by carl wilson

Who Stole the DJ?

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This weekend's Overtones column in The Globe and Mail riffs off the new movie It's All Gone Pete Tong - a funhouse-mirror look back at the days when Ibiza was heaven and DJs were its deities, that mythical era, the 1990s. So what became of the non-fictional Frankie Wildes (and yeah, he's fictional, despite the producers' viral marketing campaign to plant rumours to the contrary) - and is this the beginning of, dear god, 1990s nostalgia? With contributions from Simon Reynolds - wish I could have used more of his comments. [...]

OVERTONES
Gone the way of the DJ

CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, June 18, 2005

The spike-haired DJ comes plummeting down from the rafters towards his mixing deck, wrapped in a loincloth, his eyes wide and goggling, the clubbing throng shrieking in adoration -- and his bony head circled with a crown of thorns.

That vision arrives early in It's All Gone Pete Tong by Canadian director Michael Dowse (Fubar), a mockumentary set in the fabled nightclub arcadia of Ibiza, Spain, and tracing the similarly plummeting career of a fictional British superstar DJ, Frankie Wilde.

Already tagged the Spinal Tap of rave music, it boogies giddily on the grave of the superstar-DJ era. It may seem like an obscure target. But for anyone ever seduced by that subculture, it's a stroke of sweet revenge.

Star status was repulsive to the electronic-music idealists who crowded marathon dance gatherings, legal and illegal, throughout the Western world. Personality cults were one thing ravers hated about rock: How stupefying to stand around watching some twit howl and waggle his whammy bar - to be a mere spectator! Why shouldn't the audience be performers, in a communal rhythm-trance ritual, usually in the sauna of group empathy inspired by taking ecstasy? The faceless DJ would be the anti-star, animator but not focal point.

Remember, this was during and after the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era, when privatization was the panacea. Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society; rave utopianism said nothing else mattered. What began as glow-stick escapism became consciously political after the British government made it illegal for groups of people to assemble in the presence of "repetitive" music, and New York city hall - apparently never having seen Footloose - revived hoary "cabaret licence" laws to crack down on dancing.

Meanwhile, DJs took advantage of long hours in the booth to explore new sonic technology. At breakneck speed they whipped up sounds (house, techno, acid, gabba, ambient, jungle, garage) and techniques that would become the DNA of pop songs on the charts today.

Gradually, though, humungous corporate clubs stamped out grassroots ones. Their cash - along with scene magazines that dopily hailed DJs as "gods" - bred the super-elite dance jocks lampooned in It's All Gone Pete Tong. (Tong is a DJ so well known in Britain that his name became rhyming slang for "wrong." He's also a consultant on the movie.)

Stars such as Tong, Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, Fatboy Slim, Junior Vasquez or even Canada's Richie Hawtin could be flown in and paid five-figure sums to spin for a couple of hours. They could do product endorsements (Dowse's Frankie Wilde wants to put out a brand of hummus) and usually dire studio recordings. Behavioural excesses often followed, which the film recreates in delirious druggy detail.

"I think it is a simple case of hubris and nemesis. [DJs] thought they were going to take over, rule the world," says Simon Reynolds, the British-born, New York-based author of the heady rave music history Generation Ecstasy.

"I always felt that the superstar DJ thing owed a lot to ecstasy -- people would be having these intense emotional experiences on the dance floor, this flood of emotion, and not knowing where to direct it, a lot of that love-energy would go to the DJs."

It's not only that such worship contradicted rave philosophy, which wished away the human appetite for idols. Few DJs had the charisma to live up to it. A crash after all those highs was inevitable, and it came when the nightclub economy imploded, especially in England, in 2002.

The A-list DJs now jet off to ginormous gigs in Argentina or Asia, but new contenders are few. Rock and hip-hop became more dance-friendly (as with the punk-disco trend) while synthesized music got more song-oriented or more experimental (as at Montreal's Mutek festival), or retreated to underground loft and basement parties.

"I think it's all to the good that the DJ bubble has burst," says Reynolds. "Back to self-organizing activity. . . . The DJs aren't stars, because the people on the floor know them, or are often aspiring DJs themselves."

And these days, who isn't? Hollywood actors dabble in it, there are DJ schools, and clubs hold audience-as-DJ events where attendees play their own CDs, tapes, iPods or MP3s. Maybe the superstar DJ was only an evolutionary detour en route to an even more egalitarian model of mixing, matching and mashing up music.

Then again, Spinal Tap, which came out in 1984, failed to rid us of bloated rock stars. And Pete Tong's piquancy has its limits. Its climax, in which Wilde reinvents himself as a deaf DJ, lags behind reality: The British have had "deaf raves" for a couple of years, giving the hard of hearing the chance to feel the bass pound. They even have deaf rappers, rhyming in sign language.

Rather than belated satire, the movie may signal alarmingly premature 1990s nostalgia - what with the current Backstreet Boys comeback and the threatened Spice Girls reunion. The mega-DJ will probably be to future conceptions of the 1990s what key parties are to the 1970s - a barely decodable freak custom from the murky past.

But instant nostalgia does suit the sample-and-recycle ethos of DJ culture. And it's better than no historical awareness at all, when politicians seem to count on social amnesia to grant them a free pass - on the reasons behind the Iraq war, say, or why Canada instituted universal health care in the first place. Right now, an extended mix of Tommy Douglas speeches would sure make me wanna shake it.

A similar spirit informs New York's Paul Miller, better known as DJ Spooky, who performs tonight at Toronto's Drake Hotel. Spooky's no superstar, not even a funky beat-master so much as a conceptual meta-DJ. He has described the DJ's art as "taking elements of our own alienated consciousness, and recombining them to create new languages from old, and in doing so to reflect the chaotic, turbulent reality we all call home."

Perhaps that's what Frankie Wilde means when (in a perfect piece of DJ-blather parody) he stammers about "forgin' it . . . wit' a lyrical smelter." But not likely.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, June 19 at 4:40 AM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson