a.k.a. Moral hypocrisy runs amok in the electronic music world.
|Oct 22|| 6|
Several weeks ago, I was talking to one of my closest friends, and at some point the conversation drifted toward the latest drama in the electronic music realm. I can’t remember everything we discussed, but at some point The Black Madonna came up, and he said something along the lines of “Didn’t she say that she hates Uber drivers and wants them all to shut the fuck up?” (To be clear, this is not an exact quote, but it captures the basic sentiment of what he said.)
For those who aren’t actively following techno Twitter (consider yourselves lucky), what he was referring to was a July tweet from The Black Madonna. It wasn’t nearly as bad as my friend described – it’s impressive, and depressing, just how much gossip can completely distort the truth – but she did complain about an Uber driver who insisted on talking to her about politics when she was tired and just wanted to get home after a weekend of gigs. (Full disclosure: I’m once again paraphrasing here, as the original tweet has been deleted.) She went on to clarify that the tweet had been inspired by a particularly noxious driver who was complaining about immigrants, juvenile delinquents, unmarried women and his general belief that society was in decline.
Personally, I don’t think that being annoyed by an overly chatty Uber driver – especially one who insists on sharing all of their right-wing views – is an especially heinous (or unusual) experience, but that didn’t stop a deluge of Twitter warriors from attacking The Black Madonna and essentially framing her as an out-of-touch, rich white woman with no class consciousness and a lack of understanding about the plight of the average gig economy worker. Here’s a sample response:
Since then, things haven’t been much better. Late last month, she responded to a Twitter heckler by saying “Enjoy your shift at Best Buy.” (For the non-Americans reading this, Best Buy is a chain of massive electronics stores.) Although the guy had literally @’ed her and said she “is hands down THE WORST DJ [he had] ever heard” (continuing a storied misogynist tradition of men telling successful women that they’re shit), it was The Black Madonna who caught all the flack. Here’s a sample of the discourse:
Of course, all of this was just a warm-up for the full-on shit storm The Black Madonna faced last week, when her name appeared on the lineup for the newly launched, Amazon-sponsored Intersect festival in Las Vegas. Although other electronic music acts like SOPHIE, Jamie xx, Flying Lotus and Max Cooper were also on the bill, most of the online vitriol was directed towards, you guessed it, The Black Madonna.
Unfortunately for the Twitter wolves, it turned out that Amazon had pulled a fast one here, and The Black Madonna had the receipts to prove it. As it happens, the firm that put the festival together neglected to mention that Amazon was involved. After publicly expressing shock when the news first broke, The Black Madonna subsequently dropped out of the event a few days later, releasing a lengthy statement explaining that her team was misled and outlining her opposition to working with Amazon.
What a fucking mess.
In all honesty, the last thing I want to do is defend The Black Madonna. She’s a wildly successful artist and while I bear her no ill will, I’m not a huge fan either. As an artist, I think she’s fine. That said, I’ve found the criticism thrown her way to be not only unreasonable, but dripping with the same sort of insidious moral absolutism that has infected not just the political realm, but seemingly all of our discourse these days.
Seriously, with all of the issues facing electronic music, can someone explain how The Black Madonna became the enemy? Are we all talking about the same person? The one who grew up in Kentucky and paid her dues for years in the Midwest rave scene? The one whose booking work reestablished Chicago’s Smart Bar as a vital destination for electronic music? The one who actively promotes black, brown and queer people, along with the foundational role they played in the history of electronic music and club culture? The one who speaks openly about her struggles with mental illness and the reality of being a “fat person” (her words) in public? The one who was seemingly the champion of the “loud on Twitter” crowd just a couple of years ago?
I’m not saying that The Black Madonna is perfect. I get that some people find her online persona overbearing, and she absolutely makes a ridiculous amount of money. (She’s also played “It’s Raining Men” in her DJ sets, which is apparently some sort of mortal sin.) Even so, is all of that really grounds for smearing her as some kind of neoliberal monster who’s found fame and now shuns intersectionality in favor of empty “girl boss” feminism? If the techno Twitterati are to be believed, The Black Madonna has essentially become Hillary Clinton in the DJ booth.
For fuck’s sake.
Reading this, perhaps you’re thinking, “Damn, Shawn is really going all out to defend The Black Madonna.” But honestly, this isn’t about her. She’s going to be fine. What bothers me is the growing ugliness of online discourse around electronic music, not to mention the rank hypocrisy and selective outrage displayed by many of the scene’s self-appointed moralizers.
For instance, we all know that Amazon is a giant corporation that engages in all sorts of morally questionable, if not outright despicable, practices. At the same time, how many of us have used Amazon? My guess is pretty much everyone – I certainly have. Furthermore, do people not realize how much of the internet relies on Amazon Web Services? And why is Amazon okay when it’s supporting obscure documentaries or television shows like Fleabag, but not when it’s putting on a music festival? Where exactly is that moral line? And speaking of the Intersect festival, why was there such an intense focus on The Black Madonna? There are dozens of artists on the lineup, including progressive icons like SOPHIE, yet barely a peep was made about their involvement. How does it makes sense that The Black Madonna gets dragged when artists with much bigger platforms, like Foo Fighters, Kacey Musgraves, Beck and Anderson .Paak get a free pass? Is it because she’s supposed to know better? (As it turned out, she did know better, not that it mattered to her critics.)
Or maybe The Black Madonna was a target because she’s supposedly proven herself to be a classist. Again, is that really a fair charge? Let’s start with the Uber debacle. Ignoring that fact that anyone who uses or has used Uber (i.e. most of us) is supporting a company that is, at best, ethically compromised, The Black Madonna isn’t the only person who’s ever griped about an overly chatty driver. She probably shouldn’t have shared that thought online, but the faux outrage of her detractors was maddening. I’ve heard (and read) people complaining about Uber drivers more times than I can count, and the talkative driver situation is clearly something that bothers a lot of people, because Uber literally launched a “Quiet Driver” mode in the US earlier this year. Are all of the customers who use that service classist and/or morally suspect as well?
And then there’s the Best Buy affair. As a general rule, I don’t want to shame anyone based on their job (unless they’re, like, an arms dealer or a Republican strategist or something) – and I’m guessing that The Black Madonna would agree – but have we really arrived at a point where simply insinuating that an angry dude on Twitter has a shitty job (which, in turn, likely fuels his anger) is somehow beyond the pale? Call me crazy, but I’m pretty confident in saying that even people who do work at Best Buy probably think it’s a shitty job. Is everyone who works there automatically a bad person? Of course not. But let’s not pretend that we’re talking about an established career track or a desirable place of employment. There’s not much of a future at places like Best Buy, and if you do work there, you most likely want to get out someday.
Anyways, whether or not people agree with me about Best Buy, Uber, Amazon or The Black Madonna, chances are that just about everyone reading this has engaged with morally questionable entities, both professionally and personally. And let’s be honest, electronic music in 2019 is increasingly a bourgeois exercise with all sorts of economic, cultural and geographic barriers to entry. There’s something terribly dishonest about people who fly to festivals, pay exorbitant door prices, fork out even more for drugs and alcohol, buy vinyl and constantly wear the latest Nike gear anointing themselves as electronic music’s moral police. None of us is going to pass a purity test, yet the moralizing continues unabated, in a completely subjective (and often fact-free) manner.
Frankly, I’m exhausted, and I know I’m not alone. When speaking with friends and colleagues in the electronic music realm, this topic comes up all the time, yet everyone is either afraid to speak about it publicly or they figure that it’s simply not worth the effort. Why risk the wrath of the Twitter brigade? Most of the time, there’s little to be gained by challenging their behavior, save for a whole lot of grief.
To be clear, none of this is meant as a reactionary, “maintain the status quo” diatribe on my part. I’m not advocating for the “good old days” of anything. Electronic music has all sorts of problems and challenges, many of them systemic, and we should absolutely talk about them. At the same time, the way that we talk to one another has to improve. For a scene that was founded upon ideas of community and respect, it often feels like we’re severely lacking in both. We can’t all agree on everything all the time, but that doesn’t give us license to tear others down at the first sign of imperfection, even when they’re famous strangers on Twitter. Rather than wasting our energy knifing one another, let’s seek out allies, expand our network and focus on the big problems instead.
Somehow, I’m now the one doing the moralizing, and the irony of that is not lost on me. I’m not perfect – none of us are – but I am willing to bet that most people reading this at the very least have their heart in the right place. Maybe acknowledging that is the key to making things better, or at least making our Twitter feeds a bit more tolerable.
MORE THINGS I WROTE
Yesterday Pitchfork published my review of Crush, the excellent (and surprisingly loose) new album from Floating Points. It’s also the first time something I wrote has been tabbed as ‘Best New Music,’ which is kind of exciting.
The folks at DJ Mag are still publishing features online that first appeared in the October print issue, and this week two of my articles were posted on the site. The first was my lengthy feature with Barker, whose Utility LP is one of the best electronic albums of the year. He talks about working without kick drums, finding inspiration in ethics and behavioral science, the search for pleasure and why he’s not afraid to flirt with trance. It was a good conversation.
Also posted on the DJ Mag site was my ‘Get to Know’ feature with Johanna Knutsson, a piece designed to introduce the talented Swedish techno/ambient artist to the world. Her recent split EP with Karen Gwyer on Oscillate Tracks was excellent, and I’m excited to hear more new music from her soon.
AN UNEXPECTED SURPRISE
Less than two months have gone by since I started this newsletter, but the sheer volume of positive feedback I’ve received so far has been truly heartwarming. There have been so many unsolicited emails and messages, many of them from people I admire and respect, telling me that they’ve been reading First Floor and have been enjoying the newsletter. So yes, I’ve had an inkling that I was heading in the right direction with this thing, but I never expected something like this glowing article from Peter Kirn and his excellent Create Digital Music site.
Peter had recently mentioned to me that he wanted to write something about First Floor, but I was expecting a little blurb or maybe just a well-meaning tweet. Something small like that would have been great, but this… this was just a wonderful surprise, not to mention a nice reminder that there are still folks out there who really do appreciate long-form music writing and a more thoughtful approach to electronic music journalism. And yes, the whole thing was a nice little ego boost for me as well – I’m only human.
The article also prompted a wave of new subscribers, so if you’re part of that group, hello and welcome to First Floor. And, of course, a huge thank you to Peter for helping to spread the word. If you haven’t checked out Create Digital Music, you absolutely should; his writing on music and technology is essential.
House music eccentric Levon Vincent announced a new album, World Order Music, which is slated to arrive November 22 on his own Novel Sound label. He says that the LP combines “euphoric dance sounds with techniques pioneered by the older minimalist composers,” and has shared a short preview of the record here.
Trouw in Amsterdam was one of the first clubs that I ever fell in love with. Back when I was attending ADE every year during my days at XLR8R, my reviews of the festival/conference often read like extended love letters to Trouw, albeit with some random complaints about Amsterdam’s food offerings thrown in. Nearly five years have passed since the club closed its doors, yet those who had the chance to attend still remember the place fondly, which is why I was very pleasantly surprised to see this new, 18-minute mini-documentary about Trouw surface over the weekend.
Speaking of beloved clubs, Düsseldorf’s Salon des Amateurs is finally slated to reopen later this month after being closed for repairs and renovation for the past year. I’ve actually never had the chance to attend myself, but any place that gave rise to folks like Lena Willikens, Vladimir Ivkovic and Tolouse Low Trax, amongst many others, is a club worth supporting.
Resident Advisor has lots of talented writers, but Tom Faber is the closest thing the site has to a National Geographic reporter. For his latest piece, he traveled to a remote region of Uzbekistan to provide some on-the-ground reporting of the country’s young Stihia festival. More than just a festival review or a primer for a largely unknown scene, the article provides a fascinating look into a country that most of us know little to nothing about, touching on its society, politics, history, music and man-made environmental crisis. It’s a great read.
NEW THIS WEEK
As always, here are some of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week. I have to admit, a lot of “name” artists have been dropping records this week, which means that the round-up is missing its usual complement of smaller, under-the-radar acts. My apologies to the up-and-comers who’ve been squeezed out; October is just an insane time of year for new releases.
Anyways, click the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.
I recently realized that I’ve been following Jacques Greene for nearly a decade, which makes me feel incredibly old. That said, this Canadian producer has always been a special talent, and his new album Dawn Chorus might be his best record yet. Expanding beyond the sample-based approach of his previous efforts, the album – which is inspired by the post-club, pre-dawn hours which many of us know all too well – is an emotively rich collection of blurred melodies and haggard late-night emotions that sits comfortably at the junction of hip-hop, R&B, house, techno and bass music. Within that context, the LP explores a number of stylistic directions, but “Drop Location” manages to be both epic and a bit sad; it’s a faded rave memory with a rap beat, and it sounds great. The song also reminds me of Shlohmo, an LA producer who I’ve long thought shared some artistic DNA with Jacques Greene. With Dawn Chorus, the two have never been closer together… maybe it’s time for a collaboration? I’m just putting that out there.
If you’re looking for an in-depth accounting of the new Floating Points album, please check out my Pitchfork review. The whole LP is great, but I figure that most people are going to gravitate towards the dancefloor tracks like “LesAlpx,” “Bias” and “Last Bloom,” or perhaps the more chaotic, IDM-tinged tunes like “Anasickmodular” and “Environments.” All those those songs are highly enjoyable, but I wanted to highlight “Falaise,” the baroque album opener. Running lilting strings and swirling orchestral sounds through a matrix of shuddering electronics, it’s an elegant composition that kicks off the record in an impressively majestic fashion.
Anunaku is a new project from TSVI, one in which the London-based Italian seeks to combine different drum sounds from around the world with UK club music. Although the premise is potentially problematic – things can quickly go bad when white producers suddenly decide to experiment with music from the developing world – I have to say that this Anunaku record is fantastic. With its drum-centric focus, it brings to mind Overmono’s Whities 019 EP from last year, or perhaps the percussion-centric sounds of artists like Joe. “Temples” hits especially hard, its clattering drum patterns pairing nicely with the song’s bassy blasts and urgent vocal snippets. Let’s hope that more Anunaku material is in the works, and kudos to Whities for continuing to be one of the best labels around.
Of all the artists to come out of the “post-dubstep” wave of the late 2000s, Joy Orbison has perhaps done the best job of staying relevant while also largely keeping out of the spotlight. It would have been easy for him to parlay the success of “Hyph Mngo” into full-blown stardom, but Joy Orbison took a different path, solidifying his craft while steadily releasing high-quality music. His latest effort is the Slipping EP, which arrives via the Hinge Finger label he runs along with Will Bankhead, and it’s essentially the largest step away from house and techno that the project has ever taken. Although fans of his Dekmantel Selectors compilation will likely recognize the nods to UK street soul and other urban sounds, others might be surprised by the new EP’s varied tempos and styles. In truth, it’s not all my cup of tea, but I have no qualms with “Burn,” a moody roller fueled by insistent, almost tribal percussion and ominously lurking basslines. Simply put, it’s another ace tune from an artist who’s put together a long string of them.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve been following Jacques Greene for nearly 10 years. Well, my history with the music of Daniel Martin-McCormick goes back even further. Back in 2003, I saw him perform as part of yelpy post-hardcore outfit Black Eyes at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco (opening up for Q and Not U, who were also great). In the years since, I’ve seen almost every iteration of Martin-McCormick’s musical output, from the electronic skronk chaos of Mi Ami to his lo-fi house and techno experiments as Ital. These days, he’s going by Relaxer, a project focused on a deep and slightly dubby variant of techno that largely jettisons the overtly tumultuous energy of his past work. That might sound like a coded way of saying that Relaxer is boring, but it’s absolutely not; on the contrary, Martin-McCormick sounds comfortable and confident, even though his new album Coconut Grove was apparently created over the course of an emotionally difficult year. The LP is quality from start to finish, but I’ve found myself returning to the warm and washy synth melodies of “Breaking the Waves” again and again.
Australia often gets short shrift in the dance music conversation, which is sadly just a function of geography, time zones and an electronic music media that’s centered in Europe and North America. It’s too bad, because almost every artist who travels down under seems to come back with glowing reports of enthusiastic crowds and excellent local DJs. Melbourne duo Sleep D has been one of the country’s best-kept secrets for quite some time, and though they’ve released a number of records via their own Butter Sessions imprint, the pair has leveled up for their debut album Rebel Force, which comes courtesy of Anthony Naples’ and Jenny Slattery’s Incienso label. Sleep D has made the most of the bigger platform, delivering an LP that serves up lessons in ’90s hip-house, acid, breaks, chilled house and more. Even during its more lively moments – and there are many – the music often emotes a distinctly chilled, almost psychedelic vibe; there’s a definite kinship with the house music that’s been coming out of Vancouver and Montreal in recent years. “Morning Sequence” is very much in that vein, a low-key, almost Balearic groover that seems destined to soundtrack a sunrise or two.
By now, the story of pioneering disco / hi-NRG producer Patrick Cowley has been told more times than I can count, so I’ll skip the lengthy rehash here. That being said, this San Francisco legend, an early victim of the AIDS crisis who passed away in 1982, left behind a veritable treasure trove of unreleased music. Much of it has been brought to light thanks to the efforts of the Dark Entries label, and their latest collection of tunes is Mechanical Fantasy Box, which apparently takes its name from Cowley’s own journal. Featuring tracks created between 1973-1980, the record delves into a variety of styles, from meandering synth explorations to sweaty disco exultations. The LP’s title track falls into the former category, its percolating melodies and pastel pads floating off into the clouds over the course of seven-plus minutes.
While many labels include long-winded write-ups and artist bios with their promos, Ilian Tape takes a different approach, appending only a single line of clever text. For ISS004, the latest installment of the ‘Skee Series’ from prolific German producer Skee Mask, they’ve come up with the following descriptor: “Unstoppable Fruity Brain Benders.” Frankly, that’s all I really need. Over the past few years, Skee Mask has established himself as one of the top producers in the electronic realm, inventively grabbing elements of the UK hardcore continuum and welding them onto a techno-ish framework. ISS004 is another top-shelf outing that shines particularly bright on “Slow Music,” a strapping breakbeat effort with cracking drum patterns and a hearty low-end rumble that provides a welcome bit of extra dancefloor heft.
And with that, we’ve come to the end of another newsletter. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you liked the tunes.
See you next week.