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June 3, 2006

DJing hubris, heirarchy and hokum

Posted by dogpossum on June 3, 2006 6:01 PM in the category djing

And so I return to the issue of how a DJ should regard their role, prompted in part by this discussion on SwingDJs.

Before I start in, I suggest you take a peak at that thread, not only for the content, but to see how posters use photos and their real names on this discussion board. That's kind of unusual for discussion boards, though less so for swing dancers, who ultimately realise that being 'honest' or not using aliases online is relevent to a community which is ultimately embodied. Membership of this community is also heavily dependent on reputation and regard for etiquette (both online and embodied).
This is stuff that I write about in my thesis in great detail - the uses of online media by an embodied community, and the ways this online participation is informed by embodied practice and relationships.

But to be on-topic, and address the issue of DJs and their role...
Firstly, I should point out (again, in thesis mode) that I'm fascinated by the tension between 'communitas' or community responsibility and the DJ as 'artist'. The two positions often seem at odds, though they are occasionally combined in the notion that a DJ should be in some way an educator (a role of great status in a such a pedagogically centred community), 'exposing' dancers to new and 'historically accurate' music.
As you might expect, these sorts of arguments are tied up with conflicting notions of aesthetics or cultural 'appropriateness', the relationships between music and dance, the power and status of a DJ in a particular local community, the way these DJs participating in a globalised community of interest (SwingDJs itself) bring concepts of 'DJ' and 'DJing' to their local discourses, etc etc etc. It's all very complicated and interesting, which is why I wrote a chapter on it. But more on that later. Let's look at the specific arguments raised on SwingDJs.

Here's an interesting comment from one of the posters in that thread:

As a DJ, isn't our responsibility to the dancers, not to an aesthetic about artistic expressively? In my role as an event producer -or as a DJ for an hour- I am indeed being trusted to "choose for everyone". ... I'm not saying that I'm even 1% of the artist whose music I'm playing, but I am the one who gets to decide what song, when it's played and in some cases, how it's played. My job is to watch the room and please the dancers ...
(Greg Avakian Posted: Fri May 26, 2006 07:51)

And in response:

...As a DJ, isn't our responsibility to the dancers...

...My job is to watch the room and please the dancers...

This is pretty much my approach, at least to the extent I'm running the event. I consider it a specific kind of party, rather than just a time for swing dancing. I work very hard to play music that people enjoy, and to play it in a way that helps them achieve an emotional- and social freedom that encourages them to dance. That's my focus. To that end, I sometimes edit songs, or change the pitch/tempo, and I do it with the dancers - not the musicians - in mind.

(Matthew, quoting Greg Avakian, Posted: Fri May 26, 2006 15:16)

These discussions fascinate me. We have much the same talk going on on Swing Talk, the Australian discussion board, but on SwingTalk the participants are DJs and dancers, rather than DJs (who are also dancers), as on SwingDJs. The discussion on SwingDJs is also informed by a wider national swing dance discourse which is older, more complex, and far more sercurely focussed on social dancing than in Australia, particularly Melbourne. Here, we are continually working to 'convince' people that social dancing is essential to 'good dancing' and far more important than classes or competitions, let alone that DJing is actually a fairly demanding craft, requiring specific skills and resources.

...I should note here that I'm well aware of the fact that the latter argument is in fact self-serving, as well as contributing to the development of heirarchies of knowledge and cultural practice (very much as Matt Hills describes heirarchies of knowledge in fan communities...). And this of course begs the question, do DJs have delusions of grandeur?

Matthew's point that he considers a DJed dance as a 'special kind of party' rather than 'just a time for swing dancing' echoes this.

How does all this fit in with how I regard my own role as a DJ in that community, and as a dancer?
I'd like to address that second point, as I'm fascinated by the way my attitude to dancing has changed since I started DJing, but I doubt I'll have time for it here.

So how do I regard my role as a DJ in this community, considering the fact that I'm also reading criticallly, as a feminist with decidely Red interests?

Status and power
First, I'm well aware of the way being a DJ accrues status. It's not a financially driven status (though I appreciate the $30/$25 deals, they're certainly not enough to live on...though it does fund my yoga and (comparatively) modest cd purchasing). But it is certainly a social status which is quite interesting.

In Melbourne, status in the swing dance scene is largely determined by one's standing within the largest dance school (things used to be different, but this school now dominates all embodied dance and online discourse, so...). If one is the school's principal, one has highest status. Then come visiting teachers. Then come local teachers, then teaching cadets. Within the general body of the school (ie not within the rarified circles of teachers), being a member of the elite troop is the next level of cred, followed by being a member of the lower level troop. Now, if one does not have institutional affiliation, one's staus is kind of amorphous. Because the school does not teach or endorse alternative dance styles (why promote another company's product?), many students simply don't recognise other lindy styles as lindy. Which is ironic, considering the oldest old school styles are in this 'unrecognisable' basket.

So if you want some status, outside this formal heirarchy, but through your dance ability, you have to be able to contribute to this embodied discourse in the appropriate 'language' (and now I'm thinking of Nancy Fraser and women's participation in the 'official' public sphere). In other words you gotta dance 'right'.

DJing, status and power
So where does DJing fit into all this? There are other roles which accrue status - being an MLX organiser is one (though probably not the way I do it - I need to cultivate an air of inaccessability, as per the school's relativley inaccessible heirarhcy. Not sweat all over people, demanding a dance and throwing myself down stairs). But DJing is another.
Why? Well, for a start, and perhaps most imporantly, you're 'in' with those who organise the events - teachers. So you got institutional affiliation. Secondly, you got distance - you're up there on the DJ podium and relatively physically inacessible, but certainly socially distant (you're literally not on the same level as the dancers).
Beyond that, you certainly gain status if you're a 'good' DJ. Being a good DJ, however, is a matter of opinion and observance of fashion. Again, you have to speak the right 'language'. One of the most fascinating things about learning to DJ has been figuring out how to affect linguistic drift on the local musical accent. In other words, convincing dancers that music other than hi-fi, groovey, funky late era jazz and soul is actually 'good' for dancing.
The most effective way of achieving this is to sneak alternative music song types into my play lists. Paving the way with hi-fi but 'classic sounding' recordings of new bands (thankyou Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, Kansas City Band, late Count Basie and Mora's Modern Rhythmists), you can prepare a crowd of dancers for earlier (and in my opinion, frequently superior) versions of these now-familiar songs.

Why DJ at all?
Can you hear the whole 'educating dancers' theme in there? I know I can. And it makes me uncomfortable. So why do it?

  • I like the music

  • I want more people to play that stuff so I can dance to it, so I need to contribute to a market demand for it (hey, go capitalism, go)

  • I really do feel that lindy hop works 'betterer' with this stuff from the 30s and 40s which prompted its development in the first place

  • there's some bloody amazing stuff in those older recordings which people do like. Once they give it a go

  • diversity = good
So how do my goals as a DJ work in with the whole DJ status thing?
  • I gotta get the dancers recognising 'my' music as 'good' if I want to be able to play it. If they don't like it, they won't dance. If no one dances, I don't get gigs

  • If I have a reputation as a 'good' DJ, then people are more likely to accept my choices in music
All this, as I've said, makes me uncomfortable. I do, really, want to make the dancers happy.
It's like a drug - a room full of dancers totally going nuts on endorphines and adrenaline - you breathe it in from the DJ stand. And while it SUCKS to have have to stand there and watch, rather getting in amongst it, it's still wonderful. I always have a moment of 'I guess this is what it's like to be in a cult' when I'm DJing well and the room is really pumping. Talk about group emotional experiences and so on. There's no more powerful a drug than a room full of people all feeling the same thing at the same time. And music is a wonderful tool for achieving that state.

So when I do a good job as a DJ, I not only get off on the vibe, but I also really enjoy seeing people having a great time.

How do I balance this 'me' stuff with my feminist politics... or how does a feminist swing dance DJ do 'communitas' in this environment?
Argh. That's hard. But there are things that I try to do:

  • encourage women DJs or women interested in DJing. Heck, encourage anyone interested in DJing

  • share. Share knowledge, share resources, share networks. I don't share copies of music, but I certainly share names of artists and songs. Not only because I'm a born tutor, but also because I want to share the love. And what could be wrong with hundreds of other people loving Benny Goodman as much as I do? And there's certainly nothing wrong with giving names to other DJs so that they can thenplay the songs so I can dance to them!!. What a total score!

  • question inequity in the DJing culture. Not that there's much I can do about it - it's naturally an exclusive space (what with the money, technological and time resources it demands) - but I can try. And I can think about ways to improve things

  • be accessible to dancers I don't know or who feel intimidated when I'm DJing. Be receptive to feedback, requests and comments. Juggling this with the demands of actually DJing on the night can be hard, but... It feels the same as seeking out new dancers to dance with, or always saying yes to new dancers who ask me. If you give now, you get. It's a win-win situation, and you're contibuting to a more inclusive, friendly, healthy community. Perhaps undoing some of that heirarchy bullshit

  • encourage people asking about song names to buy the whole album
This last point is becoming more and more important to me. Because it's so easy to download songs (though I challenge most people to find half - or even a tenth - of the music we play on torrents or other illegal sources), people tend not to look for the whole album to buy. This sucks because:
  • you're fucking over a whole bunch of artists and technicians in the music industry. Even if an artist is dead, their family isn't. And the American jazz industry has a long, long, long history of fucking over black artists. Don't be a part of that.

  • you're not learning. When you buy a whole album, you're learning about an artist and band and period in history that helps you understand who that one song fits in. It helps you find new songs. And because of the cross-pollitationy nature of jazz in the 30s and 40s, you'll find new artists you love. And you'll learn new stuff about the relationship between music and dance in that historical moment, your dancing will improve, and your DJing will improve!

  • I had to buy it, and I'm poor. So why should I subsidise your music collection? I'm giving the song to you free when I DJ.

  • when you download or copy or 'steal' a song from my collection, you're screwing me over. Particularly when you DJ it at a gig later or (even worse), then trade it with your mates or sell it to your mates or students! Bad, naughty, wrong!

  • you can't be a good DJ if you don't love the music. If you love an artist or band or song, you seek out more of it. I believe that the best DJs are those with a passion for their music, and a thorough knowledge of an artist's career, or a style or genre. And what could be wrong with learning shit?
I know that a lot of these arguments also justify not sharing playlists or song titles or artists. I imagine that as I get more experience and develop a larger (and more esoteric) collection, I may become more reluctant to share knowledge. But it'll be interesting to see...

DJing as art
And while I feel uncomfortable with the idea of a DJ as art (is this some sort of Australian tall poppy cultural cringe hangover from high school thing - should I be over feeling self conscious about wanting to be artistic and creative in a public context?), sometimes it feels like art. Or at least creativity. It feels like the natural partner to dancing. As a dancer, you feel the way the music affects mood in the room. The longer you've been dancing, the greater your dancing stamina, the more you learn about musical structures, the more susceptible to this you, and also the more aware of it you are. But as a DJ, as I've said elsewhere, you have to step outside a little, to understand with your conscious brain, how it all works.
Ironically, the incontrovertible rule is that you cannot be a decent DJ if you are not also a dancer. And you cannot, possibly, ever, do a decent DJing job if you don't also have 'one foot on the dance floor', keeping an eye (and your emotions?) on the mood of the dancers.

I also wonder if you can be a half-decent DJ if you don't have empathy going on. I'm beginning to wonder if being a good DJ is like being a good dancer - you gotta have good social skills. You've gotta be a good observer, to be know how to make people feel good about themselves, and to find pleasure in making people happy.
Can you be a crap person and a good DJ?

Or is that just another example of DJ hubris - implying that all (good) DJs are good people?

Posted by dogpossum on June 3, 2006 6:01 PM in the category djing