Electronic music always seems to have had a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to encapsulating real world issues. When you get down to it, it’s probably not that strange, considering that house and techno are rooted – in the eyes of most people – in the decadence of the club. It’s still largely seen as music for a good time, no matter how brutal or debauched those good times are. I doubt many people leave a club at 4AM thinking, ‘Jeez, that DJ really made me think about stuff!’ By and large it’s not what we’re out there for.
There is no real tradition of anything like protest music within electronica. Sure, there are occasional flurries when some overriding sense of injustice compels people to band together to do something. But mostly we aren’t really talking about the music. Rock – a form of music that deals far less in abstracts – has always had that sown up. There aren’t any Bob Dylans out there banging out songs about social injustice on a 303. Of course, lyrics play a major role in rock’s dominance – it’s far easier to get your point across when you have a front man screeching about something he doesn’t like into a microphone.
There are, though, some acts and labels who are heavily defined by how they perceive the world and their place within it. Underground Resistance have long articulated both their rage and their idealism through their own music and that of the acts that they have championed over the years. A while back, celebrity EDM prick David Guetta revealed the depths of his emptiness in an interview with the Guardian when he said “Listen, some people take themselves very, very seriously. I’m not a politician, you know what I mean? You remember in the old days you had people like Underground Resistance?” [a late 80s militant dance collective from Detroit]. He pauses and smiles. “I never took myself so seriously.”
Part of that ‘taking themselves seriously’, the bit which Guetta is mocking, was Mike Bank’s and his cohorts obvious love for their community. From something as simple as the idea behind the ‘Backpack’ festival, in which those attending were encouraged to fill a backpack with school supplies and books to be donated to schools, to their long running desire to help young men from their community to escape poverty and find a better way in the world. Yes, it’s rare to find a band as socially aware (even in rock music it’s not exactly that common any more,) but it shows very clearly that if the will is there, things can be done to help everyone.
But beyond real activism, and outfits like UR, there is still very much a lack of electronic music that is influenced by the problems we all face. I don’t think there is any actual sense of people burying their heads in the sand. Rather, it is difficult to encapsulate many of the issues in modern life through sound alone.
One of the bands I am aware of who gave it a shot were the English outfit Pressure of Speech. Although their output was a bit hit and miss, their 1994 début album Art Of The State was all the more interesting for essentially being a concept album based around the modern phenomenon of the surveillance society. It’s interesting to remember that the record is over twenty years old now, given that the issues which influenced the music are even more relevant than ever. From phone tapping scandals to CCTV’s on every corner, to bullshit like Glasgow’s ‘Community’ CCTV cars (seriously, do other places have these?) and giant internet and social media companies believing they have the rights to your very DNA and private information, we have gone from thinking that this stuff is something from a nightmarish dystopian future to realising it as the truth of an increasingly Orwellian present. If you have nothing to hide, you’ll have nothing to fear is the mantra of the modern world.
It’s this mood that Surveillance captures so well, this feeling of helplessness in the face of anonymous technocrats who believe you don’t even have the right to own yourself. It slowly unfurls; darkened and claustrophobic, wailing synths like distant police sirens coiling around the night, choking dissent at the source. The growing anxiety of the music is punctured here and there by the throb of the beats that serve to accent the rising nausea of barely concealed panic. It’s the soundtrack to a life lived and played out across thousands of smudged screens hidden away in tiny, secret rooms. It’s not a nightmare any more. It’s the real world. Be Pure, Be Vigilante. Behave.