Friday, 17 January 2014

Party Streamers

One of the things that interests me most about the digital streaming of music is the way that it has affected party DJing. Two weeks ago I was at a house party in Athens throughout which the whole supply of music came from YouTube. People didn’t have to rely on their own record collections; they could draw on virtually the whole history of record music.
            And what was the result? They played hits. The same thing has happened at parties I’ve been to in the past few years in London, Berlin, Paris and Evesham. Now that obscurity is freely available to all, party DJs no longer feel the need to show off their knowledge of b-sides and bootlegs. It is instead more important to have an insight into the music that people actually want to hear. Gone are the obscure dance instrumentals of yesteryear; DJ’s are now playing sing-a-long songs.
Two further things struck me about the music that was being played. First, despite the fact that most people knew most of the songs, my guess is that very few of them would have owned these tracks if they would have had to buy them as records. The night began with classic rock ‘n’ roll tracks and ‘Let’s Twist Again’ before moving on to disco and synth-pop. We were hearing tracks that, although widely loved, would bestow little cultural capital upon any owner. They were also records of such common currency that no one would have to buy them to be able to hear them, even in the days before digital piracy and streaming. (There were some interesting national variations when it came to the hits, however; in Greece, ‘Jeopardy’ by the Sound, ‘Mr Roboto’ by Styx and ‘Electricity’ by OMD all appear to have been massive.)
            The other thing that struck me was that many of the records would have previously been termed ‘camp’. At one point, one of Athens’s many heavy rockers took over the computer, but after playing a couple of metal tracks he quickly turned to ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’, ‘YMCA’ and ‘It’s Raining Men’. Greece can be quite a macho society at times, but the playing of these songs caused outbreaks of dancing rather than cries of alarm. Even the rock tracks that he played fell into the ‘camp’ category. We heard Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ and Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Going to Take It’.
            But is ‘camp’ still the appropriate word for this music? In fact, was it ever? Looking at Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’, I find little in her jottings that fit. She states that the ultimate camp statement is ‘it’s good because its awful’, but there’s very little that’s bad about any of these tracks. ‘It’s Raining Men’, in particular, is one of the most important artworks of the 1980s. It is musically and lyrically brilliant. It’s provocative and liberating. It’s video is pretty fantastic too. ‘We’re Not Going to Take It’ attempts a similar feat and almost pulls it off. For Sontag, the essential element of camp is ‘a seriousness that fails’. Each of these tracks, however, was designed to give pleasure and has succeeded in doing so in spades. Perhaps most importantly, none of us were appreciating this music ironically; we weren’t seeing ‘everything in quotation marks’ and we weren’t claiming to have a ‘good taste of bad taste’. It was a party at which people were having the good sense to have good taste in good music.
            It’s not an exaggeration to claim that digital streaming has set people free. Musical tastes are more diverse than they have ever been and are less hidebound by conventions of cool. We need to push further, however. It’s time to stop excusing the pleasures of the popular by referring to them as camp. When did anyone ever go to a disco in an ironic frame of mind?

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