Dance music used to be about pushing the envelope. When did the past become more desirable than the future? Adam Douglas wonders when that changed.
I went to my first rave in January 1992. It was a Toon Town, a San Francisco party collective that put on some of the early parties in the San Francisco area. Like many, it was my first time hearing dance music the way it meant to be heard: mixed by DJs in a warehouse space with a proper, thumping sound system. The music itself was a revelation: borderless, psychedelic, inclusive, and ultimately freeing. I came away from that night buzzing with the possibilities of this new kind of music.
It wasn’t just me. People around the world were all discovering this magical sound first alchemized by the wizards of Chicago, Detroit and London. As it spread over the next decade, the more people heard it, became entranced by its potential, the more it changed. Think about it: how many new genres appeared in the 10 years between 1985 and 1995? House, techno, bleep, hardcore, jungle, trance, IDM, ambient…
Keeping up with all of it was practically a full-time job. But at some point, this progression of new ideas slowed, settling into refinement and then eventually reverent recreation, like artists endlessly reproducing the works of the old masters. Where are the new genres? What happened to progression in dance music?
In the early ‘90s, there was a palpable feeling of progress in the world. Although the environment had taken a beating, things seemed to be improving, however slowly. Medical science was improving. And, raised on the idea of space as the final frontier, we believed we’d all be living in orbital space stations, lush with green belts and flush with promise for a new era of humanity. This feeling of optimism carried over to the music and parties. The word ‘future’ was so common, it was almost a cliche.
This feeling of optimism carried over to the music and parties. The word ‘future’ was so common, it was almost a cliche.
We listened to the Future Sound Of London, danced to Phuture, sang along to ‘Join The Future’ by Tuff Little Unit. We firmly believed that the positivity generated on the dance floor at underground parties would build into a revolution and help overcome the problems faced by humanity. Were we naive? Maybe. But collectively we kept pushing forward, trying to will a better future into being. The constant barrage of new genres was part and parcel of this. We were excited to try new things, to push the boundaries of what was possible.
Now, many genres are retreads. Can you imagine if the artists that revolutionized dance music 30 years ago, the ones that we idolize today, had instead spent their time creating pitch-perfect copies of music that had come three decades before them? How different would the scene be today if instead of abusing samplers and breaking BPM speed limits they all did their best to revitalize Elvis and early Beatles?
And yet this is what many producers are doing today. Jungle, hardcore, UKG, electro, house, EBM, techno, and on and on. Take a listen to Beatport. Much of the music there sounds like it could have been made 10, 20, 30 years ago. I mean, don’t get me wrong. As a 50-year-old, I’m stoked to hear so much new music that takes me back to my youth. But the fact remains that it’s all very retro.
When did the past become more desirable than the future? At what point did we turn away from the future and start facing backward? In his book, Retromania, music writer Simon Reynolds identifies the 2000s as the start of the worship of the past. “Once upon a time,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “pop’s metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-into-the-future feel of periods like the psychedelic sixties, the post-punk seventies, the hip-hop eighties and the rave nineties. The 2000s felt different.”
Although Reynolds was talking about popular music in general and not just dance music, the idea can just as easily be transferred. In a review of the compilation Total 7 from trailblazing techno label Kompakt in Pitchfork in 2006, Tim Finney noticed, “The patient unfurling of the label’s sonic signature – not to mention its continuing currency in dance circles – is testament to the curious slowness with which this decade marches forward: While the label remains at the forefront of house and techno, it has done so by entrenching itself at the center of frantic back-and-forth movements within German dance music circles, shoring up its perennial fashionability rather than indulging in trailblazing daring.” Trailblazing had stopped being attractive by the mid-2000s. Things have become even more entrenched now. In fact, we’re often going backward. Rather than look to the future, we look to the past.
Things have become even more entrenched now. In fact, we’re often going backward. Rather than look to the future, we look to the past.
Why? To put it bluntly, the past is safe, known. The future, on the other hand, is scary.
There’s a lot to be afraid of. There’s a climate catastrophe underway and very little being done to stop it or even slow it down. There’s growing wealth disparity between the super-rich and everyone else, and a general feeling that our current economic model is failing us. Technology is feeling less and less like something we control and something that controls us. Shootings in schools, a raging pandemic, take your pick; we’re all filling out dystopian bingo cards. Even space, which for my generation existed as a utopian promise for everyone, is turning out to be nothing but an escape hatch for billionaires. Anxiety among young people is on the rise. According to the American National Institutes of Health, one in three of all adolescents will experience an anxiety disorder, a ratio that has gone up 20% since 2007. A big cause of this is a world that feels scary and threatening. Anticipatory fear is also a very real ailment. “Dreading the future, or [what’s] more commonly known as anticipatory fear, is quite common and can be quite debilitating in extreme cases,” says Frank Anderson, MD, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who specializes in trauma treatment.
I get it. I’m scared as well. Until the turn of the millennium, I felt like, despite the current problems in the world, things would get better, even if slowly. But since crossing that year 2000 line it’s been harder and harder to stay positive.
This is exactly why, now more than ever, we need new music to show us a way forward, new sounds to hint at a possible tomorrow beyond the long, dark night we’re currently in. House and techno grew out of economic and social hardship. The birth of bass music in the UK happened because young people wanted to create something new for themselves: a new, better world beyond the often depressing day-to-day reality. We should always respect the music that came before, but we don’t have to revere it to the point of stasis. Let’s live by their example and try to push forward.
We shouldn’t be content to just party to the past in underground bunkers while the surface world burns. Now is the time for challenging new music to show us the way to a better future.