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2002: Loose Ends (Ben Tausig)

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Ben Tausig discusses two things that occurred in 2002: The death of Alan Lomax and the Electroclash trend.

2002: Loose Ends (Ben Tausig)

2002’s Most Notable Death

Alan Lomax, one of the earliest and most revered names in ethnomusicology, died in July of 2002. With his father, John Lomax, Alan recorded a copious and incomparable catalog of songs, words, and sounds from the American South and the Caribbean. He is in large part responsible for the well-deserved fame of 20th-century folk musicians like Leadbelly and Son House, and was the principal figure to record Woody Guthrie. The folk revivalists of the 1950’s and 1960’s owed him a debt in nearly everything they achieved. The study of ethnomusicology owes him a lot even today. Moby pretends to owe him something (“As an electronic musician, I like the fact that a lot of the vocals are a cappella, so I was able to sample them and makes songs around them”). Jon Pareles of the New York Times had naught but radiant words for the man in a front-page obituary.

Unexamined adulation, however, is selective nostalgia. Lomax’s efforts have had the regrettable side effect of leading audiences to love the messenger as much as the message. As observers of the hierarchy of power in making, recording, and distributing music, we learn again and again that the success of non-whites must always be brokered by the keen-eyed maneuvering of whites. In particular by those adventurous types who will venture into the heart of darkness (be it a remote island or, in Leadbelly’s case, a prison) and back for a few blessed minutes of material. These tales of anthropological heroism are the stuff of old cigarette ads, and in their colonialist bravado make the music seem like a rare diamond or a truffle or something. Lomax’s contributions to the great library of recorded music are real, but we perform a general disservice if we fail to recognize the racism inherent in his role as a paternalistic arbiter of “other” cultures.

No discussion of Lomax’s work should be absent this important criticism, for there are real consequences to racism in the music industry. Recall that Leadbelly was severely under-compensated and exploited by John and Alan Lomax, and died before he could benefit even a little bit from the success of the mostly white folk revival. It is instructive that Alan Lomax empathized with the author Zora Neale Hurston, who adored the resiliency of marginalized black culture but didn’t propose to address ways in which it could be made less marginal. Lomax operated philosophically in much the same fashion, and his career embodies the wrenching contradictions of seeking personal glory by documenting liminal folk life.

The Annual War for the Past

One day last summer, visitors to the website hotmix.nl, home of Hotmix Elektro-nix and portal to the Clone recording and distribution empire, were greeted by a message stating that the site and all adjunct labels (Viewlexx, Clone, MurderCapital, etc.) were shutting down in protest of the creeping, vapid trend called Electroclash. Hotmix had for several years been one of the most highly respected networks in underground electronic music. Their appreciation of Italian and American late-disco and electro was channeled into not just a revival but a flourishing, creative scene populated by talented and idiosyncratic producers like I-F, Adult., and Alden Tyrell. What about electroclash could offend them enough to occasion such a self-destructive reaction when they seemed to be doing so well in all respects?

Electroclash offends most electronic music purists because of its glitzy scenery, opulent cliches, and sudden bandwagon loads of fans with faces suspiciously similar to those of last year’s raver crop. Besides, what Princess Superstar, Miss Kittin, and Fischerspooner offer is not so much an imaginative interpretation of forgotten disco cuts, but the soundtrack to a costume party at which to ingest trendy drugs. Because electroclash is more hedonistic and less challenging than the Hotmix labels, it has developed a bigger audience in a shorter time and, in the eyes of Hotmix, demeaned their own music as well. Such is the nature of trends.

Hotmix staged their protest in reference to a specific label, International Deejay Gigolos (and its owner DJ Hell), who had committed the unforgivable sin of becoming electroclash after being on par with Clone and Viewlexx just a year or two prior. For Hotmix, watching a former compatriot sell out so quickly seemed to have been the catalyst for the shut-down. Here follows the text which appeared on hotmix.nl that day and for several after:

"Electro. Mediocrity has become the norm, the passion has been killed. Pretentious wannabe rockstars with inflated egos rule the mediawaves, cheap imitation clones with clown make-up on their faces rape the style, hyped up labels capitalize on it through slick A&R fistpuppets and mainstream culture - that two-faced hydra - tries to assimilate it. Meanwhile white middle-class consumerist kids with mohawks run around like lost chickens, eagerly lapping up the stale cum the corporate moloch spurts onto their spotty faces as their role models down another valium with a dirty brown sherry and drag themselves through the twilight of their miserable lives in front of a tv set where a video of Liquid Sky runs on repeat. "NO MORE. We don't need the hollow catchphrases, the carefully created eighties retro fad, the empty music, the jaded cynicism or the poser attitude of the fake Gigolos who only sell their asses to the masses. You can all follow your leader into the electroclash HELL!"

Hotmix and all of the labels who participated in the protest have since resumed their business, and it is difficult to say whether they ever meant not to. But the squabble is sure to be but one of the first among many as electroclash increasingly becomes a thing. Certain scenes are lightning rods, and in 2002 electroclash became one of them.

By Ben Tausig

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