A good friend of mine recently returned to New York after spending a few summer months in Beirut where her family is from. As we sipped on our vodkas catching up, Dâna was telling me how much partying she did over the summer in Lebanon and just how much of a rage Beirut’s club scene is.
“Kory,” she says to me settling into a curious tone, “you’re the music man. I want you to tell me why America sucks in club music compared to the rest of the world. Like, why are we so far behind everyone else? The whole world plays these amazing songs that are so incredible to dance to, and everyone else from all over the globe knows them, except us. Why is that?”
“Like what?” I ask.
She responds, “Have you ever heard of ‘We No Speak Americano’ by Yolanda Be Cool and D Cup?”
“What about ‘Alors On Dance’ by Stromae?”
“Well, you should check them out. They’re really good. And no one here knows them. But everywhere else, they’re massive hits. What’s with us?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, find out for me.”
Alright, there are a couple of problems that need to be identified right away. The two most obvious ones are my age and my specific, personal taste in music. I am thirty-three-years-old and have not been to a “club” in probably three years. In addition, even though I passively like Techno/Electronica/Dance/Club or whatever rubric you want to name it, I fully admit that I am not one to be “in the know” about what is out there right now and what is being played or listened to by majority of its listeners. Nevertheless, the argument I present here, and the question Dâna seeks answered, is still a valid query, regardless of my own personal ignorance on the subject. A case in point was Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards. Here in America, categories range from Art Direction, to Editing and Collaboration, to Break Through Artist. Winners were Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Eminem, Florence and the Machine, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Muse, and The Black Keys. Where’s the Techno?
Florence and the Machine
I recognize that there is a large Techno/Electronica culture here in America, but there is no debating that it certainly is not as mainstream in popularity, or receives the recognition it deserves from youth culture, as it does throughout the rest of the world. There is no way that I would be able to answer Dâna’s question in complete confidence without devoting a detailed, historical and cultural study into the matter, which I don’t have the time to do. But I can hypothesize.
The best educated guess I can make is that America has a deep-rooted relationship with African-influences when it comes to its popular musical history. This is a relationship that Europe and the rest of the developed world simply do not share. This two hundred year-old influence is the foundation to the modern, popular American music that maintains supremacy over the charts and airwaves.
American cultural restructuring during the twentieth century, especially after World War Two, has been very different than Europe’s. The Civil Rights Movement forced the U.S. to recognize the significance of African-American culture as a fundamental part of the genetic makeup of American identity. Music became a major player in this shift, and what used to be viewed as subordinate entertainment was all of a sudden becoming “cool.” (The very word “cool” itself is taken from a description of certain jazz forms that were being introduced in the 1950s. Just look at Miles Davis’ 1957 The Birth of Cool.) Ironically enough, the revolution of Rock and Roll was mainly thanks to British musicians who began to recognize, and emulate, the genius of the African-American blues traditions, drawing attention to the purity and complexity of the African-American folk song.
On the other hand, many of the European countries sought to move in the complete opposite direction—especially Germany. While America was rediscovering its forgotten history in the enlightenment of Civil Rights, Germany was trying to reinvent a culture that separated itself from pre-war identities. Right up into the 1990s when Eastern Europe was literally re-mapped, societies sought to establish new traditions in effort to distance themselves from ostracized national preconceptions. What better way to do this than though music?
Technology advanced quickly through the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Germany was advancing into the ‘synth’ world (look at the popular rise and global influences of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream) ahead of everyone else and the UK began to separate itself from America’s dominant shadow as the leader in international cultural popularity (look at Manchester’s early eighties club scene and the influences of Joy Division and the Factory Records empire). Another factor that helped further distance the U.S. from the new techno-craze was the invention of a new genre of music that stood to represent, once again, the African American portion of its culture: Rap and Hip-Hop.
It goes without saying that the influences of American music, whether it be Jazz, Blues, Country, Rock and Roll, or Hip-Hop have spread all over the world. The 1900s was America’s century. And like the proud cool kid in high school, it is expected that the subalterns should imitate you, not you them. But the rest of the world is catching up and has been over the last twenty to thirty years. New artists are confident to play their own style of music and don’t care whether or not their music is popular in America.
But Dâna’s right, isn’t it time we start caring back?
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– Kory French