Tuesday, July 01, 2008

music and the body

While reading and commenting in one of many fascinating conversations at Wayne's blog, I reminded myself of one of my interests that I haven't been able to pursue (yet) in music scholarship.

I've been thinking more and more about music's relationship to the body - both in terms of what people call "dance music" here in the US: primarily electronic stuff, often without lot in the way of vocals), but also in relation to hip-hop. Despite the emphasis on lyrics in most hip-hop-studies writing I have come across (except the IP-related stuff on sampling), Hip-hop is also the dance music of choice for many many people in America. I'm not talking about "b-boying" and virtuosic dance, although some of the same issues may be true, but more parties, clubs, school dances, etc etc. My impression is that discussions of hip-hop don't focus on dancing because there is such an interest in hip-hop as resistance, and it's hard to analyse how dancing is resistance, if it is. What's the value in dancing?

As a DJ, whose main goal is getting people to dance (although I won't compromise my music in order to do it), and also an academic type, you'd think I might have a well-thought out answer to that question. But I don't.

I know that after my raver past, I'm not convinced in the dancefloor-as-utopia language I used to come across, even though some folks even now discuss the current rave (the term feels different to me these days) scene using utopian or transcendent language. Perhaps its because so rarely does the dancefloor LOOK like the kind of utopia I could feel good about.

Then again, sometimes at Surya Dub, I do feel like we are building a kind of scene which is meaningful in some terms I care about -- not to be too grandiose, but it is one of the most ethnically diverse, gender-balanced, many-styled, broad-age-ranged, non-sizeist parties in SF. We can still do better (particularly on the queer side of things), but it means a lot to me that those characteristics have been consistent over the past year. Of course people are there to have fun, not to make a political statement. And they do! (witness our winning "best club night in SF" last year, which reminds me - anyone can vote in that poll again this year: right here page 2 is best party promoter and best dj if you are so inclined) But anyway... it matters to me (in a political way) that the fun ends up having political significance.

I'm not in the camp that thinks that pleasure in itself is political. Our effed-up-society and all its isms would not be so resilient and powerful if there wasn't some pleasure in capitulation to hierarchy. But making the political pleasurable... maybe that's something?

On a related tip, while in Chicago I had a fascinating conversation with Murderbot about the role of house & techno in the midwest, which he argues is akin to the role of hip-hop on the coasts. Coming from Boston, I find it hard to imagine club music as black music first (even though I know intellectually that's completely true). Electronic bleeps and bloops and serious loops were something I associated with white subculture much more than black. Maybe this is partly a regional artifact - since it's true that I don't associate a ton of hip-hop history with the midwest (or current hip-hop pop stars), and I do know that house & techno come from there and are still huge, and associated with black folk (more so than they are here out West too, I think).

But if house & techno are the hip-hop of the midwest, then what does that mean about the power and significance of lyrics, and the role of dancing? Because neither of those genres seem as lyrics-oriented, and they seem much more explicitly dance-oriented. If we put dancing at the center of analysis of subcultural music (and pop music), what would that mean?


  1. interesting questions, rip. and we gotta keep theorizing this dance stuff -- informally and formally. it's pretty important/central and overlooked. no doubt leaving some large lacunae in our discussions about musical experience and meaning.

    one thing, which is obvious but doesn't appear in your musings above: a lot of the black working-class house and techno that you make reference to _does_ have lyrics. and as discussed @ my place a while back, those lyrics are not always so ignorable.

  2. Yeah I was thinking about that after I posted.

    I didn't mean that the lyrics are ignorable. But it seems to me that many of the concerns with the lyrics in dance music seem to be the kinds of concerns people have with the dancing. "too physical" "too sexual" etc. Too much relation to the body?

    My impression of this music is that there is less narrative in the lyrics than there is in the more valorized kinds of hip-hop. I still see a connection to dancing and the body here - lyrics perhaps subordinated to the body and the dance?

    (and of course the concerns about the politicized nature of the body, especially WHOSE body the lyrics are usually about and HOW that body is engaged with shouldn't be ignored)

  3. i'm told by some people who've been checking this long than i that a preponderance of lyrical analysis has plagued pop scholarship for some time. is this is the lingering influence of a generation of english lit majors studying pop music?

    dance music is body (rocking) music. a friendly dancefloor is one of the few places in which bodily pleasure is expected and encouraged. i'm actually weirded out by people who listen to dance music but don't dance... what's da deal?

    i wonder if dubstep has sufficient cache with the academic crowd to yield some chest-rattle theorizing?

  4. i saw a paper last year at IASPM which was all about the experience of sub-bass frequencies, so that sort of thing is starting to happen. and of course, kode9 himself is quite the sonic theorist.

    but you still have a point, kev, about the disproportionate focus on lyrics in lots of pop music scholarship (esp hip-hop, IMO, which has long been a pet peeve of mine). yeah, to some extent that's a product of litcrit/cultstuds people using the critical tools at their disposal. a lot of those folks don't feel comfortable talking about music or movement or even phenomenology, so a lot of those important -- indeed crucial -- dimensions have generally been overlooked.

    and for their part, the musicologists and music theorists who go against the euro-art grain and discuss pop tend to focus on musical relationships to the exclusion of everything else -- often at quite an absurdly anti-social level. i do think ethnomusicologists who go against the world-trad grain tend to do better in their balance, generally, but i'm biased no doubt.