In the preface to her seminal work about the youth club cultures of London, Sarah Thorton enunciates her desire to focus primarily on the composition of the various groups involved in the scene. However, in the first part of the book, she goes to great lengths to discuss, and one might even argue, legitimize, the study of club/dance music. To make the case that dance music and the DJ are only on more stage in the evolution of musical culture, rather than bastardized offshoots, she relies primarily on the perceived notions of authentic and inauthentic.
Just as rock and roll originated in part with the invention of the electric guitar, dance music also arose out of technology rather than innovation in musical form—think romanticism or atonal. On page 29, she cites Firth, arguing that technologies, once foreign, are “naturalized by enculturation,” basically saying that once something beings widely used it “becomes natural,” offering “natural” a different meaning than something that arises from natural world. She goes on to discuss the early opposition to recording artists, that is singers and musicians who made a living playing, for records in a studio rather than for an audience live. Thorton continues this train of thought with a discussion on pg. 38 about the attempts by the National Musicians Union to pass stricter copyright laws prohibiting the public playing of records. This debate largely boiled down to the idea that a “live performance” was more “authentic” than a recorded one, an argument also made by purists who thought the electric guitar was a negative influence on rock and roll as it pushed rock away from it’s folk roots. However, as we now know, perhaps for economic reasons as well as changing tastes in how we like to hear music—the idea that the authentic piece is that on the record and live performances are only imitations—records replaced live bands in many public spaces. From here, it’s somehow easy to see how the person manipulating and shaping the records in a public space, the DJ, eventually became to be seen as a valuable and worthwhile artist. As we enter the 21st century, we see a further expansion of these ideas of authenticity. In just this past week’s column Resonant Frequency, Mark Richardson discusses the role new designer headphones have played on our conceptions of authenticity. Dr. Dre’s new immensely popular Beats headphones are known to shape an original sound into one that places emphasis on the low frequencies common in various types of dance music from electro to hip-hop.
Hence to many, their authentic picture of a song has become not the one played in the studio, but the one they hear through their sonically sculpting headphones.