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

Monday, January 28, 2008

DJ 2018: A Clockwork Vanilli?

Djing. What’s it all about then (say it aloud in your best Mockney)? What are DJs for? Why, indeed, do we need them? In the 1920s, the screen gradually replaced the stage as the major form of public entertainment… we have the technology, so why hasn’t a parallel revolution occurred in that other black box?

The other day, a friend asked me to DJ at her party, first and foremost because it stops drunken idiots (and their inevitable iPods) from bickering over the selection. Given the ridiculous requests I’ve received over the years while behind the decks in bars (Troy Cassar-Daley was a recent pearl) this is probably a good idea. Most people haven’t a clue what song to choose (watch those drunkards kill the floor at your average BBQ shindig trying to follow up to INXS’ ‘Need You Tonight’), but add a few drinks (or more) and even the most unmusical guest becomes assertively assured that theirs is the best and only selection (as they do the jog-wheel equivalent of a doughie), before saying ‘Wai wai wai wait… nah, put this on, put this on!’

So on the most basic level, the DJ prevents these kinds of scenes. Go to shitty eastern suburbs pubs and the singer-songwriter performs a parallel function with their slice of ‘American Pie’. If you thought that some ex-Camberwell Grammar footy player with big arms, a tight pink t-shirt and a trebly six string was bad, well, go down the road where they have open mic – or further down the hill (in all senses) to where they’re allowing stage karaoke. Suddenly, Macka’s rendition of ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ is starting to sound pretty good… is that... your not cryin’ are ya, ya wuss?! (Incidentally, isn’t it funny that the song that gets real Aussie blokes all misty-eyed effectively describes giving someone a headlock?)

But anyway, I guess the idea (usually valid) is that you’d better have someone who appears to know what they’re doing, ‘cos otherwise you’re going to have, well, everyone else. But what about alll those other things DJs are supposed to have/do/be? Well, there are other 1990s interpretations, such as:

‘A DJ is someone who…

- takes people on a journey

- can mix records (and does)

- has access to soul (or something resembling it to people on drugs)

- brings the party’

But which of these ideas makes sense in ’08?

Well, the smoking ban has pretty much killed the first one… the constant flux and huff of people moving to and from the big-tobacco bankrolled (and smoking) balconies in most venues in our liveable city has pretty much meant that the set is in the toilet, while the party is out on the sidewalk and (with the drinks and DJ getting spiked and lonely inside).

What about mixing records then? Well, DJs don’t have to have to mess around with either ‘mixing’ or ‘records’ anymore, what with sync buttons and mp3s. Maybe it’s a folly to invest effort in anything that a machine can do better than a person. Autofocus is undeniably better than manual in cameraland, allowing you to get on with the business of framing and capturing that magical moment (and if it’s rubbish, now you can just delete it). Yes, analogue technology was wasteful, cumbersome and expensive, but it also gave DJs (and photographers) the ability to proclaim mastery of fiddly skills that eluded the average punter, while giving equipment-driven hobbies to thousands of dilettantes the world over.

Okay, so DJs no longer take you on a journey, they don’t have to mix, and they don’t play records… what is left to them that the iPod’s shuffle function couldn’t achieve with similar results?

Well, not much. In a lot of bars these days, the bar’s mp3 collection outspanks many a DJ’s hard-drive, and while shuffle won’t be guaranteed of coming up with the winner every time, it’s surprising how good some of the selections can be (often much better and usually more surprising than most DJs). Not only that, but if the next track is crap, you can tell the iPod to skip it without causing offence (something which 20C DJs [still made of meat] struggle with).

Hmm, so, what are we left with? A whole lot of not much (and everything), really, just ‘access to soul’ and the ability to bring the party. The veteran/innovator DJ can fulfil the former function just by showing up – it doesn’t matter if they’re wasted (either on booze or on the audience) and so can’t mix (Juan Atkins) because now they don’t have to. It’s just show up and put up…. But bringing the party? That’s something that no shuffle-button can do as well as a shimmying great ape with a laptop, or so it would seem. Yep, presence, personality and personal appearance are pretty much our only remaining edges over the machines. And this means that, in 2008, the DJ is a visual performer who uses their body as the centrepoint around which the whole party swings. Let Corey do it – seriously. Any gimmicky look will do – witness the financial fitness of all those female Russian DJs who play hard trance while taking their kit off. Nobody seems to mind.

In fact, DJs in 2008 have more and more in common with two kinds of people: IT nerds and drag queens. It’s getting all Warcraft and Mimeart around here. The former aspect is necessary in order to keep abreast (and stay interested) in the geeky, geeky technology that facilitates everything; the latter aspect is essential from the point of view that the DJ now has to inhabit the rendition they’re performing. They don’t have to sing (or mix) but they do have to move their lips (and hips) in time with the datastream in a way that drives the punters wild… and that’s no easy thing. But yeah, I reckon Corey could do it…

I had a nightmare the other night about the DJ of 2018 – I call him/her ‘Clockwork Vanilli’. (S)he’s the bastard offspring of Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Milli Vanilli, with sweet chilli lashings of Noiseworks, Ru Paul and Ziggy Stardust. (S)he sports tights, big sunnies, and a weird device (a cross between an iPod touch, a mobile phone and a dildo – and indeed, probably all these things and more) from which (s)he directs the action, waving the silly thing like a baton and so whipping the crowd into a frenzy (resulting in much wailing, and gnashing of teets). It was frightening, almost frightening enough to drive me squealing and bawling back to the pub for another slice of Don MacLean and Cunters and Hollectors… almost. Or maybe Clockwork Vanilli could do a ‘Throw Your American Pie Around Me’ remix… egad.


Steve said...

Your points are good and understandable. Whenever I read someone making the computer mixing argument, however, I have to bristle a bit.

Imagine you're in a club dancing to a great set coming from a DJ you can't see. Maybe you want to trainspot. When you finally find the booth (why did they put it over *there*?) you find a guy or gal lit up by a laptop, mixing away. (And yes, there is mixing involved. When the computer starts doing all the EQing/figuring out when to play the track/etc., then we can pretend the DJ is the pawn of the computer.)

Do you instantly lose your DJ/music geek erection because the music is going through Firewire instead of a needle? I really want to know, because personally (and, full disclosure, as a laptop DJ) it's never impacted my experience in the least. If anything it's brighter back there and you can maybe see what's good without having to grab the DJ's ear.

I've always felt (and you somewhat allude that) being a DJ means knowing how to build a set in an exciting, enticing way. Shouldn't that be the most important skill? Would using vinyl excuse someone who is poor at mixing or shit at picking out tracks?

Be forewarned, I might pick some of this comment back up for a future column or something.

Jon Rowett said...

as a professional software developer, i don't like the way IT geeks are getting loads of stick here. i may be a gizmo-loving techno utopian, but for DJing i play strictly vinyl, and for music production (which admittedly i don't have any time for these days) i'm deeply suspicious of the software/emulation/loop-driven approach - give me a rack of synths, effects, a mixer and an audio patchbay any day. careful with those stereotypes!

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