Last night, after the other Agents had all gone to bed, the android detection field had been activated and the cat fed, I was ruminating over a nice cup of 'nog and my mind wandered to the subject of the recent popularity of DJs and DJ culture. Nowadays, top DJs command as much, or more, for their services as rock stars. A guy (or girl) can be just as admired for playing records in public as trained musicians once were, and Technics turntables have replaced the electric guitar as the instrument of choice with which angst-ridden teens struggle express themselves.
This might be seen as just another fad in the endless series of spectacles popular culture generates in the tireless quest for novelty. It will surely pass, just like disco and pet rocks, only to be rediscovered and reinvented by future trendsetters in the great laundromat of popular culture. But perhaps there is a deeper significance to the adoption of two turntables and a mixer as the musical emblem of the moment. How come, I asked myself as nutmeg particles swirled chaotically in the yellow sea nog, that just now, to quote Tears for Fears' prophetic lyrics, "DJ's the man we love the most?".
Who doesn't love the Wolf Man?
DJs can be musical innovators, inventing new sounds from mixtures of musical styles, and the best spinners often move on to become producers in their own right. But, for the most part, a DJ's job is to play music that other people have created and recorded. They are a kind of middle man – a pusher, if you will – of sounds, and, whether at a dance club or on the radio, they can influence and mold culture by the very decisions they make about what songs to play or not. The editorial power held by the disk jockey is humourously acknowledged and criticized in the Smiths' song "Panic" with its chorus,
Burn down the disco
Hang the blasted DJ
Because the music they constantly play
Says nothing to me about my life
Hang the blasted DJ
Because the music they constantly play...
Hatred, jealousy and persecution of the DJ goes hand in hand with the power they yield as controllers of musical culture. Of course, it is music producers who actually determine what even gets recorded and distributed in the first place, but these largely behind-the-scenes figures are less easy to target by their very invisibility. However, while hatred for the DJ is easy to understand, we must still address the great love for DJing that currently permeates our culture. Why this complicated love/hate relationship with people who are just trying to play some records?
The answer lies, I suspect, with our position at the End of History. We are currently inundated with so much cultural information, with so many past and present artists, styles and landmarks of musical heritage, that the average listener hardly knows what to make of it all. Is it ok, for instance, to enjoy the Abba song "Take a Chance on Me" even though your parents might have grooved to the same track, likely before you were even conceived? Can a single soul enjoy both Rush and gangster rap and still maintain an intact and coherent sense of self? In high school, people tend to cling to a single musical genre, or a particular artist, as a means of maintaining a sense of personal identity. But, as we age, our tastes often mature and differentiate in manifold directions. This can be a painful and difficult process, but it is made easier by the DJ, whose very vocation consists in sifting through the popular musical heritage of the last fifty years and making some kind of statement as to what is valuable or meaningful in it.
Grandmaster Flash got class!
The DJ is like Theseus steering his way through the labyrinth of popular music and leaving behind a golden thread for others to follow, all the while evading the minotaur of massive "uncoolness"— the loss of face that comes with liking music that is clearly "whack". The DJ is like an archivist, constantly digging, searching out and sorting the musical influences that make up the cacophonous modern landscape. As our culture enters its twilight years it ceases to be vibrantly creative and becomes more philosophical and reflective. The DJ is the philosopher of music, telling us what it all means through the subliminal connections made between the tracks he chooses to play.
It's all been done, and there may be nothing new under the sun, but the DJ, through a tweak of the bass, a twinge of the treble, can make it all seem brand new. And in this ironic age of self-reflexivity and repetition this is the panacea offered to our fatigued souls. Within a single 50 minute set we can relive the thrill of disco, the utopian otherworldliness of prog rock, the cold calculations of techno, and the raw, liberating nihilism of punk. We can bop our heads to new wave and even steal a surreptitious thrill at the Motown beats of the fallen King of Pop. The DJ is the master pianist, playing each of these musical keys in turn, dropping his record needle into the very grooves of history.
The DJ as clown.
And that is why we love the DJ; because he or she reflects back to us who we are (or pretend to be), and who we have been (or thought we were). To borrow a phrase from the title of one of fantasy author Michael Moorcock's stranger trilogies, we are the "Dancers at the End of Time" and the DJ with his record collection supplies the sound track. But the age of the DJ, too, will pass. It's death knell has already been sounded with the advent of the Ipod and similar technologies. With the MP3 file, everyone can fashion his or her own personal music program, and an entire library of music can fit on a device the size of a pocket calculator. Perhaps this will be the true end of history, when each of us can create his or her own narrative out of the chaotic debris in the midst of which we find ourselves. And so the lyrics of Morissey's "Panic" will no longer hold true, but we can still listen to them and reminisce in the isolated splendor provided by the "earbuds" of our own electronic DJ device.