RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE
By Adam De Gree
Music gives voice to value. Listen to the sounds of any culture and you’re likely to gain a glimpse into the hearts of its people. From Baroque odes like The Four Seasons, to melancholy Mississippi blues, compositions make the most private of feelings manifest. Art has a unique ability to map the spaces where words fail.
How, then, should we understand techno? This most serious of electronic genres has kept the pulse of hipster youth for decades. A knowing observer sees its influence everywhere, welling up from the underground to inflect popular genres with a mechanized timbre. From Detroit to Tokyo, artists have proved that this generation revels in industrial sound – electric guitars are for the Baby Boomers.
Yet for all its popularity, techno, with its unlikely suburban Michigan roots, remains enigmatic, difficult to pin down. It’s certainly curious that followers are equally likely to describe the experience in futurist and primitive terms, embracing the otherworldliness of technology while reveling in the raw power of rhythm. In trying to make sense of it all, researchers such as Graham St. John have proposed that the genre is really an atheistic religion. As high priests spin vinyl records, adherents tune in to a primal beat and drop out of the default world. The ecstatic tribalism of techno offers a bright alternative to the destructive tribalism of modern politics.
One of the primary characteristics of techno’s rhythm is its disorienting progression. The best DJs leave crowds swimming in a sea of scattered high-hats and beats that don’t ring quite as true as the subwoofer would suggest. As soon as listeners feel as though they know where the set is going, a subtle shift sends them spiraling into the current of a new track. Coupled with strobe lights and sleep deprivation, it makes for a bewildering night out.
It’s curious that bewilderment is a goal of techno. Even the drugs of choice in popular nightclubs, like Berlin’s Berghain, tend to be dissociative. Tranquilizers like ketamine sedate dancers, while psychedelic compounds encourage a voyage through the unconscious. To the uninitiated, this is a puzzling departure from rationality. Why spend that much time and money on an experience that is notable for its elimination of sensation? Millennials suck at being hedonists.
Of course, there’s more to it than pleasure. The feeling that a good techno set evinces is best summed up as “groundless floating.” Interestingly enough, that’s how the German philosopher Heidegger described modern life. According to Heidegger, the rapid succession of enticing experiences offered by the urban environment makes it easy to drift from one day to the next, accepting the world at face value. Only in rare moments do we pull back from life and appreciate the uncanny nature of all we hold dear.
For the believer, good techno offers a chance to step back and revel in absurdity. Its extreme embrace of technology is a necessary element in a futuristic ritual, one that overcomes “the alienating effect of mechanization on modern consciousness.” By integrating spirit and machine, techno makes this cold modern world a human one, after all.
Yet the formula is problematic. For one thing, any ritual that reduces spirituality to an act of consumption – of a DJ set, or a drug – internalizes the most toxic aspect of modern society. You may be able to buy your way to a good time, but we all know you can’t buy the stairway to heaven.
The history of techno has its paradoxes as well. This genre, more than any other, is associated with the industrial decay that has characterized once-proud manufacturing cities across the West. If art is a manifestation of the artist’s experience, a metaphysical reorganization of the world according to their own value judgments, then techno is the sound of uncontrolled and unwished-for transformation, the howl of an opulent generation baffled by the winds of change.
Detroit, rusting emblem of a bygone American golden era, is also ground zero for techno music. Globalized supply chains and extravagant union demands may have been enough to sink the metropolis without any help from the race riots of 1967. No American city was as tied to one industry as Detroit was to car manufacturing. But Detroit’s role in our own continual cultural history is tied more closely to that of America overall than other post industrial ghost towns, thanks to things like Motown and General Motors.
In any case, the city saw steady decline throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Interestingly enough, this is a pattern now repeating itself across China, where manufacturing hubs are losing ground to Indian and African competitors.
No one doubts that trade and innovation are the driving forces behind a Great Enrichment that just landed a majority of the world’s population in the middle class for the first time. This is nothing short of miraculous. Yet the empty factories and dead dreams that stay behind are also part of the equation. Together, they form what the Austrian economist Josef Schumpeter called creative destruction, the contradiction at the heart of capitalism.
It’s simple enough: economic progress is an evolutionary process, one that is driven by the revolutionary changes of entrepreneurial innovation. Progress is disruptive. Whenever a new invention arrives, it replaces the old way of doing things. We need creative innovation to improve on the past. At the same time, creative innovation upends the status quo.
That means that from some perspectives, even the most beneficial creation can seem destructive. Ford’s Model T decimated the horse-and-buggy industry; the refrigerator destroyed the ice trade. Today, we’re glad that no one has to spend their days lugging huge blocks of frozen water across the city. In the 1950’s, though, there were plenty of ice men out of business.
This dynamic only works if people can pick themselves up and create their own challenges to the status quo. Unfortunately, by the mid-20th century, America had moved towards building a system that privileged established players at the expense of ordinary people, making creative destruction geographically and politically specific, while it’s contradictions played out loud. Without a shot at creativity, moving on may take generations. By the 1980’s Detroit had been hollowed out, its segregation complete. Techno filled the void.
Created in a suburb outside of Detroit by three black teenagers known as the Belleville Three, the genre eventually found a home in the abandoned warehouses that ring Motor City. While other musicians used high-tech recording equipment to create organic sounds, the Belleville Three embraced synthetic noises from the get-go. They had been friends since elementary school and bonded while listening to an eclectic mix of new music like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, Prince, Depeche Mode, and The B-52's.
They dreamed of a future in the great tradition of the Afro Futurists, one free from the definitions of race and class we have come to accept. they believed they were providing the soundtrack to an alternative future—where the people reclaimed technology for the benefit of the community. “A kind of hi-tech soul" is the name Derrick May, one of the Belleville Three gave it, tipping his hat to Detroit’s Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.
From the outset, its philosophical implications were evident. Even the word ‘techno’ comes from a theory – that of futurist Alvin Toffler, whose work was a major influence on the Belleville Three. They were well acquainted with Toffler’s vision of a struggle between the bureaucratic structures that industrialization created, and the futuristic dream of a decentralized utopian society made possible by modern technology.
Thus, techno emerged from a rich theoretical backdrop in a city itself destroyed by what Toffler calls second wave industrialist society. "The Second Wave Society is industrial and based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education, mass media, mass recreation, mass entertainment, and weapons of mass destruction." Hit head on by creative destruction, an American city like Detroit represents its hallmark. Yet what on earth was it replacing?
May puts it this way: “I don’t remember Detroit changing since I was a little boy. I’m now 38 years old, I haven’t seen any change, nothing.” If destruction visited Motown, what about creation? Their optimistic dream of Toffler’s third wave society, one where technology evens out the economic playing field through the elevation of information and political and economic decentralization, has not come to pass, as information itself has only become a new kind of valuable powerful currency.
Today, pulsing electronic beats are a hallmark of club nights on both sides of the Atlantic, and not surprisingly, a city like Berlin is where this art form finds its greatest expression. Establishments such as Tresor, rising out of the formerly Communist East Berlin, host legendary club nights that are whispered of by fans throughout the world. Techno and its ties to futuristic movements always lead back to cities once destroyed. These tribes were formed out of a shared sense of anxiety, ourselves versus the machines, pure primitivist fantasies shouting, “wait, might space be the place?” Producer Blake Baxter says that techno is “a deprived sound trying to get out.” Well, it did.