Killing It: Club Culture and the Language of Violence
"Smashed it", "Absolutely destroyed" — Why do we describe dance music in terms of aggression?
Yesterday, German DJ and producer, Hunee, tweeted the following:
Hunee's statement gave me serious pause for thought. Why, I started wondering, is so much of the discourse around club culture and dance music, both written and verbal, fixated on a very specific kind of lexis — the language of violence.
What I'm referring to here, and throughout the piece, as the "language of violence" is a relatively simple idea: it is the kind of language we apply to situations of real or imagined violence. A kind of vocabulary of pain, as it were, a dictionary of the destructive. The inherent complexity of violence in and of itself is too vast, too broad, too all consuming for us to go into in any kind of real-depth, so let's focus on the specificities of the way we use violent language and violent imagery in relation to dance music.
What Hunee's getting at, I think, is the kind of default setting most of us revert to when trying to convert the myriad lived-experiences of a night in a nightclub into the rigid fixity of language. For whatever reason, we describe nightlife in terms of the damaged and the destroyed, the smashed and the battered, the crushed and the killed. Maybe it's because we're content to slavishly copy the language we've learned is the 'correct' response to those events. Maybe that language is borne of the inherently nihilistic experience that is going out — for all we talk of the possibilities of transcendence in the club, it's important to remember that transcendence, as an idea, is rooted in the removal of the self from the harshness of concrete reality. So we go out and we get drunk and we take drugs and we watch men and women doing their jobs and we leave the club and we sit in taxis home and we slur about death and destruction because that's all we know, because that's all we really want from the experience.
The language of violence is, inescapably, the language of power and thus the language of power relationships. The DJ that "smashes it" is, in effect, a kind of victor. They reign supreme over the competition. Viewing club culture in this way is both distorting and damaging. Sure, DJs aspire to be the 'best' but given the ultimately subjective nature of everything, there can be no best, there can be no winner. No record is objectively better than any other, no DJ can truly claim any kind of real and permanent victory. As such. it's nothing more than phatic language — language that exists purely because we feel the need to fill gaps, to reach word counts.
The irony here is that we're told, and occasionally experience for ourselves, that nightlife, from the Victorian music halls through to the Hacienda, from Ibizian superclubs to basements in Ipswich, is about creating and fostering a sense of ecstasy soaked communality. Isn't that why we spend our working weeks wishing the minutes away until we're back there, in the queue for a club, imagining the unknown pleasures within? We submit to them in the expectation of something that takes us beyond the quotidian, beyond the ordinary...beyond life. And there we go again — the inescapability of the language of violence is right there. What's beyond life? Death. That's it. Death. Nothing more.
Club culture — and when we talk here of club culture we're really talking about the kind of culture that was ushered in when house rose from the smoked out skeleton of disco — is fascinated by the violent, by the unpleasant, by the forceful. Producers want their kick drums to be "harder" than those of their peers. Label owners call their imprints things like How to Kill Records, Death Waltz Recording Co, Nasty Temper. It's this pernicious idea of victory and defeat again — we all want to kill the competition, to eradicate it, vanquish it, in order to be anointed as a kind of objective superior.
It's a kind of performative use of the language of violence, yes, but no less real for it. Schlock, as schlocky as it is, still has an effect, after all. It's violence without actual violent impact which has the unintentional effect of normalizing violence. If we speak of it, and speak in it, violence becomes acceptable rather than transgressive. This is, obviously, an issue that seeps into nearly every element of our lives in a fundamentally affecting and serious way. Our relationship with violence, and violent language, is rooted in the fact that for many of us, fortunately, genuine violence is an abstraction. We see images of unimaginable horror in the newspapers and on television but most of us haven't witnessed a physical fight since the playground scraps of high school. Violence is something that colours our experience of the world rather than being our world.
So why then, apart from the twin teenage terrors of shock and awe, do we think of and speak of dance music in the language of violence? I believe that it's at least in some way related to the radical shift in what dance music was and what it became. We all know that house and it's antecedents stemmed from minority groups — African Americans, Puerto Ricans, homosexuals — and were, eventually, co-opted by white heterosexuals. That cultural shift is well documented and should be apparent to anyone with even the slightest interest in dance music, club culture, and nightlife in general. I mention this because the language we're talking about here codes to me, at least, as a kind of hyper-macho, hyper-hetero form of violence. It's the jackboot in the face, the untapped and untrammelled aggression of frustrated men taking out inner battles on external forms in the only way most of us know how to — through language, through speech, through writing. As dance music has become the fare of straight men, the language we use to describe it has become one of machoism, aggression, and power.
When we talk about a DJ "killing it" or "smashing it" or "destroying it", as Hunee puts it so succinctly, we're actually talking about trying to match experience to language and finding it, as we've always done, a near impossibility. Writing about dance music is difficult. There's rarely any lyrical narrative to hang theories onto. There's very rarely any kind of broader pop culture moment to tap into. Records come out. DJs play gigs. More records come out. Other DJs play gigs. Every so often a DJ says something bad and we spend a day or two writing about the bad thing the DJ said and then we go back to normal. This isn't self-pity, however sorry for itself it may come across, but just the reality of the situation. To imbue excitement into things we recourse to sensational language, language that's flash and effect. That, in essenece, is how writing works: modulating life into something more than life through the medium of the only thing we can actually understand life though — language.
DJs don't "kill it". That Todd Edwards B2B DJ EZ set you've been listening to recently hasn't "destroyed it". Ostgut Ton haven't "smashed" anything. But we tell each other they have because that's how we've grown up lingustically. Hunee's aim is a noble one. He seems to want to move beyond the language of violence in search of another linguistic scheme that's more appropriate, more indicative of the genuine joy we find ourselves experiencing in clubs. Let's hope we all find it. Let's stop killing it and start living it.