A Culture of Sensations

Brian DeLeeuw

“So how do you write the history of a culture that is fundamentally amnesiac and non-verbal? Unlike rock music, rave isn’t oriented around lyrics; for the critic, this requires a shift of emphasis, so that you no longer ask what the music ‘means’ but how it works. What is the affective charge of a certain kind of bass sound, or particular rhythm? Rave music represents a fundamental break with rock, or at least the dominant English Lit and social realist paradigms of rock criticism, which focus on songs and storytelling. Where rock relates an experience (autobiographical or imaginary), rave constructs an experience. Bypassing interpretation, the listener is hurled into a vortex of heightened sensations, abstract emotions and artificial energies.

“For some, this makes the idea of ‘rave culture’ a contradiction in terms. One might define ‘culture’ as something that tells you where you came from and where you’re going, something that nourishes the spirit, imparts life-wisdom and generally makes life habitable. Rave provokes the question: is it possible to base a culture around sensations rather truths, fascination rather than meaning?”

This is British music critic Simon Reynolds writing in Energy Flash (published in the US in slightly different form as Generation Ecstasy), his excellent history of techno and house, articulating something I’ve long felt to be true: an inordinate amount of pop music writing addresses the pop music that is the most writerly. Thus we get an endless stream of critical studies of Bob Dylan–Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America is only the most recent high-profile entry–because, well, Dylan is a poet, didn’t you know?

Hip hop recently got the canonization treatment as well with Yale University Press’ The Anthology of Rap, which, through the alchemy of academia and the anthology format, turns great lyrics into “lyric poetry.” While most serious intellectual considerations of hip hop are welcome, it’s unfortunate that this one cleaves away the beats and the lyrical delivery, thereby missing at least half the point. What’s Biggie without the basso profundo flow? Lil Wayne without the sizzurp croak? Public Enemy without the Bomb Squad productions?

Take the voice and the music away, and you’re left with Sam Anderson’s willfully (gleefully?) perverse review of the anthology for New York magazine, in which he attempts to evaluate rappers according to how their words read on the page, which is kind of like evaluating restaurants by reading their menus and never eating their food. When Anderson, who at thirty-three is roughly my own age, writes “I have never, to my knowledge, heard a song by 2Pac, Nas, Lil’ Kim, Lil Wayne, KRS-One, DMX, Kanye West, Cam’ron, 50 Cent, or the Wu-Tang Clan,” I thought my head was going to explode. (Really?  You’ve never heard a Kanye West song?  Is that even possible?  I feel like Kanye is transmitting directly into my brain at this point.) Reading Nas’s lyrics “didn’t excite” Anderson “at all,” which he would never think if he’d just listened to Illmatic like everybody else our age. (For a more informed take on the book, check out actual poet — and Tin House Summer Workshop faculty member – Kevin Young’s Bookforum review.)

Anyway, back to techno. Dance music restrains critics from flexing their English Department-trained critical facilities, which means it generally gets ignored in mainstream pop writing. This despite the music’s status—at least outside of the U.S., where hip hop gets this honor—as the most important (and, certainly, the most radical) musical development of the last twenty-five years. But, OK, how do you write about it? Reynolds’s Energy Flash provides one answer; Tobias Rapp’s Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno, and the Easyjet Set provides another.

If Reynolds offers an enjoyable blend of socio-historical context and fanboy partisanship in his narration of techno and house’s first decade and a half — ending his book in 1998 and expending most of his energy on the UK’s rave explosion of 1990-1992 — Rapp gives us a cooler and narrower, yet no less enjoyable, portrait of the current world capital of the electronic music world: Berlin.

Originally published in Germany in 2009, and reissued in English last year in a beautiful little 500-copy run by Innervisions, a Berlin-based record label, Lost and Sound is an explanation of how (and why and where and by whom) Berlin transformed itself over the last half-decade into the worldwide mecca of techno, with clubs like Berghain and Watergate and Bar 25 drawing pilgrims from the US and all over Europe. The Berlin scene is a fascinating example of the contemporary collision of the local and global, of place and no-place. Rapp shows how the instant dissemination of local music via the internet, along with the advent of cheap intra-European flights, helped to spread the Berlin sound: download and listen to the music on your laptop, then book a seat on Easyjet and experience the music in its indigenous club setting that very weekend. But Rapp also points out that “the extraordinary development which electronic music has seen in Berlin in recent years is inextricably tied to the specific conditions present in this city: without its economic decline, its low cost of living, its liberal authorities and its experienced party promoters who learned their trade in the post-reunification chaos of the nineties, this development wouldn’t have been possible.”

Faced with the difficulty of describing how techno sounds, Rapp mostly takes a pass, focusing instead on the atmosphere, etiquette, and rituals of the club-space itself. These sections read like remarkably detailed ethnography, notes on an impossibly foreign land.  (And what’s most interesting is that this foreign land exists right under Berliners’ noses, a hidden city-within-the-city.) A nimble writer, Rapp effortlessly zooms in and out between the most granular details of a night on the dancefloor and, say, the political and economic realities of Berlin real-estate, or the development of Ableton Live, the music software that makes much of today’s techno possible. The book is precise, almost fussy, clearly written by a journalist with an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject.  For me, a techno fan, it’s catnip, but even for a more disinterested reader, it’s an engaging work of cultural reportage, a look through a new lens at one of the world’s great cities.

Rapp shows us that in Berlin today the answer to Reynolds’ question — “[I]s it possible to base a culture around sensations rather truths, fascination rather than meaning?” — is an unequivocal yes. The strength of both Rapp’s and Reynolds’s books is that both writers found a way to evoke, explore, and share that culture of sensation in words. It’s a remarkable feat, and one that I wish more music critics would attempt.