Over the second half of the 20th century, developments in technology and globalization have deeply affected music, in its production, performance and public consumption. As the entirety of culture has become commodified, music and sound have been no exception; through electronic music, the boundary between experimental music and pop has become blurred. One of the major effects of this is that the roles of sound and composition themselves have taken a sideline in music to affect, brand and utility. Since the 1980s, music is more important than ever, but less as an art form in its own right than as an instrument of politics and socioeconomics. One can see this in the overwhelming multitudes of genres that have emerged as if out of nowhere in the late 20th century, in the spaces in which music is consumed, how it is funded, and the nonspecific places (i.e. other than radio or musical media) where it appears. Over the course of a long project that began with Beethoven, music has completely exited the realm of the beautiful, where visual art still attempts to assert itself, for the sublime. This is not to say that sound and music will be exalted here over any other art-form as more populist, accessible, or meaningful; they are simply the primary focus of this investigation.
Experimental instruments and musical genres have been developed more rapidly than ever in the last century. This is not unique to music; as Walter Benjamin very famously pointed out in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form. […] The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality.” With the sudden proliferation of forms and styles of sounds offered by new streamlined processes of artistic production, these tools and affects of production have become the centerpiece of contemporary music, more so than composition. This development harkens back to the ambient synthesizer compositions of the 1960s and can be traced through Kraftwerk's machine-fetish to the almost painfully-minimal techno of the mid-to-late 1990s. Naturally, many have responded to this trend with a counter effort against this sort of gear obsession and elevation; take, for example, the “liberated” chainsaws, jackhammers and garbage cans of Einstürzende Neubauten, the un-playing of John Cage's “4'33,” and Meredith Monk's stripped-down yet complex choreographed vocal pieces. Works like these attempt to do away with the cult of the object and draw attention back to artistry, composition and performance; at the same time, they actively dismantle the myth of the genius or author, as articulated and deconstructed by Benjamin in the aforementioned essay and Roland Barthes in the essay “The Death of the Author,” by creating work that anyone could play, that relies as much on composition as improvisation, that works against classical or “highbrow” musical theory, conventions, and the traditions of the academy.
The battle of the senses is a point of both fixation and ridicule for a certain kind of theorist; one can endlessly argue which of the five human senses is most something, even knowing fully well that there is nothing to be gained from crowning one sense the winner. Yet, Dasein, the relational existence of human beings, is negotiated through the senses; it is through these processes that culture takes shape. All modes of communication were not created alike, and each sensory channel serves its own purpose--purposes which evolve and adapt over time and environmental change.
When one sense becomes overloaded with noise, another has the opportunity to sneak in more influence. Much fuss has been made about image overload in late capitalism, but where does that leave sound? If the image serves to overwhelm, to manipulate, to distract-- in short, to stop one in their tracks and draw attention, then perhaps the role of sound is to move.
Electronic music, even in its more digestible form of dance music, can be a powerful tool for critique, not just of culture itself but the larger systems and modes of production which govern it. However, because of its nature of requiring some sort of popular acceptance in order to be canonized or even recognized, this music and its critique occupies a precarious position and therefore tends to be incorporated into that which it critiques before any radical change can be enacted.
This text aims to be an inquiry into 20th century Western electronic music, particularly in its relation to the evolution of capitalism in Germany as well as the United States and the United Kingdom. It is not necessarily an attempt to prove an argument, but to find grounds for forming one. What is experimental music? When successful, is it experimental only within its field, or in a greater cultural context? Can music still be experimental, or is this a movement that, like any other, eventually reached a logical conclusion?
I will explore these questions through a chronological framework, starting with postwar Germany and ending in the same geographical location—post-reunification Germany. Detours will be made to Detroit, Chicago, Manchester and London along the way. This investigation is motivated by the question of where music and modes of production intersect, not just in mainstream or popular culture, but even on the fringes of music and the culture surrounding it.
Our story starts at the end of the 1940s in Germany-- or what used to be called Germany. At this time and place, sounds and names began their rise to prominence in making sense of the world, through a struggle to define identity and boundaries with a shifting, unstable dictionary of names and categories.
The region known since 1990 as the Bundesrepublik Deutschland is entirely different from the country which bore the same name for 45 years prior. That BRD existed in opposition to the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (commonly known as East Germany) -- a unified front of Western capitalist forces to match the Eastern Bloc's westernmost outpost. Names are important, and their significance is often lost in translation. The Cold War-era Bunderespublik Deutschland was initially officially called West Deutschland by its eastern counterpart; however, before abandoning hopes of reunification in 1968, Eastern authorities insisted on using the alternate name Deutsche Bundesrepublik (DBR) in order to avoid suggesting that West Germany had more claim to “Germany” than the East. The initialisms BRD and DDR were briefly used as more neutral and seemingly-equal names for the two states, but the Federal Minister of All-German Affairs disapproved of the equality implied in the analogy between “the Germany” and the East German state and discouraged Western usage of these acronyms. The government of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland felt so strongly about distancing themselves from the term “BRD” that they decided in 1981 to discontinue printing the initialism in books, maps and atlases for schools. Simply using the term instead of “Deutschland” or “BR Deutschland” immediately marked one as a communist sympathizer.
In his essential work The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard describes language and discourse as one of the defining characteristics of Postmodernism. Furthermore, he focuses on “the preeminence of the narrative form in the formulation of knowledge;”[…] The narrative form,” he continues, unlike the developed forms of the discourse of knowledge, lends itself to a great variety of language games.” Narrative is flexible; the same story can be told in a number of ways, and the same words can tell similarly many stories. Lyotard also notes that the narrative form follows a rhythm:
“It is the synthesis of a meter beating time in regular periods and of accent modifying the length or amplitude of certain of those periods. This vibratory, musical property of narrative is clearly revealed in the ritual performance of certain Cashinahua tales: they are handed down in initiation ceremonies, in absolutely fixed form, in a language whose meaning is obscured by lexical and syntactic anomalies, and they are sung as interminable, monotonous chants. It is a strange brand of knowledge, you may say, that does not even make itself understood to the young men to whom it is addressed!”
Here, he suggests that rhythm is essential for narrative; sometimes it carries a more pronounced message than the words themselves. Lyotard points out that despite its peculiarities, this kind of knowledge is actually quite common, even reproduced and approximated in “repetitive forms of contemporary music.” This repetition erases time, consigning its linear progression and division to oblivion. Its reference system becomes “contemporaneous with the act of recitation.” This assertion that narrative and its contexts are being formed at the same time is reminiscent of the idea put forth by Walter Benjamin in Über den Begriff der Geschichte, of “homogenous empty time” where each discrete moment is indistinguishable from the one before. Perhaps then Postmodernity is not another historical period but the absence of one—a rupture in linear progression.
This is especially true in the case of East Germans after reunification. For young Ossis, reunification functioned as a sort of biographical cut. Their identities, formed through the ideology which governed their world, were ruptured by the reunification—they were reintegrated into what was essentially their own country to begin with. In encounters with West Germans, they had a new experience of understanding themselves in terms of difference, as the “other Germans.”
You can close your eyes when confronted with aggressive imagery, but how can you defend yourself against sound? In Morgenröte. Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurteile, Friedrich Nietzsche writes,
“The ear, the organ of fear, could have evolved as greatly as it has only in the night and twilight of obscure caves and woods, in accordance with the mode of life of the age of timidity, that is to say the longest human age there has ever been: in bright daylight the ear is less necessary. That is how music acquired the character of an art of night and twilight.“
In this essay, Nietzsche speaks of the effects of sound in more primitive times, but this could easily apply to apocalyptic times, marked by the same desperation, survival-orientation and strange freedom as the prehistoric era. Rarely does such destruction begin in the harsh light of midday, but under cover of twilight or dawn. The aftermath is always silent, aggressively so. The destroyed city is cleared of people—by war, disease, or some other form of disaster. But if history is the study of past events, specifically those related to human affairs, what happens to history without people? Or what if the destroyed city does not lack people, but population—the conglomeration of synchronous bodies forming a singular society? A city still containing all the humans from before the destruction began, but they are no longer the People they once were; their socio-political unifier is gone. Germans become East-Germans; suddenly, they are again Germans. Those who were born East-Germans are for the first time Germans; West-Germans (who in their own minds, were always just Germans) are now no different than former East-Germans. The project of cultural and national restoration did not cleanly merge the two Germanys but rather grafted the former East back on to the West, creating an entirely new Germany.
After the end of the Second World War, the Allies felt it proper to divide Germany's capital of Berlin in a similar fashion to how they divided the country, regardless of its fully-east location. This was a bit bizarre and certainly symbolic of something, but it wasn't necessarily meaningful for the majority of the Eastern Bloc until several years later. In 1952, Stalin declared that “the demarcation line between East and West Germany should be considered a border—and not just any border, but a dangerous one ... The Germans will guard the line of defense with their lives.” As the Soviet leadership drastically tightened border security, suddenly Berlin was the only area left where one could easily cross the border to the West by foot. At this point, Berlin became something much more potent than just another previously cosmopolitan city, now ravaged by war—it represented freedom, escape, and most of all, the collision of American capitalism and Russian communism.
By 1956, the newly-formed Deutsche Demokratische Republik had legally restricted all travel to the West from the East. This was partly in response to a huge spike in East-Germans defecting to the West by any means necessary and partly as an effort in the DDR's ongoing propaganda war against the supposed freedom offered by the West. As Soviet East German ambassador Mikhail Pervukhin put it, “the presence in Berlin of an open and essentially uncontrolled border between the socialist and capitalist worlds unwittingly prompts the population to make a comparison between both parts of the city, which unfortunately, does not always turn out in favor of the Democratic [East] Berlin.” However, it took several years before Berlin's inner border could be truly enforced. The inherent chaos in a border zone being supervised by 4 separate (and in some cases, opposing) groups combined with the dumbfounding simplicity of defecting by transferring trains at just the right U-Bahn station meant that by 1959, over 90% of all defecting East-Germans left through Berlin-- by 1961, over 20% of the East German population was gone. Only after the completed construction of an “Outer Ring” of railways that bypassed West Berlin could East German authorities move to build a more secure and literal wall without cutting themselves off from necessary freight traffic and transport links.
In the summer of 1961, the border was finally sealed and construction on the Mauer began. Suddenly, the Berlin boundary was the most dangerous and highly patrolled part of Germany's inner border. Thus began the famous era of Willy Brandt and JFK, of Mauertote and Death Strips. The wall kept out the influence of the West for East Berlin, but for the rest of the world, the wall became a monolithic symbol of communist tyranny and lethal control. By 1975, the wall was in its fourth and most well-known stage of evolution, formally called “Stützwandelement UL 12.11.” Over 10 years had passed since the border had been shut for good. Many West-Germans, especially those without close relatives in East Berlin, had lost interest in what was going on on the other side of their city. Meanwhile, East Berliners thirsted for transmissions from the other side.
Cultural production in communist societies is a strange thing. Imports come in much slower than they do in the West—how else does David Hasselhoff become the unofficial national icon of a small, until recently communist country's youth generation? Young people, as a segment of the greater population, are crucial to culture and its production—they are both its primary consumers and inspirations. In a society dominated by government-dictated culture, the allure of the forbidden grows tenfold. Western cassettes, records, and films are smuggled in seemingly as often cigarettes, money, and food. Teenagers stay home at night listening to West Berlin radio, making bootleg recordings of songs they like and imagining themselves attending the parties announced by the hosts, where this kind of music could be listened to with other likeminded people.
Hands held over the ears, walls, sleep—sound permeates them all. Even the Berlin wall couldn't keep out sound. All of the most memorable pro-reunification efforts were projects in sound-- from Kennedy's “Ich bin ein Berliner,” to Bruce Springsteen's “Rocking the Wall” concert in East Berlin, which journalist Erik Kirschbaum argues played an important role in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Kirschbaum writes,
“On that warm summer evening of July 19th, 1988, Springsteen had already been playing for more than an hour to an audience fed up with the Stalinist government and its aversion to reforms. He was upset that the local East Berlin organizers tried to put a Communist spin on his concert by labelling it as a benefit for Nicaragua. He stepped up to the microphone and told the crowd why he had come to East Berlin: “I'm not here for or against any government,” Springsteen said, speaking in German. “I've come to play rock 'n' roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.” It was an unforgettable moment in East German history. Almost everyone between the ages of 18 to 45 saw the concert live, watched it on a delayed TV broadcast, heard about it or read about it. That generation still raves about it today.”
Springsteen's concert was yet another in a series of iconic American men speaking out against the Soviet regime in favor of the supposed freedom offered by the West—and it would not be the last. On New Years Eve of 1989, as the wall was in the process of coming down, Hasselhoff (the singer and actor best known outside of Germany for his role on TV series Baywatch) performed the song “Looking for Freedom” at the wall from inside a bucket crane. For many East Germans (especially those not particularly interested in Springsteen's rock music), this was the true defining moment of liberation; it was Germany's number-one single for 8 consecutive weeks and went platinum. If Hasselhoff came to East Berlin looking for freedom, then pro-reunification East Germans were ready to deliver. However, the question remained—how does one explore freedom in during a process of national restoration?
On 9 November, 1989, the apocalypse began to take hold. Egon Krenz had succeeded Erich Honecker as leader of East Germany just a few weeks earlier and his government decided to allow for refugee and private, round-trip travel through the East-West German border. These regulations were supposed to go into effect the next day, but East Berlin party boss Günter Schabowski misunderstood this last clause and announced on national television that it would go be “effective immediately, without delay.” As soon as ARD news anchor Hans Joachim Friedrichs announced the news later that evening, East Berliners immediately began to gather at Berlin's six checkpoints and pressured the guards to open the gates. The East German authorities were unwilling to issue orders to use lethal force, so the greatly outnumbered soldiers were unable to prevent the floods of citizens from pushing through. At 10:45pm, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße crossing relented and gave the guards permission to allow the Ossis through without identity checks.
Accounts of this night depict everything from euphoria to utter confusion. Many had anxiety that by going to look around West Berlin, they wouldn't be allowed back into the East. Others flocked to family in the West who they'd been cut off from for decades. Yet, for a part of the city's population, the news was simply dumbfounding. For those who weren't watching television or out in public, it took considerably longer to learn the news of the wall. In Der Klang der Familie, an oral history of dance music in Berlin from the late 1980s through the mid-90s, many Easterners describe their hesitation and confusion towards the news. Johnnie Stieler, a cofounder of the influential Tresor club, was at a congress of the first Allgemeiner Studierendenausschuss groups in Leipzig when someone ran in with the news; the congress continued, but Stieler ran home to Berlin at his first chance.
The Kantian Sublime (Erhabene) is first and foremost elevating; contemplating that which is absolutely large (Größe) lifts the imagination “even above nature.” In reading Kant, Burke and Schiller, one comes to understand an emphasis on the sublime in and against nature, humanity, and embodiment. Whereas the beautiful celebrates the total vanquishing of a threat and the supreme rule of taste, the sublime is frozen, staring that threat directly in its face. It is is uncanny (unheimlich) and almost creepy: a disfiguration. The sublime does not come out of a lack of beauty’s attributes, but a deformation of them.
Art is classically defined as the expression of human imagination that is revered for its beauty. Historically, the “highest” or superior forms of art have been static; sculptures and paintings of man and God. If the sublime is a disfiguration of beauty, then perhaps one should go about the search for it in art not in those aforementioned channels but in art which is temporal and less about glory than despair. Over the period between classical music of the 19th century and the industrial music of the late 20th century, the intent of sublime music stays the same, but its manifestation evolves as borders, societies and identity itself morph, intersect in new ways, and at points lose definition altogether. The study of the sublime famously came to prominence in Aufklärung-era Germany; it is perhaps by mere coincidence that since then, Germany has become a sort of microcosm of global conflict, where ideologies are tested against one another and cultures from around the world collide, as if they were philosophical delegates rather than refugees or politicians.
What’s more sublime than terrifying music? The pain and pleasure of loud, intense, emotive music meets the qualifications of “sublime” across the board-- in vibrating the body and physically moving one against one’s will, sound dominates humans. Yet, music is arguably just as much if not more an intellectual experience than a physical one; the body submits but the mind engages. This duality of being physically overwhelmed and intellectually/emotionally stimulated is what makes the intense musical experience a sublime one. In his critical work on the sublime, A Philosophical Enquiry into the origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke writes, “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible, but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience. “ Where Burke considers that which is truly terrifying to be sublime, Immanuel Kant specifies that what is sublime should be fearful without making one actually afraid of it. Kant calls this specific flavor the “dynamically sublime,” as opposed to the “mathematical sublime”-- that which is overpowering in its own boundlessness.
When music is found to be sublime, it tends to fall into the category of dynamically sublime. Ludwig von Beethoven is often cited as an example of the sublime composer; 19th century critic E.T.A. Hoffman wrote, “Beethoven's music stirs the mists of fear, of horror, of terror, of grief, and awakens that endless longing which is the very essence of romanticism.” This sentiment was echoed by Richard Wagner in an essay commemorating the composer’s (Beethoven’s, not Wagner’s) birth: “Surveying the historical advance which the art of Music made through Beethoven, we may define it as the winning of a faculty withheld from her before: in virtue of that acquisition she mounted far beyond the region of the aesthetically Beautiful, into the sphere of the Sublime.” Here, Wagner presents the sublime as something beyond the beautiful, as if it were a state existing on a higher plane. While ideas of elevation and being beyond something are intrinsic to the sublime, Kant would likely disagree with this evaluation of the sublime music as somehow better than the beautiful.
Though successive philosophers and writers often treat the sublime as more powerful and complex than the beautiful (by which they are not necessarily incorrect), Critique of Judgment positions the beautiful as something higher in aesthetic hierarchy than the sublime. The experience of beauty is subjective, yet universal. As Jean-François Lyotard interprets Kant in The Postmodern Condition, sublime art can “please only by causing pain.” Unlike the beautiful, which appeals to taste (which is experienced as pleasure through its “capacity to conceive and the capacity to present an object corresponding to the concept” according to Kant via Lyotard) the sublime appeals to a certain rift that emerges “when the imagination fails to present an object which might, if only in principle, come to match a concept.” Lyotard gives the example of knowing what the idea of “the world” is but having no capacity to show an example of it, a “case” of totality. Similarly, “we can conceive the infinitely great, the infinitely powerful, but every presentation of an object destined to “make visible” this absolute greatness or power appears to us painfully inadequate.” The sublime, being that which is beyond representation, form or boundaries, cannot be made visible. Lyotard goes on to discuss how an aesthetic of sublime emerges in postmodern painting, yet this is in some ways still a conservative reference for the sublime in art. Abstract painting is still an attempt to render the sublime as something tangible. A formless artwork is still bound by its physicality.
Here it becomes essential to consider music and sound with equal weight as art and film. Music criticism is in some ways a more fraught field than its visual art counterpart because of the problem of pop. Visual art, or to be specific, the visual art deemed worthy of criticism, has and continues to be firmly situated in the intellectual sphere. Art is generally only visible in institutions or homes of the wealthy; therefore, its discourse is only relevant to a specific subsection of society. Music, on the other hand, has managed to escape the cage of the highbrow. Composers of the baroque period made undeniably influential and beautiful music, but it was almost entirely produced for nobility or the church during a period of extreme opulence. Music’s purpose was to be reverent, beautiful and danceable. Beethoven, born at the end of the baroque period, also had several patrons from the German and Austrian nobility, but in the classical period, of which Beethoven was a leading participant, composed music became more publicly accessible. The form of opera emerged and orchestral concerts were open to the public. Exactly 50 years after Beethoven’s death, the phonograph was invented and composed multi-instrumental music finally made its way into the everyday living room. The new accessibility granted by music’s media of reproduction was something visual art didn’t quite have, perhaps allowing it to retain a certain prestige in its “uniqueness.” From here, the split between popular music (U-Musik) and serious music (E-Musik) began to grow more visible.
So, what does this all have to do with the sublime? To start, the shape music takes, or lack thereof, is much more open to the possibility of the sublime than visual art, which is historically encumbered with physicality. Music is often created through a physical process, using the body or acoustic instruments to create sound, but that sound is only music in the moment it leaves its originator and dissipates into air. Furthermore, no matter how it is generated, music is made of sound-- not a material like paint or metal but a vibration. Sound is formless; it is pure motion. Its very nature is sublimely intangible. It cannot be detected without an arbitrary medium like air or water.
Beethoven marks a new direction in music not just because of his accessibility but also his content. From the beginning of his career, his music was notable for how it expressed emotions, rather than just tonal beauty. However, the fact of his tinnitus made his later work truly remarkable. Beethoven’s sound medium, his ears, completely failed him. He could compose scores and even play them, but he literally could not hear them. Whatever sonic vision he had of these pieces in his mind had more in common with images than music because they were not sound; furthermore, they were certainly not sublime, because they were human approximations of the inconceivable. Yet, Beethoven was practically the model of Kant’s sublime experiencer; only in his body, dominated by nature, could he pioneer the project of sublime music. As his hearing began to fade, Beethoven moved away from making work strongly influenced by preeminent Baroque composers Haydn and Mozart and began to create compositions expressing notions of heroism, struggle and failure. In his personal life too, Beethoven demonstrated such singular, uncompromising behavior that his most supportive patron the Archduke Rudolph decreed him an exception from the rules of court etiquette.
Yet Beethoven has been dead for nearly 200 years now. What has become of the musical sublime since then? Here, we must return to the problem of pop in music criticism. Though academic music writing has persisted, as art music continues to be made and has evolved into the current categorization of “postmodern classical,” music which deviates from the classical tradition, whether in instrumentation, composition, or performance style, has almost altogether been left behind. Pop music continues to be generally perceived as anti-intellectual and thus is still rarely reckoned with on an intellectual level. Few writers have risen to prominence in writing histories and analysis of pop music, even as music outside the canon continues to grow more innovative and and expressive than new classical works that adhere to centuries-old protocols.
By this logic, it seems most pertinent to look for a successor to Beethoven’s legacy not in Neoclassical music or experimental music born and developed in a petri dish of academia but somewhere on the edges of art-- music that in its very nature explores and transgresses borders. After all, in The Sublime and the Beautiful, Burke emphasizes the significance of obscurity in the sublime, citing a poem by Milton in which “all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree.” Burke is interested in the obscurity produced not by lack but proliferation, a mind pushed out of itself because it is too crowded with images. Infinity, another source of the sublime, is born not by the addition of 1, but through a similar inconceivable excess. This excess does not only create confusion-- it reinforces that which is already there. Every repetition towards infinity gives new strength. The disfiguration of the sublime does not destroy what was once there but extends it, infinitely, to new dimensions.
In the 1980s, postmodernism was at its peak. The Cold War was reaching its ultimate escalation as the process of globalization began to accelerate alongside rapid advances in technology. The 80s were marked by a general anxiety, culminating in the explosive events of 1989. The tension of this era was singularly defined by boundaries-- their formation, negotiation and dissolution. By the end of the Second World War, a great paradox emerged, one directly connected to the sublime-- what is “the world,” after all? How can it become something cohesive? The United Nations, perhaps the most well-known “global” organization, was only founded in 1945. Today, the idea of one world may seem perfectly natural to us, but until a few decades ago the opposite was true. As World War II was reaching its end, global trade and finance were being drastically and quickly reconfigured for the new world that would be shaped by the war’s outcome. After several centuries of total dominance, Europe’s stronghold on mass economy was slipping. Since 1978, China’s economy has grown at unprecedented rates. In 2014, China was nearly tied with Europe for total international trade. Furthermore, the regional boundaries and identities determined and imposed by European colonial governments were being overthrown all over the world by their former subjects. From Northern Africa to Southeast Asia, one by one, Western European colonial governments were being overthrown by their captive populations. One of the most prominent byproducts of this period of global change was widespread instability of cultural identity. The palimpsest, the papyrus which has been (incompletely) erased and written over several times, has become a popular model to describe the cultural identities of postcolonial societies. The postwar and postmodern agenda is in part the removal of the imperial boot-print from non-European society-- the recovery of what lay beneath. In some ways, it is an erasure and attempt to impose order which runs counter to the excess and over-determination of the sublime.
However, as borders and externally-imposed structures were being dismantled, new ones were springing up just as quickly. The quintessential example of this is East and West Germany. As punishment for the atrocities of World War II, Germany was chopped in half by its conquerors: the West was quickly granted sovereignty in exchange for joining NATO in 1955, but the East became a flagship state of the Soviet Union. Here, in the former Germany, the ideological battles of the Cold War played out. Nowhere was this schizophrenic climate felt more than in West Berlin, the country’s former capital. West Berlin was a literal island in East Germany, to the point that the East German government would not consider it a part of West Germany; it was an enclave of political freedom, but its citizens were not recognized by the Eastern Bloc countries surrounding it. It was excessively divided in zones and sectors established as a temporary measure at the end of the war. These once ephemeral boundaries were made legible and tangible by the Soviet government through physical walls and military enforcement, yet Westberlin had the highest population of Cold War-era Germany. Evidently, there is some allure to the sublime conditions of living in a city among eternally expanding and collapsing boundaries.
The cultural output of Westberlin comes mainly in the form of music and film; in fact, many of the more influential artists of Cold War Berlin worked in both medium. Einstürzende Neubauten, a group that continues to work today, is a prime example of how the sublime made itself known in this time and place. Einstürzende Neubauten (which translates to “Collapsing New Buildings/Constructions” in English) was founded in 1980 by Blixa Bargeld, N.U. Unruhe, Gudrun Gut & Beate Bartel. Gut and Bartel left the band not too long after its beginnings to form their own group, Mania D. and become veritable leaders of the “Geniale Dilettanten” musical movement to which Neubauten also belonged. Meanwhile, Neubauten (as the lengthy name is commonly shortened to) grew to include a teenage multi-instrumentalist, Alex Hacke, and two members of short-lived but influential Hamburg post-punk group Abwärts, F.M. Einheit and Mark Chung. Here already, one can notice a marked difference in artistic conventions from the days of Beethoven. The idea of named music groups or bands came to prominence sometime in the 1950s, but by the late 1970s, pseudonyms were being used by people on every level of creative production (as opposed to just by pop stars or bandleaders) and often had political implications. In addition, these pseudonyms would even sometimes shift over time or change for different applications. Though a seemingly inconsequential development in creative identity, here the influence and expression of the sublime can already be seen, in this remediation in formal named society.
Neubauten’s first homes weren’t Beethoven’s concert halls but Autobahn underpasses and construction sites. The group took inspiration from their Berlin surroundings and the state of flux of postwar German identity. The symbolic meaning of their chosen collective name was given a weighty real-life analogue when in May 1980, a few days after the release of the group’s first single, the roof of the Kongresshalle-- a 1957 gift from the United States-- collapsed, killing one and injuring many others. However, Neubauten’s fascination with destruction (and reconstruction) did little to establish them as a fringe or obscure group-- over little more than half a decade they became so successful that they represented Germany at Expo 86 in Vancouver, performing alongside some far less philosophically-minded acts like Liberace and the Beach Boys. It wasn’t just Neubauten’s ideology that distinguished them from other well-known groups of the era; the group famously eschewed conventional instruments in favor of metal plates, electric drills, metal cutters and circle saws as sound sources. Though their concerts slowly lost their riot-like feel as their audience grew, Neubauten continued to blur the line between tools of physical construction and tools for shaping sound and ideas. With them, sublime music evolved from the expression of emotion and struggle for humanity through concert music to a whole new level, where even the very instruments of expression are interrogated and lose definition in every sense.
The goal shared by the Geniale Dilletanten artists was to break down all musical conventions, while interrogating social and political conventions in the process. In this pursuit, the artists had much in common with American painter Barnett Newman and the ideas expressed in his essay, “The Sublime is Now!” as interpreted by Lyotard. Lyotard interprets Newman’s titular declaration as referring not to this now, the present moment, but the endless stream of simple occurrences, die Ereignisse in Hegel’s words, that lead one to ask at any given moment, “What now?” The movement of the sublime must exist on this flat, surface level of being-- its “now” (as Newman suggests) dismantles consciousness in its resistance to creating a hidden depth. In a logic which perhaps runs counter to Kant’s, the sublime is the resistance to elevation and exhalation; it is instead an intensification. It is the somehow pleasurable anxiety of waiting and not knowing what or if anything will come next. The threat that give rise to the sublime is not death or natural disaster but the possibility of no answer to “what now?”
This fear of temporality is in some ways uniquely American, Newman suggests, therefore giving American artists some sort of advantage in the vanquishing of beauty for the sublime. He writes,
“I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how, if we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime, if we refuse to admit any exaltation in pure relations, if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art?”
Newman offers an answer in the form of the narcissism or self-reflection that those without history tend to excel at. Without the “impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you,” Newman’s ideal artists are free to make “cathedrals” out of themselves and their own feelings, leaving the paradigms of ‘Christ, man, or “life’” behind.
Though the project of postmodernism is arguably at its end, the questions and uncertainty it raised persist. Within Germany and Europe as a whole, the climate has grown more schizophrenic, as citizens battle over whether borders should be dissolved or fortified, avoiding the real question of the future of the European Union. Einstürzende Neubauten continues to perform internationally just as Beethoven’s compositions can still be heard in living rooms and concerts halls across the world. Meanwhile, a new crop of musicians has risen, to reckon with the sublime in a way appropriate to 21st century. Music and pop culture continue to be symptomatic of their time, but perhaps the goal of sublime art has evolved to be not just a confrontation with one’s own self but a confrontation with time and temporality. Beyond using “inappropriate” instruments for making music, today’s artists stretch and accelerate time in their works. They go beyond Roland Barthes’s “death of the author” to disfiguration of the author, editing and distorting themselves in the same manner as their music. The sublime may be “now,” in the continuum of moments, but how does it change when time can be flexed, looped, and resampled?
As the project of communism was being played out in the Eastern Bloc, West European communists were rethinking Marxist theory in response. One of the most influential works to come out of this was Louis Althusser's 1970 essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.” In the essay, Althusser redefines the conception of ideology proposed by Marx and Engels as the representation of the imaginary relations of individuals to their real conditions of existence. Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects; in this way, it produces subjectivity as an unconscious disposition, for it is the presupposition that allows one to make any sort of declarative statement about themselves—ideology makes itself known as soon as one says “I am.”
By the same logic, one can understand ideology not a byproduct of capitalism or a tool employed by its despots and oppressors but the “unconscious, lived relation” that gives capitalism any sort of premise or possibility of being. As Althusser writes, “The ultimate condition of production is the reproduction of the conditions of reproduction.” Ideology's interpellation of subjectivity is what produces the labor power—the attitude of laborers towards labor and the labor market—and gives capitalism its regenerative work force. As Althusser puts it, subjects of ideology “work by themselves.” Here, however, Althusser cautions against making the same mistake as Marx and Engels in perceiving ideology as a “false consciousness;” rather, ideology is a new reality, in that it must determine other things, or make things happen. “Ideology is not an aberration or a contingent excrescence of History,” explains Althusser. “It is a structure essential to the historical life of societies.” Ideology naturalizes the world; it is “relatively autonomous,” thus explaining how individuals are interpolated by multiple subjectivities which contradict each other. This subjectivity can only be shook through the critique of ideology, which “interrupts” the subject-- to break with ideology, one must read it symptomatically.
The notion of the symptomatic reading is brought forth from Marx by Althusser in Reading Capital. Of the difference between the young and late Marx, he writes, “Such is Marx’s second reading: a reading which might well be called ‘symptomatic’ (symptomale), insofar as it divulges the undivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same movement relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first. … what distinguishes this new reading from the old one is the fact that in the new one the second text is articulated with the lapses in the first text.” In other words, symptomatic reading, as performed by Marx, means reading not just what is present, but what is therefore necessarily absent in a text. Symptomatic reading, in taking into account both the positive and the negative prints, so to speak, of a text, allows the reader to reconstruct the framework or problematic that made the text possible in the first place.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Detroit rock bands like MC5 and the Stooges formed a bridge between left-wing and Marxist politics and “pop.” Both hailing from the auto-manufacturing city of Detroit, MC5 and the Stooges gained a following not just in the punk world but also among certain young avant-gardists, energized by their performances utilizing household appliances like blenders and vacuums alongside more conventional electric guitar and percussion. In addition, the members of MC5 were deeply involved in radical politics and cofounded the White Panther Party, a far-left, anti-racist group that served to function as a Black Panther Party support group and was a member organization of the Rainbow Coalition of radical socialist groups in the 1960s and 1970s United States.
The sound and ideas of the Detroit punk scene was influential far beyond the confines of the Midwest, or even the United States for that matter. In 1973, two conservatory-trained musicians took inspiration from the “adrenalized insurgency” of those bands to form their own robotic, futuristic musical persona as Kraftwerk, with their album Ralf und Florian. Two decades later, the Detroit-based musician Derrick May observed that “Kraftwerk was very culty, but it was very Detroit too because of the industry in Detroit, and because of the mentality. That music automatically appeals to the people like a tribal calling…It sounded like somebody making music with hammers and nails.”
This was not the first time Detroit had proved influential to European musicians. Motown soul and funk music had a tremendous impact on the European music scene just a few years earlier with Northern Soul, “a strange seventies North of England cult based around sixties sub-Motown dance singles from the Detroit area.” Critics such as Diedrich Diederichsen and Alexander Weheliye are quick to note the influence of Motown not just in the UK but in the rest of Europe and Germany in particular. After World War II, a number of GI discos continued to operate for the (often black) American soldiers who lived in Germany through the Cold War years, giving black music a channel through which to spread within mainstream German culture. Kraftwerk did not just look to the white punk music of Detroit, but also its Disco and R&B scene for inspiration; in fact, they even hired longtime disco and Motown (and black) engineer Leonard ‘Colonel Disco’ Jackson, “an experienced black mixing engineer from Los Angeles, to work on their 1978 album die Mensch-Maschine.”
Friedrich Kittler describes the entertainment industry as, “in any conceivable sense of the word, an abuse of military equipment.” When Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the most innovative and influential (as well as controversial) composers of the 20th century began his experiments with electronic composition, his primary instruments were filters, amplifiers, and oscillators “made from discarded US Army equipment.” In the 1980s, the evolution of these kinds of tools culminated in a shift in music culture occurred that surely would have amused Althusser. The production of popular recorded music evolved to a much more streamlined process. Since the early days of recorded music, the standard practice was the producer and engineer tweaking and embellishing the performances of live musicians in a studio filled with costly, high-tech equipment. However, the rapid evolution of the synthesizer suddenly gave producers the freedom to work independently and more affordably; no longer did one need to hire and coordinate a small orchestra to have a string section on a song-- just rent a string synthesizer for a fraction of the price. Sampling freed producers from having to be reliant on temperamental vocalists to add a “human” touch to their synthesized compositions. Just like that, the solo producer-musician was born.
As wisely pointed out in the film High Tech Soul, the physical similarities between postindustrial Detroit and postwar Nordrhein-Westfalen (the home state of krautrock) likely played a part in informing the relationship between techno movement and its German predecessor. Both regions deeply felt the effects of shifting political and economic structures, as Nordrhein-Westfalen’s location in the new West Germany gave it a certain “Western” privilege even as new state borders were imposed on the region by the British in 1946 (and some cities were even absorbed by Belgium); similarly, several decades later, white flight transformed Detroit into an empty city at the center of sprawling rings of suburbs, where remnants of industrialization were more visible than their human operators.
Kraftwerk took inspiration from Detroit’s largely white (though politically anti-racist) punk scene to create trans-humanist music; the futuristic, sometimes fantastical narratives of their songs and performances were woven around the very real invasion of new technology into the industrial workforce. At the end of the 1970s things came full circle as Kraftwerk began to inspire scores of Detroit-area teenagers who’d become accustomed to hearing their parents tell stories of “working with robots” in the center of the Midwest’s evolving “technological base.” Kraftwerk’s “Teutonic rigor and glacial grandeur plugged into the Europhile tastes of arty middle-class black youth and fired up the imaginations of three high school friends—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, who together invented Detroit techno.”
Juan Atkins is widely regarded as the father of the new style of music that emerged from early Eighties Detroit. He has come to be known by the nickname “the Originator;” his Belleville, MI high school classmates and musical contemporaries Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, are called “the Innovator” and “the Elevator” respectively—together, they make up “the Belleville Three.” At the age of 19, Atkins released his first record with Rick Davis, another classmate, as Cybotron. The record, Alleys of Your Mind, was soon followed by a full-length album, entitled Enter. Their music was a huge success locally, with futuristic lyrics that resonated with their peers who’d grown up in an emptying city. The chorus of the record’s title track, “Enter,” goes:
Enter the new round
Enter the next phase
Enter the program
Techno-fy your mind
We are just dreams and space
Stranded in this funky place
No transport out of here
I guess we have to put away our fear
The idea of being trapped in a “technofied” zone was a favorite theme for the group. Another song on the record, “Cosmic Cars,” appears to be very directly inspired by Kraftwerk’s first big hit, “Autobahn.” In “Cosmic Cars,” Davis sings “I wish I could escape from this crazy place/Fantasy or dream, I’ll take anything/Suddenly surprise, right before my eyes/All I see are stars, and other cosmic cars.” The lyrics of Cybotron are the dreamy anxieties of two precocious young adults, simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the anti-humanist changes sweeping their city. Some of their songs are a little more down-to-earth; for example, “The Line” takes a hint from Kafka as well as the slowly emerging unemployment crisis in Detroit.
Enter’s cover art, as well as its lyrical tone, is representative of what would come to be known as Afrofuturism. The phrase, coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay Black to the Future, broadly describes a framework for rethinking blackness in relation to ideas of the alien and utopian/dystopian futures. Afrofuturism presents a counterargument to the idea that racial and economic inequality is connected to limited access to technology—the “digital divide.” This association constructs blackness “as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress.” Contrary to this critically dubious claim as well as the techno-utopian and neoliberal argument that identity formation outside of history or historicism can be some kind of end to discrimination, Afrofuturism holds that history should remain a part of identity, particularly in terms of race. “In the colonial era of the early to middle twentieth century,” writes influential cultural critic Kodwo Eshun,
“Avant-gardists from Walter Benjamin to Frantz Fanon revolted in the name of the future against a power structure that relied on control and representation of the historical archive. Today, the situation is reversed. The powerful employ futurists and draw power from the futures they endorse, thereby condemning the disempowered to live in the past. The present moment is stretching, slipping for some into yesterday, reaching for others into tomorrow.”
Afrofuturism turns techno-utopianism on its head, by reclaiming history rather than disavowing it. This is consistent with the general spirit of SF, or science fiction, which Afrofuturism often overlaps with. It is common knowledge that science fiction is more often a critique of the recent present than an actual prediction of the future; rarely is this clearer than in Samuel R. Delaney’s novel Dhalgren. Delaney “first emerged as a prodigy in the sixties,” writes Sam Anderson, “one of a loose band of young writers sometimes referred to as sci-fi’s “new wave,” whose work helped to push the tradition away from robots and spaceships toward deep questions about race, sexuality, and identity.” Dhalgren remains Delany’s best-known work; Anderson aptly describes it as at its core, “meditation on the nature of cities: how they live and die, cohere and fracture, nurture and consume their citizens.” In the introduction to the 1996 edition of the novel, SF author William Gibson writes,
“To enter Dhalgren is to be progressively stripped of various certainties, many of these having to do with unspoken, often unrecognized, aspects of the reader’s cultural contract with the author. There is a transgressive element at work here, a deliberate refusal to deliver certain ‘rewards’ the reader may consider to be a reader’s right.”
This idea applies in much the same way to the radical, SF-inspired music of the Belleville Three and their contemporaries. Albums like Enter present postcolonial critique pop. “African social reality is overdetermined by intimidating global scenarios, doomsday economic projections, weather predictions, medical reports on AIDS, and life-expectancy forecasts, all of which predict decades of immiserization,” points out Eshun. “These powerful descriptions of the future demoralize us; they command us to bury our heads in our hands, to groan with sadness.” Through this lens, the socioeconomic satire in “The Line” gains new significance.
“I got into line, and waited to see
What the bureaucrat would do with me
Then his ice cold eyes foretold my fate
I knew I had arrived an hour late:
“What's that you say?
No jobs today?
I see you next time right here in the line.”
This text goes beyond Kafka’s hopelessness in the face of bureaucracy; Atkins and Davis are not just ordinary citizens, but African diaspora repeatedly worn down by systems designed to keep them “in line.” Eshun cites the London-based group Black Audio Film Collective’s 1995 film The Last Angel of History as a particularly eloquent “exposition on the convergence of ideas that is Afrofuturism. Through the persona of a time-traveling nomadic figure known as the Data Thief, The Last Angel of History created a network of links between music, space, futurology and diaspora.” The model of the Data Thief suggests a notion of a “black secret technology” which completely undermines any idea of “digital divide” or similarly oppressive and oppression-reinforcing theories of postcolonial blackness or marginalization.
Thus, one must return again to the emergence of digital technology for music making and their ability to scramble identity assignment “and thereby racialize music. Familiar processes of racial recognition were becoming unreliable. Listeners could no longer assume musicians were racially identical to their samples.”
This development was not unique to the emergent techno/dance music community. The related “politico-spiritual movements such as Black Christian Eschatology and Black Power, and postwar politico-esoteric traditions such as the Nation of Islam (NOI), Egyptology, Dogon cosmology, and the Stolen Legacy thesis” had a similar impact in the more mainstream world of hip hop. Public Enemy, “the foremost hip-hop act in the United States, and thus the world” in 1989, was closely (and sometimes notoriously) associated with the NOI. Though Public Enemy and other like-minded groups like De La Soul and 2 Live Crew worked in a different context and made music for a different audience, the way their politics motivated the music mirrored the techno artists of the Midwest and proved that Afrofuturism was far from a fringe movement. Though hip hop instrumentals at this point in time revolved less around synthesizers than samplers and the use of other “consumer electronics (most famously the turntable) as tools for production, rather than reproduction, of music.” The methodologies of New York hip hop and Midwestern techno would soon find a shared fan base in the emergent European rave scene, but would the politics behind the technology survive the transatlantic jump?
Until the Middle Ages, the jongleur, the folk entertainer, was a vagabond, condemned by the church; drifting through villages and countries, performing in private residences, he independently organized the circulation of music within society. “The consumers of music belonged to every social class,” writes Jacques Attali in his seminal text on music and and mode of production, Noise: the Political Economics of Music. “Peasants during the cyclic festivals and at weddings; artisans and journeymen at patron-saint celebrations; and at annual banquets, the bourgeoisie, nobles. […] The same musical message made the rounds, and at each of these occasions the repertory was identical.” Here, Attali locates the origin of pop in the universal, almost-generic, people's music of the jongleur. Pop is inherently contemporary; it is zeitgeistlich music. The unanimous appreciation of pop creates the highest order of organization in society-- no subculture or subgroup can remain unexposed to it.
“In this pre-capitalist world in which music was an essential form of the social circulation of information,” continues Attali, “the jongleurs could be utilized for purposes of political propaganda.” However, as they were not permanent employees of the courts but independent agents, the content of propaganda, ideas and information shared by the jongleurs was at their own discretion. This meant that jongleurs were not simply spectacles, separate from inter/active society, but participants, shaping ideas and transmitting information freely. “The feudal world, with its polyphony, remained a world of circulation in which music in daily life was inseparable from lived time, in which it was active and not something to be watched,” echoes Attali.
However, this all changed very quickly between the 14th and 16th centuries. The jongleur gave rise to the menestrel or minstrel-- from entertainer to functionary. As the musician was lowered in status to a domestic, he also lost his nomadic nature. “He had settled down, attached to the court, or was the resident of a town,” explains Attali. Minstrels who were not employed by nobility formed guilds which adhered to the same protocols as those of craftsmen or merchants; “in exchange,” writes Attali, “they demanded and won a monopoly over marriages and ceremonies, shutting out the jongleurs, who were independent musicians.” This shift locked the new musician in a very limited position-- from here on, the only way to be a musician would require selling oneself “entirely and exclusively to a single social class.” At this moment, the fluid realm in which the musician operated began to splinter. Musicians could no longer move through classes and communities, carrying information and cultural exchange back and forth; each individual musician became a functionary of a single community. Prior to this, categorizations such as folk music hardly seem necessary, as when everyone engages with the same music, it is all Volksmusik. But why the sudden change? How did music start to become regionalized and class-specific?
When considering what other changes were occurring in Europe's social and economic structure during this time period, the answer is suddenly obvious. Attali points out that just as “the capitalist system did not immediately replace the feudal system, the rupture between the two musical organizations was neither sudden nor total.” In the dissolution of the feudal system, a persistent hierarchical uncertainty has emerged. Citizens are no longer immutably bound to whatever arbitrary position in society they are born into. For many communities, the potential of upwards mobility afforded by capitalism has been a boon, but the possibility of instead sinking downwards created a new, almost self-imposed subservience. No law was passed demanding that all musicians must henceforth have regional or political affiliation; however, in a society that is governed only by the free, unpredictable circulation of wealth, the musician, the maker of sense, must locate some solid ground-- a vantage point, from which to observe, to assign names, categories and sonic identities. The jongleur is reborn as the DJ.
Initially, rave music was digestible and welcoming; it wove a warm collage of familiar Top 40 sounds that felt new and different, though not aggressively so. Many tracks relied on breakbeats, or samples of rhythmic interludes from old funk and jazz records. Within its original context, the breakbeat is a moment for the human drummer to express without the usual constraints of keeping a beat behind vocals and instruments. However, when isolated and looped at a higher speed or BPM (beats per minute), the breakbeat is transformed into something mechanical. It is taken out of time and instead dictates the terms of movement within and through space. In More Brilliant Than the Sun, Eshun calls this process Motion Capturing, a process that “synthesize[s] and virtualize[s] the human body.”
European rave music emerged as a fusion between the high-concept synthesizer experiments of precocious teenagers in Detroit and the functional dance music of Chicago’s queer club scene. In 1987, the “acid track” emerged—a style “defined by a mind-warping, wibbly bass sound that originated from a specific piece of equipment, the Roland TB 303 Bassline.” The instrument became popularized through Phuture’s “Acid Tracks,” itself the result of “squiggling” around with the machine’s factory-set “MIDI gerbil” sounds over the course of 11 minutes, accompanied only by a drum track. The song and genre got its name from a rumor that at the club where it was first played, DJ Ron Hardy’s Music Box, the promoters had been putting LSD in the water supply to create the venue’s notoriously “intense, flipped-out vibe.” However, acid producers quickly worked to “distance the music from hallucinogenics, claiming that the name was chosen because the 303’s weird ‘n’ wired sound reminded them of acid rock.”
House and techno were not immediately adopted by European and British clubbers. Until 1987, so-called “rare groove” or classic American funk records continued to be the height of cool in the UK while house and techno seemed over-intellectualized or downright goofy. However, as the influence of trips to Ibiza began to sneak into the London DJ scene, it became clear what the missing ingredient was for house’s European success—MDMA. MDMA, or Ecstasy, was “readily available in Ibiza and helped open up dancer’s minds to diverse, “uncool” sounds.” Paul Oakenfold, a DJ originally involved in London’s hip-hop scene, experimented with reactivating this “Balearic” style and concept through a late-night party series called “The Project.” The Project was invite-only, admitting just “150 Ibiza veterans.” The parties were wildly successful and as they grew too big for their venue, Oakenfold started a new party called Future. However, the local gatekeepers of cool remained suspicious. When Oakenfold brought “Philip Salon, doyen of eighties “style culture” down to Future, [he told him] ‘this is the future, this is what it’s going to be like,’” but Salon dismissed the the crowd as “suburban norms.” What Salon failed to see was that the future of so-called “cool” (ie. Anti-Pop) music was in fact deeply populist.
Again, we are faced with the question: what is pop music? Is it so terrible? In On Popular Music, Adorno asserts that the fundamental characteristic of pop music is standardization. Each element of a pop song is comprehensible even taken out of its context. On the other hand, “Serious music,” as Adorno calls it, is characterized thusly: “Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece, which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme.”Adorno gives the example of the introduction of the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—“only through the whole does it acquire its particular lyrical and expressive quality.”
“Nothing corresponding to this can happen in popular music,” argues Adorno. “It would not affect the musical sense if any detail were taken out of the context; the listener can supply the “framework” automatically, since it is a mere musical automatism itself.” With “framework,” Adorno is referring to the affect or style of a piece of music; its effects, its instrumentation, its “veneer.” Thus, to determine whether the music at hand transcends pop, one must ask: is it more than the sum of its parts?
By 1988, house and even, to some extent, techno, were beginning to take hold in a major way across Europe, but Chicago’s time as a utopia of dance music was up. After-hours parties were banned by the police and many key members of the scene moved to Europe in search of better financial prospects. Meanwhile, the masses across the Atlantic had finally caught wise to Oakenfold and his cohorts’ new form of party and rave culture quickly exploded from a small subculture to a widespread European phenomenon. 1989 soon became known as a “Second Summer of Love,” with MDMA taking the place of LSD in mass “consciousness-raising.” The archetype of the Love Thug emerged: “the heartless hooligan turned loved-up nutter was proof that Ecstasy really was a wonder drug, the agent of a spiritual and social revolution.” A side effect of Ecstasy’s new popularity was that it caused intense dehydration, so users avoided drinking alcohol while on the drug and instead consumed soft drinks and water—in the process, normalizing “mass recreational drug culture” for an entire generation of Europeans. “By the end of ’88,” writes Reynolds, “the scene had lost some of its innocence—ironically, partly because of the fresh-faced teenage newcomers who were taking psychoactive substances they weren’t emotionally mature enough to handle.” Meanwhile, the music that this scene formed itself around wasn’t evolving much in response to its new audience. “As a British pop cultural explosion,” notes Reynolds,
“Acid house was unique insofar as it was based almost entirely on nonindigenous music. During 1988-89, the scene had three years’ worth of American house and techno classics to draw on, as well as all the new tracks streaming out of Chicago, New York, and Detroit each week. Faced with this deluge of music made by black American artists, it took UK producers a while to find their own distinctively British voice.”
In the meanwhile, the classic cycle of cultural colonization, that which Afrofuturism itself set out to counteract, went into motion. Raves in the UK grew bigger and bigger, expanding into every available pasture or airfield in the countryside along the M25 motorway. The optimism of rave’s early days soured, as Love Thugs switched to harder drugs, police cracked down on party organizers, and the crowds at the events simply grew too huge to manage.
But what of the music? British producers were slow to find their own way with acid house, and many of the first “domestic” records in the genre were still arguably just rock albums. For example, the Happy Mondays from Manchester had their first hit with “Hallelujah,” which Reynolds aptly describes as “a twisted stab at a Christmas single [in the form of] a queasy merger of rock riffs and studio-programmed beats.” The Mondays and their even more rock-ish counterparts the Stone Roses “endeavored to embody the shambling hedonism peculiar to the brief age.” At the same time in Germany, there was a completely different social climate. Young Germans were not experimenting with Thatcherism or heading to the countryside to rave for 3 days straight—they were about to witness the fall of the Eastern Bloc.
Now, we return to where we began: Berlin, at the end of the 1980s. Unlike in Chicago, here disco was not dead. In the oral history Der Klang der Familie: Techno und die Wende, Thomas Fehlmann of influential Neue Deutsche Welle group Palais Schaumburg cites New York’s burgeoning hip hop and electro scene as a crucial influence, “especially when the experimental and danceable met.” Fehlmann continues, “I found the contigence between punk and hip-hop exciting. For me and the others in Schaumburg, disco wasn’t a dirty word.” Kati Schwind, who would go on to organize the first Love Parades, felt similarly after a year and a half spent in the USA in the mid eighties. When she “came back to Berlin, totally excited about hip hop, all [she] could think was: what happened?” […] Everything was bleak and depressing.” The general feeling was that “music was less something for dancing and more something for suffering, a soundtrack of feeling misunderstood.” Once again, it seemed that the most interesting music was the exports played at the GI discos.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Berlin Wall, the movement back towards dance music was moving even faster through the advent of hip hop culture and breakdance. Breakdance arrived in the East “at nearly the same time as it did in the West.” According to Wolfram “Wolle XDP” Neugebauer, “there were a few people who lobbied [DDR Chairman Erich] Honecker to allow Harry Belafonte’s Beat Street to run in theaters. The movie played a very decisive role. Breakdance was sold as a revolutionary anti-imperialistic culture. The first unofficial GDR breakdance championship was held in the spring of 1984.” (Neugebauer placed third.) Beat Street played all over the East, spreading breakdance and DJ culture incredibly quickly among East German youths. Soon, breakdance battles became common occurrences at the East Berlin center of Alexanderplatz. The police weren’t particularly fond of this new subculture. Another breaker, Arne Grahm, says, “When we danced at Alexanderplatz, 100 people would gather in no time at all. We played with the fact that the whole thing was being watched. You could always recognize the Stasi informants and undercover cops by their hairstyles as they stood there totally inconspicuous.” As hip hop was being utilized for critique of systemic oppression by Black Nationalists in the US, Ossis were adapting it as a way to publicly and nonviolently act out against the government. Furthermore, out of necessity, subcultures in the DDR tended to form a united front, with “punk [going] hand in hand with this popper and breakdance thing.” Even skinheads and football hooligans often felt a certain solidarity with punks, breakers and gay youths, brought together by their common goal of agitating the Stasi. Ironically, to become a working DJ one had to cooperate with a bizarrely strict official DJ training program. The program had 3 levels of classification which determined one’s salary and potential workplaces as a state-certified disk jockey.
As Mauerfall grew closer, Wessis bored of Neubauten copycats and MC5 regurgitations began to gather in a new kind of space, somewhere between a squat and a discotheque—it was a dance party called Ufo, held in a small potato cellar on Köpenicker Strasse, with a 13-year-old resident DJ. The Ufo parties and similar clubs like Dr. Motte’s Turbine were no-frills affairs but markedly different than those of the industrial noise days a decade earlier. “Back then, you banged around on metal containers. Now, a small silver machine from Roland was taking over.” The new music one had to venture into these bunkers and cellars to hear, felt “simply groundbreaking” to many. Schwind remarks that the music “united us all, but you had to defend yourself against all kinds of people who’d immediately declared music dead. The rock people kept bellyaching that the music was meaningless, but for us, it wasn’t—quite the contrary, it created space precisely because it offered no concrete message.” Though the flatness of acid house and its democratizing power held a certain allure at first, the scene around it took off much more quickly in Berlin than London and soon enough, the Second Summer of Love rendered acid house passé for Berlin’s experimental musicians. Motte, Schwind and their peers weren’t ready to give up on the still-new (to them) house music, however, and inspired by the illegal raves of London, organized a party on Kudamm for the summer of 1989, to be registered as a demonstration—the Love Parade.
Motte, Schwind and their cohorts immediately began organizing the event. They gave it the slogan “The World Wide Party People Day – This Year and Forever,” an extremely optimistic perspective on what was gradually proving itself to be a fairly apolitical subculture.
Why apolitical? Rave clearly had some sense of revolution in its Black Nationalist and East German roots, but a few months after the first Love Parade, suddenly there wasn’t that much to revolt against in Germany anymore. After November 9th, 1989, no one was stopping East Germans from listening to whatever music they wanted, moving through the country as they pleased, or simply not having a real job. A movement that seemed to hold particular promise as a unifying force in a divided city and country began to fracture as soon as 1991. The sudden accessibility of Western capitalism was overwhelming for many from the East, and their openness to it horrified others. Arne Graham, who defected to West Berlin a few years before reunification, recalls feeling embarrassed that “the bananas and exchange rate were being celebrated like a goal in a soccer game. For [him], it was the height of moral corruption that in the first election in Saxony, the place where the staunchest Communists always came from and all the civics teachers and Russian teachers, people were suddenly voting Christian Democratic Union.” Johnnie Stieler was disappointed with how happy-go-lucky the West Berlin rave scene, rather than the politically-minded celebrations of innovative music he’d hoped for. Stieler found the “acid smiley” aesthetic particularly troubling. “I didn’t think what was happening around us was so smiley,” explains Stieler, “It was much more dramatic. There was a very particular atmosphere in the city because suddenly, there was a rift in reality.”
After 1989, a new globalism emerged—East and West no longer existed in the same way they had before. The possibilities of transcultural exchange opened up; in a few years, the internet would be everywhere. Guy Debord called “this striving of the spectacle towards modernization and unification, together with all the other tendencies towards the simplification of society.” Debord credits to this the sudden conversion to “the current ideology of democracy—in other words, to the dictatorial freedom of the Market, as tempered by the recognition of the rights of Homo Spectator.
“No one in the West felt the need to spend more than a single day considering the import and impact of this extra-ordinary media event—proof enough, were proof called for, of the progress made by the techniques of the spectacle. […] The phenomenon was duly noted, dated and deemed sufficiently well-understood; a very simple sign, “the fall of the Berlin Wall,” repeated over and over again immediately attaining the incontestability of all the other signs of democracy.”
The emergence of electronic dance music in Germany, just another passing fad in most other countries, happened to coincide with the creation of this tremendous symbol of market freedom, of literally breaking down walls and spending new money. The ideology of early techno and house, of waging war against Western capitalism for economic freedom, faded into an aesthetic that celebrated those very same structures. It’s true that electronic dance music, can be a powerful tool for critique. However, once hijacked by a democratic spirit deeply connected to democratic capitalism, it becomes pop. Adorno, however humorless his critique of music can sometimes seem, warned of this. As electronic music stopped being an experiment in new sounds and became a way to escape—whether from the boredom of mechanized labor or the overwhelming formlessness of the free market—it came to function as a distraction, “bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its “non-productive” correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all.” Popular music is social cement, and if society is structured around democratic capitalism, then pop will hold citizens in place within it. The failure of electronic music to bring about actual radical social change is proof that unless the critique or politics embedded in music/a musical movement is both explicit (undeniable) and robust (resistant to the influence/power of what it critiques), it is doomed to become just another element in that which it derides.