Imagine that you’re an angry, lonely teenager who hates their school uniform, hates the ideals that it represents, hates its sweaty restriction. You sit and stew in it for hours, listening to teachers who don’t like you, don’t look anything like you except through the structure of their clothes. You walk home through exhaust fumes and sunlight on a shit day and decide it’s time to do something incalculably rebellious; smoke a cigarette. You lean against a street corner and light up, holding eye contact with passing drivers. I’m not an adult like you, but I’m not a child either. Ash stains your white shirt, and you think that that might look cool on your own clothes, but it feels good smoking in your schoolclothes now. This isn’t rebelling against rules or pretending they don’t exist, it’s just being honest.
To design a great, escapist club, you don’t need to capture beauty, or unique novelty. You don’t need to make something that neatly mirrors the music that will be played there, evoking the look of its instruments or the stylistic period of its origin. You need to make somewhere that subverts its setting enough to gently prod clubbers towards feeling that the rules are different here, they can explore and express and loosen up themselves in ways that aren’t possible outside.
In Kodwo Eshun’s appropriately titled 1998 book ‘More Brilliant Than The Sun’, he described how black American music such as Funk and Techno created sonic fiction: ‘frequencies fictionalized, synthesized and organized into escape routes’. The latter genre’s dark, threatening beats, pioneered in Detroit, created an otherworld for those unwelcome in America’s mainstream. Techno parroting noises and phrases used to threaten or warn, and twisted them to the service of dancers. Sirens and paranoid parent-warnings were combined with the musical noises whose obviously synthetic sound mirrored the motor companies who had built up and stripped down the city.
Decades later and oceans away, Europe still dances to these sounds, as increasingly large clubs host djs like Helena Hauff, whose raw selections sometimes make speakers sound like they’re being manipulated rather than played, like she’s selectively pouring shot-glasses onto their circuit board. She reminds me of writer KW Jenner, who often dismissed the importance of his fictional genre Steampunk, but showed some affection for its aesthetic focus of the shamelessly technological. He disliked apple products’ hiding of mechanical nature behind design with ‘rounded edges like cough lozenges sucked on for a minute or so before being spat into your hand’. Perhaps dark techno is big now because of its obvious deviation from smooth, meticulously produced Radio 1 pop. I once chatted to a clubber who said that, unable to find a good metal scene, he chose techno ‘so I can wear black and rock out’. As technology gets smarter and smoother and more invasive, maybe we want escape routes in places where it stops being such a smartass.
I’m not gonna try and prove or underline this idea. I want to imagine how things could – or will – be different, if our search for escape sent us in other directions, away from other oppressions. This brings me to Spike Jonze, and more specifically his 2013 film Her, which follows romance between man and AI in a rose-tinted future Los Angeles.
The film’s earthy, warm utopian feel frees up viewers to accept a changed world, allowing the plot to become believable, and to be a site of reflection. This is explored in this video essay, which points out amongst other things that the technology in Her doesn’t look like technology anymore. Well, it does still look like technology, as the cigarette boxes aped by phones were still technology, just primitive technology. Technology that doesn’t feel like technology more than it feels like something from the earth. It’s odd to think that the Apple products of this world are just as much a product of natural earth as their company’s namesake, they’re only separated by complexity of process. They look futuristic, not because they didn’t exist in the past, but because they don’t and can’t blend into the dusty paintings of Western history. Whilst iPhone design signifies technology’s futurewards push, in Her technology is just another living, non-antagonistic part of human life.
I wonder what the characters of Her dance to in clubs? What music could be escapist in a calm city without harshly lit hallways and dystopian tunnels? Maybe an escape further into, and explorative of, natural tones. Listen to this track:
What is that? A finger on glass? Wind-flow through a ravine? Magnets under water?
Perhaps thousands of twenty somethings would dance to muddy thuds and airy chords, coming from speakers built into the base of outer-city trees, drinking Aloe Vera and smoking weed. Perhaps these clubs would be headlined by acts like Maribou State, who recently released a sample pack named Organic Synthetic, aiming to bridge ‘the dynamics of electronic music for the dancefloor… with the richness and human quality of live instrumentation and song-craft’. The natural feel of Maribou State’s music appears in its vocals too, which sound intimate and emotional, a far cry from dancefloor commands or disco performances. I listened to their album Home a lot during some of the darker points of my last year of university, because its structure and sonics allowed human warmth to slip into my dance-orientated brain.
That’s an open question actually, please comment below, I’d love to hear more alternative dance escapism.