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The Neoliberal Night Out: Why Clubbing Doesn't Feel Radical Anymore

Nightlife is bigger business than ever, but we're forgetting why it was so vital in the first place.

by Tom Glencross
Apr 5 2017, 4:42pm

We are the sorry descendants of SATs, GCSEs, BTECs and A-Levels. Our early lives have been dominated by the insistence that everything we experience, learn and know must be a quantifiable and dry exchange of information and analysis.

In our dismal working lives we spend 40-hour weeks analysing spreadsheets, fetching our superiors coffee, resetting self-checkout machines, or generating sponsored content for a trainer company in the "creative industries"—our education didn't just leave us adequately prepared for our future: we were ready to be unchallenged, sleepwalking in a perpetual and existential boredom.

During your meal-deal lunch-break you scroll through your phone. A Facebook acquaintance displays an intricate satellite survey of the route their round the world flight took them on; another shares the speed of their heart rate and the length of their evening jog in kilometres to the decimal point; another gives the exact sale price of their first home and a tiled photo of its various interiors, it includes their home office set-up with his and hers MacBooks, and a reed diffuser. Above these artefacts is a framed canvas printed with some inspirational text—it reads: Never, ever, ever, give up.

Then by night we are living through a club-culture renaissance. Go to almost any small town on any given weekend and by 7 PM you will find countless middle-managers and HR supervisors shouting "WHERE ARE YOU I CAN'T FIND YOU" into their phones, pumped with the most historically inexpensive, pure, and widely available dark-web ecstasy eight quid can buy. They move together to Move D from Manchester to Merthyr Tydfil. These are people who just ten short years ago were swigging Brothers cider at Razorlight stadium gigs. People are taking pingers on BBC sitcoms as if they were piña coladas down the Nag's Head.

It should be the second summer of love all over again, but somehow it isn't. Something is different. This doesn't feel like a revolution. How are we supposed to read the way we spend this leisure time, our new found reverence for the professionalised DJ, and the configuration of club culture, through the neoliberal political economy that structures the very way we think, socialise, work, and are educated?

In popular culture, nightlife is a market speculated on by everyone. From local bar owners to billion dollar brands, from radio stations to young and affluent Exeter Uni graduates who decided against their friend's advice to invest grannies' inheritance money in a vintage Citroen van and sell twelve quid hot dogs, and elected instead to start their own events management firm, arriving at your local park with some contracted security and three miles of fencing on Good Friday. Danny Howard's playing and everything.

With the corporatised clubbing experience offering the predictable and consumable, underground club culture has migrated back to the warehouse, the record store, the DIY space and the basement. For the purists, the underground contingent, the club intelligentsia and the metropolitan elite amongst us, the desire to distance ourselves from the mainstream grist has seen the DJ elevated to the position of a professional art collector and curator. In the larger cities of the UK, where big-money developments and political interests meet these people and their spaces head-on, the clubs left standing are either very lucky and unique, or with their white walls and steep ticket prices, have begun to resemble gallery spaces.

The club as the site of radical politics is nothing new. It has historically been a space for those outcast by the prejudices of their society to have fun together and to freely challenge the world on their own terms through music, sex and pleasure. On the dancefloor in the mid-80s, the repetitive shocks and reverberations of industry presented in a techno track, staged inside the very buildings that housed workers and machinery, provoked deep revaluations of the nature of repetitive labour, of hedonism as a healing power in a post-industrial society, and of workers' identity. Offering an expression and a reconciliation of our ideas, the dancefloor—at its best—remains a site of reflexive praxis and transformation.

With the emergence of professionalised house parties, or independent party collectives like Brudenell Groove, smaller non-club alternatives are presenting an antidote to the pressures and prejudices of contemporary society. Yet can club culture outside of the mainstream ever offer a viable challenge to the status quo, or is it constructed in its image?

It is Saturday night and you're in a club. In the smoking area, with all inhibitions dissolved, the conversation runs from earnest and beautiful declarations of love for your friends, to the DJ's selection; is it as varied as you'd hoped, as exciting as you'd seen in the past, does it remind you of some of their early SoundCloud mixes?

You really enjoyed it when they dropped that track earlier, but just as you'd read in the distribution notes when you bought it on pre-order, it is a "shimmering mid-tempo roller, as solid at peak time and as a warm-up tool," so perhaps this was to be expected. Inside the club's white walls, the crowd dance facing the elevated booth, the sound of the record reproduced impeccably by the expensive system.

There are lots of other people like you standing around, you'd seen some of them at a listening party a week ago, their profiles networked into the pages you follow on Facebook. You begin to wonder—what are we all actually doing here?

On the dancefloor, vibrated by the enormous kick of a banging house track, how equipped are we to have an authentically radical experience? In our dogged pursuit of vinyl-only fetishism, "selection," and perfect fidelity, are we in fact isolating the music from its possible profound contexts? Does our cerebral critique diminish the possibility of an authentic and insightful moment? Soon each track begins to resemble a brightly lit canvas curated one after another, surrounded by the perfect white borders of the gallery wall.

Authenticity is obviously what we make of it. But in a space that historically offers us the possibility of transforming our definitions of the authentic and the real, do the all-pervasive doctrines of neoliberal thinking prevent us from envisioning alternate ways of being and of interacting with music? We go to so much effort in creating a unique environment of light, sound and space in the club, which makes it all the more of a discordant shame for the structural privileges of the marketplace to transform all of this into window dressing.

It's like waking from a beguiling hazy walk around the myriad bazaars of Marrakech to find yourself ketted and babbling, wedged between rails of school uniform in your local George at ASDA. You watch your best friend's mum at the checkout about to tap the change in the back pocket of her jeans—she's letting let you know, "That's ASDA price"—but her hand is as big as a Sky dish, and instead of hearing coins jangling it's just the immense boom of an ancient gong.

GONGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG

Its echoes penetrate the store and your soul, stretching to infinity. The reverberating note tolls like a funeral dirge, like a nightmarish animal horn declaring eternal civil war.

Just beyond the crest of an intense night, when things start to wind down and the sweat on my back suddenly feels cold, I'm often gripped by the sense that from SATs to supermarkets to Saturday night, we have been subject to a lifetime of inculcation that strips us of the ability to have a transformative relationship with music, and the contemporary club environment seems to be damaging us further.

These dominant discourses of neoliberalism dictate almost every aspect of our lives. They include manic regulatory practices, constant assessment of our selves and our experiences, and a division of our world into analytical moments. In this frame, our relationships with art are transactions of cultural capital, credentials we exchange with others to manoeuvre ourselves in competitive social fields and marketplaces. Judgments of taste and quality are markers of social distinction and privilege, they show others how much we think we know about art, and how this knowledge differentiates us from them.

So next time we're in the smoking area and someone starts an analysis of the set's discrete peaks and moments; or on the dancefloor a bright camera flash tries to flatten the infinite flux of the evening into an isolated assessment of the self; or when you're watching five (often) men frantically cueing up records one after another on a single pair of decks to demonstrate their competitive powers of selection; or you're in a crowd of people stood in rows facing the DJ behind their curation altar; or you're handing over £16.50 at the door of club called "The Warehouse" to go dance in an enormous white room; maybe we should consider how radical club culture actually is, and how we can hope to change this without just emulating our sad, sorry world.

Tom Glencross is a freelance writer.