It’s Music, But You Can’t Dance To It, And It Doesn’t Make You Intelligent

About three years ago I received a friend-request on MySpace from a band – normally I ignore these as I have a bit of an allergy to spam, but they nonetheless piqued my curiosity.

The band (I wish I could remember their name) said that they based their compositions around a rhythmic translation of Shakespearian sonnets, using a complicated algorithm to deconstruct the language and rebuild it in the form of music. In the section of their page that describes their genre, was my least-favourite acronym in the music industry – IDM. For those not in the know, IDM is the snooty older cousin of EDM, and stands for “Intelligent Dance Music”.

He wishes he was alive today so he could be making crappy music that he could upload to his MySpace page

He wishes he was alive today so he could be making crappy music that he could upload to his MySpace page

I played the tracks in their MySpace player, expecting to have my mind blown, to have the walls of misunderstanding crumble around me, allowing the truth of the world outside to be seen for the first time. Visions of playing the music to my dad, a life-long Shakespearian connoisseur, swirled inside me – finally here was a way to bridge his world to mine! Here I could disprove the notion that my musical hobby was worthless and shallow – after all, this was the musical equivalent of Shakespeare!

The tracks, as you might imagine, were terrible. Perhaps you might imagine that I built them up too much, that they couldn’t live up to my expectations, and I would have thought that anyway. But trust me, they really were terrible. They sounded like my early experiments with a ZX Spectrum 48k when I discovered the BEEP function, and if the tracks had been mastered at all (which I doubt) they sounded like they’d been mastered from the middle of an underwater cave.

When I grow up, I'm going to be a Roland XP-30 signed by Activa...

When I grow up, I'm going to be a Roland XP-30 signed by Activa...

Normally I’m not one to slag off anyone else’s music. I fully accept that musical taste is a subjective thing, and that no-one has any right to tell anyone else what it is that they should and shouldn’t like. I’ve always felt that I can appreciate a good example of any genre, even if I don’t particularly like it per se. But I’ve never quite gotten on with the whole idea that any genre of music is intrinsically “better” than any other.

I had this argument with James, my former house-mate at university, a fellow student of philosophy. I was in my usual role of devil’s advocate, whilst he was trying and failing to convince me that the works of Beethoven were “just better” than the works of the Spice Girls. I simply continued reiterating my point that any value that music has was placed on it by subjective individuals, and that objectively, music has no value at all.

If I'd been alive today it would have been Geri's singing that made me deaf

If I'd been alive today it would have been Geri's singing that made me deaf

Even the term itself, “better” doesn’t have any recognised increment of measurement. “Better” might mean more popular, it might mean that it made more money, it might mean that it’s been successful for a longer period of time, it might mean that it took longer to be produced in the first place, or that the production techniques involved were more advanced and technical, but usually it means that it’s been more warmly received by the critics and the music press. These are the people who decide what’s hot and what’s not, and it has nothing to do with objective and subjective truth. But like all journalists, they’re at the mercy the PR people and have a need to keep their contacts in the industry sweet, especially those with whom they deal with the most often. As a result, this “public opinion” that they kick-start may often have been pre-scripted and not even bear any resemblance to what they actually think.

“Intelligent Dance Music” is the kind of term that was invented by these same music journalists. I can even understand why they named the genre this way, and I can easily identify the music. What I object to is the actual term itself.

Music is not intelligent. Music can be many things – emotional, colourful, danceable, relaxing, thought-provoking, yes. But music is not intelligent. If music was intelligent, the human race would have been conquered years ago by armies of marching semi-quavers and treble-clefs, beating us down and hitting us over the heads with major chords. Once you look beyond the words themselves, what is actually meant by the term IDM is that this is music that can only be appreciated by intelligent people.

For me, the logical choice is µ-ziq or nothing at all

For me, the logical choice is µ-ziq or nothing at all

There’s something so profoundly patronising about this that I’m amazed the term even caught on in the first place. It’s like it’s supposed to be post-modernist EDM or something, which would explain why I detest it so much. My experience of post-modernism down the years has been one of general disdain, I admit, for the very same reasons. I’d defy anyone to attend the lecture I had to at university entitled “Semiotic Imagery and Post-Modernist Symbolism” and not be aghast at the sheer idiocy I was subjected to there by the tutors. We’d been studying a play by David Hare called “The Secret Rapture”, and in one scene, a character called Isobel enters the room wearing a long mackintosh. To my dying day I’ll never forget my English lecturer trying to justify his view of interpreting this as being symbolic of Jesus returning from the wilderness.

Perhaps the mistake is mine, perhaps it is me that is lacking something, and perhaps I am the philistine in this situation. I’m open to that being the possibility. But post-modernism in general, to me at least, seems to be best described as “art for art’s sake” rather than “art for inspiration’s sake”.

I can admit that there is a certain technical skill to Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”. A stream of consciousness inside someone’s head for a full day, nonsensical words, random sounds, thought tangents – yes, it’s impressive that someone can translate that to paper! My point is that there is none, if no-one is able to read it. I could write a book in a language I invented if I wanted to, but no-one would be able to read it. I could bake a cake with nails and screws in it if I wanted to, but no-one would eat it. So is there any point at all in demonstrating that I can?

Don't be predjudiced! I might be delicious!

Don't be predjudiced! I might be delicious!

Thinking about it, post-modernism is like a dive headlong off the end of a cliff – not for any purpose, but just to demonstrate that one can. Whilst I can appreciate that this methodology might occasionally push some boundaries and discover new techniques, on the whole it is mostly pointless.

The rebuttal to me on this topic usually revolves around the fact that post-modernist art is usually appreciated “on a different level” to the norm. Or, to be less polite, it means that I’m too thick to understand it. This is another reason why I’m turned off by all things post-modernist – there’s an insufferable air of smugness about it all.

Before I discovered the forums at DJ Source, I knew nothing about this new fangled genre-terrorism. I wasn’t even aware that there was a “genre-hierarchy” which has trance quite near the bottom. I didn’t know and I didn’t care, nor do I now. This genre hierarchy, whilst unwritten, is a central theme of so many EDM enthusiasts that it would probably make me weep if I obsessed about it too much. The fact that IDM is often at or near the top of the very same hierarchy, is too depressing to contemplate.

See the bottom of this hierarchy? That's you that is, trance. You're excretion you are.

See the bottom of this hierarchy? That's you that is, trance. You're excretion you are.

I’d consider IDM to be like a musical equivalent of Ulysses by James Joyce – the well renowned novel that, it’s estimated, fewer than one in every 2000 people who start it manage to finish. Yet still it does well in the “best book of all time” polls that come out occasionally – as it has become one of those books that people lie about having read, and probably lie about having enjoyed. All for the purposes of making themselves seem more cultured, more intellectual, and hence more worthy of having an overall opinion.

This is what the term IDM does to people – it allows them the luxury of sneering at all other aspects of EDM as being less worthy. Other than this, I see no purpose in it at all.

Not that genre-terrorism is a new phenomenon by any means – after all, half a century ago or so I’m sure the advent of rock & roll drew scorn from many areas of society for a number of reasons, mainly revolving around the general idea that the music didn’t deserve to be successful as it was undignified or some such, and that it was the end of the world as we knew it. Even now, I’m sure that classical music purists consider the entire spectrum of EDM as some kind of nonsense fad, whilst my experience of the “but they don’t even use real instruments!” retort from the rock community dates all the way back to the late 1980’s.

Who says they're not real instruments?

Who says they're not real instruments?

The truth is that I, like most people, consider their chosen genre to be superior to all the others – I guess it’s a form of territorialism. After all, our musical taste is a major factor in defining who we are and how we live our lives, and as such it follows that people consider their choices to be “correct” or the best. But what I don’t understand is why people can’t grasp that everyone’s tastes are different?

I’ve long subscribed to the idea that the main purpose of art is to create emotion – and that this can work both positively and negatively. Just as there are movies that are intended to make people weep, make them angry about a cause, or make them recoil in fear, the point is that music and art in general is there to make people feel something.

All the music I like, whether trance or otherwise, I like because it provides me an emotional sensation. My favourite tune of all time (Humate – Love Stimulation (PvD’s original love mix) simply sums up everything that I feel about life. Note the pivotal word in that sentence is feel. But how does “IDM” fit into this definition? What does IDM make me feel? Very little, if anything at all, if I’m honest. I can appreciate it on a technical level, on a sound-engineering level, but what seems to emanate from it more than anything else is a sense of smug superiority. The same condescending sensation you’d receive if you sat down on a train with a copy of The Sun opposite someone reading Tolstoy.

Sure, sir, you can sit there if you like!

Sure, sir, you can sit there if you like!

The best term I’ve ever heard used for a lot of what gets defined as IDM is “Leftfield”, possibly in honour of the pioneering artists themselves, but more likely a result of the fact that its’ general approach, as they say, “comes from out of left-field”. IDM in itself is an oxymoron anyway, since dancing is often impossible due to either slow BPM’s or lack of beats entirely. And what’s the point in calling something Intelligent Dance Music if it’s not intelligent and you can’t dance to it?

Even the Wikipedia page for IDM doesn’t do us any favours, it just makes it sound so pretentious. And the awful thing about it is that I know and love nearly every single artist that they name on that page, and nearly all of them are shamed by having to be associated with such a patronising terminology.

You can’t generalise all IDM under one umbrella because it is all so random, and so diverse – it’s just a one-size-fits-all sort of useless expression really, perpetuated by the superiority complexes of those who choose to follow it. It could be drum & bass (which I once hilariously heard referred to as “intelligent jungle”), breaks, ambient, progressive etc – anything really. It’s not even a genre of music in itself at all, it’s just a means of grouping various genres together under one common denominator – the smugness of the artists themselves or their fans. The producers love to experiment, yes, that’s the whole point – they don’t continually make the same kind of music, so why group it all together in some patronising pigeon-hole? Can you not just enjoy the music for what it is?

I've got an IQ of 207 and I listen to drum & bass

I've got an IQ of 207 and I listen to drum & bass

Trance fans could quite easily have redefined a section of trance as “ITM” or “Intelligent Trance Music” at more or less any point during its’ history if we’d wanted to – but we didn’t because the priority for trance fans is not to feel intellectually superior to others, it’s to enjoy the music and the way it makes you feel.

Which leads me nicely onto the only conclusion that can be drawn from all of this. If no one kind of music is objectively superior to any other, then the music that we like is, in itself, irrelevant. What is important though, are our reasons for liking the music that we do, as it is this that defines us, not the genre itself. After all, if you are a person who likes their favourite music because of the fact that it makes you feel wonderful and emotional, it follows that you’re probably a sensitive and considerate person capable of deep emotional connections. However, if you are a person who likes their favourite music simply because it makes you feel more intelligent than or superior to others, well, this probably says more about you as a person than I ever could.

4 Responses to “It’s Music, But You Can’t Dance To It, And It Doesn’t Make You Intelligent”

  1. 1 Anon
    August 13, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Wow this is brilliant. I feel exactly the same way in almost everything you’ve said.

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