Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 3)

In October 1995 I stepped into Atlanta's Masquerade club to see a UK dance music act called The Chemical Brothers perform. As I enjoyed a beer at the bar before the show, I turned and saw Ed Simons, half of that mighty duo, standing beside me. I was surprised a mob hadn't surrounded him, but probably few folks recognized him. The duo had not appeared on the album covers of any of their releases, nor on the covers of American music magazines, and if music videos for their singles had been released back then, we hadn't seen them.

I was a bit intimidated by Ed. He was tall, for one thing, and looked quite serious, and he was half of what I considered at the time to be the most exciting thing going on in dance music. But I mustered the courage to turn to him, extend my hand, and, as we shook, say, "Thank you for making dance music fun again."

A couple of hours later I was one in a mass of hundreds bouncing sweatily along to the pounding sounds of "Chemical Beats."

This was Atlanta, Georgia, the Deep South, a region where Confederate flag T-shirt sales remain brisk. And yet, a dance music group from the UK had found a critical mass of enthusiastic fans to cheer them on that night in the middle of the 1990s.

In 1991 I had many friends who enjoyed various styles of so-called alternative music, but not a single one listened to hardcore techno. The failure of dance music to take off in America disenfranchised an important aspect of U.K. culture, and that in turn contributed to the long-lasting U.S./U.K. pop music divide.

America has never been completely dance-averse; but we were a little dance-shy. Every charting dance track that made it into the top 40 seemed more of a novelty than an accepted member of real U.S. music culture--"Oh, here's that dumb Dee-lite dance song we can jump around to before we slow dance to Vanessa Williams's 'Save the Best for Last'!"

Sure, in 1990 "Groove is the Heart" was a big dance hit, and so was DNA feat. Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner"; in 1991 the KLF's "3 a.m. Eternal" reached number 5 on the U.S. pop chart, EMF's "Unbelievable" topped the charts, and Jesus Jones's "Right Here Right Now" reached number two.

But these songs sound hammy when put up against the surrealistic fury of, say, T99's hardcore anthem "Anasthasia." Jesus Jones was classified as "dance rock," which the music journalist Simon Reynolds noted in a review of one of the band's later albums meant that "you can't dance to it, and it doesn't rock." And while the more aggressive sounds of Eurodance would be heard in the U.S., Culture Beat's "Mr. Vain," while enjoying number 1 hit status in several European countries, had to settle for a peak position of #17 in the U.S.

It seemed America always cut off its flirtation with dance music just before things got hot and heavy, seemingly out of some latent sense of Puritanical guilt. And there may be something to that theory: one factor that held dance music back in the United States was likely its "gayness" factor. Dance music had evolved out of the counter-cultural revolution of disco and, later, house--genres with heavy ties to the gay club underground. Those gay associations were still strong in the minds of many (think Village People). (I babble on about all that here.) By the early 1990s, acid house and hardcore techno had turned the UK dance music scene into a surreal, aggressive, and indeed sometimes testosterone-driven culture that transcended gender, class, and race; but ask an American frat boy in 1992 why he didn't like dance music and he'd likely launch into a crude impression of the fey-voiced singer of "Unbelievable."

If the "dance" element of dance music was such a turn-off to Americans, perhaps there was another way for the electronic sounds dominating the UK to infiltrate these shores.

Electronic music between 1988 and 1992 reminds me of the Cambrian explosion, a period in our earth's history back in the day when all life lived in the seas--you remember--and when all sorts of fantastical creatures popped up. We're still not sure what some of the distinctive anatomical characteristics of these organisms were for--fucking, swimming, eating, all of the above? Electronic music had gone through a similar burst of punctuated equilibrium, to use the fancy evolutionary term, and the great advantage that such diversity conferred was an opportunity for dance rhythms to invade several different American cultures and markets simultaneously.

Consider stoner culture. The Orb had been serving up something referred to as "ambient dub" since 1989. Trippy, spacey, and certainly, as one would expect from the label, very, very dubby, The Orb's sonic collages were further livened up with a sense of humor pleasingly familiar to any American geek who had grown up reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or watching reruns of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on PBS. No floppy-armed dancing here; these tracks demanded only a simple stoned nodding of the head to the chugging beats, and the occasional wry smile at the understanding of an obscure joke floating through the haze (e.g., that "Would you tell him that Marcus Garvey phoned?" bit on "Towers of Dub").

Meanwhile, as Brian Eno had written Music for Airports, the Aphex Twin offered, at least conceptually, Music for an Ambitious IT Start-Up. British artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre effectively wrote the soundtrack for the development of the Internet.

Warp! records termed their brand of music "electronic listening music," emphasizing its more introspective nature, but later, the music would assume the stunningly pretentious label of "Intelligent Dance Music" (IDM), despite the fact that you couldn't really dance to it. In fact, from the IDM perspective, it was time for dance music to shove off. Leave us alone, dance music! We just want to sit in front of our computers, log onto websites via our fancy dial-up modems, tear open a bag of Doritos, and download hentai to the sounds of Aphex Twin, Plone, and Plaid! Yeah, baby!!! This is how I intelligently dance to Danish porn!!!!!

Boom-boom beats, once the music of choice for a music underground in the know, became increasingly marginalized. To survive, the purveyors of 1990 and 1991 techno had to intellectualize their sound, as The Prodigy did in Music for a Jilted Generation, which saw the replacing of their cartoon samples with socio-political statements; and as Orbital did in crafting musically-adventurous journeys that straddled the line between art and dance in breathtaking ways. Other artists reacted to the shifting culture change by creating increasingly obtuse records (e.g., Plastikman's "Spastik"), while on the other extreme Eurodance amplified the sugary melodic elements of the dance sound to a level best appreciated by a furiously masturbating chimp.*

My friends The Chemical Brothers, and I can call them that because I shook Ed Simons's hand, attacked American culture from another front, tapping into the aesthetics of the rock crowd by melding the sound of crunching electric guitars to acid house 303s in a style that eventually was christened Big Beat. In post-grunge America, this hybrid could not have hit at a better time. And it helped that these guys didn't look like dance music producers; they looked like students you'd find hanging out at the local pub--or Atlanta's Masquerade--hovering over a pint.

A year after I saw them, they released "Setting Sun," an annoying cacophony unworthy of mention except that it featured the vocal contributions of Oasis's Noel Gallagher. This was the same year Oasis had toured the United States, riding on the wave of support for "Wonderwall." The dance/rock divide had been bridged, the UK music magazines crowed, thanks to this really shitty song.

But, as more American rock fans found themselves drawn to the likes of DJ dance acts like, say, The Crystal Method, one was tempted to believe them. An all-out assault from multiple fronts--dub, electronic listening/IDM, big beat, Eurodance--had ensured that, even if a group like Underworld wasn't likely to have a number one album in America, the sound of boom-boom-boom had at last become entrenched in American culture.

* Intelligently dancing.

(To be continued)

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