Sunday, May 03, 2009

Deca-Disco – Electro Disco Revivalism as Political Symptom

An archive lecture text given at the Musical constellations in the digital age event hosted at mama as part of the Zagreb Music Biennale in March 2003.

Secret Militant History

“Disco rhythm as a regular repetition is the purest/most radical form of the militantly organised rhythmicity of technicist production, and as such the most appropriate means of media manipulation. As an archetypal structural basis of the collective unconscious in a worker, mass, it stimulates automatic mechanisms and shapes industrialisation of consciousness, which is necessary in the logic of massive-totalitarian industrial production…

Disco rhythm stimulates automatist mechanisms and co-forms the industrialization of consciousness according to the model of totalitarianism and industrial production”[1]

LAIBACH

This statement was made by the Slovene group Laibach, which made notorious appearances at the Zagreb Biennales of 1983 and 1985. Its radical ambivalence illustrates one of the two poles defining the current disco and electro revivals. Better known for its spectacular excesses and vulgar depths, disco also has a secret militant history, as the quote suggests. Even when overloaded with kitsch elements, the basic disco template has monumental and militant characteristics, qualities summarised by the heavily used expression “Tyranny of the Beat”, which, according to Ulf Poschardt is “… the underlying motif of disco culture.”[2] Disco then can be used as a metaphor both for totalitarian/industrial production and more relevantly for the increasingly relentless nature of what Paul Virilio terms globalitarian[3] cultural production.

This militant quality of disco informs not only the qualities of the music but the stylistic politics and conflicts associated with the contemporary re-emergence of stylistically militant forms of contemporary [post] disco and the related/opposed electroclash ‘movement’. Exploring these questions in greater detail it is possible to detect the paradoxical qualities of “underground” disco Puritanism as decadence and electroclash/synthpop decadence as hidden Puritanism. It is also clear that both poles have much to say about contemporary cultural trends. The interaction between the secretly related poles of militancy and decadence is apparent in the very textures of these electronic styles.

Why Now?/ The Re-Enactment Society

Electronic music has always played host to a proliferating series of sub-genres. Since around 2001 a new series has emerged, heavily dependent on the legacy of the early to mid eighties. The electronic sounds of this period are being lovingly recreated and creatively updated, as well as shamelessly simulated. At the same time as this wave of sonic replicants has emerged, several of the original artists are engaged in re-releasing, re-mixing or even producing new material – Human League, Soft Cell, DAF, Liaisons Dangereuses, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and more. In their heyday such artists had as much separating them as they had in common, but all are now benefiting from the intensifying retro/electro wave, a tendency encompassing sources from electronic body music (EBM) and industrial to early electro, post-punk new wave, disco and Belgian New Beat. The colourful, often hedonistic packaging of these styles and their intensive engagement with the past suggest the umbrella term neo(n) retro.[4]

Yet whatever this [wider] tendency is called it’s important to realise it hasn’t emerged from nowhere and “electroclash” in particular isn’t as much of a media-created “flash in the pan” as some of its own protagonists like to pretend. In Europe particularly these tendencies have been continuously present. Their un-fashionability in most of the 90s gave them an ersatz “underground” status, but a similar mix of original artists, imitators and updaters has always been present, if less visible. From around 1998 post-techno variants of electro produced by artists such as Anthony Rother briefly came to prominence but remained within their specialist genre contexts, paving the way for but not marking the zeitgeist in the way that electroclash has. In the meantime small-scale labels such as America’s Ersatz Audio and Canada’s Suction produced alienated and faux-naif contemporary electronic pop and gradually began to emerge from their niche contexts. By the start of 2002 there were enough labels, clubs and bands for the media to notice and the various [sub-]scenes to register on mass media radars. When this finally happened the popular label that stuck was “Electroclash” and by late 2002 a string of compilations, many featuring the same tracks and artists had appeared, one of the best of these being the ambivalently named “This is Not The 80s”.

“We can Rebuild The Future”

Since this isn’t the eighties chronologically why is it becoming so stylistically? One “structural” reason is that the eighties were “due”. It’s more than ironic that seventies revivalism of the lowest sort (flares, porno-chic etc.) has until very recently been embraced without question and become ubiquitous, whereas eighties revivalism is somehow apparently “trashy” or “insubstantial”. As necrostalgic seventies revivalism became ever more squalid, the culture industry was almost bound to move on to the eighties, just as those who remember them become nostalgic and younger audiences have enough distance to find the period exotic and productive. Yet there’s far more to it than this. One factor is the massive availability of digital technology. On the one hand this makes it easier than ever to construct replicants of your favourite period, on the other hand its ubiquity and a quest for early eighties authenticity pushes producers back to using period analogue equipment to get the correct period sound.

EBM/Temporal Forgery

There are also wider cultural forces in play. As the simulations have become more real (some current tracks sound more “then” than the originals) so reality in general has become more simulated. Temporal forgery is rife and our backdated culture is more interested in faking then than now. Producers such as Belgium’s Terrence Fixmer delight in closing the temporal gap, erasing all traces of a track’s contemporaneity. His “Aktion Machine Theme”, the only contemporary track on his recent “Aktion Mekanik” compilation sits perfectly next to original 80s EBM and New Beat originals and might as well be just another “lost classic”. Given the delight the original artists took in synthetic electronic culture it’s easy to see why the work of their technologically enhanced successors says so much about the current zeitgeist. This is not just a case of “back to the future” but of simultaneously improving and historicizing the futures first imagined over twenty years ago and erasing any distance between the two. In these circumstances what we already need is something like the “void/comp test” used in Bladerunner to detect replicants through the synthetic, incomplete nature of their memories. By their nature replicants appear externally identical or even superior, but they have enhanced powers and superior capacities. So long as the temporal hacking that produces these replicants is acknowledged there is no problem, but the effects of the long-term release of covert replicants into the cultural and political environment are questionable, being likely to erode any sense of linear history. There is a systemic imperative to blur/conceal/disguise/fabricate (in a pejorative sense) time and culture adding a sinister-decadent thrill to the aesthetics of such work. The emphasis on synthesis, replication, and simulation (of individuals as well as cultures) make such styles especially appropriate to and expressive of the current period. A track such as Le Car’s “Warm Humans” for instance, expresses the ambivalent, appalled/fascinated relationships between technology and flesh. In the future the defining music of each generation will be re-constructed and updated ad infinitum. Such trends are likely to contribute to what Virilio argues is effectively a stereo reality composed of the actual on one channel and the virtual, constructed on the other. To quote Poltergeist – “They’re Here”.[5]

The structural excesses of stylistic, temporal and political mutation have literal analogues in the work of many contemporary producers. In almost every field of life barriers and taboos that stand in the way of market culture have been systematically erased and it seems unreasonable or even naïve to expect music to stand aloof – the globalitarian/hyper-capitalist imperative to remove all limits is musical as much as political. What marks many of electroclash artists in particular is the absence of pretence to a privileged artistic position. At their best they embrace consumerism or hedonism so totally as to create an ironic distance from it. Even when the decadence is real or unconscious, as opposed to staged, as in the case of the cheap cash-in tracks, it pales in comparison to the genuine, catastrophic decadence of kleptocratic Enron style corruption and so is nothing if not honest, reflecting our daily exposure to the systemically spectacular kleptoculture. At the zenith of staged, subtly critical electro-decadence is the French duo Miss Kittin and The Hacker’s classic “Frank Sinatra”, an apparent hymn to the worst (or best?) of celebrity hedonism – “To be famous is so nice…suck my dick, lick my ass.” These defiant embraces of the archetypes of decadence suggest the advent of an era of total decadence (also seen un-ironically in the aggressive consumerism of the UK Garage scene). Slavoj Žižek has spoken of the failure to enjoy as the real crime against the current state of things and in this light the embrace of both open decadence and (genuine) alienation are (deliberately or otherwise) subversive in their over-identification with non-sanitised, excessive capitalist enjoyment – the “real” source code or DNA of the hyper-capitalist Final Program.

Trash for Cash (“Do you like my handbag?”)

Another aspect of “then” that’s very now about these styles is the embrace (and also generation of) alienation and decadence/superficiality (both ironic and sincere). There’s no doubt that among the acts that defined themselves as electroclash, the trash quotient is high and the last year has seen a slew of bandwagon jumpers. Ironically some of those dismissing anything electro-related as a passing fad have now been doing so for over a year. These scenes have attracted a strong and (for those with underground preferences) annoying fashion/art/club crowd but as the hype moves on so will many of these “scenesters”. However this time there's a much larger critical mass behind the actual music compared to the failed electro revival of 98. Even if these styles go entirely back underground there's a whole scene infrastructure and a far wider range of artists and sub-genres and once the spotlight moves on the scene may even be healthier.

In the meantime it’s a mistake to take the most excessive elements at face value – often the surface disposability is tactical, a superficial pose concealing real craft (if not necessarily art). To take two of the most derided current examples of electro/pop action, Fischerspooner emerged from a conceptual art background and their Munich label Gigolo Records uses sophisticated, provocative media and design strategies. Even at their worst these styles are culturally, and to some extent politically, significant. For rock fundamentalists and even many of those involved in the dance scenes the phrases electronic pop or disco are anathema, but these simplistic reactions obscure the dynamic range of music in these neo(n) retro scenes.

The surface superficiality of many tracks actually belies the craftsmanship involved. Producing convincing early eighties replicants actually demands a fair degree of skill and musicianship. It’s hard to produce such works purely on a computer or without period equipment. The respected Canadian label Suction Records emphasises its love of analogue synthesis over presets and ironically productions by artists such as Solvent, Lowfish and Skanfrom are far less automated than they want to sound.

This “sector of production” is wide enough to support a range of regional centres, scenes and styles and there’s no shortage of rivalry and even contempt between them. In summer 2002 the Dutch group of fundamentalist electro/disco labels centred on The Hague (Bunker, Clone, Viewlexx) issued a statement entitled “Global Darkness”. This appeared on all their websites and all content was removed for a time. The statement attacked electroclash as a dumbed-down form and seems to have been prompted by internet surfers seeking electroclash material on their sites. Another target was Gigolo Records, which has actually been active since the mid-nineties, long predating the electroclash hype. Gigolo have an openly decadent, trashy image (at odds with the quality of many of their releases) whereas the Dutch scene likes to imagine itself as an underground scene, true to the values of electro and Italo-Disco, desperately fighting commercialisation. As was pointed out at the time, the problem with this stance is that some Gigolo tracks are far harder and more “underground” sounding than some Dutch releases. For all their surface militancy the Dutch certainly aren’t averse to cheesy kitsch and both sides would have problems with some of the current New York style electroclash releases. A truly militant Dutch release is The Parallax Corporation’s “Coca-Disco”, (recently re-issued by Disko B), described by the NME as “brutal Italo disco noir”. One live track contains a vocal line “Electroclash – Trash for Cash”, combining hard electronics with an aggressive parody of Miss Kittin style decadence that’s more or less indistinguishable from it’s target.

This synthetic schism created a lot of media attention but was only necessary because the Dutch objected to being associated with the Gigolo and Electroclash scenes. However they definitely share much of the same audience and the profile of the Dutch has risen along with that of their opponents. The Dutch sound typified by artists such as Legowelt or Alden Tyrell is often militantly kitsch (or vice-versa). Epic and bombastic tracks that make no concessions to external notions of good taste or style and stick rigidly to their idealised and supercharged Italo and electro archetypes, simultaneously militant and decadent. In the most excessive and repetitive tracks a Nietzschean quality emerges – suggesting some sort of fanatically hedonist “Disko Ubermensch”.[6] This returns us to the “secret” connections with industrial music, discipline and totalitarianism that run through the most energised forms of disco, an aggressive aesthetic potential that has only come to be fully realised over twenty years after the original disco craze. Ulf Poschardt’s description of Walter Hughes’ analysis of disco summarises this hidden aspect and the hyper-energised potential of these re-activated archetypes:

‘Desire, according to this analogy, is more than a physical sensation or a psychological control over any number of individuals, drawing them into a community of submission.’ Love is described as slavery, madness, an addiction or a police state, ‘as anything that rivals the despotism of the beat itself.’ For Hughes, the relinquishment of identity and the state of being penetrated and controlled by the beat lead to the abandonment of one’s sense of oneself as a human being or a citizen. Deliberate self-enslavement as the most radical counterblow to the repression of society as a whole. Submission as the realm of freedom, in which one breathes, dances, works, lives and loves to the beat, and in which one becomes a slave to the rhythm.” (1998, 116).

It is here that the Dutch artists share the militant trajectories of EBM and electro (both bearing disco influences) and it is these aggressive dynamics that fuel their militancy. Parallax Corporation’s “Disco Sucks” takes this to an intensely ironic level, building a brutal contemporary disco noir track around a sample of the notorious American anti-disco rally from the seventies. Even at their kitschiest these Dutch artists are “underground” in the sense that they will carry on with their fanatical work no matter what, issuing a steady stream of obscure vinyl releases long after the bandwagon moves on.

This almost classical fidelity to particular sound blueprints also animates the work of post-Kraftwerk electro producers such as Carl Finlow (a.k.a Silicon Scally) or Anthony Rother. Another example is the Ersatz Audio, home to several of the most interesting electro(pop)-revival artists including the much feted ADULT. The husband and wife duo Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller are successors of the alienated eighties electro-pop of The Normal or Fad Gadget. They have described as Ersatz’s agenda as being to “deliver music that is synthetic both in its instrumentation and its rhythms”.[7] On the forthcoming album “Anxiety Always” the distanced, cold vocals recall those of Siouxsie Sioux and there is some equally bleak subject matter.

This more dystopian element features to some extent in the work of some most of the most interesting producers working with these styles, even infecting the work of previously brighter acts such as Britain’s Swayzak. Perhaps the most significant example of this tendency came with the 2002 re-release of Cabaret Voltaire’s classic “Nag Nag Nag” with a remix by electroclash star Tiga of “Sunglasses At Night” fame. Just as the decadence of some electropop and disco revivalism is symptomatic of the wider state of affairs, the resurgence of such sounds and their updating by acts like Adult is equally expressive of the zeitgeist and of parallels with period being revived. This time the wider context is the fallout out from the dot.com boom and the paranoia induced by terrorism whereas in the late seventies and early eighties it was the collapse of sixties utopianism, the oil shocks and the terrors of the new cold war animating musical responses. The desperate, dystopic tones of ADULT.’s We Know How to Have Fun (2003) seem especially apt for the present moment. Here enjoyment is a bleak duty, the perpetuation of its appearance a fanatical imperative.

Artists informed by a love of electronic textures and a keen sense of irony are particularly well placed to produce audio commentaries of their times. Even once the electro tide recedes it is certain both that these styles will persist and continue to develop (in or out of the limelight) and that they will mark the polarised qualities of the times, simultaneously scaling new heights and plumbing new depths. The current period is neither a sublime new peak nor a degraded new low but simultaneously both.

As a certain group said back in 1986,” it’s a question of time”.


Audiography

Adult We Know How to Have Fun – Entertainment, Ersatz Audio (2003).

Terrence Fixxmer Aktion Machine Theme - Aktion Mekanik, 2003.

Laibach – Perspektiven – Rekapitulacija CD, Nika.

Le Car – Warm Humans - Automatic EP, Ersatz Audio.

Miss Kittin and The Hacker “Frank Sinatra” – First Album, Gigolo Records (2001).

The Parallax Corporation Your Image (Live at the Hokkie Club)/Whore of The Floor (Disco Sucks) - Coca-Disco, Disko B (2002).

Squadra Blanco Purification – The City Shall Burn Tonight – Night of The Illuminati LP, 2002.

Bibliography

Poschardt, U (1998). DJ Culture. London: Quartet.

Virilio, P. (2000). The Information Bomb. London: Verso.



[1] From the text of the track “Perspektiven”, Laibach “Rekapitulacija”, NSK Recordings 008, 2002 (reissue).

[2] P. 113. Poschardt, U. DJ Culture (1998). Trans. S. Whiteside. London: Quartet.

[3] Virilio, P. (2000). The Information Bomb. London: Verso, p. 15.

[4] Neo(n) retro is my customisation of the term “neo retro”, suggested to me by Kim Cascone. Other terms include: Electropop, neo or post italo/disco or electro “noir”, electro-punk, death disco, neo-electro and more.

[5] One previous example of such a sonic replicant is a compilation of early Krautrock pieces which was released as an archive recording from the 1972-74 period but which was actually recorded in London in the nineties. This release has been featured in recent Krautrock reference books and it is still not widely know that the (British) artist achieved such a deception. At this moment there are likely to be similar temporal forgeries under construction – albums of “lost Belgian classics” or allegedly undiscovered eighties electro perhaps ought to be treated with caution.

[6] Poschardt (125) quotes black DJ Nelson George’s critique of disco as “inhuman, particularly when it came from Europe, it was passionless and monotonous.” These brutal/inhuman qualities animate the strongest examples of contemporary European electro and disco production.

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