Late last year, I saw one of my favorite DJs for the first time. I had been irrationally excited about it, and as the moment came around, I instinctively started nudging my way through to the front, applauding the selector on his arrival. The music hit me, I was enjoying myself, but rather than dancing, I was just getting stressed from negotiating the shoulder barges coming from all angles, shuffling my feet anxiously and trying to get a decent view. After about ten minutes of this, the friend I was spending the evening with leant over, tapped my shoulder, and said, "maybe you should stop facing the DJ?"
It wasn't the first time this thought had crossed my mind, nor am I the first person to write about it, but for some reason, the absurdity of it really hit me that night. I had waited all day to dance to a particular DJ's cuts, and now it was happening, I was essentially stood completely still. I had waited all year for Christmas Day, only to spend it tussling with my family to get the best view of the tree. And I know I'm not alone, this is something most of us reflexively do: motionlessly squint at our favorite DJs like it's a communal eye test.
So, I started to experiment. I began to make a point of turning to face everyone I was with, trying to convince them to swivel in whatever direction felt right. Be the change you want to see in the world, right? Instead, I looked like the dick trying to get into a subway station via the exit-only walkway.
This strange behavior runs deep, and you can trace a lot of it to the rise of the superstar DJ during the 90s. Paul Oakenfold becoming the first DJ ever to play the Glastonbury main stage in 1995 to a crowd of 90,000 people, and you don't turn your back on the Pyramid Stage. In 2002, Fatboy Slim's Big Beach Boutique drew a crowd of 250,000, and now, DJs like Calvin Harris and Kaskade are breaking records at Coachella with the size of their crowds. The evolution of the DJ from a master of ceremonies to a headline act has been complete for years.
This doesn't just apply to EDM though. The mentality has bled into typically underground gatherings that would consider themselves far more authentic than 4/4 stadium fillers. We could blame Tiësto, but the same thing happens during every Boiler Room event. Whether it's a label launch at Corsica Studios or the main stage at Creamfields, almost everyone is facing the same direction like comatose mosquitoes around a lampshade. "Dance music" is becoming "stand and gawp music."
I asked around the office to find out what other VICE colleagues thought.
"This is definitely a thing. I remember going to a Ramshackle once in Bristol and everyone was facing the DJ like he was Morrissey or something. On a more "famous" level, everyone faced James Blake during his DJ set too. I think I only automatically face the DJ if they're famous or hot. It is strange, though. In the same way everyone's living room furniture is arranged to point at the TV, I feel like people struggle at shows unless they have something to focus on, especially if they're expecting to be entertained by the actual person on stage rather than the environment they create." - Emma, Noisey.
Perhaps our attention spans are such now that we constantly need a focal point. It could be tied to our worrying inability to 'do nothing', without inevitably flicking our phones open. In a club setting, we are hard-wired to search for what we assume to be the central point of meaning in the room, rather than allowing the music (a more abstract sensory focal point) to possess us like a sexy demon.
"If I am in a club, I like to look at the DJ because looking at the DJ means I'm not looking at the people I used to be, or used to want to be, or still want to be, or whatever it is that I feel when I'm in a nightclub. The DJ is safe, the DJ is stationary, the DJ is present and unwavering and doesn't step on your shoes or spill your drink or abandon you for cigarettes or toilet breaks or to chat someone up. The DJ doesn't fuck off onto a night bus leaving you alone, staring into the bottom of a plastic pint glass that's not been refilled for an hour."
- Josh, THUMP.
He isn't alone in actually liking things this way. Another friend told me about the first time he saw Carl Craig. In the swell of the bold but honeyed techno that was filling his head, he felt drawn towards the front. Carl Craig was a totemic godhead, casting trance-like spells over anyone who caught the white of his eyes.
It brings up an interesting element. Going to see an artist like Jon Hopkins, for example, it makes sense to stare ahead, as the focus of the evening is more likely to be one of visual expression, visceral emotion and deep ambience. The same goes for jungle or garage, where the MC gives you a legitimate focal point, a reason to wave your limp rolled cigarette clung between gun-fingers. Admittedly, there are these times when congregating towards the DJ is logical, but it doesn't stop it from being weird during a night of heady disco or big-room house.
Surely, the best way to respect a DJ is to dance until your shins crack, sacrificing yourself as evidence to the fact that they are, indeed, smashing it. We should take inspiration from James Murphy and 2ManyDJs Despacio project, who almost hide themselves behind a set up geared toward an optimal audio experience. The DJs are tucked away in a barely lit corner, while the rest of room is exploding in a mirage of reflected light and flailing bodies.
Yet not every act can roll out Despacio's empowering wall of sound, just to stop us going all screensaver on them. We need to take matters into our own hands. The reality is, when you next go to a night, big or small, you will most likely file in, buy a drink and then stand with your mates, instinctively looking forwards. Let's break away from the mundane; let's reclaim a key principle of club culture; let's restore the dynamic to a time when the track was God and the DJ was messenger.
Dancing doesn't have to be funny or embarrassing (unless, of course, you're one of those chiefs that starts doing the worm and the splits, like a town fair acrobat). Let's have a boogie, or at least do something more expressive than the mimicking of scraping dog shit from your shoes for three hours. Not to get all "good old days," but a glance at a video of the acid house era, or a story from Studio 54, will quickly illustrate the simple truth: we are getting it wrong. The time has come to take ownership of this epidemic, to accept that we're uncoordinated and uncool. The DJ isn't there to be stared at. They are there to be forgotten completely.