The fourth element
Jane "Felizitas" Dark weighs in on genre, sonic form, and social content over at the corner of Frere and Jones. An intriguing theory, it's more or less on the mark, but to get there it ricochets off some soft targets.
As loathsome as the term "Intelligent Dance Music" is for reasons both aesthetic and ideological, it's always been my understanding that the phrase is at least partially rooted in Warp Records' Artificial Intelligence compilations, which conjured the idea of music made by sentient machines. I'd be curious to know, because I've never seen a definitive citation: which came first, Artificial Intelligence or the term "Intelligent Dance Music"? (It's entirely possible the album title derived from the then-nascent appellation, but I can't say either way.)
It's true, of course, that "IDM" is an insipid idea. Countless critics have pointed out that it automatically posits itself as the other to a strawmannish "dance music" which is a priori "unintelligent," and the discophobia I've seen on the IDM listserve over the years suggests that the very existence of the term helps to propagate this prejudice.
But Felizitas makes a leap when she argues that hip-hop was IDM's primordial foil, the original bogeyman, as opposed to techno or disco. (And I'm not just saying that because Autechre claim to have been B-boys back in the day; I find IDM's latter-day enthusiasm for old-skoolisms as nauseating as I suspect Felizitas does.) The tools Felizitas singles out as core components of hip-hop, the turntable and sampler, weren't really IDM's original instruments. IDM (let's say: the Black Dog, Autechre, and Aphex Twin, as reference points) evolved out of the machine music of Detroit techno and Sheffield bleep; it was a music of grooveboxes and, later, software patches, but never so much of the cut'n'paste methodology of hip-hop. (Obviously early hip-hop and electro privileged drum machines and arpeggiators as well, but that's not the point Dark is making.) Some IDM did foreground sampled and chopped beats, of course, like Squarepusher's drill'n'bass carpal-tunneling abuse in step-time of the command-V function, but I'm still not sure that's enough to make him an Elvis.
As a biographical note, I thought hip-hop was "real music" long before I thought techno or "IDM" was, but that may just be more proof that ass-backwardness is historically conditioned. But it also makes it hard for me to accept the necessary linkage between the music sometimes called IDM and the ideology behind the name.
IDM is a tough partner for a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-genre, simply because IDM isn't exactly a genre. It's one of those genre/not-genre things that plagues us in the memetastic era of accelerated information and formal slippage. Almost absurdly nonspecific, the term is a kind of umbrella covering any number of sounds that listeners want to position against a debased opposite. These days, through received wisdom and reification, IDM generally refers to grainy, schizophrenic (and yet strangely rhythmically impoverished), masturbatory software experiments that go tizz-a-whack-a-chikka-chikka-bzzzzz-skiflapple-narg, often to the accompaniment of a plaintive four-bar melody. (I'm sure there's some good stuff, too, but I haven't heard any recently.) It's a lot easier to define what IDM isn't (deep house, hard techno, Hot 97 hip-hop) than what it is.
But the sins of IDM, as identified by Felizitas, are the sins of reception, no? IDM itself is sort of a fake genre, a transparent overlay fans use to map a prejudicial worldview onto a complicated pop landscape. Few artists have ever called themselves "IDM," and it's a stretch to blame the artists whose work gets branded as such for the whitewashed tastes of its self-avowed fans. (Surely not every white kid who picked up a sampler and/or laptop after, say, 1989, grew up denouncing hip-hop as "not real music.")
But this whole essay is sort of going the wrong way. My intention isn't to defend IDM – because I hate the term and, for the past several years, 99% of the music that gets identified with it. Instead of an argument with Dark, then – because, mostly, she's right – I offer what I hope will be a useful complication: genre and their reception can open up a rift that creates supplementary social content. Musicians create sonic form and certain elements of its social content, but as critics, publicists, and fans add other elements, the social form gets awfully blurry. Perhaps a theory of genre needs to address where the genre ends and its caricature begins, or in other words, what is the scope of genre itself? How do you measure the mixture of sonic form and social content (or sonic content and social form) in such a way that it pours out into a single pint (imperial, if you will) of genre?
A few related questions:
Are there always racist undertones to exclusionary aspirationalism? Possibly, though race and class get mixed up here. Let's not forget that Detroit techno's middle-class originators favored European synthpop, dressed in GQ fashions, and named their clubs things like Charivari, in the effort to distance themselves from black underclass aesthetics. So perhaps hip-hop was always a foil for techno, though it's a complicated relationship.
Was the shortlived "intelligent jungle" movement mainly a response by select whitefolks to a largely black jungle scene? Intelligent jungle/artkore/etc, as much as they opposed the "artless," thuggish vibe of common-denominator jungle, were championed by artists like LTJ Bukem, Alex Reece, etc., which makes me suspect that in this case "intelligent" wasn't expressly a racially coded term. Simon Reynolds has written extensively on the plague of "progressivism" that besets all vital underground cultures, but I don't recall if there's a racial component there.
Oh yeah, I'm back.