Skelton and Gill Valentine,  (London : Routledge,  1998).

Schor, Juliet B.,  The Overworked American : The Unexpected Decline of Leisure,
([United States] : Basic Books  :  1991).

Steffen, Alfred,  Portrait of a Generation : the Love Parade Family Book,  (Koln:
Taschen,  1997).

Thornton, Sarah,  Club Cultures : Music, Media and Subcultural Capital,
(Cambridge, UK: Polity Press,  1995).


VIDEOGRAPHY

Atkins, Juan,  Derrick May,  Sven Vath,   Universal Techno,  interviews,
television
                documentary directed by Dominique Deluze  (La Sept Arte and Les
		Films a Lou,  1996).


                

A version of this with full foot notes and references is available if you email Clint.
- All Copyright Reserved Clint Small 1999 -

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