Adam Schatz Talks David Guetta’s Listen
The Talkhouse is where artists talk about the work of other artists. The idea is to promote creative dialogue by having smart, distinguished artists from the world of music, of all genres and generations, write about the latest releases by their peers. And the twist: the artist who’s being written about is encouraged to respond. Each week TIDAL presents one of our favorite new Talkhouse pieces.
Bwop bwop bwop bip bip bip bip bip bip…
David Guetta is richer than anyone you know, unless you know David Guetta. He has made his fortune by making and playing music. When music is tactfully written about on the Internet, the words “dying” and “industry” are usually not far behind. A lot of advice is fired out of cannons and into the ozone layer of healthy discourse, and all the while, the French DJ/producer continues to squabble with his ex-wife over the division of his $30,000,000 estate.
What can we learn from David Guetta? And, as you may also be wondering, who the hell is this guy? If you, like I, have that hunger to know more, then we must first acknowledge the fact that the world is evolving, and we are being left behind.
EDM (or as no one calls it, Electronic Dance Music) is much more than a genre. As a blanket category, it has been thoughtlessly harnessed by the American music industry in the same way that “world music” once was. As a way of life, EDM has been embraced by millions of American children, aged from 12 to 45.
It’s fact time, people. When a culture equals the parody of itself, the result is unfoldable strength. I present two pieces of historical evidence:
An Andy Samberg digital short from Saturday Night Live, May 17, 2014. Samberg commands as EDM DJ Davvincii and holds the peon-like audience in the palm of his hand as his other hand hovers over the mystical bass-drop button.
An uncut, hour-long video of David Guetta’s headlining performance at the 2014 Ultra Music Festival.
That hour-long performance is an incredible sight to behold. The light show is chaotic and exemplary. The size of the crowd is gigantic. And the individual shots of the audience will surely be featured in a National Geographic piece 30 years from now. At the very least, a screenshot of 3:54-3:56 will be slowly panned over in Ken Burns’ Dance, Dance, Dance: The American Revolution.
…Vip vip vip vip wackwackwackwackwackwack vip vip vip vip wackwackwack woowoo…
Most importantly, in watching Guetta’s taped set we see the similarities between it and Samberg’s sketch grow, terrifyingly, too close for comfort. Parody at its best magnifies the absurd qualities of its target. The absurdities of EDM cannot be magnified because they are always as loud and as big as they can be.
The EDM fans who watch Samberg’s caricature will not have their feelings hurt. They will laugh. They are invincible. Sticks and stones can’t break through their quantized happiness. They resume dancing. They are stronger. They have evolved.
The Samberg-hosted SNL season finale attracted three million viewers while the live-stream of the Ultra Festival drew 9.7 million viewers worldwide. These aren’t Nielsen estimates, these are hard numbers: over nine million people sitting in their rooms watching David Guetta do what he does.
“But what does David Guetta do??” we caw, as our flightless wings begin to feel heavier and heavier.
As a DJ, he is a leader, and Guetta wears his crown with pride. The artistry of confidently conducting a party has been cemented to the profession since the first turntables were plugged into a lamppost. Because there is minimal physical movement, it can be easy to ignore, but the manipulation of a crowd’s energy through sound-selection, tempo and transition is without doubt an elusive trait that’s worthy of recognition, admiration and participation… if you don’t have to work the next day.
…Ucka tss tss Ucka tss tss Ucka tss tss Ucka tss tss ree ree raaaaw…
As a DJ, he is knowledgeable. The best ones are. In order truly to understand the environment you’re about to take hold of and shape, you must have a full arsenal of dance music’s history in the brain-bank. And the history of dance music is exciting and charged, continuing today with incredible electronic achievements being released every year to increasing popularity. The best of this music shares qualities and tendencies that are genre-free: development, growth, subtlety and heart. Those qualities (and many others) manifest themselves differently in jazz, black metal, country, rock & roll, Detroit techno or Chicago house music, but they always come through. The greatest music is three-dimensional and allows the listener to call it home.
The EDM fan rejects all of those qualities, and Guetta knows that. When he sees the sea of his subjects in Miami, he knows what he must do: deliver music that is subtlety-free. Loud, simple and event-oriented in 4/4 time. It is seemingly random in a maddening way that drives even the youngest of us to pound our broomsticks on the ceiling. “Keep it down!” we bark, as we struggle to camouflage ourselves from predators.
When our text comes at us in the form of moving vertical columns and our cultural information can be opened in multiple tabs simultaneously, it’s no surprise that these humans are evolving past the point of subtlety. They do not read anything more than once, and so any substance hidden beneath any surface will be missed or willfully ignored. The surface is the place to be, baby. We move quick on the surface and nothing gets us down. The surface is where we rage.
…squeeeeeee vavava rick tick tick squeeeeeee vavava rick tick tick…
Rage is the verb of the hour: When the EDM fans have fun, they rage. The angst in that word is matched by the sinister nature of this music. It is toying with the rager (ragist?), harmonically stagnant or atonal, raising and dropping frequencies and snare activities to initiate life-changing moments at maximum volume. Everyone flips out. Everyone is having the best time. Rage on.
The proof is in the Internet, with resources for the music such as Ragetexas.com and the “Rage Beach Playlist” at Fratmusic.com. And just as the word fraternity used to mean brotherhood, but has evolved into an abbreviated signature for an exhaustingly uncomfortable party culture, “rage” has taken a similar course of survivalist progression. The common thread is that when I hear those words now, I run home.
We are all at home and we are confused. We cross our arms at rock shows, or hold a drink. We feel the new Ice Age coming and can’t believe these kids who are wearing so little will survive.
I am at home and I try to understand. I try not to be left behind.
…Bree bree brap brap bree bree brap brap…
We judge. We are so good at judging. We see the way these kids hold up their cell phones at concerts and we complain about the concerts being a dude with one button who boils down the musical movement to the loudest, biggest, most spoofable traits — which is easy, because, as I mentioned before, it’s all really fucking loud.
David Guetta has a new album and I listen to it alone. I am wearing a sweater and I’m worried I’m going to hear this all wrong. I try not to judge before pressing play, because then I’d be no better than those who write off jazz, black metal, country, rock & roll, Detroit techno and Chicago house as unlistenable before learning how to listen. I never want to stop learning, because then I’ve tricked myself into thinking I know all there is to know. Then I’m missing out on potential greatness. And that’d make me feel like a real dodo.
I keep my sweater on and I prepare to rage.
David Guetta titled his new album (and sixth studio full-length) Listen for a reason and, unsurprisingly, the reason is surface-level. You can imagine him shouting it at his fans, over his own music. This is a pop record and is meant to be enjoyed the way pop music is meant to be enjoyed: throughout your whole life.
The stakes are high, so Guetta does his job: he conducts the experience. I am taken aback at how casually the album begins and have to fight my paranoia about the bait-and-switch. The recurring bass drop is a dirty trick and has no place on a pop record. With the bass drop, you wait. With Guetta’s record, you listen. And so I do.
The dance-pushing intensity really lands in track three, “No Money No Love,” but it’s amongst actual dub influence. My shoulders move a little. There is no mistake: this is an exceptionally well-paced album. I crumple up my notepaper where I take a shit on everything David Guetta has ever done, does or will do. I listen more.
The lyrics are largely horrible.
In the DJ profession’s rich history, verbiage rarely appears high on the itinerary. But this is Guetta’s pop record, and while his fans may be invincible, his music is not infallible. Choruses like “We’re burning up/We might as well be lovers on the sun” seem like a missed opportunity to give Smash Mouth’s Steve Harwell the career resurgence that Guetta’s “When Love Takes Over” gave to Kelly Rowland (proving there’s still room in our hearts for all of Destiny’s Children).
On “Rise” Skylar Gray sings, “There’ll be no need for crying/If darkness fills the skies/we’ll go on forever/like the phoenix/We will rise up from the ashes/This world is ours tonight/We’ll go on forever/Like the phoenix we will rise.” Who are these young people who live forever and run the world? Are they the same ones from that fun. song? Did they remember to vote???
All of these songs credit many songwriters and none of the instrumentalists.
And there are so-called “real” instruments on this record: piano and strings that are synthesized beautifully and sampled clean. Clearly, the art of arrangement has joined the art of pacing at this party. But someone on the committee that writes each song must answer for these lyrics (it’s still unclear how Guetta participates, and we truly don’t need to know). Cher’s “Believe” went through the same process, yet her chorus feels a thousand times more hard-hitting and effective than anything on Listen. This is dance pop, we don’t demand honesty or vulnerability but, goodness gracious, make the words count. This music is too repetitive not to.
Sia shows up a few times, she does fine. John Legend’s still alive. Other vocalists spout hooks and I’ve heard of some of them, but with the kids today and their iPhones and pagers and Razor scooters, who can keep track?
Then Ladysmith Black Mambazo appears on “Lift Me Up.” This, of course, marks the second time a white guy in his mid-40s has brought Ladysmith Black Mambazo in to add weight to his career, and answers the aching question, “Where does a man who has everything turn in a mid-life crisis?” You can’t park Ladysmith Black Mambazo in your garage, but your kids will be embarrassed anyways.
The music sounds fine.
“Yesterday,” featuring Bebe Rexha (who?????), actually sounds great. I think. I really feel it coming now… now… NOW! Any minute, let’s do this… I wait for the bass to drop the way you wait for your friend’s drunk uncle to say something racist. But the song refuses to give in to the most valuable trope. And that is what makes these songs songs, and not tricks.
But life is short, and comparing my experience listening to this album at home to the experience of every single person in the audience at the Miami Ultra Festival, there is no question as to what David Guetta does best. He commands an incredibly grateful community that we hope to never be welcomed into. He does us a service by getting all of them into one place. He cranks and processes what some could call stupid music for stupid people and he makes all of those people happy.
David Guetta teaches us that there is truly no one way to make it happen for yourself, and while we might not understand him or care to swim beneath his belly, it’s a challenge not to respect the guy for making it work with a big smile on his face.
However it happened, the damage is done, and at least nine million people truly enjoy the worst of this music. We must allow them to rage, and let nature run its course.
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Adam Schatz is a musician. His band Landlady has just released the album Upright Behavior on the Hometapes record label. His saxophone and keyboard sounds have appeared on albums by Vampire Weekend, Those Darlins, Hospitality, Sleigh Bells and Quilt. His previous published works consist solely of a column about donuts and not-donuts for Brightest Young Things. You can follow him on Twitter. (Photo: Sasha Arutyunova)
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