The DJ Pyramid
by Chris Korda
Electronic music artists are increasingly obliged to provide aural wallpaper for partying. Many of them resent it, and complain about it in private, but they’re afraid to rock the “functional music” boat because they depend on it for income. There’s also less and less income, because the product is increasingly virtual, which makes it easy to steal, and because YouTube AKA Google is crushing the other streaming platforms that at least made a token effort to pay artists. Consequently, many labels go under, and most of the ones that remain are understandably risk-averse.
Given the rapidly shrinking pie, it’s no surprise that many artists imitate each other and try to be the flavor of the month, by making music that’s just a bit different but not too much. They look nervously over their shoulder, knowing that if they go too far they’ll lose their spot to a more crowd-pleasing artist. We may claim to want something new, but in practice we often prefer something comfortingly similar to what we already know and like and grew up with. This is how we end up with thousands of nearly indistinguishable records.
The way forward is to challenge the concept of music as party facilitation. In order to get unstuck, we have to start listening to music again, instead of merely partying to it. But before we can revolt and escape from the pleasure prison, we first have to become aware that the prison exists. As long as we’re partying ecstatically, the walls are shrouded in mental and physical fog. But this morning it’s nice and clear, so let’s have a closer look at those walls. The walls aren’t merely metaphorical, unfortunately they’re all too real, and the product of massive investment.
Picture the thousands of nightclubs and discos all over the world, all playing the same 4/4 beat (boom clap boom clap), day and night. Around this relentlessly monotonous beat, a global economic and social order has been constructed. We call this structure the DJ Pyramid, not only because it’s hierarchical, but also because it’s vast and built of stone, seemingly immovable and unchangeable. The sheer volume of alcohol sales alone implies huge resistance to change. Hierarchies resist change because those at the top want to maintain their advantages. A few people are making boatloads of money from the DJ Pyramid, and they probably won’t enjoy reading this.
The disco beat is by now burned into our brains like a mental tattoo. It’s as though we have a receptacle in our heads, perfectly shaped to fit the one and only pattern of global disco. Like plastic, it’s everywhere and in everything, not only nightclubs, but films, television, advertising, restaurants, shopping malls and more. We don’t notice it, in the same way that fish don’t notice water. But it wasn’t always so. As recently as the late 1970s our musical environment was comparatively diverse. Disco was a relatively new species and competed with many others, including some that were definitely not in 4/4 (if you doubt this, listen to “Close to the Edge” by Yes).
By now, nearly every nation has a local flavor of the global beat, featuring lyrics in the native language, and perhaps some traditional instrumental accents, but built on top of the same 4/4 disco chassis. The icing varies, but the cake is always the same: the familiar, sickeningly sweet taste of partying under the disco ball, inside the pleasure prison’s gilded go-go cage. American media corporations waged a culture war, and won. Disco was transplanted to every corner of the planet, and almost overnight the American prison became the global prison.
Even the critique of dullness is getting dull. We’ve been having this discussion since at least 1998, the year the Love Parade’s slogan was “one world one future.” This blatantly totalitarian slogan signaled that disco is an expansionist ideology. The empire won’t rest until all its competitors have been eliminated, and every individual rests comfortably in their cell, synchronized to the beat. The destruction of biological diversity proceeds alongside a parallel destruction of cultural diversity, as if it were planned that way, which it was. Younger people don’t realize that the world used to be more biologically and culturally diverse, because it’s hard to miss what you never knew. In biology this phenomenon is known as “shifting baseline” (not to be confused with “shifting bassline” in the sense of polymeter, which would be a step in the right direction).
Cities are increasingly all alike, standardized and interchangeable. Everywhere, we behave similarly and have similar things in our pockets and handbags. Why shouldn’t we also listen to the same music, and dance similarly, after taking the same drugs? It’s so nice when everyone agrees. But the prison walls are visible today for a change, grey and decorated with stylish barbed wire, reminding us that the agreement is a lie, a convenient fiction. In a flashing moment of honesty we can grasp that we’re actually bored out of our minds by all the sameness. We crave meaningful difference, and within this craving lie the seeds of revolution.
Long periods of stasis are the norm in the history of visual art, and they’re often punctuated by revolutions. Think of all those centuries of boring religious paintings in the Louvre, and then Velázquez and Rembrandt came along and blew the doors off. All-black paintings became fashionable during the Abstract Expressionist period, culminating in Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt’s “last paintings.” Critics feared the end of art, but needlessly. People were never going to be permanently satisfied with monochromatic art, because unlike dogs, we see in glorious color. This biological determinism transposes perfectly to music. The tyranny of 4/4 won’t be the end of the story because we’re capable of sensing other rhythms, including polymeter, and the tyranny of the major scale won’t last either, because we’re capable of sensing other tonalities.
1990s Berlin was an epicenter of relative freedom. As streams of DDR citizens poured into the west, punks poured in the opposite direction, squatting entire neighborhoods of East Berlin. Cut off from consumerism and left to their own devices, they made their own culture out of necessity, and it was just as vibrant and diverse as one might expect. The squats were mostly crushed under the wheels of gentrification, but not forgotten, and many of their ex-inhabitants are still around, older and sometimes wiser and more pragmatic, with real jobs and real power. Thanks to their efforts, Berlin is now the center of the electronic music world, and the logical place to start a prison riot.
Revolutions have long roots and often start small. We should avoid trying to change everything at once, or as the Giant said so eloquently in Twin Peaks, “A path is formed by laying one stone at a time.” We’ll be well-advised to deal with the major scale’s ubiquity later, and start by challenging the rhythmic conformity which is so much more egregious, and also easier to tackle without formal musical training. What we’re modestly proposing is nothing less than rhythmic heresy. DJs are the original influencers, and will be indispensable allies, exporting the heresy from its epicenter to distant shores. How ironic that the same individuals who built and maintained the orthodoxy may also be instrumental in its undoing.
The real villain in all of this is neoliberal market capitalism, as usual. Corporations keep us busy pimping ourselves to strangers and amassing “likes” because divide and conquer works. Life is reduced to a crass popularity contest, like reality TV. Scrambling to the apex of the DJ Pyramid is a Pyrrhic victory, like crossing a bridge to nowhere. We should ask not “how can I game the system” but “how can I overthrow the system before it kills us all?” To defeat the system we need to be less competitive and individualistic, and build solidarity in the real world. The road to inspiring, challenging music necessarily passes through unfamiliar terrain, and whatever comes next will doubtless face stiff resistance. Getting unstuck might be uncomfortable, but at least it won’t be boring.