"Dance music, as I define it, is rhythm-machine music. The machines augment bodily thought. They allow the drummer to become a superhuman percussionist. They allow you to play lots of different tones and lots of different rhythms that you wouldn't be able to play normally. It's about opening out a new kind of physical interface. And in fact, machines de-physicalize music. In other words, if you can just push a button for percussion, then you don't need to practice lots of hours on the drums. So in that sense, you have to think more about the music you're playing, or you have to think more about the organization of rhythm and the organization of sound."
-Kodwo Eshun, "House: The Reinvention of House" in "A History of Electronic Music" (Caipirinha Publications, Inc., New York, 2000), p. 72.
"I remember one time at the record pool, this guy walked in and was talking about a beat book (an index of songs organized by bpm). This was when the whole beats-per-minute idea came in. And we laughed at him. 'What are you talking about? This is totally unnecessary!' But it became very popular."
XXIV. THE EIGHTIES, PART 4
The eighties began with the election of Ronald Reagan as president and the application of "Reaganomics" or supply side theory -- cut taxes, reduce government spending, and trickle down money from the top to the lower classes. The actuality was "deficit spending," wherein the national debt was increased from about $700 billion to $2.1 trillion. The government spent more than it took in, and much of the deficit spending was focused on increasing the military budget to twice the 1981 level so that America could regain prestige lost in the Vietnam defeat by again taking an aggressive stance against Communism. The Cold War heated up once more.
In the sixties and seventies many of the values and traditions of the past, for better or worse, were swept aside and replaced with a kind of moral relativism. One thing the baby boomers failed to do for the most part, in my opinion, was to construct a viable new social and moral order. Business, a revamped form of secular Puritanism, stepped in the vacuum and established itself as the primary cultural and moral force in America. "Greed" was no longer a deadly sin but a cardinal virtue. The term "yuppie" was coined and was originally applied to many sixties baby boomers who cut their hair and replaced tie-dye with power tie to embrace the new religion of productivity and consumption of the eighties.
It is hard to imagine now that there was a time when most educated people read the arts sections of the newspaper first and tossed the business section. When education meant the liberal arts, and not a narrow preparation, even at the graduate level, for a technical or business trade. The business of business came to permeate everything in American life. High schools and colleges restructured to accommodate the needs of business. Arts organizations, traditional religion, non-profits, publishing, music, film, virtually every element of the culture, turned to business structure for redemption.
It used to be very bad form to ask someone what they did for a living. Rather, one wanted to discover who the other person was intellectually and emotionally. In the new order, one was what one did for a living. One was valued for one's ability to contribute to the economy, and nothing else. That value was publicly reflected in the level of consumables one was able to display.
People did talk a lot about "values" in the eighties. "Family values" in particular. The religious right and other traditionalists continually bemoaned the decline of families and family values in America. This they blamed on homosexuality and other sexual "immorality" and associated evils like dancing, drugs and pleasure-seeking. Greed was never mentioned as a cause for the dissolution of the family and community structures. The most obvious reason for family decline, to my mind, was the emergence of the business "career" as the ultimate raison d'etre of life. All the rest was secondary, including child-rearing and community involvement.
The "Eighties" -- and its continuation into the nineties -- really marked the triumph of capitalism worldwide. The eighties gave rise to an almost unquestioned belief that democracy and the capitalist system were one and the same and the best hope for the future of humankind. The left became the center; the right moved further right. We outspent the Soviets on military toys, and Communism collapsed. Socialism, the bright experiment that began at the turn of the century, was discredited. Corporations began to play a crucial role in global politics and cultural change.
At some point a few years ago I began to ask myself and those around me a horrific question: "Are all our deepest needs and desires the result of some successful business marketing plan?"
The greedy eighties ended mired in a recession. Interestingly, the cold-blooded entrepreneurial nineties seems to be producing the same result these days.
A. FEAR OF LIFE AND THE EMERGENCE OF COCOONING
My former boss, the CEO of a large corporation, used to tell me that there are only two things that motivate people: fear and greed. There was certainly enough greed going around in the eighties. An irrational fear of social contact was also evolving.
The spread of AIDS certainly did much to motivate people to reevaluate a number of important social interactions. Dancing was one of them. But this in itself doesn't explain the increasing fear of public interactions and events outside the workplace that runs rampant through modern American culture . The impact of the commercialization of news product certainly played a role in all this. Tabloid headlines sell. Solid statistics don't.
Danger was everywhere, it seemed. The war on Drugs heated up, with the "Just Say No" and related media campaigns. Crack dealers presumably were on all school corners waiting to entice one's children into using drugs at any age. Even worse, molesters were everywhere abusing and stealing children -- even teachers became suspect. Guess this becomes an even greater fear when the career might mean days go by before you even notice your kids are missing. Public places were portrayed as unsafe habitats of angry, violent folks who would take your money at all costs because enough money wasn't trickling down to them to support their evil lifestyles. In NYC there were rumors floating about all the time about people who had their fingers cut off so that thieves could quickly steal expensive rings. Folks started going out without jewelry.
Modern technology came to the rescue. The eighties marked the beginning of the personal entertainment revolution. With the advent of technologies like the VCR, gaming systems, cable television and, ultimately, the home computer, it was no longer necessary to go out of the home and interact with others to be entertained. Atari, Intellivision, Sega Master System (1986), Nintendo, the Apple Macintosh (1984), CATV, the Beta VCR by Sony (as early as 1970) (I still have two); and the Sony Walkman (1984) so that if you wished you didn't even have to interact with folks on the way to and from work.
The kids could entertain themselves at home whilst the parents pursued 24/7 careers. And they could now watch MTV, that magnificent marketing innovation that cloaked itself in youthful revolution and cool and came to shape the buying habits of a whole generation. It became hip to proudly wear a manufacturer's label on all one's subcultural gear. Product placement in music videos, viral marketing -- all innovations of the eighties. Now one reads in the latest subcultural magazines about the most "subversive" cultural figures -- and at the bottom of the page one can find the labels for the underground fashions they sport and where to buy them. Revolution, indeed.
B. THE CULTURE OF ALIENATION AND EDM
It is no wonder, given the cold, inhumane consumer environment of eighties' mainstream culture, that many, especially young people, would begin to feel alienated from life as people once experienced it. Life that included physical contact with others, community and tribal gatherings, magic, adventure, and the smell of healthy human sweat on a dance floor. For many, life that is only defined by work, consuming goods, entertaining oneself, and spending a couple of "quality hours" with the normally parentless kids over the weekend doesn't create much of a fire in the gut.
Halfway through the horrid eighties I thought myself that EDM and dancing were over in any meaningful way. I felt I would never again experience the tribal joy and transcendence I used to experience at the Paradise Garage and other underground parties. Living as I knew it, I feared, was dead. And I was wrong.
I was wrong because I underestimated the general human need for the tribal experience, for the sweat, for the non-material joy of music and dancing. The oppressive materialism of the eighties and nineties gave birth to a plethora of new, authentic musical subcultures that facilitated the growth of house and EDM, and we will begin our discussion of those in the next issue.
NEXT: THE RISE OF MUSICAL SUBCULTURES.