MOTZ: DJ Polls and Social Constructs – When Techno Becomes Political

An annual marker of the year rolling to a close, the polling of the RA Top 100 DJ list is a time to reminisce on the year gone by in underground dance music, and to think about who has impressed us most behind the decks. This year, and for the fourth time running, Dixon was awarded the highly coveted number one spot. Dixon’s unrivalled winning streak received a tepid response from some, most notably an article written by Thump (of Vicemagazine) who rather dramatically lamented the results as confirming the rise of conservative techno.” Describing the Dixon as a totem of cultural conservatism – safe choices for safe people, the Thump article viewed his relentless dominance of the RA Charts as signifying the beginning of an epoch of bland, conservative clubbing”.

Describing him as a perfectly fine DJ, author Josh Baines, depicts Dixon as a safe choice but lacking in the galvanising and arousing qualities that are the hallmark of a DJ worthy of the number one spot. He compares a Dixon set to repeatedly watching a favourite film, re-reading a favourite book, or eating a bag of crisps or digestive biscuits; in other words predictable, comforting and boring. This craving for the familiar has dark undertones, according to the article: it is caused by a desire to retreat…within ourselves and within this practise lurks the danger of the marginalization of the unusual, a consequence with both music and socio-economic implications. In the author’s own words: ‘roots among queer people of color that shouldn’t need explaining ever again—will be forgotten, or worse, whitewashed.’’

The piece reaches some ominous conclusions with potentially harmful implications if everything the author says is true. However, while the article has the beginnings of making some valid points, the author’s tendency to exaggerate at best undermines the impact of his article and at worst, puts him at the source of the very hostility he himself denounces.

Identity Politics

The article raises the issue of identity politics in the music industry by drawing attention to Dixon as being a cis white straight male. The RA Top 100 is heavily male dominated, with only 8 female artists featured altogether, and a mere two in the top twenty. A large majority of the DJs listed are also white. Here at MOTZ we will be the first ones to say that more diversity would certainly be welcomed. 

Baines makes the point that the rise of conservatism is inherently linked with identity politics, reflecting the wider world view that cis, white, straight males are valued more greatly due to these non-transferable attributes determined by their genetic make up. The insinuation being made is that Dixon’s victory is not by virtue of his DJing skills alone but due to his conservative appeal, which encompasses his gender, skin colour and sexuality. 

Acting as a watchdog for discrimination is a vital role for journalists in the music industry, but to do so irresponsibly is in nobody’s interests. Diversity for the mere sake of diversity does more damage than good and should acknowledge the plurality of talent that does exist in the industry, rather than being a token gesture. When it comes to judging talent, you listen with your ears and not your eyes. Dixon was not afforded this equal treatment in the Thump article, which indirectly used his superficial features as a form of criticism. The critique levelled at him was a maelstrom of sweeping statements, name-calling and pidgeon-holing, and the closest it came to critically assessing his technical skills was Baine’s through the medium of dance. When was the last time you saw someone going absolutely wild over a Dixon set?”, asks Baines

Jeff Mills, who weighed in on the issue by commenting under the article, makes an excellent point on the issue and accuses Baines of using identity politics as a smokescreen for his lack of technical knowledge on the issue. You realise people who rely on identity politics—especially in music—use this easy way out because they don’t truly understand the technical skill and talent behind what they’re arguing against, right?

The Great Equaliser

No pocket of society is free from prejudice or discrimination but the underground scene has a reputation as being open-minded and unprejudicial.  Describing about the powerful effect of music, “It’s [music] the great equaliser”, says Mills. Taking a look at past winners RA polls, black DJs Seth Troxlerand Jamie Jones claimed the top spot in the years just before Dixon. The repetition of Dixon’s victory (as opposed to any other cis, male, white, straight DJ – of which there are many) would suggest that it is the merit of his DJing ability (as opposed to his politicized attributes) that earned him his accumulation of votes. Mills compares his talent to that of a classical composer. 

The Average Dixon Fan: “He’s always been there, drink in one hand, phone in the other, standing in the shadows at a Hot Creations show.”

Much of the terminology used to describe Dixon is crude, laddish and condescending, with Dixon being described as the DJ equivalent of a sauceless steak served well done. It is glorified slagging rather than musical or political edification, and flies in the face of the author’s own claims of open-mindedness. The condescension is extended to the voters too, with the average Dixon fan profiled as being politically disengaged and musically ambivalent clubber only interested in “having a fucking good time.” This ridiculing caricature, which features too many derogatory labels to list, is the very antithesis of the “safe space” the author champions further on in the article. 

A skewed voting system?

Some of the articles objections are valid but misplaced and would be better answered if the RA voting system and its structures were put under closer scrutiny. The RA poll is open to RA registered members to vote for the top five DJs that appeared in their RA diary. Like all voting systems that are open to the public at large, it is a popularity contest as much as anything else. Flavours of electronic music that push the envelope are invariably going to be a niche interest, captivating some while alienating others, so by definition a conservative blend is more likely to attract a greater majority of people. Branding Dixon as a “safe bet”, or returning to his own rather odd motif, a “sauceless steak served well done”, Baines acknowledges Dixon’s capacity to appeal to a large audience (himself included if his mood is right).

So although Dixon may not be radical in his music selection, by accommodating to the average club punter he is more likely to feature somewhere in people’s top 5 (as opposed to no.1): a foolproof strategy to climb the charts. Dixon’s relentless victory is more-so the product of a skewed voting system as opposed to the beginning of a whitewashed narrative or a conservative era, and the claims made by Baines amount to scaremongering. 

Comparing the RA voting model to the model of the Mixmag DJ charts proves that a difference in selection process yields very different results. The Mixmag annual compilation of the year’s top 20 DJs are chosen by Mixmagstaffers rather than the public, allowing them to make bolder choices rather than crowd pleasers. The list features six women in total, just two less than the RA top 100 overall and Dixon does not feature on the list at all. The overall winner? Veteran, female DJ The Black Madonna. Two totally different approaches and two totally different outcomes. Arguably, the Mixmag chart could be criticized as ignoring the opinion of the hoi polloi club-goers but both systems have their flaws. 

Dixon would not feature on my own list when it comes to top DJs, but it’s a decision I attribute to my own personal preferences in music than anything else. Chances are the Thump article won’t make a dent in Dixon’s reputation but in terms of integrity it is sorely lacking. It displays a rigidity of judgment limited by the false tenet that all mainstream music is bad while all alternative music is good.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        It breeds a different species of close-minded conservatism, insipidly dangerous under its guise of tolerance and freedom of expression. 

We all turn to music to find ourselves, to lose ourselves, to be ourselves. Whatever that means, we should be able to do it free from judgment. 

MOTZ: DJ Polls and Social Constructs – When Techno Becomes Political

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