The first album I ever bought on my own, with my allowance, was Mezzanine, by Massive Attack. I never really thought much of that until recently.
And the main kinds of music I really loved when I was that age, that kicked off my being into music in general, that set my love of music in motion, were industrial music, gothy-stuff, trip-hop (and the pretty broad range of electro-pop that was classified as trip-hop at the time), techno, and a little bit of punk. Needless to say, most of it was all definitely very electronic-music-oriented, with lots of drum machines and synthesizers involved. And I pretty much just straight-up forgot about that until recently.
To explain: I sort of lapsed out of music for a few years, first on account of my addiction, never having money, and all my music and electronic-gadgety-everything getting hocked or sold. And later finding out I just didn’t care as much anymore. But these past couple months, I’ve been really interested again. And finding myself particularly interested in electronic music, dance music, house, disco… things like that. Which for the most part I considered new interests.
But they weren’t really new. A lot of it is the kind of music I first ever fell in love with, and about which I kept a little candle of passion burning for a long time.
The thing is, I was taught to prefer and prioritize other kinds of music. I was taught, and taught myself, to love rock and “alternative” and “indie” instead. Because, overwhelmingly, that’s what my culture, my parents, my peers, and the messages I saw everywhere around me, said was the right kind of music. And I actually edited my own understanding of my own history with music to think I’d always been all about punk and stuff, that that was my “home base”, and to just cold forget that I’d ever left the etechno and house from The Matrix and Trainspotting soundtracks on repeat, or how often I cried listening to Portishead, or how many arguments I got in with my various fathers about why drum machines are a completely legitimate instrument and it’s not like pressing the fucking “bossa nova” or “waltz” button on a $25.00 keyboard from Radioshack.
There were a few things that were very, very consistent about the early messages that I internalized telling me that electronica, and especially dance music, were illegitimate in contrast to “real” music like rock, and especially “classic rock”. First was that it was “repetitive” and “all sounded the same”. Second was that shit about believing it took no “real” talent to produce or create. Third was pointing to the ubiquitous critical “consensus” that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana and various other white dudes with guitars and snare-kick-hi-hat-ride-crash drum kits were clearly, “objectively” the greatest bands to ever exist. And fourth was that it was “gay”.
Yep… this dancey shit is fucking gay. I mean, anyone who’s anyone knows that, right? Besides, it’s too much like disco, and there’s that whole ubiquitous critical “consensus” that disco sucks, right?
These messages didn’t simply come from older guys like my dad and stepfather. They also came from my peers and friends, from TV, from magazines, from the internet, from endless jokes in sitcoms and cartoons and stand-up… it was everywhere. The apparently universal belief was that disco sucks and is dead, dance is gay, electronica is cool but shallow and devoid of substance or talent, hip-hop was violent and materialistic and sexist and corrupting the youth, and, again, The Beatles and Nirvana are the best things ever to ever exist in all of the existence that ever existed… objectively. And if that was the universal belief, then clearly I was the one who had the shitty music taste, and I had to learn to like better stuff, and lean into the punk and more rocky kinds of goth stuff I liked, and from there learn to like alternative and “classic rock” and eventually indie and from there the whole all-consuming dark and hopeless void of trying to impress the hipster record store clerk with your totally perfect choices.
(My dad, by the way, while making fun of me for stuff like house and techno, would actually praise and encourage me for liking punk. And would *literally* tell me that that meant I was learning to like “real” music.)
It never, ever occurred to me to think about what kinds of cultural forces and biases might have been shaping those mainstream perceptions of what kinds of music counted and were “real”, and what kinds of music were constantly being denigrated, mocked, or used as an example of everything that was wrong with 90s youth. It didn’t occur to me even despite the overwhelmingly obvious bias towards music produced by, or at least for, white heterosexual men. It didn’t even occur to me the 700th time I was told that dance was gay or that pop was for girls.
Nowadays, it occurs to me.
Going back to “disco sucks”: this is a concept that’s so ubiquitous, so common, and so normatively embraced, that most people simply tend to just go ahead and assume that, yeah, disco sucks, haha, we ALL know that. People tend not to think about it any further than that, or ever question how this particular concept came to be (much less why we’re STILL making jokes about it, and declaring it as a universal truth, even though it’s been 35 years and “deader than disco” has ITSELF entered our lexicon as a cliche). The way that we unquestioningly take it at face value, as established fact, seems very bizarre to me in that it’s normally incredibly obvious that music is tied to cultural and sub-cultural niches and forms of expression, and their attendant tensions… and how the subjective, contextual, fluid nature of music’s quality is normally itself accepted as a completely self-evident fact.
Still, “disco sucks”. It says right there on the bumper sticker. Don’t think about it. Everyone knows it sucks and it’s funny how much it sucks. Haha. Fuckin’ Bee-Gees. Fuckin’ ABBA.
(I also find it weird how people seem to assume that somehow an ENTIRE GENRE was sustained entirely by the Bee-Gees, ABBA (who aren’t really disco anyway), and one Gloria Gaynor song)
But to pause even briefly and consider the cultural context in which disco emerged, and the cultural context from which the reactionary push against it emerged (“disco sucks” was a refrain embraced by the rock fans of the late 70s… specifically fans of the heavily white-dominated contemporaneous form of rock), and it’s very easy to see an underlying cultural tension, related to race, sexuality, and gender.
Disco was a scene and musical form primarily created and embraced by Black Americans, Latin Americans, Italian Americans and, yes, by the LGBT community. Most of the performers (the ones who DON’T get remembered like the Bee-Gees do) and producers were black, and the music itself was largely based on the conventions of other primarily black genres like R&B, funk, gospel and soul.
“Disco Sucks” was a statement that, in two words, summed up an entire universe of cultural tension: the cultural expressions of white male Americans, and embraced by white male Americans, was superior to the “shallow” cultural expressions of American minorities.
Let’s go back for a minute to that question of certain forms of music being “repetitive” and “all sounding the same”…
You know what all sounds the same to me? Black metal. Fucking black metal. Every single black metal band sounds completely indistinguishable to my ears, and they’re all equally boring to me. And yeah, I can tell the difference between black metal, doom metal, death metal and folk metal, but they all also, internally, all sound the same to me. And 80s Washington DC hardcore. Samey. And most Sad Indie Folk Guy With A Guitar And A Beard music. Samey. Etc.
But I also know WHY it sounds the same: because I don’t fucking know enough about those genres to know what I’m supposed to be I’m listening for. I can’t read them. The “sameness” is produced by MY ignorance, not any inherent quality of music.
Despite silly concepts of “music is the universal language”, music has almost no universal or inherent properties. It’s just temporally organized noise, really. The way we respond to music, emotionally, is primarily learned by cultural associations, associations with other music, and also associations with our own experiences of that music or similar music. A minor key sounds “sad” to listeners familiar with western music in contrast to a major key because that’s the cultural association we’ve been raised to understand. But there are forms of music totally foreign to the western structures and concepts, like Javanese folk music, that we can’t “read” the same way. Their sad songs won’t be comprehensible as sad to us, because we won’t pick up on the signifiers of sadness encoded into it.
Even within the broader language of a given cultural tradition, each genre, and sub-genre, and sub-sub-genre, and genre-that’s-only-recognized-by-this-one-tumblr-I-follow, is built around a set of conventions and expectations. Because of the consistent conventions of a given music marked, say, “classic punk rock”, the listener approaches the music *expecting* a certain set of things to be there, like aggressive guitars and drums, a basis in simple rock/blues chords, a fast tempo, probably vocals, a verse/chorus structure, a 4/4 time signature (maaaaybe 3/4, but nothin’ too weird!), and that the song be pretty short, simple, fun and non-pretentious. The band then PLAYS with those conventions, using them, toying with them, bending them, breaking them, working within them, seeing how creative they can be within them and how far they can go without breaking them, etc. and THAT’S what marks out the music as distinct. The push and pull between the conventions and expectations, and the creativity of the musicians within them.
(Some music has broader ranges of conventions than others… “rock” and “pop” are both extremely broad ranges of music, while “hardcore punk” is very narrow in what you’re “allowed” to do while still being considered “hardcore punk”)
If you don’t really understand what the conventions are, and can’t relate to them on the level of expectation, you’re not going to be able to understand when and where the performers or producers are being creative, you won’t be able to understand how they’re playing with or tweaking around, you won’t hear the talent and ingenuity when it’s there… ALL you’re likely to hear is the conventions of the genre itself. Which, of course, are by definition consistently the same across every artist within that genre (though you *might* notice when an artist *overtly* breaks the conventions).
Imagine someone who’d never, ever seen visual art before and had no concept of what it was about walking into an exhibit of mid-20th century art: “I don’t get it. It’s all just, like, big two dimensional rectangles with colours and stuff on them. They’re all the same”. Or someone who’d never seen a sitcom before: “they’re all the same… half-hour segments where a bunch of actors just perform some kind of humorous conflict while making witty remarks”. Or someone who’d only ever been exposed to classical music encountering all those “objectively greatest” rock bands the Boomers love: “It all sounds the same and is so repetitive. Just 2 to 4 minute vocal songs with pentatonic blues progressions and verse-chorus-verse-chorus structures.”
See what I mean?
Now, if we think about this in terms of normativity and privilege, things start coming into focus. A HUGE part of the nature of normativity is that it positions itself as the cultural default, and therefore the assumed base of knowledge, while knowledge of a marginalized identity, experience, culture, becomes specialized. Every queer or trans person already knows everything there is to know about straight cis people’s bodies and sexuality and courtship and romance and everything not only by having it pounded into our heads by almost EVERY work of art, literature or media concerning love or sexuality, but it was even straight up taught to us in school. Straight cis people, though, can be HILARIOUSLY ignorant about trans and queer people. Every black American is taught all about the history of Europe, the white-dominated western Canon, and the history of white colonists in the Americas, but black history gets marked out as a specialized topic, with a specialized month. The normative, privileged group have the luxury of being allowed to be ignorant about the marginalized group, but the marginalized group are forced to understand the normative one. This is part of why concepts like “a conversation about race” can be absurd: white people don’t have anything to add to such a conversation that PoC don’t already know. There is no special insight into the “white perspective”. There barely even IS a “white perspective”. White is just the ever-expanding umbrella for ethnic groups permitted inclusion in that privilege and normativity.
Because of normativity, knowledge as to the conventions and history and styles and genres of cultural expression that’s created by, or embraced by, a normative, privileged group is held by almost everyone, while understanding of the cultural expression of marginalized groups is limited or specialized knowledge. Consequently, it’s WAY more likely that someone from a marginalized background is going to understand the normative genres of music, like rock in the 70s, than someone from a privileged background will understand the music of marginalized groups, like disco.
And because that understanding is central to being able to interpret the music, well… yeah, normativity conditions itself to hear minority cultural expression through music as “shallow”, “repetitive”, and “all sounding the same”, regardless of the creativity that actually exists within the music.
Did you ever read that xkcd cartoon where the dude is taking a girl who (apparently) loves house/techno/electronica to “teach her some culture”, and they go to a classical concert? That is like, THE stupidest fucking…bullshit…grgh…horrible… AGH! Like NOBODY HAS EVER NOT BEEN “EXPOSED” TO CLASSICAL MUSIC. Classical music is TOTALLY part of the normativity!!! Nobody has “never heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” because they spent too much time listening to Wolfgang Gartner!!! But I guarantee a bunch of y’all reading this are now going to go to wikipedia to find out who the fuck Wolfgang Gartner is!!!
Normativity doesn’t on its own, however, explain the ferocity of the dedication to the “disco sucks” mantra, or why it’s been handed down so consistently through history. It doesn’t explain how a murdering rapist prick like Phil Spector receives so many accolades for his production genius, while the fact of Larry Levan being black and gay results in the vast majority of our culture willfully forgetting he ever existed. To understand that level of things, we have to look to straight up bigotry, and the insistence on dance music sounding “gay”.
The thing is, when my peers and friends in the late 90s would complain about the gayness of dance music, they didn’t mean in the catch-all pejorative sense. They meant it much more directly. They meant it genuinely sounded to them like something that gay people would listen to. And they wouldn’t be wrong. What this was about was direct antipathy to the cultural expression of a stigmatized minority…and one that, at the time, could not be exploitatively embraced, like, for contrast, hip-hop could be (though in today’s world of Lady Gaga and Glee, that’s no longer the case).
The cultural expression of a marginalized group, or one associated with a marginalized group, naturally, inevitably, and usually intentionally, comes to signify that group’s values, needs, experiences, frustrations, etc. That’s part of the whole point: creating cultural expression that reflects you, in which you can see yourself and your experiences, because the normative culture sure as fuck isn’t going to bother. But this association, positive as it is, means that the cultural expression works as a stand-in for the group whenever the dominant and privileged want to attack. Like racists talking about the alleged violence, sexism and materialism in hip-hop (while ignoring the violence, sexism and materialism of, oh, VIRTUALLY ALL MAINSTREAM MUSIC OF THE LAST 70 YEARS) as a way to, by proxy, vent their bigoted racist feelings towards black people.
(also conveniently ignoring that by far the primary audience and consumers of mainstream hip-hop is actually young WHITE middle-class men. They’re who the music is “for”, in terms of demographics and the interests of the major labels, and they’re whose tastes dictate what tops the hip-hop charts. NOT the black community.)
House music and techno were genres that built off of the “abandoned” tradition of disco, as well as its predecessors of R&B, funk, soul and gospel. Part of the point was DJs remixing the dance records that used to be hot in ways that would make them fresh and hot again (along with some new influences from Europe), for a now smaller but more dedicated and passionate audience. Most of those early DJs were black, but the audiences were pretty ethnically diverse. And very quickly, it also appealed a lot to queer audiences.
(I sometimes wonder if part of that might have been about how so much of the lyrics and refrains and culture and even dance moves of house music, and disco, were focused on freeing oneself, being happy and finding pleasure within your body, throwing aside constraints on your body and identity, embracing your gender and sexuality and love and experiences, feeling loose and open, feeling a positive and accepting sense of community and togetherness, things like that… messages that were, intentionally or not, very directly queer and trans positive, or at least very easy to read as such)
So yeah… house music, and other genres of dance and electronic music to emerge throughout the 80s, came to be culturally associated with LGBTQ. And consequently despised or ridiculed by anyone who felt threatened by the existence of a queer cultural expression or sub-culture or… you know, existence of queer people themselves and stuff.
“Disco sucks” didn’t exactly recur. But lots of other reactionary responses did, and they occurred in response to almost EVERYTHING that wasn’t rock…and/or wasn’t within the normativity (increasingly defined by the interests of boomers, who increasingly were THE demographic with the greatest spending power to dictate the discourse of music). Over time, a new perennial meme developed, wherein “real music” was constantly under “threat” by the much smaller genres that appealed to minority audiences. Even while the “Rock/Pop” world continued, of course, to be the dominant and normative cultural expression, there were, and continue to be, constant hysterical fears (especially amongst the boomers) that it’s about to be extinguished by the latest shallow/all-sounds-the-same “fad” like hip-hop or 90s rave techno or boy bands (where the bigotry in question is misogyny and hatred of youth) or whatever.
It’s a very boring kind of perennial bigotry.
And HOLY FUCK does the “is real music going to be extinguished by boy bands/rappers/techno?” concept sound EXACTLY like “Are whites becoming a minority? Is Christianity being outlawed? Are the gay elite going to take away my Bible? Are the trans cabal going to give a sex change to my kid?”.
Disco never sucked. It just wasn’t white enough, straight enough, male enough and cis enough. And most dance music IS kinda gay. And that’s awesome.
And I’m done claiming I was always punk, and done telling myself it’s my taste that was shitty. If you’re unable to learn to understand and appreciate anything outside what the mainstream culture has already, by default, taught you to understand as The 100 Greatest White Dudes WIth Guitars Of ALL TIME, it’s not MY taste that has a problem, and not me who needs to “learn” to like “real music” or be “exposed” to culture.
Expose your own selves to some cultureS.
I’m putting up my last post to Freethought Blogs on Friday! To be kept up to date on where I’ll be going next, please follow my twitter, @nataliereed84. If you’d like to help me land on my feet, cover my medicine until I get my insurance coverage reinstated, save up for SRS, and invest in future projects, please donate to my Tip Jar!