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Dance Dance Revolution?

Shilling utopia at the rave

“Let’s look at the stats, I’ve got the facts / My money like Lizzo, my pockets are fat!” Boy-rat hybrid Ben Shapiro’s recent foray into the political rap arena was as insipid as it was wrongheaded, but the wild idea that music can and should be used for political interventions is not contained to the right. In 2020, there was a spate of cash-grab releases that were supposed to deal with the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed. Somehow, culture had to speak to this moment, however mush-mouthed the eager advocates behind pap like Noname’s “Song 33” turned out to be. There was the mediocre album of café music by SAULT, which was praised for its faux-revolutionary lyrics. Beyoncé released the pandering “Black Parade,” which an NPR commentator declared was “a call to those on the frontlines, marching with their signs in remembrance of George Floyd to march on because their steps and spirits are with the ancestors who advocate and fought for the future of a pro-Black generation.” So, a Pepsi commercial for the ears. Lil Baby released a song with lyrics that stated “every colored person ain’t dumb, and all whites not racist.” All proceeds from the song, the rapper claimed in a press release and on Instagram, would support “the movement.” If you were a Black artist of note, now was the time to prove your bona fides, and if you had been out of the limelight, here was a time to prove that you were relevant; public service announcements with buzzkill synths. In terms of brazen pop mediocrity, no one could follow up the performance of David Guetta (currently the Top DJ, according to whoever runs, who decided to mix MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech into his awful electronic dance music and shout out condolences to Floyd’s family. Mockery was swift (Scottish DJ Hudson Mohawke called Guetta “tone deaf”), and it was clear to anyone who had seen the clip of the set that Guetta had made a major faux pas. The consensus was that this was politics at its most performative.

This turn toward PR on the part of DJs was somehow more fatuous than “educating” oneself on racism with the likes of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist; Spotify literally made a Black Lives Matter playlist. As time has gone by and racial activism has yielded to stagnation, David Guetta has come to seem a sacrificial lamb. This is not to defend Guetta, whose music is the equivalent of a pop-up advertisement that gives your computer HPV. But judging his lackluster political commitment comes easy because he is a white Frenchman who compounds his borderline-offensive music with embarrassing sound bites—his response to criticism was, “The mom of my children is Black, so I don’t think they can be accused of being racist, you know?” In his own undignified way, Guetta brought politics to what he calls dance music and was pilloried for it. While I will never think of Guetta as anything but a rictus-grin wearing fool, he appears to have actually bought into the pablum he was marketing and was surprised when he wasn’t feted for parting the racial waters. Didn’t he realize that no one actually believes this shit? You wouldn’t know it if you listened to the music press.


The year 2020 was also when Mixmag declared “dance music is Black music” in a piece announcing a weeklong editorial series that aimed to “refocus attention on the Blackness of dance music” based on the magazine’s recognition of its “complicity in a music industry that has diminished the importance of its Black and LGBTQ+ origins.” Not to be outdone, DJ Mag released a special edition of their magazine entitled (you guessed it) “Dance Music is Black Music.” Magazines were on the right side of history, ready to tweak those optics by any means necessary: a small donation to a racial justice organization, a commitment to hiring more Black writers, and a sincere promise to cover more Black music.

Pilfered soul is the name of the game, but the notion that dance music’s emergence from marginalized communities gives it radical political power is cheesy utopianism at best.

The self-identified defenders of the radical/racial roots of house and techno became emissaries of an unctuous new kind of race record. One of the most egregious was and is the ordained minister, Obama myrmidon, and general neoliberal hatchet man, Michael Eric Dyson. Recognizing that the trough for Obama had run dry, Dyson found another set of hosts to symbiotically cling to in the Knowles-Carter family. Following his, let’s say, unnecessary 2019 hagiography of Jay-Z, he turned to the more popular member of the business duo. Because, as you may have heard, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter single-handedly revived house music by releasing her album Renaissance in 2022. Not content with the thousands of words of lavish praise already accorded to the multimillionaire musician, Dyson realized—in an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Beyoncé. Amen.”—that there was bold new ground to sanctify, namely that Beyoncé was something like the Second Coming of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:

The truth is plain, but elusive: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is not only the world’s greatest entertainer, a feminist and a principled advocate of Black culture, but also something of a religious prophet. Her method is admittedly unorthodox and not uncontroversial: She delivers philosophy in Versace, theology in heels on a stage. Each night near the beginning of her performance on her Renaissance tour—and in the eponymous documentary film released on Friday—Beyoncé declared that she wanted the people gathered in her name to find a safe space for liberation.

What does one do with a Baptist preacher who so readily ditches the First Commandment for the adulation of a pop star? But this paean to Beyoncé is not only dollar-store blasphemy; it’s also an example of access journalism at its most pernicious. After testifying to the divinity of a pop star, Dyson praises her political commitment to the origins of house: “The songs of Renaissance are rooted in Black queer house, disco and dance culture.” Thank God for Beyoncé, and thank Beyoncé for house.

Beyoncé’s obligation to save house and return it to its roots probably did not only come from her dedication to her Uncle Jonny—who died of AIDS when the singer was seventeen and to whom the album is dedicated—or to the “fallen angels” of club culture; it was a savvy marketing decision at a time when electronic music is a popular commodity and as politically defanged as it has ever been. Last year, the global dance music industry was valued at $10.2 billion, a 17 percent increase over the pre-Covid era valuation of $8.7 billion. As the critic Shawn Reynaldo pointed out in an article for his Substack newsletter, First Floor, “In the eyes of major labels—and the wider cultural mainstream—house music is simply another resource to be mined in the service of contemporary pop stardom.” In a way, Beyoncé has revived an old musical tradition—plundering the work of marginalized artists for popular success.

Cultural cannibalism at its fleshiest: such is the gripe of musician and theorist Terre Thaemlitz, a.k.a. DJ Sprinkles, on her album Midtown 120 Blues, a strange avant-garde masterpiece that is equal parts agitprop and seductive house. On the track “Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone),” she expresses hatred of this cooptation:

When Madonna came out with her hit “Vogue,” you knew it was over. She had taken a very specifically queer, transgender, Latino, and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with lyrics about how “it makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the Queen who actually taught her how to vogue was sitting at a table in front of me, broke. So if anybody requested any “Vogue” or any other Madonna track, I’d just tell them, “No, this is a Madonna free zone! And as long as I’m DJing you will not be allowed to vogue to the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized, pop reflection of this dancefloor’s reality!”

Madonna took what she wanted from ballroom culture and house music and universalized it for mass consumption. Whatever message of acceptance that Madonna wanted to convey is complicated by the fact that all differences of gender, race, and class are smoothed out. Beyoncé likewise realized that the most expedient way to use alternative music for her corporate aims was to hire Black queer people. It is the perfect alibi and, judging by the response to the tour, it worked. The fact that the diluted version sells while the genuine sound populates dollar bins comes as no surprise; pilfered soul is the name of the game, but the notion that dance music’s emergence from marginalized communities gives it radical political power is cheesy utopianism at best. It merely strikes a pose.


There may be no better illustration of the tendency toward secondhand righteousness than the late canonization of Detroit techno musicians. As the story goes, techno emerged from the shuttered ruins of Detroit, from prophetic visionaries who saw liberatory potential in the sounds of the future. Lost in the praise of the “revolutionary” character of the music is the fact that the clubs where the music was first played were middle-class demimonde parties that went out of their way to exclude poor people. In Simon Reynolds’s Generation Ecstasy, legendary Detroit DJ Juan Atkins explains that this was due to the material influence of the car industry in providing Black workers with a middle-class lifestyle: “So what happened is that you’ve got this environment with kids that come up somewhat snobby, cos hey, their parents are making money working at Ford or GM or Chrysler, been elevated to a foreman, maybe even to a white-collar job.” For Atkins, the Europhilia of these middle-class Black youths was part of their attempt “to distance themselves from the kids that were coming up in the projects, the ghetto.”

Madonna took what she wanted from ballroom culture and house music and universalized it for mass consumption.

Later in the book Reynolds notes that when poor Blacks arrived, the middle-class kids “found that an undesirable element began to turn up: the very ghetto youth from the projects that they’d put so much energy into defining themselves against,” and they attempted to exclude these people from clubs by “putting the phrase ‘no jits’ on the flyers—‘jit’ being short for ‘jitterbug,’ Detroit slang for gangsta.” What gets lost in the conversation about the radical politics of Detroit techno is that its inception was tied to the existence of unionized jobs, hard-won through years of struggle. The result was the rise of the Black middle-class teenager who had time and money to pursue outré art and be snobbish toward the Black lumpenproletariat.

In the 1980s and the 1990s, the subcultural practice of raving was counterposed against the white, heterosexual American mainstream. While people in segregated Detroit gathered in mostly Black spaces and queer people of all races clubbed in warehouses and lofts in both Chicago and New York City, not every patron was united in a cause more common than the pursuit of a good time. Historians who argue that dance floors were arenas of liberation cite the famous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979 as an inciting event. The brainchild of failed rock DJ Steve Dahl, Disco Demolition Night was an attempt to make racial bloodlust profitable by allowing angry young white rock fans to burn “disco records”—which really meant any Black record—in a bonfire for an entrance fee. (Dahl says he was incensed by disco’s supremacy in the charts, but Nile Rodgers was on point in comparing the fiasco to a Nazi book burning.) But electronic music was an underground phenomenon before racist cultural vandalism made it mainstream. The famous Warehouse that gave the genre its name had opened in Chicago in 1977, and David Mancuso’s Loft and Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage in New York had existed for years. Dahl’s demolition may have been reactionary, but disco didn’t die; Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall became one of the most popular records of 1979, and Thriller would become the bestselling album of 1983 and 1984. Love for Black music doesn’t indicate a love for Black people, but Black pop dance music was and is insanely popular even when you factor in a riotous racial backlash or two. So what was revolutionary about listening to it?

What comprises so much of theorists’ and critics’ assumptions about the political nature of Detroit techno is a collapse between revolutionary sound and revolutionary packaging. Acts like Underground Resistance (originally a duo started by Mike Banks and Jeff Mills) made uncompromising electronica—and released records that were articulate in their condemnation of murderous police. Banks and Mills eschewed publicity and released their music independently, attempting to subvert the corporate record industry, and became cult heroes in Europe with a fan base intrigued by a band that embodied militancy. But once Mills became a solo act in 1992, that militancy came to fetishism, ripe for exploitation by a sly upstart who understood that white guilt pays dividends. When Mills played Riyadh the year after Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by Saudi Arabia’s government, he claimed (in a since-deleted Facebook comment) that music has “played a role in shaping opinion and even policy.” It’s a far cry from the radical stance of Underground Resistance’s heyday. Between “Fuck the Majors” in 1992 and whatever the hell Mills is doing now lies a lifetime (and half a dozen presidencies). That hasn’t stopped techno theorist DeForrest Brown Jr. from claiming that the music of Underground Resistance “hacked global music distribution channels and reprogrammed the minds of citizens mentally and emotionally enslaved by industrial capitalism and the rising data-driven information age.” While this excerpt refers to Underground Resistance’s provocative stance before Mills left the group, this tendentious bit of theory mirrors Mills’s boilerplate nonsense about music changing the minds of rich Saudi Arabians; it’s the kind of pseudo-revolutionary cant that allows someone like DeForrest Brown Jr.—who accepted $50,000 from Doritos in 2021 to serve as one of the “Black Changemakers” endorsing its SOLID BLACK™ campaign, “a new multi-platform initiative backed by action and funding designed to bolster the voices of Black innovators and creators and provide them with resources to continue driving change”—to pretend that garden-variety opportunism is somehow radically empowering for Black people. There isn’t a sociopolitical commitment to this type of theory, and the powers-that-be don’t really care to parse it out. They just want to look like they are funding Black art.

Historians who argue that dance floors were arenas of liberation cite the famous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979 as an inciting event.

To be fair to Mills and Brown, this particular grift is a fad-cum-tradition in which going to dance clubs and raves becomes branded as political action. This was why an entity like the Red Bull Music Academy could hold lectures that touched on the politics of dance music with a Trump-supporting executive at the head of the company. Music was simply the conduit to a youthful audience of buyers for their energy drinks, and they were only willing to maintain this progressive veneer as long as it didn’t cost them anything. Their project to “canonize the genre’s Black and queer origins,” as Artnet summarized it, was simply a way to make one Austrian man rich. Clubs had long provided safe spaces for minorities to gather, but it’s questionable whether anything curated to a self-selecting minority can lead to successful political actions—and these raves are crowded out by the rash of clubs that rely on expensive tickets and exorbitant drink prices to keep their doors open, catering to a well-heeled party class that doesn’t mind social activism with their dance music. Just because techno and house have roots in marginalized communities doesn’t mean that most members of these marginalized communities have any interest in listening to electronic dance music.

What the dance music press and “socially aware” clubgoers seem to want is the relevance that a superficial commitment to identity politics provides along with a justification for hedonism. In pursuit of that goal, they follow most of the media industry after the 2020 protests in “platforming” marginalized artists in order to pretend that advertisements, grants, and record deals are beneficial to the communities these artists come from. Brands like Smirnoff attempted to capitalize on the gender imbalance in DJ bookings by promoting a campaign to book more women artists; not only that, they worked on an algorithm with Spotify that gave listeners a percentage breakdown of the gender of the artists they listened to in order to then provide them with an “equalized” playlist of half men and half women. This laughable trifecta of surveillance capitalism, gender essentialism, and neoliberal marketing is what happens when corporations take identity politics seriously. It’s not like music cannot offer commentary on the world as it is. But when it is as pathetic as Pitchfork telling you which artists to support on Juneteenth, or Resident Advisor’s suspending ratings and its comment section, lest an offensive review rankle its custodian-of-the-oppressed image, you have to wonder if all of this activity is simply a way of burnishing irrelevant brands as forces of social change.

As for the notion that marginalized people find self-actualization in dance music spaces, former editor in chief of Resident Advisor Whitney Wei claimed in Electronic Beats that nightclubs “bear a long legacy of being one of the very few spaces in society where Black and Brown people are able to freely express themselves, where they are able to, for a few short hours, reclaim the bodies that are systematically regulated, attenuated, and deliberately destroyed by the state.” After quoting from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, she went on to say that “freeform dancing, the process of trusting an innate, rhythmic impulse that shirks a set of codified behaviors, then becomes a powerful gesture of resistance.” This type of thinking—from an Asian American writer in Berlin—is pure essentializing and actively traffics in absurd stereotypes. We’ve gone from saying that electronic music comes from Black people to arguing that Black people on the dance floor are trusting an “innate, rhythmic impulse.” It’s another way of saying that Black people are simply more spiritual than white people. But what are Black people who can’t dance supposed to get out of this exactly? The belief that “freeform dancing” is “resistance” presupposes Black people will want to dance. Saying that nightclubs are one of the “very few spaces in society” where Black people can express themselves ignores, for starters, the Black press, the Black church, and the Black university.

For the completely unscrupulous, this is a boon time to make money from histories of oppression. Dance music becomes a tool used to inform and harangue a willing and generally not Black audience about their privilege, and its relation to Blackness comes from its relation to struggle. More than merely MCing, Black and queer performers are essentially moonlighting as preacher/dominatrices, whipping the crowd for perceived racial crimes while offering illusory, transitory absolution. Racial Calvinism is only interesting to those who can pay the cover charge.


In all this talk about the power of techno and house to liberate and educate, rarely does anyone talk about the music itself. This may come as a surprise, given what I’ve written so far, but there is house and techno that I enjoy, and, sure, some of it contains political commentary. But I don’t consider listening to it, or watching someone DJ it, to be a political act. Lionization of a group like Drexciya, with their fictional underwater Black society, devalues the calculated rawness of their transmissions. The aqueous and frenetic textures of their sound have not been replicated, but their ideas have been easily reproduced in award-winning novels like Rivers Solomon’s The Deep. Gerald Donald—one half of Drexciya, whose side projects bear Teutonic names like Der Zyklus—has specifically rejected vague connections to racial lineage. In an interview in 2012, Donald cautioned against viewing his music only through the lens of Blackness:

I do not wish to specify any particular ethnicity. I would state that all variations of humanity have contributed to the evolution of electronic music. Electronic music is the only music type that is global in scope and not specific to any particular culture. Granted, if a variety stems from a particular culture, then it will apply its own idiosyncrasies to the form. But in general it’s a universal sonic medium with endless contributions.

By reducing house and techno to race music, we reduce the vitality of these contributions and the talents of the people who make them. If I’m listening to Theo Parrish, I might be thinking more about how he warps a Vangelis sample than about racial struggle. Part of the reason music writers attempt to engage with this music through the lens of Blackness is that it’s much easier to make claims about racial inequity than describe abstract music.

Race reductionist in character and politically useless in practice, these are spin-cycle optics that could only spring from a generation focused more on self-presentation than anything else.

This is not a new problem. Jazz, another type of music that is not easy to write about, has fallen prey to racial essentialism from its inception. Old-time moralists had a problem with what they perceived as moral degradation inherent to its sound, and white hipsters saw it as the cry of the put-upon Black man. Judging from recent reviews, very little has changed. Instead of an exploration of the music found on a given album, you’ll get a barrage of words that tell you that such-and-such musician is a preacher of jazz or an inheritor of the spirit of John Coltrane. Last year’s Requiem for Jazz, according to Pitchfork, shows Angel Bat Dawid “believes in the power of jazz—not its restraining elements, but its creative potential—with the evangelical fervor of a preacher,” while The Quietus asserted that “although jazz might be dead, its spirit is stronger than ever.” Preachers and dead jazz musicians are low-hanging fruit for the American reader quick to hear and loath to listen. For mediocre musicians who happen to be Black, I’m sure not having to worry about intelligent criticism is a load off their shoulders. So it’s a little jejune when magazines and writers compile lists of Black producers who are making groundbreaking electronic music; the unspoken rule is that you should add Baba Ali and B L A C K I E to your playlist so it is less racist. The whole idea is a “buy Black” program for enterprising producers and DJs. It has little to do with advancing any struggle—racial or otherwise.

A music critic friend told me recently that the way today’s music writers speak about the liberatory powers of house and techno is similar to the way that boomer critics talk about the world-changing powers of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, or the Beatles. At least the boomers can claim to have some possession over the musicians they turned into saints. Our millennial writers are simply trying to create a story that benefits our moment of political stasis. It’s not dissimilar to when someone like Jann Wenner says, “I don’t think rock ’n’ roll overturned segregation or the war in Vietnam, but we played huge parts in it.” When NPR has a roundtable on the “revolutionary fun” of Beyoncé’s album, there is a similar tendency to speak in sample-bait.

The defanged, neatly packaged identity politics of dance music comes from powerlessness in the face of a rigged economy. The overpraise of Black producers, the flattening of the music’s history, and the ridiculous claims of its political import come from the same paranoia about very real economic precarity. Critics realize that they don’t know how to judge music on its merits and have given that up entirely. I dare you to find a negative review of any artist on any website dedicated to electronic music (except Jamie xx), but there’s still the risk of catching flak on the internet from another writer or a musician who wants to build their brand. Hence, sonic bollocking, Saint Beyoncé, and the ghost of Jim Morrisons past.

The musicians themselves are in a double bind. If they attempt to correct the record and admit that while they may have political messages in their music, they are merely artists doing a job, and their actual influence is minor, they will face the ire of critics who will loudly shout that dance music is political. If they can convince people that they believe they are performing resistance by playing music that goes over 120 BPM, they will be rewarded with bookings, corporate sponsorship, and nonblack admiration. While this is beneficial to some DJs and writers, it is creating an environment of rank stupidity. Who is served by a news article like the one in Resident Advisor from 2022 that “exposes” the fact that “some white producers are sampling Black artists without permission and, in the worst cases, sampling the N-word?” Did whoever decided that this was news think they were doing anything to help Black people (besides the rapper the track sampled, who I suppose could sue Textasy and DJ Sickfuck for royalties)? After listening to the songs in question (which were terrible), what these producers did is no different than what Evian Christ did in his freely released mixtape Kings and Them, and his most recent album was recommended by the same website. Do I even need to say that he’s white?

Race reductionist in character and politically useless in practice, these are spin-cycle optics that could only spring from a generation focused more on self-presentation than anything else. The politicization of dance music is a desperate maneuver from those who grew up in a time when routes for political activity and socialization were blocked by the decimation of unions and a rigid government committed to austerity politics. Nor do tilted histories and press releases diminish the achievements of techno’s originators; part of the reason they were able to nurture their talents was the presence of political movements that advocated a living wage. Today, techno is so popular in places like Berlin thanks in part to a well-run mass transit system and state funding for the arts. I’m not saying that once social democratic forms are fought for in the United States there will be reinvigorated interest in techno, but at the very least, maybe the longed-for political community would emerge. No one is helped by pretending that dancing in an overpriced club is going to lead to radical change.

Trying to completely sever art from politics is a fool’s errand, but so is attempting to wed art so close to political struggle that it is overtaken by rank materialism. It’s safe to say that if you are actually interested in redistribution of wealth, Doritos will not stake you. Placing one’s identity in service of an illusory version of history results in fantasy politics that allows hucksters to collect blood money and call it a revolution. It’s quite literally played out. I’ll leave the final words to DJ Sprinkles:

No wonder music is not a representational medium for left politics and social struggle. What it has come to represent socially is utterly conservative. And, as I always say, this is why I work in this field—not because it has potential, but because it is hopeless and typifies the very social abuses I seek to discuss and critique. Music is such a shit medium!