Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Silent Rave, New York

From New York Times, 20th April 2008:

'on Friday evening, at the south end of Union Square near East 14th Street. More than a thousand people, most of them young, gathered for a dance party without audible music, known as a silent rave. It was striking for what could not be heard.... A mass of people — a head-bobbing, arms-above-the-head, conga-line-forming, full-tilt boogie-woogie — emitted what seemed like no sound but rather music visible. Everyone danced in place, listening to an iPod and prancing to his or her own playlist. For long minutes, in the distance, only the square’s ever-present bongo players could be heard, while close up only shoes, or bare feet, could be heard padding on concrete. Video cameras and cellphones were everywhere. A man explained to his friend: “It’s a silent rave. Everyone’s dancing to whatever’s on their iPod.”

The mastermind behind the silent rave was one Jonnie Wesson, 18, a British exchange student spending a year at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights. Silent raves are popular in Europe, especially London, where he grew up, Mr. Wesson said. “The basic premise is that a hundred or a thousand or a few thousand people all turn up in a public place, turn on their own headphones and dance.” He added: “It’s always fantastic and weird to see thousands of people dancing silently. It’s always in a public space, but it’s not meant to cause disruption, but only because it’s the last place you’d expect that sort of thing.”... As is the case with much of his generation, Mr. Wesson organized the silent rave through a social networking Web site, in this case Facebook. By late afternoon on Friday, nearly 7,000 people had responded.

It began at 6:17 p.m. “It’s a random time that fits in with the ethos of the flash mob,” said Mr. Wesson, standing below Union Square’s giant statue of George Washington. At the appointed hour, people rushed toward Mr. Wesson, shouting the time from the digital watch of a passer-by, counting down with him as if it were New Year’s Eve. By 11 p.m., the rave had dwindled to several hundred still-whirling people.

Lots of great photos by Ballulah here, who describes the event as follows:

"This was a flashmob style event, all these kids gathered at the south end of Union Square at 6:30...after a countdown they all put their headphones on and had their own private silent raves. Every few minutes or so "the pineapple" would appear and get passed around to the sound of lots of cheering. Beach balls were tossed. Styrofoam was beaten to confetti. Water balloons and/or bottles were tossed upwards. The skaters were very confused. And I swear I heard a kid in raver pants say to his friend, "I have a ton of glowsticks in my pants," and proceeded to pull up his enormous pantleg, and sure enough he had a WHOLE MESS of glowsticks velcroed to his calf. Another guy was singing Foreigner on top of his lungs".

See also Dancing Flashmob, London, 2007

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

O Ecstasies, O world, O music!

'O Douceurs, ô monde, ô musique ! Et là, les formes, les sueurs, les chevelures et les yeux, flottant. Et les larmes blanches, bouillantes, - ô douceurs ! - et la voix féminine arrivée au fond des volcans et des grottes arctiques'.

‘O Ecstasies, O world, O music! And here, shapes, sweats, heads of hair and eyes, floating. And white tears, boiling – O ecstasies! – and the female voice reaching to the bottom of the volcanoes and the arctic caverns’

from Arthur Rimbaud, Barbare, published in Illuminations (1874).
Photo taken in Space, Ibiza, 1995 - a year I was there too. I found the photo at but couldn't find photocredit -
if you took this and would like to be credited let me know.

History of Gay Bars in New York City

History of Gay Bars in New York City is a remarkable blog that does just what is says. There is some great material - police raids, mafia connections, reflections on differences between Italian and Jewish gay cultures. Nothing's been posted since December last year, so hope this project hasn't ground to a halt.

In view of my earlier post on Holland Park in the 1930s, I was struck by a New York Times report of a February 1923 raid in Greenwich Village:

Village Raid Nets 4 Women and 9 Men: Detectives Thought They Had Five Females, but Misjudged One Person by Clothing

The police continue to pay special attention to Greenwich Village. Every tearoom and cabaret in the village was visited yesterday morning by Deputy Inspector Joseph A. Howard and Captain Edward J. Dempsey of the Charles Street Station, and a party of ten detectives. Detectives Joseph Massie and Dewey Hughes of the Special Service Squad were at the Black Parrot Tea Shoppe Hobo-Hemia, 46 Charles Street, to witness what they had been informed would be a “circus.” They arrested what they thought were five women and eight men. It developed later, however, that one of the “women” was a man, Harry Bernhammer, 21 years old, living at 36 Hackensack Avenue, West Hoboken, N.J. He is familiaryly known in the Village as “Ruby,” according to the police. The charge against him is disorderly conduct for giving what the police termed an indecent dance (NY Times 5 February 1923)

A London Drag Ball, 1930s

"If you went to clubs in those days before the war, you'd have been arrested and put in prison. I know personally a case where a woman, who I knew very well, started this gay club. Now I am talking many years ago, before the war, and I could see the danger. I said, you've got to stop it. But she took a house in Holland Park. It was known as the Holland Park case. They just danced, nothing so blatant as they do now. And one Saturday night the whole of Holland Park, reaching up to Shepherd's Bush I should think, was simply full of black marias and police. People thought the war had started or something. And there were two young policemen who were dressed up. Of course they gave the evidence. And everyone was arrested.

Now what I'm saying is history. They took them all to Brixton prison. And kept them there, they were not given bail. When they went up to the Old Bailey, it was top news, they had placards then, you know. The Evening News used to have a placard on, and everyone was talking about it. The judge made them wear a placard. He said there's too many to deal with these terrible people, put a placard on them and a number. And so they were numbered, with the indignity of this bloody placard. And then the trial came to the time of the sentences and he sentenced them to imprisonment.

When it was all over, the judge called these two detectives and praised them. He said, I am going to recommend your promotion for dealing with this horrible case. I feel so sorry, it must have affected you mentally. And I direct now that under no circumstances must you ever be involved in a case again of any description with homosexual men because no human being could stand it. It just shows you the scathing bitterness they had for it" (Roy, born in Brixton in 1908).

Source: Between the Acts: Lives of homosexual mean 1885-1967, edited by Kevin Porter and Jeffrey Weeks (London: Routledge, 1991).

The Holland Park Avenue drag ball raid is also covered in Matt Houlbrook's excellent book 'Queer London', where its is reported that 60 men were arrested in the raid leading to a trial in March 1933:

“The ballroom had been let for a series of dances by Austin S. – more commonly Lady Austin – a twenty-four year old barman, John P., a twenty-two year-old waiter, and Betty, who ran other West London dance balls. Publicized via word of mouth and a flyer advertising ‘Hotel Staff Dances’ within a network of friends working in nearby hotels, the events were run “only for our love for each other”. In court, arresting officers described a “blatant” spectacle of sexual transgression: men had danced together, kissed, and been intimate: they had worn women’s clothes and makeup and called themselves “Lady Austin’s Camp Boys”… David M [one of these arrested] asked of one policeman: ‘Surely in a free country we can do what we like? We know each other and are doing no harm… it is a pity these people don’t understand our love. I am afraid a few will have to suffer yet before our ways are made legal’’

Source: Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Yoko Ono's Do It Yourself Dance Festival

Yoko Ono's '13 Days Do it Yourself Dance Festival’ was, I believe, first 'held' in England in September 1967 - although 'held' is perhaps not quite the right word as it was a festival that took place in the imagination of participants who received a daily instructional postcard from Yoko for its duration. John Lennon was amongst those who took part. The first postcard said ‘Breathe at Midnight’, followed by 'Breathe at Dawn'. The last one read ‘Colour yourself. Wait for the spring to come. Let us know when it comes’.

The Festival has been repeated a number of times since, including via radio in Norway in 2005. When Yoko Ono performed in Liverpool last month, the Festival instructions were given out to people attending. Does anybody have the full set of instructions? They don't seem to be online.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Love Music Hate Racism: Memories of an Unfree Festival

Daniel Tilling in the New Statesman sums up my experience of last month’s Love Music Hate Racism festival in East London’s Victoria Park: ‘”I was here 30 years ago, mate," said the punk in the pinstriped pork-pie hat who was standing in front of me in the queue, bouncing around with excitement. He was about to continue when a security guard gruffly interrupted. "If you're going to take pictures with that camera, we'll confiscate it," he said to the punk. I looked around and it seemed that all the guard's colleagues were engaged in similar pursuits: rifling through pockets and throwing away any drinks that people were trying to bring into the fenced-off arena… From the moment you entered Victoria Park's fenced-off arena, it became clear that there was as little festival spirit here as you'd find at the most commercial of Britain's summer music events”

Yes it’s a good thing having 100,000 gathered together under an anti-racist banner (though that was the number throughout the day – I doubt if there was ever anything like that many at any one time), and many people clearly had a good time seeing bands for free. But that doesn’t mean the event should be beyond criticism. It was strange having to be searched and then confined in a fenced of section of the park for an event like this, and inside there was very little atmosphere. The sound on the main stage was really quiet, and the only excitement I saw was in the dance tent where people were whooping to Party People – but the tent was much too small, and as Tilling points out was later closed down.

The speeches were for the most part banal and patronising. I know Tony Benn has been semi-beatified now, but it was nonsense for him to say to the mainly young crowd that ‘yours is the first generation with the power to destroy life on earth, as well as the power to create a better world’ (I paraphrase, but this was the sense of it – I heard him give the same speech a few days later in Brixton Academy). Surely his generation of politicians were the first with the power of global destruction thanks to nuclear weapons.

Nostalgia for the 1970s?

I think there were political and musical reasons for this lacklustre display. Politically it was odd to have such a strong focus on commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Rock Against Racism festival in the same location in 1978. It’s one thing to note the historical continuity, another to have a festival to mark the anniversary of another festival – it lent a backward-looking tone to the whole event.

Politically too the context is different – the late 1970s festivals took place against the background of mass movements against the racism of the state and the far right, with clashes with police and/or fascists at Notting Hill Carnival, Lewisham and many other places. There’s nothing like this today – the British National Party don’t march and anti-racism is now an official ideology of the state. Nobody seriously believes that there is a danger of a fascist takeover in Britain, however dangerous the BNP could become. It was pretty unlikely in the 1970s too, but there was more of an overlap between the far right and sections of the Conservative Party, along with some senior people in the military and intelligence services. There was overt racism and some sympathy for the National Front amongst many rank and file police officers too. In other words being actively against racism had a radical political charge which it lacks today. To a certain extent the movements of the 1970s and 1980s (not just Rock Against Racism but the self-organised struggles of black people) were successful in banishing overt racism to the political fringe. This doesn’t mean that racism has gone away, but it is a more complex and variegated phenomenon – it’s far easier to project it all on to the BNP than to look at the way different communities are affected by, say, immigration and asylum laws.

Given that the Socialist Workers Party was a driving force in both Rock Against Racism in the 1970s and Love Music Hate Racism today, it’s not surprising that a certain nostalgia for 1970s leftism hung over Victoria Park last month and the following week’s LMHR concert in Brixton Academy. For whatever the SWP’s shortcomings in the 70s and 80s, it was for a while a natural stopping off point for many young activists and militants (even if most of them moved on). Recently Mark Steel, its most well-known member, resigned after complaining that that this is no longer the case (shame for those middle-aged trotskyist chicken-hawks who always seemed to be sleazing around their pretty new recruits). Perhaps too the SWP is hoping that LMHR might relaunch their fading brand by associating them with their peak moment.

But what about the music? Perhaps it’s just my personal bias but the bands who played for Rock Against Racism in the late 70s – The Clash, X-Ray Spex, The Gang of Four, Steel Pulse- were at the forefront of a period of post-punk creativity that was new, forward-looking and explosive. The biggest band in Victoria Park 2008 by contrast was Hard-Fi, defined like many other current bands by a nostalgia for that period that is musically old, backward-looking and safe. At the Brixton Academy it was different, as one of my favourite bands – the Alabama 3 – played a great set and didn’t sound like they could have been on the stage in 1978. Of course there’s still plenty of exciting music today – but let’s not discuss the fiasco of the Victoria Park dance tent again.

London Park Life

Leaving aside the music and politics, the organisers of the LMHR would no doubt say that the event was constrained by council and police health & safety and licensing regulations, and they’re probably right. I have been to a number of similar ‘free’ events in London parks in the past few years, heavily policed, searched, surrounded by high fences, restricted about what drinks can be taken in etc. (the Rise anti-racist festival in Finsbury Park last year was similar).

There’s a long history of huge free events in London parks without fences or searches, just music and whoever wants to turn up, spreading out as far as they need to take make themselves comfortable. This goes back at least as far as the famous Hyde Park concerts of the 1960s with The Rolling Stones et al, and through to the Rock Against Racism events in Victoria and Brockwell Park (Brixton) in the 1970s. I was too young for these but remember some of the big events put on by the Greater London Council in the 1980s. In the 1990s the biggest event was probably Lesbian and Gay Pride, held variously on Clapham Common, Brockwell Park and elsewhere – with hundreds of thousands of people coming and going as they pleased. Proper dance tents too with decent (loud) sound systems and holding thousands of people. There were also smaller one day free festivals like the Deptford Urban Free Festival in Fordham Park (30,000 people and lots of sound systems and bands) and the Festival of Global Rights on Hackney Marshes (1998).

Some of these were later refused licenses while others have been regulated to a shadow of their former selves. The atmosphere inside a fenced off area is completely different from being unrestrained in the open air in the park – there is a sense of being a controlled audience instead of a free crowd taking temporary possession of a part of the city, of being permitted to spectate rather than exercising a right to assemble. Perhaps that’s why the Victoria Park LMHR event was so lacking in atmosphere – as well as the rain, the politics, and the music.
Other reviews: Suburban Ghetto Musick reminds me that I missed Patrick Wolf who is pretty cool; Vinyl Junkie rubs salt in the wound by reminding me of some of the great stuff that was in the dance tent.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Classic party scenes (4): Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Prompted by a post at the excellent Pop Feminist, it's time to consider one of the great fictional nightclubs - The Bronze in Sunnydale, California - home to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the rest of her friends in the scooby gang. Buffy obsessives - and there's a lot of us out there - have noted that no fewer than 66 of the 144 episodes of the TV programme feature at least one scene in The Bronze. Considering the number of vampire-related fatalities in or near the club, it's amazing the parents of Sunnydale let their kids go there. Still they did at least have the chosen one watching over them. It was a club with pool tables, a stage where various hopeful West Coast bands gained global TV exposure, and a balcony from where brooding and morally ambiguous creatures of the night could survey the dancefloor.

Sadly The Bronze, like the TV series, is no more - it was destroyed along with the rest of Sunnydale in the final episode. I can't believe that its five years since the demise of the best thing ever to be on TV. Here's something I wrote about it at the time:

It's the end of the world as we know it: the last days of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

The last ever episode of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (2003) might have made me sad but it did not disappoint. Instead it demonstrated why over its seven year arc the programme remained the most interesting thing on television.

Buffy represented a conscious effort to create a female superhero(ine), but it was much more subversive than 'Wonderwoman' with better clothes and a sense of humour. The classic male superheroes have tended to be brooding loners wrestling with their isolation and their egos. The cult of the superman, whether in its Nietzche or Clark Kent form, has always had a fascistic side - the ubermensch flying high above the powerless masses.

Buffy may have been 'the chosen one' with unique abilities, but she always fought as part of a closely knit affinity group to which all members made their own particular contribution: wisdom and experience (Giles); a good heart and personal integrity (Xander); kick-ass lesbian witchiness (Willow).

In the final, seventh series, the tension between Buffy as 'chosen one' and the rest reached crisis point as the core gang was joined by a small army of potential slayers from across the world. At one point they mutinied against her orders before the contradiction was brilliantly resolved in the final episode by Buffy relinquishing her uniqueness, declaring: "In every generation, one slayer is born... because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule... So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power". In doing so she empowered all the potential vampire slayers, and by implication young women in general: "From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power".

Buffy and her pals referred to themselves as the Scooby Gang in self-mocking homage to the 70s cartoon strip. But in Scooby Doo the ending is always the same - once the kids have unmasked the villain they hand him over to the cops and the normal social order is restored. In the Buffyverse the state offered no such protection - police, priests and politicians tended to be either stupid or actively in collusion with demonic forces.

In the final series it was business as usual. The preacher who picked up the girl fleeing from her pursuers turned out to be the most evil of all, while the potential slayers had to beat up a group of cops intent on killing Faith (slayer no.2).

Marx wrote that "Capital is dead labour, which, vampire like, lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." Buffy might not have been this explicit, but it hinted at it in episodes such as 'Anne' where Buffy runs away from home and finds work as a waitress in a diner. While experiencing the delights of casualised wage slavery she discovers that young homeless people are disappearing, seduced by religious missionaries offering a promise of help. When they reappear they have aged overnight into dying, decrepit old people. Buffy soon finds out the secret: an underground sweatshop run by demons where people are worked until they are exhausted. Naturally Buffy leads a slave revolt.

In the final scene of the last episode, schools, shops and the whole town were consigned to the hellmouth of history, as Sunnydale was swallowed up by the earth. Xander declared: "All those shops gone. The Gap, Starbucks, Toys 'R' Us. Who will remember all those landmarks unless we tell the world about them?". The end of the world as they knew it - but smiling they stood to face a better one.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Konono no. 1

Congolese band Konono No 1 were supposed to be playing at Tate Modern in London tomorrow night as part of their Long Weekend event. Now comes news from Tate: "We are sorry to announce that due to difficulties in securing European visas, the Congolese band Konono No 1 are unable to travel from Kinshasa to the UK to perform at Tate Modern this weekend". '

How many (mainly white) US/European artists are refused entry to Britain to exhibit/talk/perform at Tate? How many (mainly white) US/European artists are refused entry to African countries when they're looking for a bit of exotica to spice up their careers?

While you're pondering these questions here's some of their African 'electro-acoustic trance music' to keep you going:

See also No One is Illegal; NoBorder.Org

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Funk: repetition and the 'cut'

The following extracts are from an article by Matthew P. Brown in which he applies the ideas of James Snead - set out in his 1981 essay 'Repetition as a figure in black culture' – to funk. I am not convinced about setting up a simple polarity between ‘Western’ and ‘African’ musics. What is true of the Western classical tradition is not necessarily true of some of the folk musics in the West where supposedly African elements of repetition and variation can also be found. But I like his exploration of how the distinction between linear progression and repetition impacts on the dance-floor.

Black cultural expression is organised around two central principles, repetition and the ‘cut’:

'In black culture, the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is 'there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it.' If there is a goal (Zweck) in such a culture, it is always deferred; it continually 'cuts' back to the start, in the musical meaning of 'cut' as an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break (an accidental da capo) with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series'. (Snead, 1981)

…Snead supports his conception with a series of examples from literature, folklore and the Church; but it is African-American music that might best exemplify the principles of repetition and montage in black culture. The call-and-response character of gospel and go-go, the repetition within the blues form, the cuts to improvisation within jazz performances - all exploit cyclicality and announce disruptions as fundamental expressive tools. These idioms achieve their musical communication primarily through rhythmic and vocal conver­sation. On the other hand, the Western tradition concentrates on harmonic, tonal or melodic development. For example, a Mozart symphony seeks resolution within a certain key and around a certain tonic. The melodic progression of a Beatles ballad is organized around the song's tonic and the supporting chordal patterns. With harmony and melody predominant, shifts in a Western piece of music are experienced as motivated. This sort of trajectory is de-emphasized in the African-American tradition. Interplay between rhythmic patterns are predominant, and a shift occurs at the point when those patterns are rearranged. The montage form is heard, on a small scale, in the traded phrases of bluesman Robert Johnson and his guitar. On a grander scale, it occurs in the abrupt shifts of meter and tone in African drumming. Both reflect a montage technique that avows rupture. Western styles, however, are goal-oriented, seeking resolution through structured deviation; their shifts are covered over by harmonic progression.

This opposition cannot be taken too far, especially when studying African-American musical idioms like jazz or the blues. Jazz is generally considered a marriage of African rhythms and European harmony. Be-bop and John Coltrane show a tremendous interest in thematic development­ – it’s what makes 'My Favorite Things' bloom. The conventional chordal patterns of the blues (I, IV and V within a key) propose and satisfy certain expectations for the listener. The pop/rock song, derived of course from r&b, has a similar harmonic definition, and a quite familiar structure: verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus, evident in any 1960s Motown song. There is an underriding telos to all of these forms.

But funk music, especially the style originating with James Brown, looks for no such resolution. To refine the concepts of repetition and the 'cut', and to near a sense of funk's radical design, we can recall the method of an unfaltering Brown classic, 'Cold Sweat' ('1967). Its initial tempo begins with a single stretched horn blast, a fluid bass, drums, percussion and voice, all patterning a rhythm that revolves around several relational beats. Once this groove is established, there is a sharp break, and a new tempo is set up with new horn and vocal patterns. Another cut occurs when we hear punchy horns and Brown's delivery of the song title: 'I break out' - bemp, bemp, bemp, bemp - 'in a cold sweat!' - bemp, bemp, bemp, tonktonk, BREAAAH. And we then return to the initial groove. The song's pattern is A-B-A-B-A, with cuts as the markers of transition.

These cuts are often announced and recognizable and they can introduce a new key or tempo, or simply a solo that is layered on top of the earlier beat. Other familiar Brown cuts are 'take it to the bridge' or 'Maceo' (signalling the JBs' sax player); but they can be instrumental as well, descending bass lines or snaky percussive accents. A more recent example of the articulated cut occurs in Prince's 'Kiss' (1986), again around the exhausted squeak of the song's title and the shimmying guitar that accompanies it. In Trouble Funk's 'Drop the Bomb' (1982), a synthesizer's reproduction of an air raid serves as the cue. There may be no such marker to signal the cut, as is the case with Prince's 'Sign 0' the Times' (1987). In any event, we hear sudden, unmotivated shifts, often announced (though not necessarily) and then the reiteration of a tempo and groove heard once before. Not surprisingly, a funk work-out's stopping point is arbitrary. In Brown's case, twenty-minute sessions would be tailored to three minutes for record marketability. Every instrument, the voice included, is used for percussive ends; melody and harmony are present only in the interplay of drummed instruments, and never teleologically conceived in the composition.

So funk music, at the structural level, engages in a critique of progress as it inheres in Western music. The polyrhythms of the music push the listener not forward, but inward, toward a beat he or she chooses, and outward, toward a beat he or she shares. Of course, it is great dance music, which surely empowers the psychological force of Chuck Brown's or Bootsy Collins’s performances. The music's design can be seen as architectural, a three-dimensional space within which performer and listener work. Rather than attending to the vertical, linear drive of melodic or harmonic development, the listener is asked to inhabit this space (the dance-floor, the song's world). It is expansive and social, intensely democratic. It asks us to move here, and not go there. Black music's circularity and flow – what Jones calls a 'plane of evolution, a direction coming and going' - is oriented to a local awareness of space, or what Jones then names 'Total Environment' (Leroy Jones, The changing same, 1966).

Source: Matthew P. Brown, Funk Music as Genre: Black Aesthetics, Apocalyptic Thinking and Urban Protest in Post-1965 African-American Pop, Cultural Studies, 8 (3), October 1994.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Moments of Excess

"Don’t ask me why I obsessively look to rock ’n’ roll bands for some kind of model for a better society. I guess it’s just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for prophecy have been seeking its fulfillment ever since"

I came across this Lester Bangs quote at the music blog The Swill Merchant. Apparently it comes from an article he wrote for NME after touring with The Clash in 1977. In some ways it mirrors my own sensibility - the sense of music as offering something more than the daily grind. But there is a key difference - for me, apart from a brief period as a 14 year old enthralled by The Clash, it's never been 'rock ’n’ roll bands' themselves that have offered 'some kind of model for a better society' but the fact of people coming together to enjoy music. It's always the scene, the crowd, the dancefloor, that has interested me - with the bands as one element but sometimes entirely absent.

The model offered by rock bands themselves is usually the masculine fraternity, the gang of self-importantly cocky blokes, what Bob (after a recent encounter with such rockism) described as 'earnest hoarse-voiced troubadours, swaggering long-haired types, lots of sweat and leather and testosterone'. Of course there's nothing wrong with long hair, sweat, leather or testosterone. It's just that I don't see these elements in themselves constituting some kind of alternative to the 'straight' world - instead this kind of rock endlessly recycles the pseudo-outlaw pose all the way to the bank.

Still I like the image of the 'flashbulb moment', which parallels the notion of 'moments of excess' developed by The Free Association:

"Every now and then, in all sorts of different social arenas, we can see moments of obvious collective creation, where our ‘excess of life’ explodes. In these ‘moments of excess’, everything appears to be up for grabs and time and creativity accelerates. From our own lives, we’re thinking of punk in the mid to late 1970s, and the struggle against the poll tax in the late 1980s/early ’90s, and the recent moments within the anti-globalisation movement. At these times, which may have spanned several years or literally a few moments, we have glimpsed whole new worlds. But we could also mention the 1960s underground, the free software community, the popular uprising in Argentina.

All of these examples are specific to a certain time and place, but we can see a common thread: a collective, liberating creativity that delights in mixing things up and smashing through all barriers. And they constantly lead back to the fundamental questions: ‘What sort of lives do we want to lead? What sort of world do we want to live in?’ We don’t mean this in a utopian sense. Moments of excess aren’t concerned with developing ideal types or blueprints of how life should be lived. Instead they deal with the possible, and represent practical experiments in new forms of life. In these spaces, there is a real sense of subversive energy, freedom and possibility".

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg

US pop artist Robert Rauschenberg died yesterday aged 82. He was apparently raised as a Christian fundamentalist, but gave up his plans to to be a minister because his church banned dancing - I guess they might have had a problem with him being gay too.

His passion for dance led him to design costumes and sets for dance companies over a 50 year period, working particularly closely with Merce Cunningham.

This 1949 picture shows him with a unicorn Mardi Gras costume he designed while at Black Mountain College, worn here by one Inga Lauterstein.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

In Defence of Disco - Richard Dyer

In Defence of Disco by Richard Dyer was first published in the magazine Gay Left, Issue 8, in 1979. It has been republished in academic contexts, but doesn't seem to be available online (except embedded in the pdf archive of Gay Left magazine). This was a groundbreaking work in taking disco seriously, and many of its conclusions can equally be applied to the later dance music scenes dismissed as politically unsound by those who like a strong dose of didacticism with their music.

All my life I've liked the wrong music. I never liked Elvis and rock 'n' roll; I always preferred Rosemary Clooney. And since I became a socialist, I've often felt virtually terrorized by the prestige of rock and folk on the Left. How could I admit to two Petula Clark LPs in the face of miners' songs from the North East and the Rolling Stones? I recovered my nerve partially when I came to see show-biz music as a key part of gay culture, which, whatever its limitations, was a culture to defend. And I thought I'd really made it when I turned on to Tamla Motown, sweet soul sounds, disco. Chartbusters already, and I like them! Yet the prestige of folk and rock, and now punk and (rather patronizingly, I think) reggae, still holds sway. It's not just that people whose politics I broadly share don’t like disco; they manage to imply that it is politically beyond the pale to like it. It's against this attitude that I want to defend disco (which otherwise, of course, hardly needs any defence).

I'm going to talk mainly about disco music, but there are two preliminary points I'd like to make. The first is that disco is more than just a form of music, although certainly the music is at the heart of it. Disco is also kinds of dancing, club, fashion, film- in a word, a certain sensibility, manifest in music, clubs, and so forth, historically and culturally specific, economically, technologically, ideo­logically, and aesthetically determined- and worth thinking about. Second, as a sensibility in music it seems to me to encompass more than what we would perhaps strictly call disco music, and include a lot of soul, Tamla, and even the later work of mainstream and jazz artists like Peggy Lee and Johnny Mathis.

My defence is in two parts: first, a discussion of the arguments against disco in terms of its being ‘capitalist’ music and, second, an attempt to think through the- ambivalently, ambiguously, contradictorily- positive qualities of disco.

Disco and Capital

Much of the hostility to disco stems from the equation of it with capitalism. Both in how it is produced and in what it expresses, disco is held to be irredeemably capitalistic.

Now it is unambiguously the case that disco is produced by capitalist industry, and since capitalism is an irrational and inhuman mode of production, the disco industry is as bad as all the rest. Of course. However, this argument has assump­tions behind it that are more problematic. These are of two kinds. One assump­tion concerns music as a mode of production, and has to do with the belief that it is possible in a capitalist society to produce things (e.g., music, such as rock and folk) that are outside of the capitalist mode of production. Yet quite apart from the general point that such a position seeks to elevate activity outside of existing structures rather than struggles against them, the two kinds of music most often set against disco as a mode of production are not really convincing.

One is folk music - in the United Kingdom, people might point to Gaelic songs and industrial ballads - the kind of music often used, or reworked, in Left fringe theatre. These, it is argued, are not, like disco (and pop music in general), produced for the people, but by them. They are ‘authentic’ people's music. So they are -or rather were. The problem is that we don't live in a society of small, technologically simple communities such as produce such art. Preserving such music at best gives us a historical perspective on peasant and working-class struggle, at worst leads to nostalgia for a simple, harmonious communal existence that never even existed. More bluntly, songs in Gaelic or dealing with nineteenth-century factory conditions, beautiful as they are, don't mean much to most English-speaking people today.

The other kind of music most often posed against disco, and ‘pap pop’ at the level of how it is produced, is rock (including Dylan-type folk and everything from early rock 'n' roll to progressive concept albums). The argument here is that rock is easily produced by non-professionals- all that is needed are a few instruments and somewhere to play - whereas disco music requires the whole panoply of recording studio technology, which makes it impossible for non-professionals (the kid on the streets) to produce. The factual accuracy of this observation needs supplementing with some other observations. Quite apart from the very rapid - but then bemoaned by some purists - move of rock into elaborate recording studios, even when it is simple and producible by non-professionals, the fact is that rock is still quite expensive, and remains in practice largely the preserve of the middle class who can afford electric guitars, music lessons, and the like. (You have only to look at the biographies of those now professional rock musicians who started out in a simple non-professional way - the preponderance of public school and university-educated young men in the field is rivalled only by their preponderance in the Labour party cabinet.) More important, this kind of production is wrongly thought of as being generated from the grassroots when, except perhaps at certain key historical moments, non­-professional music making, in rock as elsewhere, bases itself, inevitably, on pro­fessional music. Any notion that rock emanates from ‘the people’ is soon con­founded by the recognition that what ‘the people’ are doing is trying to be as much like professionals as possible.

The second kind of argument based on the fact that disco is produced by capitalism concerns music as an ideological expression. Here it is assumed that capitalism as a mode of production necessarily and simply produces ‘capitalist’ ideology. The theory of the relation between the mode of production and the ideologies of a particular society is too complicated and unresolved to be gone into here, but we can begin by remembering that capitalism is about profit. In the language of classical economics, capitalism produces commodities, and its inter­est in commodities is their exchange value (how much profit they can realize) rather than their use value (their social or human worth). This becomes partic­ularly problematic for capitalism when dealing with an expressive commodity­ such as disco - since a major problem for capitalism is that there is no necessary or guaranteed connection between exchange value and use value. In other words, capitalism as productive relations can just as well make a profit from something that is ideologically opposed to bourgeois society as something that supports it. As long as a commodity makes a profit, what does it matter?

Indeed, it is because of this dangerous, anarchic tendency of capitalism that ideological institutions - the church, the state, education, the family - are necessary. It is their job to make sure that what capitalism produces is in capitalism's longer-term interests. How­ever, since they often don't know that that is their job, they don't always perform it. Cultural production within capitalist society is, then, founded on two pro­found contradictions - the first between production for profit and production for use; the second, within these institutions whose job it is to regulate the first contradiction. What all this boils down to, in terms of disco, is that the fact that disco is produced by capitalism does not mean that it is automatically, neces­sarily, simply supportive of capitalism. Capitalism constructs the disco experi­ence, but it does not necessarily know what it is doing, apart from making money.

I am not now about to launch into a defence of disco music as some great subversive art form. What the arguments above lead me to is, first, a basic point of departure in the recognition that cultural production under capitalism is necessarily contradictory, and, second, that it may well be the case that capitalist cultural products are most likely to be contradictory at just those points - such as disco - where they are most commercial and professional, where the urge to profit is at its strongest. Third, this mode of cultural production has produced a commodity, disco, that has been taken up by gays in ways that may well not have been intended by its producers. The anarchy of capitalism throws up commodities that an oppressed group can take up and use to cobble together its own culture. In this respect, disco is very much like another profoundly ambiguous aspect of male gay culture, camp. It is a ‘contrary’ use of what the dominant culture provides, it is important in forming a gay identity, and it has subversive potential as well as reactionary implications.

The Characteristics of Disco

Let me turn now to what I consider to be the three important characteristics of disco - eroticism, romanticism, and materialism. I'm going to talk about them in terms of what it seems to me they mean within the context of gay culture. These three characteristics are not in themselves good or bad (any more than disco music as a whole is), and they need specifying more precisely. What is interesting is how they take us to qualities that are not only key ambiguities within gay male culture, but have also traditionally proved stumbling blocks to socialists.


It can be argued that all popular music is erotic. What we need to define is the specific way of thinking and feeling erotically in disco. I'd like to call it ‘whole body’ eroticism, and to define it by comparing it with the eroticism of the two kinds of music to which disco is closest- popular song (i.e., the Gershwin, Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach type of song) and rock.

Popular song's eroticism is ‘disembodied’: it succeeds in expressing a sense of the erotic that yet denies eroticism's physicality. This can be shown by the nature of tunes in popular songs and the way they are handled.

Popular song's tunes are rounded off, closed, self-contained. They achieve this by adopting a strict musical structure (AA BA) in which the opening melodic phrases are returned to and, most important, the tonic note of the song is also the last note of the tune. (The tonic note is the note that forms the basis for the key in which the song is written; it is therefore the harmonic 'anchor’ of the tune, and closing on it gives precisely a feeling of ‘anchoring,’ coming to a settled stop.) Thus although popular songs often depart from their melodic and harmonic beginnings - especially in the middle section (B) - they also always return to them. This gives them- even at their most passionate, as in Cole Porter's ‘Night and Day’- a sense of security and containment. The tune is not allowed to invade the whole of one's body. Compare the typical disco tune, which is often little more than an endlessly repeated phrase that drives beyond itself, is not ‘closed off.’ Even when disco music uses a popular song standard, it often turns it into a simple phrase. Gloria Gaynor’s version of Porter’s ‘I’ve got you under my skin’, for instance, is in large part a chanted repetition of 'I've got you.’

Popular song's lyrics place its tunes within a conceptualization of love and passion as emanating from ‘inside,’ the heart or the soul. Thus the yearning cadences of popular song express an erotic yearning of the inner person, not the body. Once again, disco refuses this. Not only are the lyrics often more directly physical and the delivery more raunchy (e.g., Grace Jones's ‘I Need a Man’), but, most important, disco is insistently rhythmic in a way that popular song is not.

Rhythm, in Western music, is traditionally felt as being more physical than other musical elements such as melody, harmony, and instrumentation. This is why Western music is traditionally so dull rhythmically - nothing expresses our' Puritan heritage more vividly. It is to other cultures that we have had to turn - ­above all to Afro-American culture - to learn about rhythm. The history of pop­ular songs since the late nineteenth century is largely the history of the white in­corporation (or ripping off) of black music - ragtime, the Charleston, the tango, swing, rock 'n' roll, rock. Now what is interesting about this incorporation or ripping off is what it meant and means. Typically, black music was thought of by the white culture as being more primitive and more ‘authentically’ erotic. Infusions of black music were always seen as (and often condemned as) sexual and physical. The use of insistent black rhythms in disco music, recognizable by the closeness of the style to soul and reinforced by such characteristic features of black music as the repeated chanted phrase and the use of various African percussion instruments, means that it inescapably signifies (in this white context) physicality.

However, rock is as influenced by black music as disco is. This then leads me to the second area of comparison between the eroticism of disco and rock. The difference between them lies in what each ‘hears’ in black music. Rock's eroti­cism is thrusting, grinding - it is not whole body, but phallic. Hence it takes from black music the insistent beat and makes it even more driving; rock's repeated phrases trap you in their relentless push, rather than releasing you in an open-ended succession of repetitions as disco does. Most revealing perhaps is rock's instrumentation. Black music has more percussion instruments than white, and it knows how to use them to create all sorts of effects - light, soft, lively, as well as heavy, hard, and grinding. Rock, however, hears only the latter and develops the percussive qualities of essentially non-percussive instruments to increase this, hence the twanging electric guitar and the nasal vocal delivery.

One can see how, when rock 'n' roll first came in, this must have been a tremendous liberation from popular song's disembodied eroticism - here was a really physical music, and not just mealy-mouthed physical, but quite clear what it was about - cock. But rock confines sexuality to cock (and this is why, no matter how progressive the lyrics and even when performed by women, rock remains indelibly phallocentric mu­sic). Disco music, on the other hand, hears the physicality in black music and its range. It achieves this by a number of features, including the sheer amount going on rhythmically in even quite simple disco music (for rhythmic clarity with complexity, listen to the full-length version of the Temptations' ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’); the willingness to play with rhythm, delaying it, jumping it, countering it rather than simply driving on and on (e.g., Patti Labelle, Isaac Hayes); the range of percussion instruments used and their different effect (e.g. the spiky violins in Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock's ‘Tell Me a Bedtime Story’; the gentle pulsations of George Benson). This never stops being erotic, but it restores eroticism to the whole of the body and for both sexes, not just confining it to the penis. It leads to the expressive, sinuous movement of disco dancing, not just that mixture of awkwardness and thrust so dismally charac­teristic of dancing to rock.

Gay men do not intrinsically have any prerogative over whole-body eroticism. ­We are often even more cock oriented than non-gays of either sex, and it depresses me that such phallic forms of disco as Village People should be so gay identified. Nonetheless, partly because many of us have traditionally not thought of ourselves as being ‘real men' and partly because gay ghetto culture is also a space where alternative definitions, including those of sexuality, can be devel­oped, it seems to me that the importance of disco in scene culture indicates an openness to a sexuality that is not defined in terms of cock. Although one cannot easily move from musical values to personal ones, or from personal ones to politically effective ones, it is at any rate suggestive that gay culture should promote a form of music that denies the centrality of the phallus while at the same time refusing the nonphysicality that such a denial has hitherto implied.


Not all disco music is romantic. The lyrics of many disco hits are either straightforwardly sexual - not to say sexist - or else broadly social (e.g., Detroit Spinners' ‘Ghetto Child,’ Stevie Wonder's ‘Living in the City’), and the hard drive of Village People or Labelle is positively antiromantic. Yet there is nonetheless a strong strain of romanticism in disco. This can be seen in the lyrics, which often differ little from popular song standards, and indeed often are standards (e.g., ‘What a Difference a Day Made’ by Esther Phillips, ‘La vie en rose’ by Grace Jones). More impressively, it is the instrumentation and arrangements of disco music that are so romantic.

The use of massed violins takes us straight back, via Hollywood, to Tchaikovsky, to surging, outpouring emotions. A brilliant example is Gloria Gaynor's ‘I've Got You under My Skin,’ where in the middle section the violins take a hint from one of Porter's melodic phrases and develop it away from this tune in an ecstatic, soaring movement. This ‘escape’ from the confines of popular song into ecstasy is very characteristic of disco music, and nowhere more consistently than in such Diana Ross classics as ‘Reach Out’ and ‘Ain't No Mountain High Enough.’ This latter, with its lyrics of total surrender to love, its heavenly choir, and sweeping violins, is perhaps one of the most extravagant reaches of disco’s romanticism. But Ross is also a key figure in the gay appropriation of disco.

What Ross's records do - and I'm thinking basically of her work up to ‘Greatest Hits volume 1’ and the 'Touch Me in the Morning' albums - is express the intensity of fleeting emotional contacts. They are all-out expressions of adoration that yet have built on to them the recognition of the (inevitably) temporary quality of the experience. This can be a straightforward lament for having been let down by a man, but more often it is both a celebration of a relationship and the almost willing recognition of its passing and the exquisite pain of its passing - ‘Remem­ber me / As a sunny day / That you once had / Along the way’; ‘If I've got to be strong / Don't you know I need to have tonight when you're gone / When you go I'll lie here / And think about / the last time that you / Touch me in the morning.' This last number, with Ross's ‘unreally’ sweet, porcelain fragile voice and the string backing, concentrates that sense of celebrating the intensity of the passing relationship that haunts so much of her work. No wonder Ross is (was?) so important in gay male scene culture, for she both reflects what that culture takes to be an inevitable reality (that relationships don't last) and at the same time celebrates it, validates it.

Not all disco music works in this vein, yet in both some of the more sweetly melancholy orchestrations (even in lively numbers, like ‘You Should Be Danc­ing’ from ‘Saturday Night Fever’) and some of the lyrics and general tone (e.g., Donna Summer's 'Four Seasons of Love' album), there is a carryover of this emo­tional timbre. At a minimum, then, disco's romanticism provides an embodi­ment and validation of an aspect of gay culture.

But romanticism is a particularly paradoxical quality of art to come to terms with. Its passion and intensity embody or create an experience that negates the dreariness of the mundane and everyday. It gives us a glimpse of what it means to live at the height of our emotional and experiential capacities - not dragged down by the banality of organized routine life. Given that everyday banality, work, domesticity, ordinary sexism, and racism are rooted in the structures of class and gender or this society, the flight from that banality can be seen as a flight from capitalism and patriarchy as lived experiences.

What make's this more complicated is the actual situation within which disco occurs. Disco is part of the wider to and fro between work and leisure, alienation and escape, boredom and enjoyment that we are so accustomed to (and that ‘Saturday Night Fever’ plugs into so effectively). Now this to and fro is partly the mechanism by which we keep going, at work, at home- the respite of leisure gives us the energy to work, and anyway we are still largely brought up to think of leisure as a ‘reward’ for work. This circle locks us into it. But what happens in that space of leisure can be profoundly significant; it is there that we may learn about an alternative to work and to society as it is. Romanticism is one of the major modes of leisure in which this sense of an alternative is kept alive. Roman­ticism asserts that the limits of work and domesticity are not the limits of experience.

I don't say that romanticism, with its passion and intensity, is a political ideal we could strive for - l doubt it is humanly possible to live permanently at that pitch. What I do believe is that the movement between banality and something ‘other’ than banality is an essential dialectic of society, a constant: keeping open of a gap between what is and what could or should be. Herbert Marcuse in the currently unfashionable ‘One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society’ argues that our society tries to close that gap, to assert that what is is all that there could be, is what should be. For all its commercialism and containment within the to and fro between work and leisure, I think disco romanticism is one of the things that can keep the gap open, that can allow the experience of contradiction to continue. Since I also believe that political struggle is rooted in experience (though utterly doomed if left at it), I find this dimension of disco potentially positive. (A further romantic/utopian aspect of disco is realized in the non-commercial discos organized by gay and women's groups. Here a moment of community can be achieved, often in circle dances or simply in the sense of knowing people as people, not anonymous bodies. Fashion is less impor­tant, and sociability correspondingly more so. This can be achieved in smaller clubs, perhaps especially outside the centre of London, which, when not just grotty monuments to self-oppression, can function as supportive expressions of something like a gay community.)


Disco is characteristic of advanced capitalist societies simply in terms of the scale of money squandered on it. It is a riot of consumerism, dazzling in its technology (echo chambers, double and more tracking, electric instruments), overwhelming in its scale (banks of violins, massed choirs, the limitless range of percussion instruments), lavishly gaudy in the mirrors and tat of discotheques, the glitter and denim flash of its costumes. Its tacky sumptuous­ness is well evoked in ‘Thank God it’s Friday’. Gone are the restraint of popular song, the sparseness of rock and reggae, the simplicity of folk. How can a socialist, or someone trying to be a feminist, defend it?

In certain respects, it is doubtless not defensible. Yet socialism and feminism are both forms of materialism - why is disco, a celebration of materialism if ever there was one, not therefore the appropriate art form of materialist politics?

Partly, obviously, because materialism in politics is not to be confused with mere matter. Materialism seeks to understand how things are in terms of how they have been produced and constructed in history, and how they can be better produced and constructed. This certainly does not mean immersing oneself in­ the material world - indeed, it includes deliberately stepping back from the mate­rial world to see what makes it the way it is and how to change it. But materialism is also based on the profound conviction that politics is about the material world, and indeed that human life and the material world are all there is; there is no God, there are no magic forces. One of the dangers of materialist politics is that it is in constant danger of spiritualizing itself, partly because of the historical legacy of the religious forms that brought materialism into existence, partly because materialists have to work so hard not to take matter at face value that they often end up not treating it as matter at all. Disco's celebration of materialism is only a celebration of the world we are necessarily and always immersed in. Disco's materialism, in technological modernity, is resolutely historical and cultural - it can never be, as most art claims for itself, an ‘emanation’ outside of history and of human production.

Disco's combination of romanticism and materialism effectively tells us - lets us experience - that we live in a world of materials, that we can enjoy them but that the experience of materialism is not necessarily what the everyday world assures us it is. Its eroticism allows us to rediscover our bodies as part or this experience of materialism and the possibility of change.

If this sounds over the top, let one thing be clear - disco can't change the world or make the revolution. No art can do that, and it is pointless to expect it to. But partly by opening up experience, partly by changing definitions, art and disco can be used. To which one might risk adding the refrain, if it feels good, use it.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Songs About Dancing (2): Hella Good

Hella Good by No Doubt (2001) is one of the many songs which command the listener to dance. In fact the oft-repeated chorus simply affirms 'You've got me feeling hella good, So let's just keep on dancing, You hold me like you should, So I'm gonna keep on dancing'.

Of course anybody can sing that, but for the song to work the music must also communicate a similar message. On this one the production ensures just that with an irresistable electronic bass line. And so it should, co-written with The Neptunes and produced by Nellee Hooper. If they and Gwen Stefani can't come up with a decently danceable track between them all is lost on planet pop.

Some people might have Gwen Stefani down as just another corporate pop puppet, but I've always thought that she and No Doubt were pretty clued up musically - after all they started off as a ska band, and the album this track comes from, Rock Steady, also includes dancehall influences and an appearance by Bounty Killer. Also the video enacts one of my favourite fantasies - squatting a ship.

I first heard this years ago at the Laban Centre for Contemporary Dance in Deptford, where a big group of kids were doing modern dance to this track and to the Laban's very impressive PA.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Police raids international

England: Norfolk rave shut down (Norwich Evening News, 14 April 2008)

'Three people were arrested when an illegal rave was shut down by police in the early hours of yesterday morning. Norfolk police received information that the unlicensed music event was taking place at Horsey Gap.... A police spokesman said: “The event was shut down and two arrests were made in relation to persons being concerned with the organisation of an unlicensed musical event. A large amount of sound equipment was seized and a further arrest was made subsequently in relation to excess alcohol.”'

China: police raid gay clubs (Gay City News, 10 April 2008)

'on March 9.... police invaded Destination, Beijing's most popular gay nightspot. Police pretended the nightclub was "over-crowded" and ordered it closed, and it remained shuttered for several days... the raid on the Beijing club Destination took place the same night as a raid against PinkHome of Shanghai, where a number of gays were arrested. Such repressive measures taken so rapidly in such a short time span against places frequented by gays has never before been seen in China, and justifies our being afraid."

Vietnam: 300 arrested in disco (Vietnamnet, 4 April 2008)

'The Hai Phong city authorities began legal proceedings against Nguyen Truong Thinh, the owner of the UFO disco, for illegally storing and using drugs, and are holding the suspect under provisional detention... Police on March 1 made a sudden raid on the UFO disco, the biggest club in the northen port city, and confiscated a number of ecstasy tablets, cannabis and a shotgun.
They seized nearly 300 people but did not apprehend Nguyen Truong Thinh, the owner of the club, and could not find him at his home in Ngo Quyen District'.

USA: Dallas police raid rave

Heavily armed police raided the Candy Mountrain rave at Afterlife Dallas at the beginnng of April. According to someone who was there: 'Out of nowhere Dallas Swat, PD, Constables, and Sheriffs were swarming the area with assault rifles and other scary weapons demanding that everybody sit on the ground. Choppers were swarming overhead and the cops were NOT out to be anybody’s friends. The problem was apparently not with the party as much as with the venue owner. The police apparently had a major boner for busting the venue owner on something (He already has a case against the city pending for being unfairly treated in the past) so they did so in the flashiest way possible. Most of them who weren’t brandishing weapons were chuckling and taking pictures on their camera phones. Not exactly the image of professionalism'.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Black Metal

Norwegian Black Metal really isn’t my thing, but luckily there are others out there surveying its murky waters. Valter at Documents has written a series of posts reflecting on the 1993 murder of Mayhem's Øystein 'Euronymous' Aarseth by Burzum's Kristian 'Varg' Vikernes. The latter – who is still in prison - seems to be on the extreme right wing in a fairly straightforward way, the former claimed to be a communist, but if ever there was a case of red fascist this is it. For it seems to have been precisely the most brutal and repressive elements of Stalinist dictatorships that Aaseth found attractive, professing admiration for Cambodia’s Pol Pot and Romania’s Ceausescu: “I like secret police, cold war and worshiping of dictators. I like bugging and spying on people, torture chambers in police stations and that people suddenly “disappear”."

I must admit in my many and varied encounters with the multifarious varieties of leftism this is something I’ve never heard openly expressed – usually the facts of Stalinist repression are either (a) used to prove that the regimes in question weren’t really communist at all, ( b) denied or dismissed as propaganda or (c) justified on the grounds of historical necessity. Still given that there was never any shortage of apologists for these regimes, Aaseth's desire was probably not so uncommon even if hidden (and they are still out there).

It should be obvious that neither fascist nor Stalinist regimes would tolerate the long haired nihilism of black metal, so the eagerness of bands in this scene to embrace such ideologies might seem surprising. Valter draws on Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille to throw light on this phenomenon, particularly the latter’s suggestion that the artist ‘ harbors a secret desire for a society that denies him the right to exist’ (Valter’s paraphrase) - because in a dictatorship, art and literature really matter and can assume heroic dimensions, the persecution of musicians and intellectuals giving them a greater social importance for instance. I am not sure this is the only explanation, but Black Metal is undoubtedly an extreme example of the (literal) dead end of transgression as an end in itself.