From the Ruins that Fueled Detroit Techno to the Sound of Suburban Foreclosures
“Imagine a city designed for 4 million people that only less than a million people occupy now.”
—Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance
“While the ruins of the postwar settlement’s architecture – the under-maintained estates, the yawningly wide plazas, the vertiginous new spaces of towers and walkways – elicited aesthetic responses in post-punk and electronic music that matched the starkness, power and modernity of their setting, how do you respond critically to something that is trying so desperately not to offend?”
—Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, The Guardian, 15 October 2010
The once-bustling metropolis known as Detroit was, in a bygone time, the center of the known universe. The epicenter of the American auto industry, Detroit provided the backbone to the economy of a country that would find itself becoming, after the wreckage of World War II, the world’s premier superpower. New York may have kept its cultural and physical capital well-stocked and Los Angeles may have packaged the American Dream as a product for motion picture audiences to admire but, as the seed of industrialization, Detroit was the energy that made that superpower go.
By 1976, Newsweek declared Detroit a “wasteland that already numbers thousands of vacant and vandalized homes”. The plants and the manufacturing base had been hit hard by the energy crisis and were soon to be struck down again by the restructuring of neoliberalization. Unemployment during this period disproportionately affected blacks. Those in the African-American community who could find work for the auto-makers were given more dangerous jobs. Fordism’s model of compensating workers high enough living wages to afford the products they produced was withering under a crippled economy in the midst of a recession. When lawmakers and tycoons proposed postmodern solutions to the damage done in the ‘70s, the effects would ripple for years to come, cresting and ebbing the world economy in and out of crisises until each temporary solution’s bubble popped, raining hellfire down on the people the ruling classes deemed most expendable.
By 1982, Detroit had only half of the manufacturing jobs it had in 1962. White flight, which had begun during the post-war rush to the suburbs and escalated after the racially-charged 1967 Twelfth Street riots, continued as the city’s fortunes declined. At the time of the 1976 Newsweek article, over 800 properties per month were being abandoned. The city looked in part like it had been firebombed, a post-apocalyptic panorama of glutted buildings, scorched homes, broken windows, malfunctioning cars forsaken in the streets, and weeds attempting to sprout through the cracks in the pavement. It’s notable that one of the most unique landmarks still present in the ruins of Detroit is a majestic old theater that was converted into a parking garage. The shiny new cars resting inside a reconstructed relic tell a new story for new kind of theater, the tale of a city whose exoskeleton fell apart as its defining technologic industry continued to breath a life of its own. (“The Ruins of Detroit: Exploring the Urban Crisis in the Motor City,” by Kevin Boyle, The Michigan Historical Review. Volume 27. Number 1. Spring 2001.)
Then, in 1983, a record by a Detroit-based group led off with a track whose chorus commanded its listeners to “Enter the new round/ Enter the next phase”. Although this cut had a proggy vibe and was punctuated by snarling guitars, it was the jaunty and precise synthesizers underneath the guitars that would dominate the majority of the release. Like a parallax twin to the nascent cyberpunk movement, Cybotron’s Enter took this now-familiar image of Detroit as demilitarized zone, and replaced the neo-noir hues with the cold gloom of neon mechanical funk. Cybotron’s Detroit was a city colonized by technology and automation, lock-stepped in perpetual forward momentum by the steady clicks of a metronomic drum machine foreman.
Taking cues from the growing popularity of the synthpop being played on The Electrifying Mojo’s Detroit radio show, Cybotron’s electronic apparatus anticipated the technological obsolescence of traditional music and decided to ride the Third Wave into the future. “The general attitude [in Detroit] with the powers-that-be is that industry must die to make way for technology,” Cybotron’s Juan Atkins would later say, but Atkins wasn’t about to be outdone by machines. Instead, he decided to merge with one, to preach the gospel of cyborg consciousness while remaining critical of the coming onslaught of the incoming information market. “The climate has definitely affected us,” Atkins said of Detroit’s ghost town ambiance, potent historicity, and widely prevalent inequity. “I think that we probably wouldn’t have developed this sound in any other city in America… There is a certain atmosphere here that you can’t find in any other city that lends to the technological movement.” (“Electronic Enigma: The Myths and Messages of Detroit Techno”, Andy Thomas, Wax Poetics. 45, January/February 2011, Create Digital Music.com)
Though Atkins and his classmates Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson had grown up in suburban Belleville, they were all a product of the same racially-segregated housing schema that divided Detroit. It was in the empty spaces of the depopulated city, a place where it seemed like all hope had left, that the Belleville Three saw opportunity as they began to DJ regular dance parties. Using the prototype of Kraftwerk, who had found that the only way to rebuild after the Nazi catastrophe was to create a ripe and unique identity, the progenitors of techno music had a clear vision for the activation of something heretofore unknown. The “Strings of Life” were birth pangs. “Techno City” was a third place whose department of defense was “Off to Battle”. But most primal was the pleasure center (“Big Fun”/”Good Life”), which leveled the forces of class, racial, gender, and sexual difference.
“Tomorrow is a brand new day” a dry robotic voice remarked on Cybotron’s “Clear”. “Clear all this space/ Clear today/ Clear your mind”. In a place where it looked like there was none, three black kids making somewhat amateur music in Detroit had invented the future.
What followed was a remarkable flux. In Detroit and elsewhere, empty spaces began to fill with people. Techno and rave’s venue of choice was the discarded warehouse, the ones that used to house all the things once made in the depopulated cities that these events were cropping up in. As money had shifted from technology designed to build and produce to information technologies, corporations had relocated their factories to places where fair wages and workers’ rights were non-existent, gutting unskilled labor of its primary means of equitable living (that is, until the banks and the credit card companies began distributing loans en masse to people who couldn’t afford to repay them). Raves reappropriated urban ruins (illegally, mind you) almost as a reflexive defiance to the terms of the postmodern economic model. What’s more, by transgressing lines drawn by race, gender, and sexual orientation, techno reversed the tensions that had divided Detroit and other disadvantaged areas, which was significant even if this new heterotopian space was a subcultural blip compared to the larger forces of control and domination.
Fast forward to 2012, where the US is slowly recovering from another severe economic downturn. Techno and dance music’s accelerated drive of novelty and invention has long since sloped, preferring to focus on gradation and variation rather than innovation. Amalgamations of existing styles still result in the occasional new sound, but reverence to those old forms is usually a roadblock to the kind of sublimation that made so many of those original styles so special. In Detroit, techno is still thriving, but its vision of the future is stagnant and date-stamped.
The latest recession caused huge waves, bankrupting large governments and skyrocketing unemployment across the globe. However, while a couple of large companies didn’t make it out alive, most of the largest lending institutions and wild west speculators did not lose their collective shirts, in fact they barely even got dirty. The big banks began reporting profits again almost immediately after the bailout and some have even surpassed their own record profits at this point.
Meanwhile labor, particularly the homeowner, continues to struggle. The national unemployment rate averaged 8.9 percent in 2011, which was down from 9.6 percent in 2010, but still significantly higher than the 8.5 percent rate hit in 1975, the peak year for unemployment during the energy crisis, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Homeowner vacancies linger around 2.5 percent nationally, but spike much higher in some regions. According to the foreclosure tracking agency RealtyTrac, there are over one million homes currently in foreclosure. The FDIC estimates that one in every 200 homes will be foreclosed upon in the future and one in every 624 homes was in a foreclosure in 2011. In Detroit, the number of buildings and homes going into foreclosure per year easily tops the 800 tracked by Newsweek in 1976, and several studies have proven that minorities and lower income families living in rental properties have been disproportionately affected by the housing crash.
Yet, this ruination is not exclusively a working class problem. It has also had a crippling effect on the white collar worker, the “brain” to the former manufacturing base’s “brawn”, proving that Capital’s body without organs needs neither the corporeal nor the cerebral contributions of social democracies to prosper. Suburbs, the miniature cities built on the hill, are now a mishmash of consolidated commerce, decentralized neighborhoods, and marketplacs which resemble nothing so much as Eastern Europe during the final days of Communism, the only difference being the burnt-out halogen storefront logos casting a ghostly shadow over the streetscape. Main Streets were already in a state of entropy from the eviction of mom and pop stores by the big box chains, but now many of those larger retailers are starting to see their own lights dim, as well.
What is the Soundscape of the Occupy Movement?
Those who once saw the closing of the Michigan plants as a just another sign of progress sweeping out the old guard are surely now surprised to awaken in a world that doesn’t look like the one they once knew. Years after offering consent to the delegitimization of organized labor form the Reagan/Thatcher era onwards, the middle class is now forced to deal with the same precarity that the lower castes have been faced with all their lives. With the energy and force of Capital moving into virtual or foreign spaces, what is to become of the physical space of functional buildings? With hundreds of thousands of homes purged of their residents, what’s to stop the suburbs from mirroring the desolate urban blight of Detroit? And furthermore, what kind of music can one expect to emerge from these spaces? And will it be remotely as groundbreaking as techno was 30 years ago?
British architectural writer Owen Hatherley visited the sites of leisure class ruination—luxury community remodels designed to revitalize struggling communities by way of high visibility flair and novelty. Hatherley addressed the way in which these buildings were never really built to last in the first place. “While the modernism of council estates, comprehensive schools, ‘plate glass universities’, co-operatives and libraries was driven to a large degree by socialist commitments and egalitarian politics,” he said “these entertainment centres, luxury flats, city academies and idea stores were driven by exclusivity, tourism and the politics of ‘aspiration’”. Even though this marketing plan seems to have had short-term strategic results, these edifices were Trojan horses—poorly constructed, daftly located, and quickly anachronous. Like some painfully on-the-nose metaphor about neoliberal marketization, they were devised to suggest progress, but built on the cheap without any long-term blueprint for successful maintenance.
Writing on the recent interest in the urban ruins of cities like Detroit, Graham Sanford stated that “Belonging to the recent past, urban ruins evoke a stalled or aborted momentum — a ruptured narrative that speaks of an alternate present or future that was to be, but isn’t. In this respect, the spectacle of urban ruins lends itself to a ‘hauntological’ experience in the way they instill an ambivalent form of nostalgia. And the crux of this ambivalence, it could be said, stems from a sense of dread”. (“Nothing to See Here”, Our God is Speed blog. 02 November 2010 )
It’s hard to fathom many people experiencing this dread as it relates to the luxury parks that Hatherley described above. They belong too much to a past nobody really seeks to return to, a moment of reluctant optimism in a sea of misfortune. It’s perhaps easier to sense this anxiety in the gutted suburbs, where the procession of “For Sale” signs seem to envelop neighborhoods, threatening to take down otherwise unaffected homes via the domino effect.
It’s easy to see ruins as a form of social control. In lieu of putting the heads of enemies on spikes at the entrance to town, civilized industrial societies need only to ghettoize the communities that fail to comply with the terms of the hegemony’s benevolent goodwill to get the message out. In this hypothetical scenario, abandoned buildings continue to stand erect for a functional purpose. They become a museum as caveat, a warning of encroaching collapse.
But our latest ruins do not actually serve the needs of centralized power. In fact, they really only serve to expose the dominant culture’s flaws. Those communities most in ruination are those who have trusted the multinationals to come in and build their tax base and bring jobs to their struggling communities, those who were assured that tax cuts would provide relief to everyone and not just to those already in charge of juggling the fortunes of others. The ugly remnants of vacant Blockbuster Videos and Borders Bookstores are eyesores that remind us of a world many now reject. Houses built in the past 20 years sit on the market because they’re generally understood to be of a weaker and less reliable craftsmanship. In boom times, extraneous property was simply razed over and replaced. Now, nobody is willing to swallow the risk of this kind of investment.
I’ve written as far back as 2008 about music as ruins (“The Texturalists vs. The End of Time”, PopMatters) and there’s a wealth of music today that seems inclined to circumscribe its sonic physicality with a temporal dimension, particularly one that indicates rot, decay, and other forms of entropy. From the embedded cassette warbles of Com Truise to the scratchy 78 RPM friction of The Caretaker’s samples to the surreal occult detritus of Ectoplasm Girls to the Fourth World lo-fi of Sun Araw to the magnetic strip murmurs of VHS Head to the literally deteriorating loops of William Basinski, much of the most venerable underground electronic music has made a case for the sound of decline as an emerging and vital aesthetic in recent years.
If the decayed relics of modernism represented a lost futurism at the advent of electronic dance music, the ruins of today appear to be about the past, a time even the biggest cheerleaders for capitalism don’t expect to revisit anytime soon. Perhaps that explains the backlash against the only music that seems to have anything to say about all this, chillwave/hypnagogic pop. Chillwave seems to lament the loss of the leisure society, as experienced through the candyland of childhood privilege. At times, it seems as if the Altered Zones generation is just clamoring for ephemera, trying to unmask whatever arcane mysticism our formerly fetishized commodities (cassette tapes, brightly colored stickers, hipstamatic-style photography, et al.) have in them, the antidote for a world deprived of all magic(k).
James Ferraro and Daniel Lopatin’s combing of the vast uchronia of YouTube’s undead culture mausoleum seems to give preference to one form of junk food media over another. The first few records by Ducktails (whose name strongly resembles a Disney afternoon cartoon) seem to be nostalgic for the boardwalks of the Jersey Shore, yearning for the quieter, more plaintive splendor of arcades and amusement park rides over the cheap nightclub hedonism of today’s Jersey Shore.
To admonish this retro-gazing would be an unproductive act of negative solidarity, not to mention a dismissive way of undermining the ways in which these forms can simultaneously be critical while confessing a notable sense of loss. Chillwave’s platform is not a return to comfort, just a recognition of estrangement. As part of the first post-war generation to en masse be guaranteed a lower quality of life than its parents, the chillwave generation mourns not only the passing of childhood wonder, but the ways in which commercial oversaturation threatens to crush this wonder for the next generation (this can be parsed perhaps most acutely in Animal Collective’s scene anthem “My Girls” with is plea for “four walls and adobe slats for my girls”).
Rave deterritorialized the workplace, reclaiming the abandoned warehouse and converting it from one of Throbbing Gristle’s death factories into a holy church. This transubstantiation was also an act of détournement, revitalizing a dead artifact and unlocking the hidden potential that its conscripted designers could never see. It took a place of heightened symbolic significance and stripped it of its associative identity. That the derivation of warehouse chosen to represent the music was “house” indicates that the organizers and participants even saw this judgment free environment as a new form of family, making the dance party a domestic event. Intimacy and empathy amongst strangers was not uncommon here either, the motto of peace, love, unity, respect (PLUR) making a decent family crest for any nurturing home.
But what of actual homes? So far no scene has emerged with unscheduled parties erupting at foreclosed homes as a central principle. The noise scene that spawned the post-noise of hypnagogic pop had its roots in the house show, playing in basements and living rooms generous enough to host their windows-shaking rumblings and deal with speaking with the cops afterwards. Even the most nihilistic of noise shows though couldn’t dispossess the domestic sphere of its sentimental purchase. Homes that host shows may become venues of a sort for some, but they never stop becoming homes. The shows only happen there because the homes themselves are welcoming.
Future Shock by Alvin Toffler got plenty right in its prophecy of a control culture whose grip was expanding beyond the physical realm into subconscious or purely symbolic terrain, but Toffler’s idea that the modular man would be less attached to his home as he became globalized, while being true for a certain jetsetting cosmopolitan type, was never realized for the average man or woman of America 2.0. The loss of a home is an intensely personal experience, like the loss of a limb or a loved one. Being inside another person’s house, one could never feel like they completely belong until they move in. One is a foreigner in nearly every single home except their own. Perhaps that’s why the motherly coos of chanteuses like Julia Holter and Grouper’s Liz Harris feels slightly voyeuristic, given the sonic distance each act puts between their voice and the listener’s ear. Theirs is the sound of domestic folk drowned as an opportunity cost, roots haunting but not stalking the present.
The closest mass culture has come to the original warehouse raves is perhaps the Occupy movement. However, whereas the warehouse parties revived dead buildings and the Reclaim The Streets movement attempted to quell the withering of the commons, Occupy’s central thesis involves the colonization of existing spaces. Occupy’s protest is more an act of piracy than reappropriation. It achieves its goals of subverting popular consciousness by being out-of-place in a familiar space. Occupy and the Uncut sit-ins question the legitimacy of the corporate monopolization of wealth by mapping its lordship over a physical and tactile topography and declaring said territory up for grabs again, essentially foreclosing on it.
Thus far, no single musical movement has become the sonic spokesmodel for Occupy, which is probably for the best. Music is more polarizing than politics for many. What would an Occupy music sound like? Ferraro’s opuses to Best Buy and Windows Logo themes, as well as Lopatin’s “echo jams” are both musicks that certainly question the legitimacy of past hierarchies in music. Other artists (Autre Ne Veut, Grimes, Greatest Hits, older Ariel Pink) use cheap new tools to pervert the luxuriant sounds of formerly hi-gloss pop, in the process proving that fantasy pop is no longer a rich man’s game.
These examples are all of artforms that rely on the structures of the past. With the whole of recorded sound accessible with the click of a button, is there even a path to move forward, towards a music that sounds post-ruin, post-capitalism? Does utopianism need to spell an end to history, and thus an end to the creative tensions that make art dynamic and relevant?
When the Belleville Three founded techno out of the ruins of Detroit, they had a vision that industry would grow even larger, even more invasive, and would crack the pavement with new kinds of constructs, for better or worse. Furthermore, they could see that there would be a visible contrast between those left behind in the emptied streets of Detroit and those luxuriating in the posh postmodern condos and lavish skyscrapers. What comes next at this stage in 2012 is less certain. One can only speculate about whether the foreclosed homes will be refilled with families whose basic needs are provided for or not. Or whether the towering monuments to our former opulence will be kept as reminder ruins, torn down, or remodeled in a more modest fashion for functional purposes. Whatever the plan, the current model is unsustainable and its stifling even our means of artistic expression. The Western world is one that’s half-vacated, yet overcrowded, so occupied by the memories of the past that there’s little space to indicate a way forward.