Lifestyles of the Rhythm

Dance Music Accesses an Unseparatist Pop Sensibility

Time was, people loved or ignored or scoffed at dance records the same way they bought or didn't buy other kinds of pop records. The music would come from a singer like Donna Summer, say, during disco's '70s commercial peak. Or, during the '80s, when dance music flaunted an exotic-obscure vibe, an outfit like the Montreal duo Lime. Or a soulful Italian production concern like Change, which occasionally would show up on the U.S. r&b charts.

But during the '90s, with the rise of techno in England and its more open-ended and mostly marketing-derived relative electronica in the U.S., Things Seriously Changed. Songy stars like Summer, the rare techno-identified face like Rozalla notwithstanding, were out. The old exotic-obscure vibe grew increasingly moot as techno and electronica operated from the perspective that both existed as large-scale movements, even if U.S. radio and TV didn't always program and party with them as willingly as did their U.K. and continental counterparts. And as for sharing chart real estate, contemporary forms of soul music—hip-hop and r&b, those American worlds connected by raging industry ambition, cell phones, and jewelry, not to mention a furiously fruitful musical back-and-forth—usually seemed oblivious to techno and electronica's repetitive rhythms, not to mention its Brit-Euro passions for really cool T-shirts and unfindable Japanese sneakers.

International dance music, though, took neither the U.S. indifference nor the attempted U.S. biz exploitation nor the U.S. pop annexation of its devices lying down. Instead, it built an impressively sturdy, dramatically potent medium-sized little world for itself and continued to repeat beats. And repeat beats. And repeat beats: The establishment of the legend of the DJ—the Oakenfold-Van Helden-Digweed mold of a mere guy with (almost always) superhuman aural-rhythmic sense and concomitant taste and ability to spin (and, on occasion, electronically doctor) records in clubs from New York to Cairo to São Paulo—began to define the ordinary record-buyer's experience of dance music proper: This was the real stuff, not the flavoring that DJ-remixers often bestowed upon releases by rock and pop stars.

Those hair-fried Chemical Brothers
photo: Mick Rock
Those hair-fried Chemical Brothers

DJ compilations took over, becoming the usual way in which people consumed dance music. Occasionally, these albums emerged, on their own terms, as efficient or canny or even artistically superb; other times they were like sonic space-fillers. Make no mistake, however: Whatever the genre highs, future generations will remember these collections as recorded artifacts that were, while perhaps not as odd as, say, gravely serious late-'60s instruction records like How to Train Your Dog, still pretty strange animals. They are shows by invisible DJ magicians at work during an era when almost all dance stars had, like servants in a ghost movie, vanished.

Except a few. In the mid '90s, no dance music came on with greater rock ambitions than the Chemical Brothers'. Unlike the trance-mad DJs who succeeded them in profile by decade's end, the English duo never tried to make the experience of doing long geometry proofs into the sonic equivalent of tantric sex. Although the Chemicals were infrequently as blunt as, say, Fatboy Slim or Propellerheads in turning electronica respectively into rock or pop, they built big beats anyway (then backed away from them). And, especially as they were rangy white guys with fried hair, the U.S. rock press adopted them enthusiastically as Moby's eccentric English cousins. The Chemicals' acclaimed recent Come With Us (Astralwerks), characteristically, recruits non-dance collaborators like Richard Ashcroft and Beth Orton, and a piece like the tellingly named "Star Guitar" marvelously impersonates Coldplay as a quartet of loud horseflies. And, to be fair, interesting technological energies animate songs like "Hoops" and the jizzy "Denmark." But Come With Us is mostly just OK, a well-crafted soundtrack to being the Chemical Brothers.

Which stasis, as techno purists always implied, is one of stardom's consumer risks: When recordings don't have the option of relying on their artists' personae—when they can never bank on someone pulling out a wallet just to find out what verbal crap Alanis is actually taking credit for, or what drum sound Lenny's surrounding himself with these days—there's likely more attention paid to the music itself. Consider Herbert, an English producer-writer immersed but not defined by Kruder & Dorfmeister's great Austrian downbeat music, and a tiny star at best. His Around the House (!K7), a reissue of an album he made before debuting in the U.S. in 2001 with the jazzy Bodily Functions, is skeletal and quiet techno warmly warped into fragments and memories and shadows of actual pop songs; it's Satie-scaled, at times, but never inaccessible—just weirdly, alluringly toned. All of a sudden, a brushy female voice will arrive to flip her hair and sing "The Last Beat" like Heather Nova at her most drained; the next minute, the music—and the singer—will scat.

So the question remains: Where goes a genre that is queasy about stars and beset with a gazillion shifting style denominations meaningful only to club professionals? Lately, accessing a pop sensibility that's always been the flip side of dance separatism, beatworld collections have gone lifestyle. Tired of trekking across various time zones with trance DJs and the vibey yet unhummable tracks they sequence? Settle back into one of the most chic enclaves of Paris! That's what the four volumes of Hôtel Costes offer: the fantasy that, with the insertion of a single CD, you are a guest at one of the city's hippest accommodations, awash in the sounds of gifted remixer Stéphane Pompougnac. Where the packaging of a trance DJ set promises, "Yes, you too can jet to Istanbul this weekend," the Costes collections ease the dance experience into Second Empire sofas, into the relatively far more sedentary world of cocktail hours and glossy magazines.

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