“What’s political about going to Berghain?” asks veteran British DJ Gilles Peterson in a recent discussion with Motor City Drum Ensemble’s Danilo Plessow, before suggesting that dance music has become too self-centered and “existential”, lacking in political energy. Peterson places this absence of political music in a rough historical context: once music had politics, especially at the height of punk and during the Thatcher years, now it has none – we’re too busy doing drugs and dancing to be political, we’ve been “neutralized”.
Despite suggesting that this is a relatively recent development, however, Peterson’s arguments are not new, indeed they are almost as old as dance music and club culture itself. Since the earliest days of disco – if not before – the dance floor has been the subject of political and cultural criticism, from both left and right: reduced to mere hedonistic escapism of little if any social value, an individualistic attempt to escape the real world – if only for a night.
If the right have traditionally seen club culture as symptomatic of society’s moral decline – encouraging promiscuity, drug and alcohol (ab)use, the refusal of responsibility, and other deviations from the nine-to-five norm – the left have been more concerned that this “escapism” is based on a passive acceptance of the status-quo, a desire not to change the world but to momentarily drop out of it. Where youth subcultures such as punk – to use Peterson’s example – often appeared antagonistic to the social conditions they emerged from, the apparent passivity of dance and club cultures seem to run the risk of reinforcing the present state of things, encouraging participants to forget rather than fight, to temporarily transcend rather than transform society. Sure, everything is shit, but, so the theory goes, a weekend spent dancing is enough of a release to drain whatever anger you might feel about it: who needs to worry about rising rents as long as there is something to do on a Friday night?
Take Amiri Baraka’s ‘You Was Dancin Need To Be Marchin So You Can Dance Some More Later On [sic]’ – despite having a strange claim to fame as (probably) the only song in the history of popular music to define ‘party’ as an ‘anti-revisionist revolutionary Communist party’, Baraka’s record is today relatively unknown, and yet its sentiment can be easily understood: dancing is a distraction from the struggle, fight now and you can dance After The Revolution. It is a call-to-arms for revolutionary self-sacrifice and discipline, delivered over a suitably martial Maoist funk beat. Baraka’s contemporary Jesse Jackson was even more direct in his dismissal of disco, using his civil rights organization Operation PUSH to threaten boycotts against stores stocking disco records and denouncing it as ‘sex rock’ (which sounds rather more pleasant than Baraka’s preferred term for it, ‘death funk’). While both Baraka and Jackson had seen political potential in jazz and soul respectively, the dance-centric ethos of disco was an absolute anathema.
History has been kinder to disco than its detractors, however. If the last decade has seen a revival of interest in disco music, its influence obvious in both underground house and the heights of the Top 40, there was also a reassessment of the social and political nature of disco as a movement. Disco is now no longer thought of in terms of celebrities snorting coke at Studio 54 or superficial dance-pop songs, instead it is working-class whites, African-Americans and Latinos dancing together defiantly; it is the foregrounding of female sexuality, and a liberated celebration of the body; it is gay men creating spaces for themselves and demanding recognition. Disco Sucks badges and the mass destruction of disco records, for example at Comiskey Park in 1979, are rightly regarded with an embarrassed grimace, understood as being largely motivated by racism and sexism, Angry White Men afraid of the onward march of blacks, queers and women that disco seemed to represent, not least because it challenged the popularity of their own straight, white rock.
But if this understanding of disco is now almost clichéd conventional wisdom, it wasn’t when Richard Dyer wrote his pioneering piece ‘In Defense of Disco’ for Gay Left in 1979. Dyer found that many of his comrades on the left and in the Gay Liberation movement were quick to disregard disco as intrinsically, irredeemably “capitalist music” and thus politically reactionary, even if they didn’t think of rock or reggae or folk (their genres of choice) in the same terms. Dyer did not deny that disco, like all cultural products within capitalist society, was a commodity, nor did he wish to argue it was a “great subversive art form”, rather he suggested that the “anarchy of capitalism” created “commodities that an oppressed group can take up and use to cobble together its own culture”, creating something with both “subversive potential as well as reactionary implications.” Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this argument is in the notion that music does not need to be didactic for it to be politically or socially resonant: if you want to find out what was political about disco, deconstructing lyrics in the hope of finding hidden meaning – progressive, reactionary or otherwise – is the wrong way to go about it.
Still, if all this serves to question the underlying logic of Peterson’s remarks, to point out the similarities between his views on today’s club culture with the dance detractors of the past, and the problems with thinking about music as simply political or apolitical devoid of any social context, it doesn’t really prove him wrong: there isn’t anything inherently political about today’s club culture. But while many of us seek to acknowledge the radical history of house and techno in disco, wish to see this legacy honored and continued, and desire a more socially engaged club culture, we should also not be afraid to defend the so-called escapism that is so often the subject of attack. In a world of dull routine and bleak prospects, many of us seek whatever release from this monotony we can find, however illusory or brief. Yet there isn’t a stark choice between marching and dancing – it’s perfectly possible to do both, and much more besides; far from zapping us of all energy and anger, brief moments of escape are one of the few things that keep us feeling human, and to that extent should be celebrated. Then the question becomes how we change this society we wish to escape from – and that’s where the politics come in.