assessing ‘quality’ in music for djing: part 1, the ‘good song’

NB: When I DJ, I don’t think about all this shit. I just do it.

A little while ago someone on teh twittz was talking about song quality, and I didn’t quite get the chance to write about it then. But I’d like to now, because it’s interesting. It’s also a massively controversial topic, or at least a topic that every single DJ and every single dancer has an opinion about. If you’ve ever been with a group of dancers trying to decide where to go and eat, you’ll understand…

I had intended to cover all aspects of this topic in one post, but I’m rubbish at doing things succinctly. So I’m going to have to do it in parts. I’m not sure I’ll get to them all, but I’d like to talk about song quality in terms of :

  • Is it good for dancing?
  • Is the song (or ‘text’ as we cultural studies types like to think of them) of high quality in a technological sense – was it recorded and mastered well? Was it remastered well?
  • Is the digital file of high quality?

I’m going to talk about first one here in this post, because it’s the biggest one, and it’s the most controversial and also the most subjective. I talk about the second one in the post Assessing ‘quality’ in music for DJing part 2: scratchy.

Firstly, a sort of get-out clause: when I say ‘quality’, I’m usually using the term fairly loosely, and with plenty of provisions. It’s quite a subjective word, and is used in lots of different ways by lots of different dancers and DJs. I use it in different ways myself.

I’m going to talk about how I think about quality of a particular song in terms of DJing for dancers live, while you’re there with them on the dance floor. Not DJing over the radio or by other broadcast. I also want to note that when I’m just sitting around the house listening to the stereo or playing songs on my ipod, the ‘quality’ of the song isn’t at all important.

When I first add a song to my laptop’s music library, I consider a few key elements when I’m assessing ‘quality’. The most important one is Is it ‘good for dancing?’

Most importantly, the song must make me want to dance. Not every song I love makes me want to dance. This usually means that they don’t swing (in a rhythmic sense). Or that they’re not a style appropriate for dancing.

I love 50s southern gospel, but it’s often not great for dancing, particularly if it is intended as religious or sacred music. I have a category in my music library called ‘kissing songs’, which are songs that are between about 90 and 120bpm, often have vocals, have quite romantic lyrics, can be very beautiful, wonderful songs, but do not make me want to dance. Unless that dance is with The Squeeze and we literally have our cheeks squeezed together while we cuddle. I don’t DJs those songs for dancers. There was discussion on SwingDJs recently about ‘beautiful swing ballads for dancing’ which I read as a discussion about these ‘kissing songs’ which has made me rethink my position. A little bit.

I think this definition of quality is perhaps the most personal or specific to each DJ. We each have different ideas of what constitutes ‘good dancing’, and a large part of this definition is determined by our own experiences as dancers. So our own individual ideas of what constitutes a ‘good dance’ or ‘fun’ or whatever it is we look for in a dance, as dancers shapes the way we assess a song as a DJ.

I also feel that this is why it’s really important to dance as much as you can when you start DJing. But also to continue to dance as much as you can once you’ve been DJing for a while. That last one can be tricky, as sitting on your clack DJing makes it a little difficult to dance.

Not only will you see musical trends in the contemporary scene come and go, but your understanding of music as a dancer will change as your dancing changes, and as you experience dancing to more DJs and bands and with more and more people. Your experience of different dances and dance traditions will also shape your experiences of music on the dance floor. I do feel (and this is a fairly contentious point, and one I almost hesitate to write) that a very new lindy hopper – someone with only one or two years dancing – really isn’t going to do the best job as a DJ. They simply haven’t experienced the rhythms and structures of swing music in their bodies, as a jazz dancer. So they don’t really understand why a particular song might be a bit shit for dancing.

The follow up point to this is, of course, that there is no point at which you can say – as a dancer and as a DJ – that you have ‘learnt everything’ or ‘know everything you need to know’ about music. Most of us dancing lindy hop today do not come from a culture where dance is a part of everyday life. I don’t mean something that you do ‘every day’ in a distinct block of time, but something that permeates your everyday life – from skipping rope as a child to singing in church telling stories in a particular way.

This means that most of us will never quite catch up, musically. DJs and dancers should be always looking for the next learning experience, and always open to new things. As The Squeeze says, “Don’t deny knowledge!”

This is why I’m always very sceptical of dancers who think they’re too good or know too much to attend a particular dance class, or who think they’re too good a dancer to participate in a level assessment exercise at a dance camp. Not only is it an arrogant declaration (which everyone present sees) that they are ‘the best’ and ‘know everything’, but it’s also declaring that ‘learning is done’, or that that person can only learn in particular circumstances, which they control.

I feel that even the most poorly taught dance class teaches you something. Not just how not to teach, but also real things about movement and dance. About understanding how your body works, and how variety and difference in types of movement affect dance.

As an example, I’ve always liked dance classes where you rotate partners because you can guarantee you’ll feel one version of the move that’s ‘wrong’ and that you can’t really recognise ‘right’ until you know what ‘wrong’ feels like. Dancing only with one or two other people in a learning environment (which can include the social dance floor as well as a class) will limit your understanding of how a movement works or feels.

I guess I can sum all that up by saying that my assessment of a song which is ‘good for dancing’ is the product of my experiences as a dancer. I am not trying to make authoritative rules about what constitutes a ‘good song’.

When I’m listening to new music, I look for these things in the song itself (ie not the recording quality or digital sound file quality, but the actual song):

  • Does it make me want to dance?

    If I can find the beat quickly and easily, if it makes me want to tap my feet, if it makes it difficult to sit still, if I find myself imagining moving to the song, if I have that intensifying of emotion that is a bit like the music has gotten into my body and made me feel its rhythms emotionally, then it’s a good song.

  • Can I imagine people dancing to it?

    This is one of those things that makes it useful to have a wider range of dancing experience. I have to be able to imagine dancers making use of what they hear in the song. Do the rhythms and timing and structure match up with how we move in lindy hop or balboa or blues or whatevs? Is it complex enough to keep more experienced dancers interested? Is it simple enough to make it easier for new dancers to join in?

    One song mightn’t contain both these qualities, but it should have something that makes it possible for me to imagine people dancing to it.

    This is a problematic definition. Because, of course, it depends on my own experience of other dancers. Who have I seen dance? Do I have the experience to understand what I’m seeing?

    As an aside, in a recent conversation with a friend I noted that there are some dancers who are so technically and rhythmically (and so on) beyond me, that I can’t see where there weaknesses are. So I can’t look at Frida Segardahl’s dancing and see the errors in her dancing that are beyond my own ability. I can only assess her dancing by what I know about dancing. Which of course means that I’m going to fall very short of really understanding what she’s doing. I’m probably going to be full of wrong.

    So when I choose songs that are suitable for more experienced dancers, I’m really only working from my experiences. As a DJ, you do get to know music and begin to understand what you see on a dance floor in a way you don’t if you’re just dancing, but I feel it as a definite limitation in my DJing. If I were a better dancer, I could be a better DJ.

    But let me be clear. I do not want to suggest that a terrible DJ is a terrible dancer. There are plenty of really awful DJs who are fabulous dancers, for all sorts of reasons. There are plenty of excellent DJs who are ordinary dancers. And of course excellent DJs who are also excellent dancers. I do, however, want to retain the idea that a DJ must have some level of dancing proficiency to really do a good DJing job. And that the more dancing experience and skill a DJ has, the more useful this will be in DJing.

    Hmm… as I write this, I’m finding it difficult to really figure out where I stand. So I’ll just say: my DJing gets shit when I don’t dance much; the more dancing I do, the dances I learn, the better my DJing becomes; the best thing I can do for my DJing is to pay really close attention to the dancers on the dance floor while I’m DJing, and to understand how what I see might feel if I was dancing.

  • Is it a technically decent song?

    Basically, are the musicians skilled? Is the arrangement pretty good? Is the band actually working together as a team? These are the sorts of questions that have led to my preferring older bands to new. I know it’s a stupid old fuddy duddy point, but I do feel that the old school doods were better than most modern day musicians. Not all of them. There were some real duds getting about then. And there are some fabulous musicians around today. But the day to day realities of living in the 1930s and being a professional musician were quite different.

  • Does the song have something that catches my attention?

    Having said that about technical ability, I will overlook some technical weaknesses if a song or a musician has a little something that overcomes their limitations. So I really like the Midnight Serenaders, even though there are some problems with their songs. But there’s something about the bouncing lightness of their delivery that makes me feel bouncy and light inside. The female vocalist isn’t really all that amazing, but she has a confidence and musical relationship with the rest of the band that I really like.

    I really like the Firecracker Jazz Band, even though they can be a bit rough and ready round the edges. They really feel like a bunch of firecrackers, all up in your face. Their songs are energetic, exciting, and each musician really feels as though they’re bringing everything. I don’t know I can know these things, or where I get this feeling from. It could be the way a guitarist touches and releases the strings, or the way a trumpeter sustains a note without the slightest tremor – or adds a quivering tremor to heighten emotion.

    Again, these are all quite subjective readings of the band and the recording. They probably tell you more about me than about them. I guess this is why DJs develop a particular style, that you can pick from a mile off. I tend to favour high energy songs – songs that really kick me in the guts. This is because I’m DJing for lindy hoppers most of the time, and my favourite type of lindy hop has lots of energy and fun. I find it really difficult to adjust my sets to include less upenergy songs, even though I have masses of them in my collection. I like a sense of humour, I like a song (and a dance) to have a joke at the ready, a bit of sarcasm and irreverence.

    My favourite sets are to loud, shouting rooms full of adrenaline-crazed fools. I wonder if it’s because DJing is a bit like getting a bit emotional hit yourself. You sort of feed on or absorb what the dancers give off. When you stand in a room full of dancers, if you’re engaged with what they’re feeling, you feel that way too. It’s just how crowds work. So perhaps I DJ this way because I want to feel that way? Who knows. And I’m not sure I want to think about that :D

All this assessment of songs when I first buy them or add them to my collection is really just a preparatory step. I have so many zillions of songs, I really have to sort them in some way before I begin DJing. Not all DJs do this. But I don’t listen to music often enough when I’m not DJing to keep all the relevant information in my head.

I do have some fundamental facts glued into my brain: I know what to expect of Count Basie’s big band in 1939. Or of Benny Goodman’s sextet in 1939. And so on. I also have an idea of how a song will work because I’ve played it for dancers before in lots of different circumstances. Or because I’ve DJed similar songs before, or seen how a particular type of room responds to certain songs in other circumstances.

But I like to sort my music a bit before I DJ, so that I don’t have to clutter my brain with yet another shitty version of Honeysuckle Rose. And as I collect more and more music, I like to be able to get rid of lower quality recordings or remasterings of familiar songs. Or to make sensible decisions when purchasing new versions of songs.

So, to sum up, assessing the ‘good’ of a song is entirely subjective. This is why when I’m booking DJs for gigs, I don’t bother to think about whether they play songs that I would consider ‘good’. I look for DJs who can work the crowd, filling the dance floor and making them crazy. I look for DJs who are professional and easy to work with. And I do look for DJs who use sound files of a high quality and understand the importance of a good quality recording. Or of juggling sound equipment and the acoustics and mood of a room to make lower quality recordings work.

At the end of the day, a good DJ has a playlist full of good songs. But a brilliant DJ makes a crowd crazy with the way they observe the crowd.

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