If our scene is going to continue evolving, we need to be ready to look for great ideas everywhere. Not just where we expect them. Chandler Shortlidge makes the case against snobbery in dance music.
We’re all cultural snobs these days. We’re foodies, cinephiles and photo-connoisseurs, capable of critiquing anything and everything we feel passionate about. The world is at our fingertips. And with information everywhere and endless options to fill our every need, becoming critical and snobbish about what we consume has almost become a survival mechanism.
Never before in human history has music been so easy to make, listen to and buy. This has meant a revolution in electronic music, with more great labels and artists than ever before.
But—as many have previously pointed out—even more is awful. Separating the wheat from the chaff became a herculean task. And in this hyper-evolving state, fans can hardly be blamed for trusting their biases before investing time in new music, or rediscovering the old and forgotten.
People grow and their tastes evolve, and everyone loses interest in certain brands and trends. And when once-great labels or producers start churning out clunkers, dismissing them forever only feels natural. But not all snobbery comes from a place of learning. Sometimes we hand-wave away a track or idea based on little more than where it came from. Conversely, we’re more apt to gush over music we think has been made by someone we like and respect. Or when we think we’ve stumbled onto something secret and new, something those with more cultural capital have been long since discussing in private.
Never before in human history has music been so easy to make, listen to and buy.
This makes sense. Music, like art, is an esoteric thing. You can’t hold it or taste it, and even though it satisfies some of our most basic appetites—working through regions in our brains in the same way good food or drugs do—it has no obvious value to our survival. Everyone needs to eat, and even the most pretentious foodie may find it difficult to resist the siren song of a greasy late-night burger after a few too many IPAs. But feeding yourself when truly hungry is not like hearing a song for the first time.
The first time you listen to new music, plenty is happening inside your brain. You’re categorizing it and comparing it to everything you’ve known before. Does it fit the scales you’ve been familiar with since childhood? Do the rhythms indicate garage or break beats? Or is it something different altogether? And while a certain amount of raw emotion is at work, brain scans of people listening to a song for the first time show that your logic and emotion circuits are in constant communication. Great DJs know this, even if only subconsciously. They tease with more “difficult” tracks—songs that are harder to connect to a reference point from the past—then later reward you with easier-to-identify songs, or songs that play more heavily towards your emotions. This play between reasoning and feeling is at the heart of any great song, and why people who take music seriously tend to get into weirder and more difficult-to-categorize sounds as time goes on.
But we can easily shortcut the interplay between logic and emotion, and we do it all the time, skipping over certain artists or labels when shopping for new music because we think we already know we don’t like them. Again, this makes sense. Why waste precious hours listening to music you’re certain you’ll hate when there’s an endless amount you’re kinda likely to enjoy?
But there’s a danger in this thinking. Music fans are supposed to be open and flexible. Letting new sounds in doesn’t always come easily, and as Jeff Mills recently complained, artists in electronic music sometimes feel stifled from exploring new avenues by fans and the media because they only ever want more of the same. “We pay a price for this,” he said. That price, he says, is stagnation.
Why waste precious hours listening to music you’re certain you’ll hate when there’s an endless amount you’re kinda likely to enjoy?
Keeping an open mind means remaining aware of personal biases. This is true in almost every arena of society—politics or morality—and in music, where the pleasure of discovery may require listeners to suspend beliefs about what they think they already know. It comes naturally when looking forward, in places where breaking barriers is already the norm. You’re hoping and expecting to be surprised, and already primed with an open mind. It’s a little more difficult when looking to the past, exploring the places we’ve already moved on from, the labels and artists we’ve since left behind. Though it’s most difficult when listening to something we’re ready to hate, when our biases are working overtime against us, pulling our logic and emotion into places that are rarely if ever escaped from.
The music you hear won’t always be great. And dropping our biases is rarely easy. But evolution never is. If our scene is going to continue evolving, we need to be ready to look for great ideas everywhere. Not just where we expect them.
Chandler Shortlidge is a dance music journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.