Jason Mendoza Was Right

Playlists for everything discussed here linked at the end of the post.

Some years ago—before I was married, before I was a mom, before the company I was working for was absorbed by a behemoth that began digesting all the good things about it—a co-worker loaned me a CD. “It’s been a long time,” he said, “since I’ve heard something that moved me like this.”

Music endorsements are a touchy thing. Music, like every other artistic medium, exposes tremendous divisions in how we interact with the world. When I was first out of college, I had a friend draw me aside, deeply concerned about the sort of music I was listening to (that would have been my Trisomie 21/Cassandra Complex stage). She thought I would be a more cheerful person if I listened to something more cheerful.

Which was rubbish, of course. For me, dark, sad music felt like solidarity, like being depressed didn’t mean you were alone, like it was possible to forge something beautiful from pain.

That wasn’t how she saw it, and I knew her well enough to recognize that. But I didn’t really have a sense of this guy I worked with, or what I’d be getting when I listened to what he loaned me: Maya, by Banco de Gaia.

I listened to the whole thing, but what I took from it was mainly “Heliopolis.” Which is still a killer tune.

I had a friend in college who told me once, with gentle sympathy, “it’s not that you have bad taste in music, Liz, it’s that you have no taste.” I liked everything, or very nearly. I’d certainly listen to anything, and some of it I’d adopt. It took me some years to shuck off my high school habit of gravitating toward bands my friends liked and ignoring my own taste, but as it turns out my taste is indeed kind of scattershot. I still like the dark stuff. I still like T21 and Cassandra Complex. Also Bowie and the Afghan Whigs and Sara Bareilles and Aoife O’Donovan and a few hundred others.

In the predominant musical genres, song structure is more or less the same: Verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Maybe one or two pieces moved around, but still recognizable, still as familiar as a nursery rhyme. When I run across something that varies from that structure—”Bohemian Rhapsody” is a good example—it fascinates me. (I should love classical music for this reason, but alas, I really don’t, modulo Beethoven.)

Dance music seems to lean toward a slightly different structure. It’s layers instead of verses: one that begins and endures throughout, others added on top, often in varied groups before converging at the end, then dropping away, one by one, leaving the first on its own again. (AFAICT songs are recorded this way in part to facilitate mixing.) It’s vertical rather than horizontal.

Like verse/chorus songs, it can be done very badly. It can also be sublime.

I sampled a lot of stuff after “Heliopolis,” but it wasn’t until I hit Above & Beyond’s Tri-State that I found something I liked as much. And because the band had a record label, my exposure to what was out there exploded.

Dance gets a bad rap in a lot of modern culture. Jason Mendoza, of the late, lamented The Good Place, was famously a really terrible DJ, and the show took every opportunity to showcase the worst characteristics of the most derivative, irritating dance music out there. And Gene Belcher of Bob’s Burgers—he who uses his keyboard synth to make melodies out of farts—claims a love of house music, usually represented on the show by four-on-the-floor minimalism.

Both shows nail something true about the music that’s available, but it feels a bit like someone saying “HAH pop music is bad” when the only thing they’ve heard is someone’s third cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s YouTube a cappella group.

Subgenres of dance are frustratingly fluid and ill-defined, which becomes apparent if you head to a site like Beatport and sample the Top 100. What separates House from Trance from Progressive from Deep House from Techno is not always clear. (It’s not just publishing, it seems, that’s defined by fuzzy marketing categories.) There are categories that are more likely to yield music I enjoy (Trance and Deep House are my mainstays), but as a general rule, I know what I like when I hear it.

Take, for example, a track I always shove at people when I start rambling about this: Dinka’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” Beatport currently classifies it as Progressive House, but I’m pretty sure they previously called it Deep House, and it was Trance when I first heard it. It’s definitely that four-on-the-floor backbeat Gene Belcher talks about (and here I should point out that House is different from Deep House and please don’t ask me why but it is), but it’s also…light. Delicate. Joyous. Enormous and expansive and beautiful.

Contrast that with Solarstone’s “Voyager,” a much more driving, solid, heavy tune, full of curiosity and whimsy. That one’s called Trance. I don’t know why.

There are religious arguments in the dance music community that are sometimes truly bemusing. Some more established artists absolutely look down their noses at newer musicians, bemoaning the shallowness of their work, stubbornly insisting a return to the Old Styles of the mid-2000s. At my age, I find such hair-splitting utterly irrelevant. Chicane’s Far From The Maddening Crowds, released in 1997, is a gorgeous album. Cubicolor’s 2016 release Brainsugar is also beautiful, despite being stylistically quite different. (For those without commercial-free access to Spotify or Apple Music, you can listen to Brainsugar in its entirety via Cubicolor’s YouTube channel.)

And I like the different stuff. It’s true, it’s not always easy to find in the crowd of Top 20 singles and scattershot EPs being released left and right, but thanks to the beauty of streaming services, I can try stuff out. The ability to sample before I buy has brought me Yotto and Ilan Bluestone and Fehrplay and Schodt and Aiiso and no, I’m not going to make a full list, but you get the idea. (There’s also a guy called Nick Warren, who in photographs always looks like someone caught him hungover before he had a chance to shave and have some coffee, who has a band called Way Out West and a label called The Soundgarden, and makes mixes with bands I’d never have heard of otherwise.)

It seems likely part of my attraction to dance music is the repetition. While good dance tunes are evolutionary, they’re also building element on top of careful element, grounding the structure in a solid, comfortingly immovable foundation. (“Raindrops” by Blood Groove and Kikis is a good example of what I mean.) To my jangly brain, the tunes I enjoy are like a theme park ride: they can become exciting and sweeping, taking you far away from the entrance, but you’re always anchored, and you always know your destination. The music is energizing, but it’s also deeply soothing to me. It clears my head, helps me think, quiets my anxiety.

There’s a whole side journey into electronic music here, which is often lovely, but in bulk tends toward ambient. There are times when electronic music is exactly what I need—try Tycho’s 2014 Awake for a good example—but one way or another, I always end up back at dance.

It’s an odd thing, right now, consuming art. The world is strange, the future is uncertain—hell, even the present is uncertain. Our power is limited, and we lack facts and clear strategies. We hold our breaths, look after our communities and our loved ones, wash our hands.

And yet I find, these days, I hang on to art harder than ever. It’s not just my attempts at drawing, which also feed me (although I’m finding myself attracted by media that I’m not particularly good at using, which is frustrating and exciting in turns), or re-reading books I’ve loved and looking forward to new ones. I’ve always been a strategist, even in circumstances where strategies aren’t wanted. I’m that friend who always wants to sweep in and help you fix something instead of just listening. (People used to say that was a Guy Thing, but I don’t think that’s ever been true.)

Here, in the world without strategies, I’m hungry for things transcendent, work that helps me stop strategizing, stop trying to solve the insoluble problem. Art that keeps my mind alive, energized, full of hope when the world seems hopeless. A little joy in the face of all this darkness. Because there will be an end to all this, one way or another. As horrifying as all this is, ultimately, hope is not misplaced.

Might as well dance.

Playlist for all the songs/artists included in this post: Spotify | Apple Music

Two notes on the playlists:

  1. I have a CD with a studio recording of Trisomie 21’s “The Last Song,” but the only version I found streaming was a live cut.
  2. Sara Bareilles’ “Undertow” was available on Spotify, but not Apple Music. For the Apple playlist, I substituted “One Sweet Love.” They’re both lovely songs.

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