In defense of dance music
The sad premature death of Donna Summer reminds me of the time I was walking out of a Black Crowes show a few years ago.
The band had ended its set with this then-new song, “I Ain’t Hiding,” which featured a thumping bassline and a “four-on-the-floor” (that is, four beats of the bass drum per measure) rhythm that’s typically associated with disco music:
Filing out of the hall, I overheard a guy complaining that he didn’t care for the tune, saying, “It was like Donna Summer or something.”
Priceless. A band known for its fealty to Americana and classic British rock briefly leaves its comfort zone, and a fan instantaneously drops the Donna Summer hammer!
It’s hard to say definitively, but the disco era seems to have marked a dividing between acceptable and unacceptable forms of dance music according to the lights of rockists. “Rockism,” as defined by the critic Kelefa Sanneh,
means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.
Before disco, a rockist could enjoy, say, Sly and the Family Stone without compromising his sense of purism. After disco, “dance music” became a catch-all for an increasingly specialized set of subgenres, all of them ignored or disdained by those who insist music must be handmade.
In younger days, I proudly flew the rockist flag. Yet after several years as a newspaper critic, my defenses wore down. I learned not to get so uptight about music that is often a means rather than an end in itself. It occurred to me that one reason I might not respond favorably to contemporary club/dance/electronica music is because I don’t like to dance and I don’t like clubs filled with people who do. It’s not meant for me — just as Lady Gaga is not meant for me and Justin Bieber is not meant for me.
More than that, I realized that time has a funny way with music. Appalachian mountain music was meant to be danced to. Today we call it “traditional,” with all the connotations of staidness that such a label brings to mind.
We don’t yet call “Last Dance” “traditional music,” but who knows what kind kind of taxonomical tricks the next 100 years will have in store: