YEAR IN MUSIC “But not this time. This is our time. This time you’re going to hand them a business card that says ‘I’m CEO … bitch!’ “
Thus screams Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) during the hilarious club scene in this year’s seminal The Social Network. They’re supposedly at a space in the Mission (actually L.A.’s Exchange club) in 2004, a horridly stereotypical affair featuring bland industrial architecture, a dance floor full of blonde “woo!” girls in black cocktail dresses, writhing go-go gals with pink boas, oversized martini glasses, illuminated cocktail tables, coke sniffles…. You know, the Jungian ideal of Douche Central.
(The music the two actors are screaming over — Dutch Euro-trancer Dennis de Laat’s 2010 remake of Cassius’ 2002 French millennial-funk track “The Sound of Violence” — is a bit of a joke too, although I’m not sure if de Laat was in on it. Contemporary progressive house and Euro-trance, alas, are still perfectly suited for scoring tacky Internet wheeling and dealing in 2004.)
That over-the-top scene made me think about how far dance music and club culture have come, both in terms of mainstream acceptance — throw in a verse by Drake and a goofy bassline and “The Sound of Violence” could be Ke$ha’s next paycheck — and alternative options. Despite a few fun parties and a strong sense of underground unity, 2004 really was a low point for dance music, the spinning-wheels moment before a host of now-ubiquitous styles like dubstep, minimal techno, global funk, and nu-disco hit the scene. Sure, the current pop charts are a commercial dance juggernaut of kookily styled, sexlessy sex-obsessed, materialistic Auto-Tuned clubkid wannabes, hating on haters and looking for love all up in the VIP. But this is fine! First, thanks to the Internet, it’s all so easy to ignore. Second, anything’s better than the whine-rock males that electro-pop replaced. And third, pop homogeneity has helped bring about an alternative renaissance of brain-tickling party music and club events for people who want more out of nightlife than Cristal bottle-service and a new Facebook profile pic.
In fact, it was a bit hard to keep up with all the ingenious debauchery in 2010. Despite the continued recession — more probably because of it — partying was rampant, with new venues like Public Works and Jones and revamped ones like 222 Hyde, Holy Cow, and SOM joining established spots (happy 25th, DNA Lounge!) in presenting some of the most innovative programming in the world. I can’t tell you how many times I heard New Yorkers, Londoners, and Berliners sigh lovingly and praise the scene here.
It sure didn’t take a lot of traveling, though, for me to see how good we have it right now, partywise. The homofuturist techno of Honey Sundays, Tormenta Tropical’s spiky electro-cumbia, the twisted funk of Loose Joints, Some Thing’s post-ironic showtunes, Icee Hot’s UK bashment, DJ Bus Station John’s various bathhouse unearthings, Kontrol’s live minimal showcase, Phonic’s classic tech and house, the global funk of Afrolicious, Frequency’s Dilla-influenced hip-hop, Change the Beat’s future-bass soul, Love Letters’ intelligent techno, Nachtmusik’s dark wave, Ritmos Sin Fronteras’ global house, Braza!’s deep samba, Ritual’s anarcho-dubstep, Go Bang!’s disco bliss, the young queer twists of Hard French and Stay Gold …. I could go on and on — suffice it to say the only bad nights out I had this year in the city were the ones I can’t remember. (Even my brief forays into the Lady Gagay bars of the Castro were at least, er, exotic.)
And this was the first year in a long time that local partiers loudly chafed against our city’s ridiculous 2 a.m. curfew for bars lacking an exorbitantly priced late-night license. Could it be time for another push against this aspect of the city’s constant War on Fun? The pushback would be intense. Some tragic shootings and other violent acts were associated with nightlife this year (even if they only happened near a club, kill-joy NIMBY’s jump at the chance to blame partiers and don’t have the capacity to distinguish among different kinds of parties). Nightlife naysayers got away with some pretty ballsy moves this year, including the cancellation of the enormous Lovevolution outdoor party. Yet, as slightly cynical as I am right now about the possibility of political change, I’m hoping the vitality of our scene is starting to build some positive momentum toward at least letting SF parties keep going as long as those in New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. Hi, world-class city here, right?
In the larger view, 2010, to me, was the year that the Internet finally came of club age. I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. By making almost everything available at once, the Internet erases the distinction between mainstream and alternative culture, between pop and underground. This year that felt truer than ever, and the change seemed like it was finally taking effect on a broad cultural level — whenever I tried to explain to someone in their teens how rave culture was a deliberate rebellion against commercial culture, or how independent music differed from that put out by major labels, they looked at me like I was from the ’90s!
But in 2010, DJs and musical archeologists tried to fill in that almost with a vengeance — they wanted everything, from the past as well as the present, to be available on the Internet. Uploading and sharing history-altering vinyl rarities was this year’s badge of honor. I found myself hearing so many songs on the dance floor that I’d forgotten, I’d sometimes enter a kind of dream state, unsure of my own historical timeline. The “wave” phenomenon, which brought utterly unheralded synth and proto-goth acts from the age of hand-to-hand cassette culture to light (and various dance floors) was the most literal manifestation of this, but there were others as well. Old-school SF DJs who’d spent years building their record collections — Gavin Hardkiss, James Glass, Solar, Jenö, Garth, Ken Vulsion, Steve Fabus — sounded incredible this year, both for their vinyl gold and mixing acumen.
Across the board, DJs slowed the tempos of their sets, as if all the rapidly accumulating sonic history was dragging them back, their laptops churning from the weight of it all. Tunes somehow became wider, thicker, luminous. Suddenly songs were fields. This led to some fantastic developments — presaged by the reemergence of UK disco and “electro-funk” DJ pioneer Greg Wilson after decades of silence, and anticipated by releases from our own King & Hound duo, the edit scene was bananas, with a plethora of music makers releasing contemporary-sounding versions of forgotten classics. (Edits are made by rearranging or removing a song’s individual parts, unlike remixes that usually rebuild a song from the ground up).
Going one step further, recombinant folks like Soul Clap, Wolf + Lamb, Tensnake, and Mr. Intl took individual elements of half-remembered, half-heard soul, funk, house, and R&B gems and combined them with each other in uncanny ways — a little acid house melody here, the sax solo from a Chris Isaak song, a Cure bassline, a New Edition drum breakdown, a snatch of Vicious Pink there — as if populating a timeframe that didn’t quite exist.
Funnily enough, all this digging up and soldering together helped produce a heady, signature sound that crossed genre borders — dubstep (somewhat sadly) slimmed down its postapocalyptic multiculti bombast and became more psychedelic and introspective; future bass ripped a few bong hits and got more soulful; minimal techno astringency disappeared into full-on sing-along melodies; indie acts like Toro Y Moi, Delorean, Caribou, and Crystal Castles embraced rave and glitch aesthetics; abrasive hardcore electro and filter house politely fled the scene. The overall effect was breezy, brainy, and Balearic.
And yes, somewhat monolithic. Pity the poor fool who tried to be different. The overheated reaction to the coining of “witch house” as a genre — think glitchy crunk beats distorted with spooky effects and the occasional static-masked rap — showed that the current scene has no taste for standouts (perhaps that’s why there was no world-dominant club this year as well). We’ll see how well “moombahton” (don’t ask) fares in the coming months, but for now it’s enough to navigate the smart, chill wave cresting on SF dancefloors. We’re all CEO, bitches.