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"Silly music": Anti-establishment artists are reclaiming dance music's funny side

Artists are using humour to fight back against monotony in music and beyond

  • Jack Needham
  • 14 March 2019

For all its pretentious tendencies, UK dance music was formed with an air of silliness to it. Prodigy anthems took us to outer space with a ‘boing’ and The KLF mocked music industry absurdity to acid house.

The Illegal Rave mixtape series gave us Olympic-themed, Madonna-sampling hardcore in Dry & Roasted’s ‘It’s Like a Dream’, and as compiled by Ian McQuaid in ‘TV Themes In The Rave’, everything from choir boy anthems (X Project's ‘Walking in the Air’) to the Emmerdale theme tune (Hardcore Rhythm Team’s ‘Ragga Clash’) were made hardcore throughout the ‘90s.

Yet this ethos gradually became lost in a haze of superclubs, dressed-in-black Berghain hopefuls and hands-in-the-air human billboards for VIP booths and bottle service. But a shift back to dance music’s brilliant silly halcyon days is happening.

Like it, loathe it, ironic or otherwise, the ‘trance banger’ has popped up in DJ sets from Space Dimension Controller to Denis Sulta of late, and we speculate many of the same people (rightfully) dancing to Young Marco playing ‘Last Christmas’ in the middle of summer were just a few years ago slating Grimes for spinning Mariah Carey in her, let’s say, ’divisive’ Boiler Room set years before. But why is absurdity being freshly embraced in 2019?

“Music today seems strange because the world itself is becoming strange and this fast-changing world feels increasingly like a different place,” thinks the Chin Stroke Records crew of DJ Detweiler and DJ Dadmagnet, who have been dismantling dance music’s status quo since their beginnings in 2013.

They gave Pendulum, Miley Cyrus and the majestic ‘Chariots of Fire’ from Vangelis the panpipe treatment with their ‘Flute Drop’ series and built a Gobi desert tested sandstorm detector powered by Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ - but don’t dismiss them as an in-joke. “What is music the soundtrack to?” they say. “The answer is not memes - it’s zero hour contracts, proxy wars, simulation, it’s the left happily stepping over the homeless to drink pints of Brewdog in Wetherspoons.”

For 2018’s ‘The Eminem Paradox’ DJ Detweiler and DJ Dadmagnet distorted the idea of what a musical format could be, releasing the ‘record’ as an illustrated storybook with no audible music. “We received a violent reaction from many forum users to our assertion that music can be more than just audio,” they say, rather scathingly of how the EP was welcomed by fans. “It’s always important to remember that there are reactionary dinosaurs still lurking everywhere.”

“Who even knows what’s real and what’s satire these days?” say Avon Terror Corps, 16 DJs, producers, lyricists, promoters and soundsystem enthusiasts formed in “the brutally digital spurt gushing out the shattered windows of Castlemead.” Or Bristol, to be clear.

They speak collectively over email - “50% of Avon Terror Corps submitted answers anonymously, 25% of Avon Terror Corps don't think we should talk to any press at all, 25% of Avon Terror Corps didn't respond,” they state.

2018’s ‘Avon is Dead’ reflects this meeting of disjointed minds, a 19-track microcosm of genreless cuts self-described as “medieval visions of the future, breakcore, Westworld (the original film), industrial, the psychogeography of Castlemead, the legacy of shoegaze.”

“We were so lonely, so sad and felt so abandoned. Like birds and animals we look for company and to feel mutually accompanied and loved,” they cryptically explain of how ATC came to be. “It is so boring flying solo, and if we weren't able to laugh at ourselves, none of us would get along.”

For the Kim Jong Un mask wearing DJ Bus Replacement Service, making people laugh is an artform. “It’s important for me to balance the familiar vs unfamiliar or the funny vs straight,” she says.

Gilbert Gottfried reading the draft Brexit Agreement over a Green Velvet track or White Trash Christmas trax are staples in a DJBRS set, mixing B-Boy raps about poisoned food with Phuture acid classics. And yes, she already has a favourite for this year’s Eurovision, 'Hatrið Mun Sigra' (Hate will prevail) from Icelandic industrialists (and bdsm anarchists) Hatari.

“My mission is to figure out what can I wrap it around to make it more palatable, so I can play material that messes with people,” she explains. “Without the techno tracks this crazy material wouldn’t hold together in a DJ set - it’s part carrot-and-stick, part Stockholm syndrome.”

Like DJBRS, rkss brings new context to records you’ve heard hundreds of times. On DJ Tools: Illegal Material, a collection of free remixes, Alice Deejay’s ‘Better Off Alone’ is morphed into a pitched-down, mostly beatless symphony of trance arpeggios, and DJ Sammy’s ‘Heaven’ is diluted to its most euphoric moments.

“There’s a dividing line for a generation who grew up with Daft Punk on MTV when dance music was really mainstream, before I stepped foot into a club or understanding what a club space might be,” she says of the more personal meaning behind her remixes. “But rather than framing [these songs] as a guilty pleasure or something ironic I'm facing the emotions [in those songs] straight on.”

Those ‘emotions’ are found in a spiritual awakening remix of Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’, or for the Vengaboys’ ‘Up & Down’, the subtle critique on consumerism and artistic monotony found in the records’ lyrics - “We are now producing a new, unique record called ‘Up & Down’” introduces the record with a tongue in cheek proclamation.

For rkss, her project is a reaction to what’s become known as Spotifycore. Popularised largely by New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, Spotifycore describes how the streaming service “pushes musicians to create monotonous music in vast quantities for peak chart success,” as described by the Guardian.

“‘Silly music’ is a reinvigoration of the anti-establishment values of dance music,” thinks the donk loving producer Royal Tweedy, so-called in honour of the villain from Chicken Run. “It’s a nonchalant attitude to what's considered socially acceptable in club culture like how you dress or how seriously you’re supposed to take dancing in a room staring at someone playing tunes.”

Harboured through a love of Cher, Soundcloud pages with 5 followers - think Bicep’s ‘Glue’ can’t be improved? Then you haven’t heard the Eminem ‘Without Me’ refit - or private Facebook groups of OFF ME NUT and the Shit Music Group, this “silly music” as Tweedy describes “mutated from a post-Dekmantel fallout” of repetitive line-ups and “the same cratedigger techno.”

“There's definitely been a silly music uprising over the past few years,” Tweedy thinks, and for all our dissection the success of silly may be something altogether simpler. “The question is,” ponders Tweedy. “Are you are going to be the one skulking around the party trying to turn over the tune saying "this is shit", or are you going to be having a M I N T time bouncing off the walls?”

Jack Needham is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Mixmag, follow him on Twitter

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