This week’s blog by Kim Ramstedt is a discussion of issues related to the study of superstar DJs and follows the recent death of Swedish DJ Avicii.
Superstar DJs frequently perform on the main stages of pop music festivals, and festivals built predominantly around DJ performances and electronic dance music attract record amounts of visitors. Yet, popular discourse around large-scale dance music festival performances still tends to range between disdain and hostility towards its ostensible lack of live artistry, while anybody from the core audience actually consuming the culture is rarely consulted in such reports. The general public and the music community not involved in the scene are left without a clear idea of the culture and its values.
The situation is not helped by the confusing information assessing a DJ’s status within the scene that the electronic dance music community itself circulates. As Spin journalist Philip Sherburne noted in 2012, the “Top 100 DJs” list presented annually by DJ Mag included several artists who, according to him, are not “strictly speaking, DJs at all”. Puzzling is also the fact that the electronic dance music duo Daft Punk is consistently positioned within the list’s top 50, despite not performing publically at all (Sherburne 2012). Although the EDM and DJ community hardly unanimously champion the list, compiled by and voted for by the readers of DJ Mag, it has a degree of influence. NME for example reported the results from the latest Top 100 DJs list as an absolute truth simply under the heading “The best DJs in the world revealed for 2017” (Britton 2017).
Since the field is understandably difficult to navigate, there is need for more critical discussion about the DJ performances also within the discourse of live music research. What makes a DJ performance live? What is the role of mediation? What are the criteria by which we should evaluate a DJ performance? Are the criteria the same for a performance at a local basement club as they are for a full-scale festival spectacle?
As Philip Auslander (1999, 2008) convincingly argued already two decades ago, the live and the mediated should not be seen as ontologically opposed categories. It is not a very fruitful approach to conceptualize a DJ performance as mediatized in opposition to a rock band’s live performance. Both performance forms contain aspects of mediation and immediacy and they are both conditioned by the large-scale mediatization of society and popular music culture in particular. Also, as Auslander (2008) suggests, aspects valued in live performance, such as spontaneity, community and presence, are not exclusive to “liveness”. These features can be equally experienced in mediatized performance.
Problems often arise when one musical form is evaluated by criteria derived from another. Even when this is done in order to legitimize the music, as for example when critics in the 1960s discussed The Beatles or Bob Dylan in terms of classic composers or poets respectively (see Cloonan 2005), it creates false ideas about values appreciated within the culture. I could argue for the level of skills that scratch-DJing demands in similar terms to that of rock guitar playing or violin virtuosity, but this comparison would not reveal much about the essential appeal of DJ culture. Also, the increasing economic harmonization of the music industry, across stylistic, national and cultural borders, that places all music under a regime built around the commodification of an autonomous musical work, discredits music cultures with inherently conflicting modes of use and performance. A prerequisite for scratching, for example, is the rejection of this hegemony, as discrete recorded works are used as material to create new meanings and performances.
DJ culture essentially begins where the industry streamlined production of works end, which is why a discussion about the liveness and mediation of DJ performance in rock industry terms can become a little Esheresque. Rather then focusing on the mediation of sound, we can consider how DJs mediate culture. Rather than evaluating the spontaneity and presence of a performance, we can consider the “framing”, or the “impact” of DJs, which are some of the key attributes that economic sociologists Smith Maguire & Matthews (2012) ascribe to cultural mediators.
Particularly the first one of these, framing, is essential to DJ practices. Framing in terms of cultural mediation means presenting, describing and creating a context for a particular content. A DJ set is in itself about constructing a frame, where each individual recording within a set is interpreted within the larger context of the whole set and other textual and visual discourses around the performance. This construction of a performative frame in DJ practices can be compared to how genres function as musical categories. As Simon Frith (1998: 89–90), suggests, music is always enjoyed within the framework of a genre. The appeal of music cannot be detached from the appeal of an ideology, a set of meanings attached to the genre. As listeners, we want to know how a piece of music relates to genre. What is familiar, what is different in comparison to genre conventions.
Similarly, DJs construct musical narratives within which individual records are understood. A DJ’s “work of art” is the narrative frame that gives new meaning to all individual records included in his or her set, club concept, or any larger project. Through this practice, DJs change our perception of music and organize it in new categories that can become formalized as genres. Club names, venues or DJs have been known to give birth to names and styles, the most famous example being house music, named after the Warehouse venue where the late DJ Frankie Knuckles played in Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s (see Rietveld 1998).
This logic is not as evident in popular representations of DJ culture and the mainstream subgenre of dance music known simply as EDM that has dominated the soundscape of popular youth culture for some years, now slowly disappearing from the brightest spotlight. But there is a connection. Like house music, EDM is the construct of a particular performance space dominated by DJs. As Steve Aoki, one of the most visible representatives of the genre, suggests, his sound became “bigger” and “more euphoric” as he was booked to perform at festival main stages (Tan 2014). EDM caters for the festival spectacle and according to Aoki, has the objective to “make people […] lose their mind” (Tan 2014).
As I have argued with regards to dancehall music, reggae fans that seek to value this fast paced electronically produced Jamaican popular music with the same sonic and ideological criteria as the music of Bob Marley, will have a difficult time appreciating it or even understanding them as part of the same reggae sound system tradition (Ramstedt 2014). But listeners who consider the sound system session, where DJs play and talk over recorded music, the main forum for both the more traditional form of reggae characterized in sound by its offbeat ostinato and for the fast paced contemporary dancehall, can appreciate the latter as a stylistic development of music deriving from a shared performance space. Similarly, although individual recordings circulate on pop charts as discrete works, mainstream EDM music should be understood as a genre evolved in the festival experience of “losing ones mind”.
To conclude, as I have demonstrated above, live music research matters also in genres we might normally perceive to exist outside the realm of live performance. Public media discourses can reveal general attitudes towards a particular musical style, but in order to comprehend the inherent logics and appeal a genre has to its adherents, it is important to recognize the context of its main performance space.
Auslander, Philip. 1999. Liveness. Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London: Routledge.
Auslander, Philip. 2008. Liveness. Performance in a Mediatized Culture. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
Britton, Luke Morgan. 2017. “The Best DJs in the World Revealed for 2017”. NME (24 October): http://www.nme.com/news/music/dj-mag-top-100-list-2152929
Cloonan, Martin. 2005. “What is Popular Music Studies? Some Observations”. British Journal of Music Education 22(1): 77–93.
Sherburne, Philip. 2012. “Top 100 DJs Poll: Who Won, Who Lost, and What the Hell Is Hardstyle?” Spin Magazine (23 October): https://www.spin.com/2012/10/top-100-djs-poll-who-won-who-lost-and-what-the-hell-is-hardstyle
Smith Maguire, Jennifer and Matthews, Julian. 2012. “Are We all Cultural Intermediaries Now? An Introduction to Cultural Intermediaries in Context”. European Journal of Cultural Studies 15(5): 551–562.
Ramstedt, Kim. 2014. “Sound System Performances and the Localization of Dancehall in Finland”. IASPM@ Journal 4(1): 42–55. http://www.iaspmjournal.net/index.php/%20IASPM_Journal/article/view/656
Rietveld, Hillegonda C. 1998. This is Our House. House Music, Cultural Spaces and Technologies. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Tan, Monica. 2014. “Why Music Purists Love to Hate Steve Aoki and EDM”. The Guardian (4 December): https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/dec/04/why-music-purists-love-to-hate-steve-aoki-and-edm