Electronic music has lost its ideological way, argues Jonny Chadwick
It’s become something of a cliché that electronic music and clubs are safe havens for marginalised groups and those who feel they are outsiders in society. The genre continues to subsist on a public image of radical defiance, of artistic forward thinking coupled with progressive social and political attitudes.
Reality, however, rarely follows suit; representation behind the DJ booth has become an increasingly prevalent topic of debate. Bloc, a highly regarded festival known as a showcase for the most exciting electronic music, had just three women in its entire line-up this year. When asked about this by DJs and journalists on Twitter, the festival’s response was unmistakably flippant: ‘yes there are only three women, but they’re three of the best’.
This perfectly demonstrates a disconnect between those who hold the power and the actual demographics that electronic music is meant to champion – complacency among organisers is driving people away on the very issues that drew them there in the first place. Several recent examples have brought to light just how much electronic music’s lack of vigilance has allowed racism, sexism and class privilege to fester. The most publicised case was Lithuanian producer Ten Walls’ homophobic outburst after Field Day Festival, comparing being gay to paedophilia and harking back to the apparent halcyon days of the 90s, where ‘these people of different breed were fixed’. As if that didn’t fill the quota for controversy at Field Day, GFOTY, a member of media darlings PC Music and frequent contributor to VICE, described Toumani Diabaté (whose family pioneered kora music and have been writing songs for decades) as ‘a blacked up Bombay Bicycle Club’.
In addition to the offensiveness of the comment in isolation, this also reveals a startling ignorance of music history, raising the question of just how GFOTY has made it this far. For all the praise PC Music as a collective have garnered, it is hard to find anyone discuss GFOTY’s actual music; arguably, she receives more attention for her public persona and Twitter account. Furthermore, she seems increasingly representative of electronic music in 2015, a genre that is celebrated as a diverse and progressive. Instead, the genre has arguably been filtered through the gaze of the white upper and middle classes, staving off any guilt about a lack of inclusivity by simply pointing to the history they are simultaneously eroding.
This brings into question the state of electronic music and its relationship to the communities that made it such an exciting movement from the outset. Potentially the most unsettling recent episode is the case of the techno label, Berceuse Heroique. As a label that very much enjoys a reputation as underground, inventive and associated with some highly acclaimed DJs and producers, it would be reasonable to assume it would embody the intrinsic values upon which techno music was originally created.
Despite this, the label has repeatedly shown itself to be quite the opposite. For one, their promotional strategy is aimed at the most tasteless of marketing strategies: provocation. Alongside various records released on the label, listeners were subjected to anti-immigration quotes from right-wing newspapers, pictures of Nazis and very graphic images of lynching in the American Deep South (not to mention a particularly sexist tweet). These were presented without comment or qualification. While certain artists decried the appropriation of images of systemic oppression for marketing, Berceuse Heroique still continues to be booked for label showcases and is often enthusiastically praised in the music press.
So what can be done?
As grime MC Stormzy pointed out recently in reference to an incident at DSTRKT nightclub, artists are too often scared to speak out on these incidents of discrimination because they are afraid of the effect on their careers. Unfortunately, as genre begins to reach a larger audience, it has seemingly lost its express intention to include those who do not feel comfortable elsewhere. This once admirable aim has been replaced by a much more vague, abstract idea that electronic music unifies all, apparently erasing the need for overt political or social statements.
This lack of a clear direction explains why bigots like Ten Walls and ignorant musical irrelevances like GFOTY have had platforms, and explains why Berceuse Heroique felt it was acceptable to trivialise mass murder in the name of ‘provoking debate’ and selling records.
Ultimately, it is the insidious nature of the latter that is a damning indicator of just how much techno in particular has regressed since its conception – it has moved away from a defiant scene which championed the oppressed and instead reduced their participation, keeping the electronic aesthetic for profit. There’s no doubt that the genre desperately needs to rediscover its radicalism.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons