Techno’s Labor Force, Rock’s Betrayal, and the Birth of the Fascist Groove Thing

Electronic music is post-industrial music. It is the beneficiary of mass production, and as such, it has always maintained a dynamic relationship to manufacturing, technology, and labor, not only socio-economically but sonically, as well. In fact, one of the foundational enterprises for the modern electronic music landscape is a genre called industrial music. Industrial fell out of favor throughout the ‘naughts, though it never exactly disappeared as a sonic referent in various strains of house, techno, or electronic listening music. Its disappearance has as much to do with a commercial misappropriation of the tag itself as it does with the fickle habits of a listening public, but aspects of the changing Western cultural landscape from a manufacturing nightmare to a virtual one make the transfiguration of industrial music all too appropriate.

Now, as labels like Ancient Methods, Downwards, and CLR attempt to reincorporate the most brutalist and atonal aspects of industrial, and the continued mass archival recovery project finds a broad compass of electronic artists who are beginning to acknowledge their debt to early industrial, EBM, new beat, noise, and minimal wave pioneers, it may be helpful to reexamine industrial’s place in the electronic spectrum to determine, as I hope to do in Part 2 of this essay, what “industrial” is in a digital age, what these sonic signifiers tell us about our time, and why artists are identifying with a music that has long been declared- as the title of a Throbbing Gristle album and song puts it- “Dead on Arrival”. Before examining where the culture is as it stands now, it’s imperative to explore how music in response to industrialization originated.

The compulsive repetition of electronic dance music has always aligned the genre’s sonics with manual labor and hence industrialization. Techno’s beats and its pull are explicitly physical. Its drive is actualized through dance, itself a series of repetitive body movements. As functional music, techno always has a task, goal, and objective to fulfill- to move bodies. Without this essential labor, there can be no scene, no community, and no consumption of its ongoing production. On the dancefloor, clubbers and ravers become both workers and consumers, bridging the industrial gap Marx defined as existing between people and their products, and which Toffler predicted would be tightened in The Third Wave. As consumers, dancers are able to discernibly reject products which don’t meet their exacting standard, but as workers it’s their obligation to produce an affect or an energy level that will make a song a viable point of return for the DJs (who could equally be thought of as investors, floor supervisors, project managers, or even CEOs).

The music itself arose as if inscribed upon the urban landscape in New York, Chicago, and particularly the motor city of Detroit, the birthplace and possible deathplace of the American automobile. It’s often commented, somewhat accurately, that techno and house is churned out as if on an assembly line, interchanging melodies and effects as if it were an automated process. Yet, proof of the music’s strategic design does not account for the way in which some tracks become sublime while others are, at best, operational and lifeless. Producers are often called chemists not only because they make music to tap into the psychopharmacology of a listener’s drug consciousness, but because they are often working with elements of a fixed mass, trying to coordinate the right amount of synergy that will make their research and development pay off.

The term “house music” derives in part from a Chicago nightclub called The Warehouse. Besides this factoid, there are innumerable references throughout electronic dance music’s history to factories, power plants, work, slavery, industry, production, technology, transportation, efficiency, and precision. Club music’s connection to machinery is part of why this analogy of labor works. The music’s affects are quite literally programmed into synthesizers or computers, making the end users enact a kind of predetermined ritualization on the dancefloor.

There’s a prevalent notion throughout techno and house music of human beings becoming well-oiled machines, or even merging with machines, a vision in keeping with Kraftwerk’s utopian Man Machine futurism or dignified Soviet toil of Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera. “Better living through circuitry” was a common mantra throughout the ’90s, suggesting a kind of cyborg consciousness at one with the music. Prevalent use of vocoders gave voice to this sentiment and the literature surrounding the movement examined the potential of posthumanism, particularly the development of virtual elements of identity through both altered states and computer technology.

What really unites (wo)man and machine in electronic dance music though is the beat. The beat is both the compositional exoskeleton and the heartbeat. It’s a set of instructions for the body, with the capability of slowing and accelerating one’s own heartbeat, of altering breathing patterns. The purpose of all dancing is to connect oneself to the rhythm. Thus, the music’s theoretical function can always be traced to cybernetics, because dancing about sex, power, image, warfare, identity or consciousness forces oneself to think about the mechanics of those things, how they operate as a complex network of interloping processes, just like the music.

The beat also represents the allure of control, as well, and it’s this that tends to keep rock music at bay. Techno and house music creates a controlled environment that traps inhabitants in a cage of the music’s making. Surrounded on all sides by the beat, electronic dance music is hardly rhizomatic. It forces you to become either a participant (a laborer) in its agenda or a passive observer (an inactive consumer) of it. The DJ’s goal is one of control, which he or she attains by establishing a rhythm, thus controlling the clock, programming the pacemaker for everyone in the room.

Rock music, on the other hand, paints itself as anarchic, with a perpetual stake in the independence of the human spirit. It prides itself on being unhinged and uncontrolled. In the ’60s, rock even propositioned itself as a counter-culture, extrinsic to the forces and demands of mainstream society and certainly surrogate from the desires of capital. Perhaps the reason why rock ‘n’ roll rejects techno so readily, even as it welcomes former nemeses like hip-hop into its fold, is because rock’s central ideology involves the essentialist doctrine that every human being is capable of being free, whereas techno is intrinsically compromised, at best set adrift on a sea of beats.

Yet, rock ‘n’ roll in actuality is just as controlled an environment as techno, the product of steady studio hands and schedule micromanagement. Musically, there are myriad conventions that define much rock music from the exact timing of bridges and drum fills to the containment of a guitar solo to a certain number of bars. The use of a limited palette and the hierarchy of singer to players are all ideologically hidden factors that precipitate a very specific affect, even if rock fans come out of the experience feeling less jailed than they may have had they attended a rave.

Plus, as the vision of perpetual adolescence, rock is frequently a series of power grabs, attempts to take power back from parents and adults, from lying cheating women, from competing bands, from corporations and government, from religion, and from the standards of what an adult male should behave like in public. It prides itself on being uncompromising, thus never willing to cede control.

Rock’s rhetoric about avoiding commodification rarely denotes an actual battle against the commercialization of the music. Rather, this language usually signifies a contention over who controls the commodification. Deep down, rock knows, as techno’s industrial aesthetic admits, that music is only weaponized when its more dangerous and transgressive qualities are absorbed en masse, which can only be accomplished whilst using the avenues provided by capital. Rock’s role as an arbiter of independence then actually becomes a championing of solipsism, outwardly inclusive and intrinsically exclusive.

Rock’s ideological stance post-Dylan was a kind of proto-Marxist populism. Rock worked hard to maintain its status as a working class music in the spirit of its Americana forebears- blues, folk, and country-western. Yet, it’s perception of the working class was decidedly narrow, as is commonly the case when trying to define a people en masse. After all, is there anyone more culpable than rock ‘n’ roll for the currently vogue idea of a “real America”? As the ’70s teetered on, roots rock continued to champion the blue collars of ’70s boogie bands or troubadours like Springsteen, while post-psychedelic music simultaneously won acclaim with opulence and extravagance (Yes, Genesis, ELP) or theatrics (Kiss, Bowie, Elton John).