Print The Legend: House and Yellow Journalism
“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, "elephant is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”
One of the difficulties that has been made abundantly clear through this research project is how to best receive, express, and interpret the narrative history of the music and the scene. More so than comparable “grass roots” movements like punk or hip hop, house’s history is shrouded from view or commonly misrepresented. Indeed, I came into this project under the belief that house was, at least in the beginning, a predominantly gay culture, as with the start of disco. However, this doesn’t necessarily play out, especially when considering the interviews that have been conducted as part of this project.
Throughout the interviews conducted for this project a great deal of disgust has been voiced, particularly in reference to Channel 4’s "Pump Up The Volume" documentary released in 2001. Criticisms suggest the film was misrepresentative of house music and overly simplistic. It ignored aspects of the history, gave too much focus to certain individuals, overstated their contribution, and paid overt lip service to the UK’s contribution (although I’ll concede with the benefit of hindsight the UK was relatively important). There’s no real discussion of post-disco, Italo disco, any real detail on the Music Box or the Paradise Garage, and overly reinforced a connection to British rave that might not actually be as strong as suggested.
It's possible to level the same criticisms of overly simplistic narratives at the pervading stories of both hip hop and punk, especially considering that these (along with disco) all apparently sprang from the ether fully formed in 1970s New York. BBC4's Once Upon A Time In New York, albeit well told, is another prime example of over simplification that attempts to weave together three genres into some cohesive whole without understanding the deep divisions and differences inherent in both the history and the stakeholders of those musics. Founding Fathers (narrated by Chuck D of Public Enemy) even opens with a statement that sums up the problems in studying the roots of genres when they become retold and retransmitted through a lens of hype and yellow journalism (exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering or sensationalism). Plus there is always the sticking point of who benefits from the established, macro narrative.
Perhaps the most problematic figure in the house music canon is certainly Frankie Knuckles. A quick search of this project blog shows just how often the name comes up, and the kind of context that surrounds discussions on him. It’s clear that Frankie Knuckles was important. For many of those who aren’t indoctrinated in these discussions he arguably represents the public face of house music, even to this day. Charismatic and certainly a great self-publicist. I distinctly recall writing an essay on house music at the tender age of 12 for high school music. From the books I had to hand I was only able to say house music began at the Warehouse and was played by Frankie Knuckles. The oversimplification taken as gospel by a 12 year old is something that maintains to this very day, because of the lack of nuanced exploration of house music’s history. Jesse Saunders was particularly vocal on the misattribution of Knuckles’ importance in his interview.
Recently Channel 4 have attempted to perform some kind of exorcism and redemption through their “I Was There When House Music Was Born” 2 part mini documentary series. How much clarity and nuance can you really get into 50 minutes of interviews? It does somewhat address some of the issues presented in Pump Up The Volume, with greater attention paid to Ron Hardy, interviews with much stronger and important individuals (Chip E, Jesse Saunders, Vince Lawrence, Lori Branch, DJ Pierre etc.), and even finally sets to rest the debate about who was first; Mancuso or Siano; Nicky Siano finally goes on records and says he was inspired by visiting Mancuso’s Loft (something that’s been denied or retconned numerous times by Siano).
Studying popular music through any kind of critical lens brings with it these issues. Given that popular music isn’t usually recorded in a way that offers objectivity and subtlety, unlike scientific papers or cartography, means the sources on offer often lack validity and accuracy. The tendency to mythologise, report, re-report, and tweak for maximum impact often leaves the nuance out of the discussion. Yellow journalism revels in sensationalism, representing the world in terms of polemics or overt dichotomy. The history popular music, and particularly house music, is riddled with cries of “legend” or “god father”, even when such monikers may not be deserved. The flip of the argument maybe suggests that these outlandish claims are actually a positive thing for a genre or scene, allowing the spotlight to fall on its best and brightest stars. However, this is entirely useless for critical interrogation.
This implies a question: how does one explore house music without falling foul of sensationalism? The narrative is infected, and even individuals claim greater accolades than they may be due. How do you navigate such treacherous waters? Is it even possible to comprehend what happened in a scene so disparate and full of division? I suppose it is possible to suggest a few trite aphorisms to help sidestep these issues. 1. Don’t believe the hype. 2. Nothing is ever simple or clean cut. 3. Don’t trust any one source. 4. Ask what the source has to gain from making such claims.
As a final thought, maybe the narrative doesn’t matter as much as I believe. Maybe. This study of house is focused particularly on the musical materials of the genre. Perhaps those are the only truthful or reliable records of what happened. They’re dated, filled with information, replete with musical signs and signifiers that can be interpreted or understood as stand-alone objects. However, context will always lend weight and deeper understanding to those objects. So we’re back at the start. Just how do you avoid embellished accounts of what is or was “real”?
The Boiler Room — the populist scourge of contemporary dance music culture representing only the worst Bourdieusian poseur — recently expectorated a 2 minute "documentary" eulogising on the history of acid house. This is a prime example of the distorted narrative I'm discussing in the above post. Barely any mention of Chicago, and far too much credence given to Detroit and Manchester (and as I consider myself a uber-patriotic Mancunian, that's saying something). Again we see the inability to distinguish the acid house "scene" (aka rave) with acid house music. A distinction that Boiler Room seems unable to make at all. Acid house was rave and vice versa. And there's a suggestion that Tony Wilson was more of a driving force in acid house music than he was.
It's sloppy journalism (if you could consider it journalism at all). And if you've got 2 minutes why not cram in less inaccurate interpretation and tell a smaller story? I imagine there will be more addenda to come.