Features

There's Nothing Wrong with the Middle of the Road

We could all do with accepting mediocrity a little more.

by Josh Baines
04 July 2017, 11:02am

John Atheron

Mediocrity gets a bad rep. Most of us are mediocre people who live mediocre lives, remembered by a mediocre handful of other mediocre people, and that is absolutely fine. Apart from an angered few, desperate to be enshrined by anyone for doing anything, most us us happily totter through our allotted time one earth, fully aware that we'll just drift into nothingness, untethered by the trappings of importance or notoriety.

Why then do we demand that art, food, sex, cricket, tote bags, aftershave, literature, budget air travel, everything pretty much, be exceptional, incredible, and amazing? If life is a mediocre experience, for what reason do we expect to be moved of often, and so powerfully during the course of it? Is there faulty bit of biological hardwiring that teaches us to assume that every trip to a gallery will leave us weeping at the beauty of things, or that tapping £14 onto the card reader at the local multiplex in return for two hours spent with Will Ferrell will be the start of a transformative, transcendental period? Possibly there is but sadly I'm a mere content provider who scraped a C in GCSE science rather than a neurologist so I'm probably not the best person to ask.

What I do know, however, is that few things in life feel as liberating as accepting the innate pleasure of the mediocre cultural object. The second you realise that there's as much pleasure to be derived from a sort-of-clunky video game or actually-quite-crap TV series as there is in watching The Wire or playing the newest Zelda is the second you'll be overwhelmed with a strange kind of inner peace. Naff films, dud books, completely just-about-acceptable pasta dinners—these are what make us human. And very few mediums make this writer feel alive as utterly OK dance music.

An openness to the average is quite handy when it comes to dance music because, to be frank about it, so much of it is mediocre, is unchallenging, is nothing more than Beatport polyfilla. There are practical reasons for this of course; more than any other kind of music, the stuff danced to in clubs from Cardiff to Casablanca is inherently functional. Even stand-out records, the records that you'll play in an endless iTunes loop until you know every hi-hat better than you do your own family, are built to be heard in the context of the continual mix. They are coloured by their surroundings and given new accents, taking on multiple lives in the hands of DJs.

The best DJs, regardless of whether or not they give a toss about perfect beatmatching, know exactly how to use that level of functionality to their advantage. Played at the right time, records you thought you disliked become new favourites, and done wrong, songs you thought you loved become aural irritants. And then another DJ plays them right and all is well with the world again.

The thing is though, most records are neither loved nor despised. Most records just zip by, heard either as snippets on online stores, as half-remembered memories of a night out, or as calmly congruent parts of a mix's internal construction. Allied to this is the fact that there are now so many DJs publishing so many mixes that we need more music than we've ever needed before, and sadly art isn't a world where the rules of supply and demand necessitate a decent product.

This isn't necessarily a paradigm shift in dance music: spend half an hour sifting through the bargain bins of any record shop in the world and for every under-the-radar Chicago bomb there'll be about sixty records from the mid-90s so dull and derivative that you'd be better off spending that 50p on a bottle of spring water from the nearest supermarket. Or would you?

I'd argue that it is our responsibility as a listening public to try and find a home for the masses of ignored records that'll one day be melted into thick, black goop, nudging us ever closer to the apocalypse. I'd argue, too, that we need to do the same in the present. Sure we can gorge on LNS 12"S and fill our cheeks with the fatty remnants of DJ Sotofett's latest foray into digi-dancehall and haunted rockabilly all we want, but don't we sometimes, just sometimes, want pesto-slathered stuffed pasta for tea? Don't we want to be gently underwhelmed by Duke Dumont's tropical house froth, or yet another objectively-OK Calvin Harris song? Don't we sometimes deserve to slump into a Joe Goddard set like it's a lukewarm bubble-free bath after another underwhelming day at work? Yes. We do.

And we deserve that because the relentless and restless search for brilliance is tiring. We've told ourselves that every DJ set at every club has to be this life-affirming experience, something that, for a few hours at least, sucks us out of the vacuum of vapidity that we spend our waking days slipping further and further in to. In doing so, we've only made life even more disappointing, even more distant from hopes and dreams and expectations.

Put it this way—could your eyes take in a constant stream of masterpieces, a never-ending cycle of Picassos and Dürers and Richters? Or would you, after the twenty-third or so Zurbarán be desperate to cock a snook at some soiled boxers left to rot by a suburban bus stop? I know I would. The same goes for dance music: accept the inherent mundanity of everything around you and you'll open up a world of untold pleasures. Sure, they'll be about as pleasurable as eating a rich tea with a cup of un-sugared black tea, but that's fine. That's totally fine.

Now, stick that Jamie xx album on and grab yourself a luke-warm can. You're seeing Bonobo at the weekend!