in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

From the sex drive to beyond the death drive (via the hard drive)

The link between nightclubbing and music has always been tenuous at best. Classical music fans go out to listen to Mozart, Stones fans (still) go to see Jagger pout and strut. What do clubbers do? Clubbers go out to get wasted. Oh, and pull. Pilling and pulling (in that order) with music the distant, impoverished third link, functional for some, ornamental for most. Techno, you are the weakest link. The music is necessary, but it’s more of a soundtrack to a shared abuse trajectory than anything that people are passionate about. It’s noticeable only by its absence, like the saloon piano falling silent in a Western. ‘Dance music’ as a common-sense category in its club-dependent context is an illusion. The fact is that, qualitatively and quantitatively, we’re talking about a drug culture that uses music, not a music culture that uses drugs. Mikey, the drummer from Spinal Tap, really had his finger on this pulse, when he said,

‘Well… like, personally, I like to think about sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, you know, that’s my life… But as long as there is, you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock’n’roll.’

Mikey, like the blissful majority of clubbers, is under no illusions. But then there’s those others… you know, those silly people who think that groove-based electronic music is, well, an artform, ‘n stuff. Absurd people. Fools. Me, for example. What do you do if you want to go out, want to listen to some techno, want to have a dance? What’s a guy gotta do?

Well, first of all, you’re going to have to wait until it’s late, until the wee-smalls cave in on themselves, until time becomes a wounded snail and you’re already well on the wrong side of Sunday morning. ‘What is it with you electronic music people?!’ a photographer who covered the Red Bull Music Academy asked me recently. ‘I get asked, “Can you make sure you get down and get some pics of DJ Blah-di-Blah’s set tonight?” “Sure,” I ask, “What time’s he playing?” Five in the morning! For God’s sake, whose hours are those?’

I tried to explain to him that five am is a respectable lunch time in Spain, but my dig couldn’t evade the truth his question laid bare: whose hours are those?

Well, I hate to be the fella that says, ‘Dude, why is there an elephant in the room?’ But, the truth is that those are the hours of four groups of people: bakers, religious ascetics, insomniacs and amphetamine users. A real hardcore beer user might get all bendy and make it ‘til five, but it’s the exception, not the rule. Only when large numbers of people are on amphetamines can there be a room full of munters who are not only awake, but who feel like having a good ‘ol boogie at 8 am. Maybe that’s your idea of fun. If I’m not wasted, it’s a grim foretaste of eternity.

So you reach this untenable situation that’s either intensely pleasurable, darkly humorous or tantamount to torture, depending on how you’re getting on with your pleasure and reality principles. Clubbing’s fine if you wanna tie one on, but what if you don’t want to get munted? What if you don’t smoke, or don’t even drink? What if you have to concentrate on Sunday, or it’s your only day off, or it’s your only chance to shop for groceries, develop your own musical interest or fill those pesky potholes in your lawn? Even if it is a whole lotta fun, in the long term, it’s just not compatible with human flourishing. And then there’s the cruel irony when you realise the status quo ain’t gonna go changing, no siree. Not when the very things that make listening to music in clubs unbearable are the same conditions that ensure its profitable sustainability. So what’s it gonna take to change? Or how much?

Well, the rise of methamphetamines has solved this problem, at least temporarily. You can out-dance the death-drive, then come home, mount your partner for four hours, and still find time to polish off a literary masterpiece and two bottles of whiskey before collapsing into the loving arms of oblivion. But what about Monday? And Tuesday? And your teeth? And the eventual impotence, hair-loss and psychosis? (Not to mention becoming vegan, naming yourself after a whale… nah, that’s just nasty.) But apart from that, it’s just great. If a bright idea is represented by a light-bulb, what does it mean that you smoke Tina out of the broken end of one?

So my biographical solution to this systemic problem has been simple – I don’t go out anymore. It’s not ideal, but something had to give, and the nightlife was all take-take-take.
In certain ways, it doesn’t really matter. The internet has meant that I now have access to more incredible music than I have time to listen to, and in between downloading last night’s incredible set from Berlin and listening to it with a portable hard-drive and high-quality headphones, I stumble blissfully (and rhythmically) through the cityscape with two cans full of heaven. Last year I nearly lost it listening to Roman Flugel playing in Frankfurt, while I was in a freakin’ second-hand bookstore in the Australian suburbs.

In some strange way, information technology has made everyone a DJ. As one ‘real’ DJ said to me, the difference between a person with an iPod and a ‘real’ DJ is that the ‘real’ DJ plays out. That’s it. It seemed trite at first, but the truth of it has stuck. If I can get all the latest tracks for free online, Ableton can beat-match them for me and I can listen to them in an environment that’s cheap, convenient and allows me to hear the music in the order I prefer, at a quality far above and beyond what’s presented in most clubs, why the hell would I go out anyway? Stay at home, jerk off, be your own cult of personality – it beats the weekly grind.

Online information networks have enabled diffuse communities of like-minded people to create a common space of critical appreciation and sharing. It’s great, but if it’s Jack, then it’s Jack the bodiless. If it does make bodies move, then it does so discretely and discreetly. It makes something like a dividual disco, this strange, paradoxical shared/private space that manages to be at once the promise of a universal language and the very thing that makes going out to dance to music with other ‘real’ people less and less probable. You bop, I bop, we bop, together/alone. You might be sitting opposite the girl who you were chatting with last night online – and she may be the only sexy girl in the world who likes sleeparchive. But how would you know? And if you did, would you even feel comfortable talking to her in the flesh?
Clubbing’s done the full fling with me – I’ve gone from the sex drive to beyond the death drive, via the hard-drive. My new musical community’s got everything but anybody – and I want Jack back. House nation, anyone?

Originally published by Stylus, here:
© Peter Chambers 2006

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.