Friday, May 18, 2012

Pressing Play

There is a disproportionate amount of respect going towards Disk Jockeys these days and I feel the need to say something about it.

You may have noticed clubs and bars advertising upcoming events starring a DJ, not a band, or a musician, but a DJ.   Now a DJ serves one fundamental purpose, playing music. The difference between a good DJ and a bad one falls entirely on how well they understand their respective audience. A good DJ will choose the right songs to incite the crowd; while a bad DJ will fail do this. It’s that simple really, as long as you know your audience disk jockeying is easy.

Many “musicians” have taken the whole disk jockey thing to another level. They mix, scratch, and do a bunch of other things I do not appreciate or understand. I do not understand what they are doing, or the rationale behind ruining on a song.

There are many musicians who use electronics to great effect to create music. VNV Nation, Covenant, and a majority of modern pop music follow a methodology of using computers to laver, organize, and then play various sounds thus creating music. I would dare say that this methodology for creating music resembles producing music much more so than disk jockeying, because that is an obvious observation. Timing is a tricky thing, using a machine to yield perfect timing within a series of multilayer complex sounds is perfectly understandable and interesting. When you look back on the history of music, all music, the great orchestras were accomplishing this same goal only without any of the wonders of modern technology.

If respect is to be divided out fairly, it is obvious the composers of yesteryear and those few who still exist today deserve a sizeable amount more respect than the producers calculating out sounds with machines. I mean no disrespect to the producers of such music, I mention VNV Nation and Covenant earlier out of respect as I enjoy both those groups, however the struggle to write complicated orchestra based music faces the great challenge of human error. A composer of classical stylized music must consider how to recreate all those complex sounds and to organize and time it so the song can be reproduced live by a group of humans. That is a greater challenge, and our respect for Beethoven should always outweigh our respect for any electronic producer.

Having said that, producing electronic music can still be very cool, as the same kind of imagination is necessary to write music, in fact the whole creative side of this comparison should be noted as a draw or equal. It takes equal creativity or brilliance to write good music whether you are preparing a piece for a whole orchestra to play or just a machine. The difference here is choice of tools. Beethoven and his many great colleges used men and women on instruments to create beautiful music; meanwhile “DJ”s uses a machine.

If you read over my opening statement you will see that I am not challenging the respect owed to song writers, I am challenging the overwrought respect we have bestowed to DJs. A disk jockey is someone who plays music, not necessarily someone who writes music. Most disk jockeys have never written a song. These two functions, writing music and playing music, are mutually exclusive; if you create music than you are a producer/song writer; if you play music for others than you are a disk jockey. You can be one or the other, or both, or neither.   I am only challenging the respect we give the disk jockey.

Someone recently told me that more people go to see Lady Gaga to hear her DJ than to see her. No; just no. Lady Gaga, despite what anyone might think of her (I think she is a fucking weirdo, and I’m not convinced she is weird in a way I like) has written many songs; she is the producer. Also, when going to a Lady Gaga concert you going to see her perform her songs. It would not surprise me to learn that yet another pop star lip syncs in concert, I believe Lady Gaga is innocent of this, I have seen her sing with her natural voice and I see no reason why she should resort to such silly shallow tactics, however it would not surprise me to learn otherwise, but even if she does lip sync that does not change my point. Given the nature of Lady Gaga’s heavily electronic based music there is little “performing” necessary, all the sounds needed to share Lady Gaga’s music was from a machine, all she needs to do now is have someone play the right songs at the right time so she can sing and dance and do whatever weirdo thing she is going to do along with the song.  So when you go to a Lady Gaga concert you are witnessing Lady Gaga singing all her songs. Who the fuck is impressed with the dipshit back stage? Perhaps he works very hard and keeps things organized, but he is in no way a musician for performing this function, that would be like saying the roadies are better musicians than the band they are prepping the stage for because you like the set up. It could be anybody back there; it literally takes little or no creative skill.

Another comment I have heard is that DJs create an ambience for the crowd. They can create the ebbs and flows of the crowd’s moods with music. That’s nice, and probably true of the night club scene but that simply refers me to my original comment about playing the right songs for the right people, at the right times; not a particularly challenging task. This is a skill of extroverted understanding of people more than any calculable quantifiable skill. This is like being a bar tender. Any dumbass can pour drinks, the real purpose of your job is to be charming and likable; that is an intangible skill; as unwarranted for respect as being physically attractive or smelling good. The only skill required of a DJ is to play songs people will like.

We have finally come to the point where I must address this delusion that DJs make songs their own. When disk jockeys scratch and mix songs live, they are not making songs their own for a variety of reasons. First I have never, and I know I never will, hear a mixed song live that sounded half as good as the untouched version. It is almost like the original song had a deliberate song structure for a reason and someone randomly screwing it up and added “bleeps” and “blobs,” is adding NOTHING of value. Second you are not recreating or reimaging a song when you randomly stretch it out, or make it repeat at times; all you are really doing is playing the song strangely. When taking on the challenge of a cover song the option to re-imagine that song becomes present, you can change the structure, the instruments used, the timing, whatever, you can make the song your own. Even if you cover a song and add nothing new to it, you still must recreate the song from scratch. When I play guitar and I am playing other people’s songs (which is about all I can do) I may not be very good at it, but it cannot be denied that I am creating those sounds on my guitar and the vocals are coming from my mouth. So no matter how bad I am be at recreating the song I am covering, I can at least say I am performing the song. A DJ has done nothing to recreate anything. All the original sounds are there at the press of a button. Nothing in his arsenal is truly his, and never is he performing anything. The DJ is not a musician.

A disk jockey does not create or perform music; he is just presses the play button.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s a lot of music critics were furious with current “song writers.” What had become a popular trend at the time was to take old pieces of classical music, most notable Tchaikovsky and the “1812 Overture,” and to cut and rearrange the music in a different manner. These “song writers” even had the audacity to put their names on the final product and claim they had created a new song. You can imagine the anger music critics and Tchaikovsky fans alike felt. This method of “song writing” was little more than plagiarism, and worse than that it was a parade of egoistical glorified incompetence. No one will ever be able to improve upon the “1812 Overture,” the song is pretty much perfect. It takes an incredibly arrogant person to think they could do a better job at structuring Tchaikovsky work better than the man himself, and it takes an even greater fool to attempt to do so by sampling the man’s work without any of the painstaking challenges of recreating the song from scratch, you remember we call that a cover song. When you think about these assholes back in the 1930s claiming to be song writers because they pissed on the great Tchaikovsky, you will realise they were really the DJs of their time, and the horrible things that were being done to good music back then is a problem that has not gone away.

I get the appeal of being a DJ. You want to make a connection with people through music, music you love. You may lack the talent to create and/or perform good music so you branched out in a different way, not unlike myself writing these reviews, the difference is ego. I am under no illusions that what I am doing is some great feat. It has always been easier to criticize than create, that is true of all things, and they often say those who cannot, teach. I cannot be a great musician, it was a great dream but my life took a different path. I accept the humble role of amateur music critic and try to connect with people through music I love in a different way. You wanted to be a great musician but you became a DJ instead, there is nothing wrong with that, but playing songs at someone’s wedding does not make you fucking Daft Punk. And to the rest of us, do not be fooled by the glamorous guise electronic music has created for these tools who press play on the tool that plays music. The true greats of electronic music are producers first and DJs second. The people who are good DJs are the same sort of people who are good bartenders, they are charming and likable, we enjoy their company, we enjoy their tastes in music, but they are not great talents, they are not talented at all.

Keep on Rocking in the free world.

- Colin Kelly

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