Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Hang the DJ
DJs have two basic objectives— to make you dance and to create ambience. The first objective is more easily fulfilled— if you throw on a combination of techno, house, hip-hop, “dancy” tracks from rock artists and even Goth-Industrial, you can get young (and young-ish) crowds to dance. To create ambience is a more difficult task— to rig a heightened mood into a public space. What is ambience? Is it just the creation and sustenance of heightened moods? The cultural information a DJ has to have is what heightened mood is appropriate for what cultural context. A well-educated DJ can spin so that any context, from an art-opening to a wedding, is artfully orchestrated. I am taking for granted that we are talking about live DJs, rather than on-the-air ones. What needs to be addressed is that, if New Rock circumstances do prevail, the DJ position will suddenly be one of social responsibility. The live DJ may become not only a taste-maker, but a career maker or breaker. Solitary auteur types who shy away from live performances will be subject to the whims of live DJs who may or may not choose to spin their records. This creates a new kind of power imbalance— the DJs empowered over the musicians. The obvious answer is that auteur-types need to develop a repertoire of skills— to become DJs themselves. But the human psychology of the situation may or may not make it unworkable— auteur-types may not have the ego flexibility to spin other people’s records. Not too many rock auteur-types have small egos, or a penchant for self-transcendence.
The tyranny of the DJ is already a phenomenon, in Philly and elsewhere. It’s a real weakness of the New Rock corpus of ideas. This is especially true if DJs settle into ruts of spinning only their friends. “You’re in high school again,” as the song says. And a million little rock stars need a cool hundred thousand DJs to make them real. Ultimately, the city or scene with the most cohesion between auteur-types and DJs will have the most success, within New Rock parameters. A good DJ will act as both agent and publicist, making connections (and trades) with DJs in other scenes, following through in a way that the auteur-types can’t. Public unveilings of entire albums could bring scenes out to demonstrate support and solidarity. Philly DJs don’t work like this now; they do spin local records, but not in a cohesive way. The system has another hitch if, in the DJs minds, the prestige of the DJ rivals that of the musicians. Non-cohesive New Rock scenes will be broken by power struggles like this. The Philly scene has suffered specifically because its DJs have flourished above and beyond its musicians. Philly has always suffered because Philly artists are not willing to work together. Potential Philly auteur-types get buried all the time. The machinery for a New Rock “factory” is here; it could be put into motion, too, if people abandon their corners for an agreed-upon center. Hyped-up DJs need to remember that their function is to serve— they serve the artists they spin. The musicians, in a successful scene, need to retain more power than the DJs, lest the cart be put before the horse.
If the New Rock corpus of ideas seems too utopian to be workable, it is meant to be. What’s the closest we’ve seen in rock to a Rocktopia? There’s no obvious answer. But that live DJs, as a faction, are a nascent powerhouse, is hard not to notice. If the DJs believe they “have believers,” and if musicians depend too much on them, this is a New Babel rather than anything else. There have to be elements of “New Babel” in New Rock. Look at what entropy has wasted— rock radio (including college radio), record labels (including indie labels), rock venues, rock press (including low-level press like ‘zines) and a mass rock audience. Rock just generally has to cope with loss these days. However, even with the awkward DJ-musician chiasmus, I would still argue that the New Rock goes up over the old system. As the Memphis tradition has always been, you put your blood, sweat, and tears into making records, and almost nothing else. The big reward is what you’ve created, just because you could create it. That’s what the higher arts at their best have always been about, to begin with. As rock sheds its skin, this is the skin it might pick up.