Is it time we took the focus off the DJ? Thomas Cox argues that live streaming platforms like Boiler Room have the power to reaffirm the link between dance music and dancing.
I’m very much into connecting the dots between the past and the present of dance music. Continuity helps us solidify what can often feel like random hyped sub-genres fighting for legitimacy into something more substantial: dance music’s actual culture.
Online broadcasting platforms like Boiler Room, Dommune and the Mixmag Lab have thrust the concept of televised club environments back into the limelight over recent years but the history of the format is actually quite long, and it follows the path from soul and funk through disco and into house and techno. Soul Train, while not the first to explore the idea, is probably the most obvious beginning. Clips from Detroit’s local television show The Scene and its spin-off The New Dance Show are well known to the YouTube generation and newer artists have made reference to them in their own original videos. On a more mainstream level, MTV’s The Grind was influential in spreading the 90s New York house sound around the US.
Boiler Room would seem to be a perfect step forward, utilising the internet’s connectivity to show off DJs from all over the world performing in a variety of locations. Since cementing its position as the self-proclaimed “world’s leading underground music show”, Boiler Room has, on the whole, been a force for good. Thanks largely to an interesting and wide-ranging booking policy, the platform has shone the spotlight on DJs and artists who truly represent a range of styles of dance music on a global scale. The local, regional or national limitations of the previous shows who worked through television are now gone, yet something seems to have been lost in the translation between mediums. Check out these examples, and see what’s missing in the Boiler Room:
It’s pretty clear what the difference is: all the other shows concentrate on the dancers, while Boiler Room concentrates on the DJ. Some Boiler Rooms may have more dancing going on, while others have less or even almost none, but the focus is always on the DJ. The regular setup of the Boiler Room broadcasts – with the DJ turned away from the crowd, facing the camera – is closely tied to another major issue in dance music today: DJ worship, a widespread problem, from the underground all the way to the most mainstream of EDM shows.
The local, regional or national limitations of the previous shows are now gone.
Instead of getting lost in the music and seeking the release that comes from expending energy in sync with a crowd, it seems as though many are more interested in straight up watching the DJ. At best it’s counterintuitive. Unless the DJ is as skilled as Jeff Mills, the physical act of DJing usually just isn’t that interesting to watch. And if it isn’t pointless enough to stand around in a nightclub watching a DJ, it’s the height of ludicrousness to stream video of it while you’re at home or sitting at work. Boiler Room regularly gets criticised for showing crowds of scenesters standing around barely nodding their heads; the problem isn’t only that the guests at these exclusive shows aren’t enjoying themselves but also that it’s just not visually interesting. Why should anyone watch this?!
While Boiler Room already clearly provides something that people enjoy, it could easily step up its game in a few ways. Inviting actual dancers to each broadcast is the most obvious start. House dancing, footwork, jit and many other styles take skill and years of practice to master; they’re also very entertaining to watch. The next obvious step would be to have at least one camera on the dancers for most of the time, the way it’s traditionally been done on these shows. Broadcasting these dance styles around the world and archiving them online would be invaluable to keeping those traditions alive and well. Renewing the focus on the dancers would also likely help stem the tide of DJ worship, and hopefully get nightclubs the world over back into the business they are meant for.
These suggestions tap into an undercurrent of interest in dancing , beyond the obvious dance-driven sub-genres such as footwork and jit. In recent weeks, Resident Advisor profiled New Jersey’s Joey Anderson, whose production is rooted in his own passion for dancing, and Theo Parrish announced his forthcoming album with a video featuring Gehrik Mohr, who will be part of a four-strong group of dancers supporting Parrish on his live tour this summer.
Right now, Boiler Room feels like a lost opportunity that could be used to enrich dance music culture. It seems doubtful if the performers would complain much if the cameras were aimed at the dancers; cultural shifts away from dancing already affect DJs at many gigs. Even more interesting would be the eventual rise of top dancers who would gain notoriety from participating in this, as has been the case historically; Soul Train dancers went on to be actors, musicians, talent agents, songwriters and dance teachers.
Right now, Boiler Room feels like a lost opportunity that could be used to enrich dance music culture.
In fact, the positives outweigh the negatives so far that it’s hard to even come up with any negative aspects of altering the focus to the dancers. By supporting dance culture and lessening the effect of DJ worship, Boiler Room could really become one of the biggest worldwide catalysts for positivity in the dance music community, something that will be looked back on in 40 years by the next generation’s children who could not possibly have seen what it was like firsthand.
History already shows us how these dance shows can be useful; influential shows like Boiler Room following that lead will help ensure a better tomorrow for all of us.
Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can find him on Twitter.