2012 was a strange moment in recent history. Suburban America had finally discovered dance music in the form of “EDM” and everybody and their mom seemed to be ~popping mollies~ to the squelching sound of Skrillex drops. Diplo and Deadmau5 were packing out NASCAR arenas (I mean, not literally, but work with me here), which prompted Forbes to declare that “DJ’s are the new rockstars” – one of the rare instances where a stuffy financial publication was actually in tune with the zeitgeist. Strange times, indeed.
Over the course of the 21st century, rock music has faded out of relevance and been largely replaced by dance music and hip-hop as the genre that most young people listen to. Like leather trousers, Guns N' Roses are only really popular with your dad these days and it’s been a full decade since guitar bands commanded any sort of cultural capital. But while DJs are no doubt the musical icons of our time, they’re not really an appropriate replacement for the rockstar archetype, because, truth be told, most of them are quite dull.
Sure, they live hard-partying lifestyles, ingest copious amounts of drugs and probably have more sex than the average human being frequents Pornhub, but that’s where the similarities end. The DJ doesn’t really exist beyond the DJ booth. Notable exceptions like Goldie aside, most of them exhibit about as much personality as a Spotify playlist.
But even Goldie is no David Bowie. Dance music has its own icons but they’re not very iconic. The genre has no equivalent for Iggy Pop and Deadmau5's papier mâché mouse head is a poor substitute for Henry Rollins’ attitude. If it wasn’t for Resident Advisor, most top DJs would hardly be distinguishable from your average iPod: they exist for the sole purpose of playing music rather than creating any sort of spectacle or symbolizing an idea.
Some would argue that this is a good thing. A musician’s priority should obviously be their music, but rockstars, rappers and pop acts are more than just people who play instruments – they’re personalities who shape our collective culture and leave an echo that reverberates throughout history.
DJs, on the other hand, tend to be completely anonymous. They show up at a club, play their set and then shuffle off to their next gig or an after party. If it weren’t for YouTube, Seth Troxler would hardly be distinguishable from a random Deliveroo driver and I’m really scraping the barrel here: Seth is one of the few DJs that comes to mind who has any semblance of a persona. But cracking a few jokes on camera is hardly comparable to getting yourself arrested for verbally abusing the Queen while sailing a boat down the River Thames, like the Sex Pistols did back in 1977.
So, what gives? Are DJs simply boring, uninspiring people? Well, in my experience quite a few of them are total geeks. I once found myself at an after party in Ibiza with James Zabiela. He spent most of the morning standing on the periphery of conversations with his arms folded, awkwardly avoiding human interaction and eye contact. Four Tet looks and sounds a lot like Ed Miliband, an excruciatingly awkward British politician. The blonde half of Simian Mobile Disco looks like he’d bruise if he were to be struck by a light breeze.
Yes, I’m picking some extreme outliers here, and there are countless counter examples that you could throw at me (Carl Cox, Sven Vath and the Martinez Brothers, to name a few), but there is an inherently bookish vein that runs through the heart of dance music.
Production, if not DJing (maybe not anymore, that is, thanks to the plethora of mixing programs that can beat match with a single click, thus removing all the effort from DJing) is a highly technical craft. Music production programs like Logic Pro can be as complex as computer science. Composing a record involves obsessing over a single sound effect, meticulously tweaking it until it’s perfect. This is a world away from punk rock, where would-be bands only had to learn a few power chords. The bar of entry is much higher in dance music and it has a tendency to attract people with a bit of a nerdy streak – people who are, by nature, a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight.
Of course, plenty of DJs don’t know how to produce, which reduces them to musical service providers that are inevitably overshadowed by that service. The dance music template also doesn’t leave much room for DJs and producers to impose themselves onto a track: vocals are used as a sound effect, lyrics are rare, the beats and the bass overwhelm their creator. By sacrificing its voice, dance music evidently diminishes its own ability to articulate a message.
But I think it goes beyond that. There’s something fundamentally post-ideological about electronic music. The focus seems to be on hedonism and partying rather than values. Punk rock is political. Hippie bands like the Grateful Dead rejected the stuffy morality of post-war America. There are political roots to dance music: house emerged out of the gay clubs of Chicago. It created a space where tensions related to ethnicity and gender could be diffused. The ecstasy of partying is supposed to dissolve the barriers of race, sexuality and class that exist beyond the dance floor.
Well, that’s how the story goes, but I’m skeptical of how true it all is. I’d say it’s more likely that an extreme focus on individual self-indulgence has a way of briefly suspending prejudices and old beefs by shifting focus inwards. Maybe this is why we don’t see DJs or producers stand for anything but their music.
Of course this isn’t entirely true and there are exceptions to this tendency: Underground Resistance brought anti-Reaganism and black solidarity to techno. The Black Madonna is known for pushing back against the rampant commercialization of dance music. DJ Sprinkles incorporates gender politics into his art. Sandwell District are another example of DJs with a message.
But going back to the point I made before: the absence of a vocalist renders the electronica form so abstract that it abstracts any message to the point of illegibility. So it’s not that DJs are necessarily dull, they just let themselves be drowned out by their music. Yet even these examples prefer to take a backseat role and let their output speak for them. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s just dull.
Need more DJs in your life? Read about how international DJ Seth Troxler deals with being a traveling musician right here.