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The Idea of Musicality in Modern Dance Music

"Disco professor" Daniel Wang digs into the geo- and socio-political histories underpinning what he sees as a disconnect between musicality and dance music culture.

With decades of experience as a DJ and music maker and a fine-tuned ear for the technical intricacies of music composition, Daniel Wang is well-equipped to discuss the magic that separates truly special songs from the rest. In past interviews, he’s labeled himself a “preservationist,” and his work is centered around highlighting music created before many of today’s digital tools, for better or worse, streamlined the writing and production processes for creators.

In this excerpt from a “The Idea of Musicality in Modern Dance Music,” a full-length essay featured in the forthcoming Electronic Beats book (created to celebrate 20 years of Electronic Beats), the DJ and music historian outlines how the United States’ shift away from traditional music education in schools, combined with its influence on international culture, has culminated in a lack of attention to music theory and music history (which he bundles together as “musicality”) in modern dance music. Pre-order the book now to read the full piece.

 

 Through the sound of popular music—that seductive combination of European tonal scales, modern technology, and African rhythmic motifs—the whole world becomes ‘Americanized.’

There is a big picture here which we must consider, one much larger than the individual monitor screens of producers everywhere aspiring to make a hit. And that picture is the cultural role played by the nations, specifically the USA and those parts of Western Europe, whose mass media output built so much of the global cultural and mental landscape after World War II via radio, television and cinema. What is “contemporary” and what is “cool?” How do people in Sri Lanka or Manila or Guatemala get their ideas of what is happening in the fashion boutiques and nightclubs of New York, London, or Paris? And by what mechanisms are those images created? Indeed, with the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus, and as we approach Donald Trump attempting reelection in November 2020, it might be time to reassess what effect American-style market capitalism and consumption have not only had on material goods and resources, but also on cultural products and human interactions.
In the postwar period, with Europe in ashes, America was the global leader of innovation in many ways, but specifically in the realm of popular music, there has always been a tension between the African-American artists who create new styles or genres and the US mainstream audiences (mostly non African-American) who purchase the products. The largest market for hip-hop in the US over the past 30 years (especially in the era of vinyl and CDs, before the internet was available) was in the predominantly white suburbs. But similar to the cycles of high fashion, pop music cannot allow for boredom and stagnation, and the competitive nature of “virtuoso musicianship” was a driving factor across many genres, from the breakneck saxophone duels of be-bop jazz to the difficult guitar arpeggios of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” to the intricate urban battles of hip-hop rhyming and delivery.

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Competition, as the drive to always supersede (rather than merely preserve) the past, is an anxious, but also a dynamic engine of creativity. Now, as an adult, I realize what degree of sophistication was being injected into my five-year-old brain when I listened to the clever melodies on Sesame Street (another American global export) which had been arranged by jazz masters like Herbie Hancock or sung by the Pointer Sisters. No wonder a solemn Brahms symphony or the folk songs on Taiwanese TV seemed to me dull by comparison; when I was 11 or 12, there were barely two Mandarin pop songs which made me want to dance and sing along, while the radio hits on Voice of America, a Congress-funded international broadcaster, seemed to represent everything shiny and desirable. Through the sound of popular music—that seductive combination of European tonal scales, modern technology, and African rhythmic motifs—the whole world becomes “Americanized,” whether one has actually lived there or not.
As I traveled more through Europe and Japan and South America, however, I learned that I was not alone in my youthful longing for English-speaking pop culture. A friend of mine who grew up in communist East Berlin has told me repeatedly of his fascination from early adolescence with the “cool” music that came drifting over the airwaves from the West; he remembers being bored by formulaic Schlager hits and being attracted to the funky, sparkling, dark, soulful sounds of Pink Floyd, of electronic disco, of British and American pop music in general, although he had no idea what the words were saying. For a slightly earlier generation, Hildegard Knef did German popular music a huge service, not only in her witty translations of Cole Porter lyrics, but by making the musical aesthetic of jazz—including her finesse for vernacular dialogue and improvisation in the manner of American jazz performers—truly accessible to German audiences as well. She was even a fan and good friend of Ella Fitzgerald.

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But in fact, this North American influence was everywhere. South African singers like Miriam Makeba have described how their producers were emulating techniques, grooves, and song structures of Motown hits from Detroit, Michigan. On YouTube, I even discovered a video which describes how the bossa nova composers who re-defined the sound of Brazil—Antonio Carlos Jobim, among others—consciously borrowed harmonies and chord voicings from North American jazz, but were accused of elitism for “whitening” Brazilian music with imported ideas rather than elevating the more “native” Afro-Latin rhythms. (The presenter also remarks with irony that many of those harmonic hues originated, in fact, from dark-skinned musicians in the Northern Hemisphere!) Even today, the hardcore Brazilian bossa defenders make a difference between performing “The Girl from Ipanema” in the key of F, which was standardized by publishers because of Frank Sinatra’s famous version sung in English, and the more “authentic” keys of either D-flat or G, based on earlier recordings in Portuguese sung by the Brazilian singer Pery Ribeiro.
The question of musicality in global pop music is thus deeply related to how the US has exported its cultural vision and merchandise to the rest of the world, which consumes it but rarely had the chance to respond to it on an equal footing (until the Internet and YouTube were invented, which is very recently indeed). Unfortunately, music education in US public schools declined seriously starting in the late 1980s, due partially to budget cuts from the conservative Reagan administration, and what was a global force of pop music innovation slowly began to reflect what was happening to urban African-Americans as well as the general decline of the American middle classes. Fewer families could afford a piano or guitar lessons for their children, and hip-hop and computer-programmed dance music increased massively. These were new and marketable forms of pop music, but not much composition or musicianship was required to make them. Together with the introduction of MIDI, which eliminated the necessity for many well-trained studio musicians, it’s no surprise that the level of musicality in dance music sank to such lows after the 1990s.

If music is a sort of universal language, then dance music is a recognizable but peculiar dialect—a sort of global Esperanto or patois, which was cobbled together as a response to a post-civil rights, post-sexual revolution 20th century reality. Indeed, as the cliché goes, in the USA it was the music of Blacks, Latinos, gays, and women, all those groups which were outside of the “white” and “male” rock mainstream. But Esperanto was artificially created with pre-defined rules, and it has never fully become a global language (like English did, de facto) because it never had a real geographical or cultural location in which its vocabulary could organically evolve. Therefore, instead of Esperanto, I would suggest that electronic dance music is better described as a patois, in the sense that it evolved over the past 30 or 40 years as the grandchild of back-and-forth encounters from many tribes of different backgrounds. By necessity, just like a patois, much of the “correct” grammar of its parent languages has gotten lost, and instead has been replaced by muddy compromises. That also explains the “lack of rules”—because a lowest common denominator, by definition, must make a generous allowance for inconsistencies and mistakes.

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Published March 10, 2021. Words by Daniel Wang.