a theatrical dimension

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"Music is geen geluid, maar een ambiance, een sensorische ruimte die overal aanwezig is en altijd openstaat."

[Music isn’t noises; it’s a presence, a sensuous space which is present everywhere and which is always open]

(Bilwet, 1994: 17)


It would ultimately be difficult to deny the fact that since its early days ‘rock music’ as we understand it today is much more than the sound it makes or the words that it speaks.  It is very much about its ability to fill a space and to communicate sensuous information which is performed very much according to the complex interaction between the performers on stage and their audience.  Rock music is sensuous, but also sensual; it often has an erotic or even overtly sexual impact thanks to the way the musicians are able to use their bodies as ‘part of the act’.  The term ‘rock and roll’ evokes in itself a set of spatial and bodily metaphors.  The immediate reaction to the term makes one think of its motional realisation, something which has connected all of its performers and listeners since its early days: there has been a dynamism involved with the pulses present in its percussive rhythms in order to get the audience to come onto the floor and dance.


From Elvis to Bowie this music has communicated a wide range of contrasting messages to a wide range of different people.  Its message, however, has almost always been intimately tied to the presence of a performer on a stage.  This paper involves the ‘theatrical’ aspect of rock music which is, in itself, a complex given;  one could write a book exploring only its basic aspects.  I will try to touch upon some of the aspects of the theatrical presence of rock which I consider to be the most influential and interesting and I hope the reader enjoys this short journey through a music and its many physical and dynamic realisations.


We begin by discussing the issue of eroticism on stage in rock, particularly in the work of Elvis and the origins of the genre.  After discussing the creation of the rock style of performance (and its significance) we move onto the whole concept of rock operas, a particularly overt and important type of connection between rock music and the theatre.  After this we move on to perhaps one of the most fascinating elements of rock music performance, one which brought into focus the whole existential aspect of this type of music involving the way it ‘appears’ in a theatrical sense rather than the ‘truth’ that may be hidden behind the cliched texts: glam rock is explored as an instrument of artifice.  From here we move to a more general discussion of the relationship between rock and dance, in particular the whole performance-based aspect of disco music as a form of unique self-expression in specially designed places for that purpose (which we take for granted these days).  This moves to a brief discussion of progressive rock—perhaps one of the only movements within the genre which hasn’t been centralised around the theatre—before moving onto the aesthetics of punk and heavy-metal theatricality.  Before concluding we take a look at two relatively recent developments in rock performance: the ‘rap’ phenomenon and the emergence of the ‘shaman-like’ figure of the deejay both of which have functioned to create a new relationship between the music, its listeners and the dance-floor.  I hope through reading this article that the reader is provided with an insight into the importance of theatricality in rock performance through its early history until the present.


The term rock and roll began to be used in the 1950s to refer to a new type of music which had a strong and hard pulse and which involved raw physical realisation through dance.  According to Studwell and Lonergan the term ‘rock’ could actually have referred to the hardness of the beat (Studwell & Lonergan, 1999: xi), although I’m inclined to think that the complete term does refer to its relationship between this type of popular music and dance.  It was, in fact, a revolution of important sociocultural significance playing an important role in the rapid rate of social change in contemporary western society.


Although Elvis Presley wasn’t the first rock and roll musician, he is seen today as being one of its pioneers, primarily because of his fame.  Presley, now referred to by many as the ‘King’ of the genre, had as one of his early and most influential classics the song Shake, Rattle and Roll (Studwell & Lonergan: 18).  Why did he become so popular?  Primarily because of his physical, dynamic and highly sexual presence on stage.  He wasn’t referred to as ‘Elvis the pelvis’ for nothing.  People around the world were attracted by the erotic way he sang and moved on stage.  His music (or the music he sang) obviously played an important role in the development of rock; Presley charted up to 40 hits every year from 1956 to 1977 (the year of his death) and of the thirteen highest-selling singles of the classic rock era, he personally accounts for five (Studwell & Lonergan: 31). His sexual gyrations, his physical bond with the microphone and his striking good looks certainly played a role in burning his presence onto the memories of two generations (and more) of rock music listeners.  He started a tradition of rock performance.


Presley, of course, did not jump to fame by introducing a spontaneous new form of music.  The whole field itself was led up to by a long tradition of music and dance styles with influences from both jazz and folk music.  The traditions that led to rock usually involved to a large degree a combination of music and dance, a physical aspect which accounts for its broad popularity.  The existential act of ‘doing’ as opposed to the passive act of ‘listening’ appeals to a wider community and explains the theatrical and dynamic popularity of the medium.  From the beginning of the century, jazz and its associated dance forms were already affecting millions of people across the globe.  Growing from the ragtime movement, we look back with nostalgia towards dance crazes like Cecil Mack and Jimmy Johnson’s Charleston.  In the twenties, before rock but certainly influencing those who would grow to create it, people danced to or listened to music played by jazz bands.  Studwell and Lonergan refer to the fact that “the songs of the swing or Big Band era, whether fast or slow, tended toward rhythms suitable for fun and romance on the dance floor” (Studwell & Lonergan: 3).  Fame and fortune depended even on the period before rock on your rhythm rather than the text of your songs.  It is only natural, then, that the rock and roll phenomenon should grow from this tradition and become a medium in which everyday individuals could express the joy of being alive by dancing to this vibrant new music.  We remember from the early days of rock and roll many hit songs which were based on a way to move the body rather than an abstract topic.  Chubby Checker (an early rock star), for example, had a career based entirely on dance crazes.  Some of his hits included the Twist and Limbo Rock, and as Studwell & Lonergan observe, Checker “didn’t just sing about the Twist; he appeared on television—frequently—to show teenagers how to do the dance” (Studwell & Lonergan, 1999: 156). 


Another important performance-based concert tradition began long before Elvis.  The traditional rock concert we know today has its origins in the early days of gospel performance which involved a question/answer dynamic between the preacher and his choir.  A rock concert tradition developed which individual bands made use of, often adding to it in subtle ways.  Although glam rock and punk were to shatter this fabric, there are still many rock performers who take advantage of this standard type of live performance, such as Joe Cocker and Joan Armatrading.


One important event changed the face of rock performance, making it accessible to a whole new range of theatregoers.  It was also influential to other movements in rock such as the glam phenomenon.  This was the advent of the rock opera.  Jesus Christ, Superstar is sometimes (incorrectly) seen to be the first example of this type of work.  It actually had many precedents, the most important and well remembered being Hair.   Hair itself made use of many traditions set up by other genres including opera and the musical.  Some of these early theatrical events should be considered before discussing the phenomenon of Hair.  It is unknown that one of the first ‘operas’ influenced by popular music was Tremonisha composed by Scott Joplin himself!  He longed to be accepted alongside other lofty ‘classically-trained’ composers, but unfortunately he wasn’t recognised as anything but a ragtime musician and this work was never performed during his life-time.  Other major precedents to Hair include Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Bernstein’s West Side Story.  Both of these operas were influenced by jazz and other Afro-American musical forms such as the negro spiritual.  The first performance of Porgy & Bess, a tragic love story involving negro characters, took place in 1935 in New York.  West Side Story was also premiered in New York, but much later (first performance in 1954).  What was surprising about this work was the subject matter: a love story taking place on the streets of New York and involving characters belonging to street-gangs.  Both of these events took elements from traditional ‘classical’ opera, particularly the idea of recitative and aria structure, story-line involving tragic love affairs and of course the intimate relationship between music, narrative and language-use.   These two works (among others) bridged the gap, however, between popular music (jazz) and classical music in a new way and in a non-frivolous format.  Both Porgy and Bess and West Side Story were enormously successful, and this undoubtedly helped the influence of pop music on traditionally formal performance idioms.  Hair is hard to define as a rock-opera in the complete sense, but it is thanks to its pioneering realisation in New York that the rock-opera tradition has been able to develop.  Hair became a social phenomenon in its own right.  It was based on a play written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado who, by no coincidence, played the main roles in the primordial New York production.[1]  Galt MacDermott wrote the music for Ragni & Rado’s lyrics (Studwell & Londergan: 195).  It was written in the age of the love counter-culture in the sixties, the generation that saw the rejection of fighting as the means to solve international conflict (especially in relation to Vietnam); it was the age of hippies and the promotion of peace.  Hair became notorious from the East to the West coast in America primarily because of the fact that it contained full-frontal nudity.  It did represent, however, many of the real concerns of its generation, was dramatically interesting and at the same time is still considered by many to be good rock and roll (at least according to Studwell & Lonergan: 136).  Again, the existential theme of this work represented something that many people connected to the ‘rock’ experience: the pure joy of existence, as it is so well communicated in the main song Aquarius (‘let the Sunshine in’). 


Jesus Christ, Superstar (first presented in 1971) was the first production to have the pretension to call itself a rock-opera, but unlike Hair it did attempt to share similar theatrically moral themes common to opera.  Andrew Lloyd Webber (born in London in 1948) is responsible for this creation; he popularised the face of the rock idiom for many with this work and other productions with similar allusions to the opera idiom, particularly Evita (1978) and Phantom of the Opera (1987) even though only one song in Jesus Christ, Superstar could really be classified as ‘rock’.  Although David Bowie began his illustrious career before the production of Jesus Christ, Superstar, he was undoubtedly influenced by its dramatic impact, and in many senses turned them into what they were: attempts to realise dramatic excess to draw in the crowds and make money, one of the elements of the rock industry Bowie’s important Ziggy figure was in a way parodying.  The popularity of Lloyd Webber’s work was influential to the much more successful production Godspell composed by Stephen Schwartz.  Both of these works, however, have proved to have had limited influence.  Again according to Studwell & Lonergan, these works were “fads just as beach songs and twist songs had been before them” (1999: 142). 


Certainly under the influence of large-scale productions such as the rock-opera, the glam phenomenon developed an influential presence in the pop world.  The message of glam rock was controversial in that it transcended the ‘morals’ or ‘messages’ behind the rock opera or the clichéd love thematic material behind standard rock, while at the same time making use of many of the devices of both idioms.  Its function was, however, ambiguous, and many consider it difficult to decide whether the intention was to promote joy through excessive performance, provide an incredibly complicated aesthetic experience, or to ridicule the rock idiom.  David Bowie was certainly an important, driving figure in the movement, but it also saw the appearance of Kiss, Queen and other bands who found theatrical expression the best medium for their rock music.  Before the glam era, the music scene had a large number of bands vying competitively for popularity “spewing out laddish, guitar-based rock-and-roll musical clichés” (Buckley: 3) by taking advantage of the traditional rock concert tradition mentioned earlier.  Such ‘clichés’ involved images we are still familiar with today, promoting youth, independence, the old generation against the new, the triumph of love and other such themes.  David Bowie was to change this when his work hit the stage.  His message was not involved with the supposed sincerity most often aimed towards by traditional rock bands, but instead direct artificial theatricality which turned the rock performance into a spectacle rather than a means of communicating ‘messages’.  If there ever was any ‘message’ behind Bowie’s performative aesthetic, it was (as he himself professed) the performance itself.[2]  Buckley refers to this as “the triumph of artifice, of theatricality, of irony, over truth, authenticity and emotional verisimilitude” (1993: 3) which I think very much sums up Bowie’s quest.  He attempted to combine an amazing array of different styles, which included playing jazz saxophone, acting, being a mime artist, rock and cabaret singing and at times a combination of two or three at once (Buckley, 1993: 3). His message was involved with in a way, a kind of special ‘deceit’ in that his work did not echo in any real sense possible emotions that pop music at the time was attempting to mimic.  Performance for performance’s sake was very much the lie that tells the truth, a vital form of ‘camp’ (Core, 1984).  Sontag defines camp as being “the love of the exaggerated” (Sontag, in Mendelssohn, 1993: 4.), a unique theatrical aesthetic often associated with male homosexuals.  His ‘camp’, his dynamic almost frenzied eclecticism, was directly influenced by a form of Japanese performance known as kabuki.  Although for many viewers of today, kabuki is put into the same bag as the much more serious Noh theatre-form, kabuki arose as a kind of reaction against the staid tradition of Noh, becoming very much the ‘camp’ of Japanese theatre.  Buckley provides us with a description of Kabuki in the following citation:


"Kabuki involves a mixture of music, dancing and acting.  All parts, both male and female, are played by men, and the androgynous nature of kabuki was elevated by Bowie to a position of fundamental importance.  It was the kabuki aesthetic of visual excess – its garish, though formal juxtaposition of colours – that attracted Bowie.  Ziggy’s heavily made-up red and gold lips, black eyeliner and red blusher, set against the whitened pallor of the rest of the face, echoed kabuki styles. The constant changes of costume, is evident in the Ziggy and Aladdin Sane stage shows, also had their origins in kabuki.  Bowie explained these costume changes as expressing new faces of the personality.  While the number of changes he used does not appear to have any precedent in kabuki, the idea of costume signifying personality is deeply rooted.”

(Buckley, 1994: 6)


Bowie refers to this ‘Japanese’ style of movement’ in his interview with Mendelssohn: [quoting Bowie] “I’d like to bring mime into a traditional Western setting, to focus the attention of the audience with a very stylized, a very Japanese style of movement” (Mendelssohn, 1993: 4).  One wonders also if Bowie was influenced by the more modern Javanese music-theatre form Ludruk which is involved with tranvestitism, the artificial nature of camp and drag and the social metaphors that this form plays upon.[3]


Other theatrical devices and conceits made use of by Bowie included a Brechtian sense of alienation and also in his later rock-theatre especially, the German expressionist form of lighting, design and costume from the early twentieth century used in both theatre and especially film.  Bowie began to make his impression around 1972, at least as far as his ransacking of musical codes and clichés is concerned.  He, of course, was not the only representative of the glam movement.  It also included Roxy Music led by Brian Eno, a figure to become the musical poseur rivalled only by David Bowie himself.  As Van Veen notes: “uitgedost in een oogverblindende outfit – make up, oogschaduw, veren en boa’s – was Eno de ‘poseur achter de synthesizer” [dressed up in a striking costume – with make-up, eye shadow, feathers an boas – Eno was the ‘poseur’ behind the synthesizer" (Van Veen: 137). Peter Gabriel also formed part of this movement. 


Another factor which should be considered is the fact that the glam artists were reacting against what is now referred to as ‘prog’ rock (a progressive movement in rock).  Prog musicians were characterised by wanting to achieve the exact opposite of glam artists.  Rather than aiming to demonstrate the artifice of rock, bands which characterised the prog movement wanted to achieve high art to stand aside other types of more traditionally socially conformist ‘classical’ music.  To this end, how the performers looked on stage (if the bands performed) was of little importance.  Rather than the intricate theatricality of glam, prog represented the up-market ‘classy’ music where performers were recognised as masters of their genre (thus not needing to make use of any extra-musical theatrical devices).  Some typical prog bands include Relayer, Yes, Can, Tangerine Dream and The Moody Blues.  The form grew to fame in the early seventies.  There was, of course, some cross-overs between the movements prog and glam, including the work of Peter Gabriel, and Ange a French group which is well-known for its deliberate prog style and its “unique and theatrical vocal delivery” (Lucky: 12).


The next aspect I would like to discuss in relation to rock and theatricality concerns the phenomenon of disco music.  Especially in its early days, the disco was a place where individuals came to express themselves on the dance floor.  Music designed for this function had a pulsing beat that encouraged people to use the disco dance-floor as a medium of self-expression.  Many consider that the origin of disco music and the phenomenon of disco began in New York (such as Mietzitis, 1980), but if the truth be told it began in France in the post World War II period.  Clubs began playing recorded dance music rather than using live bands.  Such clubs were referred to as discothèques, a word of clear French origin.  During the seventies, however, disco music started to become popular and more pervasive in the United States, especially in Detroit and Philadelphia (Charlton, 1998: 160).  In these days, the dancers were certainly the ‘performers’ in a unique and individual type of musical theatre.  People generally trace the origin of disco to venues like Studio 54 in New York.  Such myths were strongly encouraged by the film Saturday Night Fever, anchoring the strong connection between New York and disco.  Around this time (for perhaps unrelated reasons) New York did become the recognised home of the disco phenomenon.  In other words, although its early origins were in France and then other places in the United States, the disco age really flowered in New York.


Thanks to Saturday Night Fever the disco music of The Bee Gees was very successful, and helped spread the phenomenon of disco around the world.  The Village People, (the ‘village’ referring to Chelsea Village in New York where many gays and lesbians choose to live) promoted stereotypical images of male homsexuals with some of their disco hits (Charlton, 1998: 162).  Other important pioneering groups included Kool and the Gang and KC and the Sunshine Band.


Early American discos were by ‘invitation only’ and were held as party-type events (a phenomena which has become popular in contemporary Belgium).  Since its early days, however, the disco has proved itself to be an incredibly adaptive phenomenon.  Mietzitis comments on the fact that clubs are constantly redecorating in order to keep up with the tastes of the public “to provide clientele with ever new sensory stimulants and visual appeals” (1980: xvii).  Mietzitis provides us with a good example of what the sensory experience held for the individual in the following citation:


"Every group of dancers is a show unto themselves, from the women in silver skintight body suits to the men in black leather and gold-painted faces.  Legs, arms and streamers entwine body upon body.  Bumping and grinding, high kicks, running, subtle rotation, lovely ballet moves, anything goes on the dance floor.  The competition gets pretty fierce to out do one another's outrageousness as the light and music frenzy build into the morning, as heat and dance soar in body celebration."

(Mietzitis, 1980: 10)  


So what type of dramatic presence did a disco realise in terms of an evening’s entertainment?  In the early days in the United States the variety was enormous.  People could arrive in costumes, “with the knowledge that [they would]  have a certain performance, drama or game to play” (Mietzitis, 1980: xvii).  There have been discos existing for a large array of different character types and sexualities, including gay discos, circus discos, transvestite/transsexual discos, discos for the rich, discos for blacks, whites, Latinos and so on.  It became a movement in which individuals used the disco floor as a natural outlet for self-expression, keeping up regularly with a fast-paced and changing world. Mietzitis makes particular reference to G. G.’s Barnum Room (on 45th Street New York); a true circus side show.  It is described as being “a surreal place that holds both strong attractions and repulsions for those venture inside” (1980: 94).  The regulars at this particular place have included transvestites, drag queens, transsexuals and an array of other types of people who have wanted to show off bizarre costumes or theatrical ‘camp’ behaviour, demonstrating influence from the glam movement.  We will discuss further on, however, a new movement involving a different type of theatricality.   This new movement involves not the dancers, but the deejays who have developed iconic status.


The face of pop music changed when punk music hit the scene.  Punk is defined as a nihilistic movement standing against accepted conventions.  In actual fact, it is far more than that; it is a theatrical aesthetic which had its artistic predecessors and which has certainly influenced a whole new generation of musicians and other performing artists.  We should also note straight away that the scandal that became punk was an orchestrated front organised by the ever-present Malcolm McLaren who has become an important entrepreneur of popular music (having introduced or been responsible for the production of other less nihilistic movements since the advent of punk).  However, McLaren’s contribution cannot be underestimated.  He felt the pulse of British society under Thatcher and was business-like enough to start a movement that would both give expression to the dissatisfaction of the working-class and  pad his own wallet in the process.  McLaren was responsible for the promotion of the primordial punk group which came to be known as The Sex Pistols.  The sociocultural analysis of their music has almost become, in itself, an academic discipline.  In this brief discussion I’d like to take a look at some of the most influential factors involved with the performative aspects of this movement.


Firstly, it is important to note the relationship between avant-garde movements involving the performing arts dating from around the first thirty years of the twentieth century arts which preceded punk, particularly Dada and to a lesser degree Italian FuturismDada (in its early days based in Switzerland, although the movement would grow to include France, Germany and Holland) is remembered for its chaotic and random performance events and Italian Futurism for its noise machines; they both represent aesthetic approaches which stood against the then existing staidness and conservatism of society.  Entrepreneurs such as McLaren would have used these movements as a precedent for punk.  It is also generally recognised that the French had an influence on punk before it found its expression in England.  Van Veen notes that French influence however, came from its music traditions preceding punk, primarily because of its associated aesthetic including vandalism on the walls of Paris.  It concerned un grand ennui, the great boredom or dissatisfaction with French society (1994: 150).  One could also note the relationship between French existentialism and the negativity of punk: Pretty Vacant, No Future and the general nihilism inherent in the punk aesthetic could have been written Camus or Sartre.  Finally, the Fluxus movement which took place in the United States (primarily New York) must also have made an impression on McLaren in the sixties; here John Cage and his colleagues worked on a new performance aesthetic based similarly on random ‘events’ or ‘happenings’ which deliberately stood against the conservatism of existing performance traditions.  The cynicism of Warhol’s pop-art, performance and film making in his New-York based factory were also potential influences.


What concerns us here, however, is the performance-based musical vision that became punk.  Johnny Rotten’s passage ‘I’m an Antichrist’ from the album Anarchy in the UK helped change a generation of music listeners.  The presence on stage was deliberately anti-aesthetic and unpleasant; the sound of the music was loud and brash and the singers screamed their vocalisations; any real signification that was in the music came not really from what they were saying (i.e. who cares if Rotten thinks he’s an antichrist?) but how they were communicating it to an audience;  punk became a theatre of cruelty in the Artaudian sense, designed to shock a generation into some kind of action; to pull them out of the apathy or the grand ennui which Artaud would certainly have related to.  The punk aesthetic had, of course, its days of glory and today it has been succeeded by so many new forms of both positive and negative aestheticism on the rock stage that the original movement almost seems irrelevant today.  It is interesting to note, however, that other cultures are still making active use of the punk aesthetic to bring about change in their own cultures.  Punk is highly popular at the moment, for example, in Bali where crowds (of primarily Balinese youth) gather at a major stadium to celebrate the glorification of the unpleasant to offer an alternative to the choices offered by their traditional music. The Balinese need for expression in this excessive fashion could result from a reaction against the staid decorum of their often claustrophobic existence on an over-populated Bali.  Also in Israel, a place filled with ethnic tension (not only between the Palestinians and the Israelis but also between the different languages spoken by the Jews: Hebrew, Russian, German and English among many others) I’ve notice a strong presence of the punk movement at both musical establishments and on the streets. 


Out of punk grew many other movements, as mentioned, and in a theatrical context Heavy Metal and its related genres are perhaps the most interesting to discuss in a theatrical sense.  Like punk it involved at least aurally a kind of anti-aestheticism; the words of many of the songs have been highly aggressive (like punk), sometimes inaudible and often about death and demons.  The stage presence, however, was somewhat more unique, combining (for some of the artists) in many senses some of the elements of glam to produce live, exciting, often moody and raucous theatre using special effects, costumes, lighting and sometimes even fireworks to create a dark and oppressive atmosphere.  The joy experienced by the audience probably relates to the catharsis of such ominous theatre.  Of course, there are many myths about the genre, specially related to the Death Metal movement– the performers being satanists and its otherwise innocent listeners becoming serial killers etc. (even though the truth of such claims is highly debatable).  Some consider the genre to be little more than its leather-clad stage devices, having little more than a strong but stereotyped visual and theatrical presence (Lucky: 7).  I think, however, that like punk what it says verbally is not necessarily what it means to the audience, providing a unique type of theatrical aesthetic experience which is only possible thanks to its dark devices.  Other themes of Heavy Metal include serial killers, horror movies, and the subject of death in general.


I’d like now to move to another important theatrical phenomenon: the rap movement.  A typical rap performance involves multitextual levels of communication where a ‘rapper’ recites rhythmically structured poetry above a rock music background.  The rap music phenomenon actually originated in New York during the seventies, although this type of ‘live recited poetry’ accompanying music is not new.  Charlton comments on the fact that spoken poetry has been important for a long time as part of African and African-American culture (Charlton, 1998: 229); one only has to think of the spoken element of gospel to see the correlation.  With the term multitextual I’m referring to the fact that there are a number of levels active in the music at the same time, the text of the song, its various sub-texts, the relationship between the music and the text and the music itself, in addition to how the performer interacts between all these levels.  Rap is unfortunately much maligned by people who haven’t participated in the movement because it is assumed that the texts are all negative, when this is not at all the case; the subject of rap texts differ from ‘rapper’ to ‘rapper’ and goes from racism to comedy to the more criminal aspects of ‘gangsta’ rap.  As far as the music styles are concerned, disco music and the figure of the ‘deejay’ were key factors.   A specific set of bodily motions are also connected to the style where the whole body is used to elucidate specific words and point to specific passages.  It is therefore a music style with an unquestionable visual element.


Dancing in a disco as spectacle, as a means of self-expression, or as an expression of ‘camp’, has most certainly changed during the last decade.  Dancers now have a different relationship to the dance floor, and a different type of theatricality has become popular.  In the last ten years, at least in Europe, ‘mega-dancings’ have popped-up for a range of different societal groups, primarily for an audience of late-teens to early twenties.  With the term mega-dancing, I’m referring to enormous halls where incredibly loud pre-recorded music is played.  Although dancing does take place, it is not for individuals to show off their costumes and dancing styles; today it involves massive crowds of people experiencing joy by losing their sense of self in the crowd.  The joy of this theatrical experience comes from this sense of oblivion, a unique type of ecstasy.  The stage, in this case, has moved to the figure of the deejay.  In Europe, as in the U.S.A., individual deejays are becoming the stars of these new places.  A phenomenon has also become popular called trance-dancing.  With a combination of epilepsy-inducing lighting effects, alcohol, the incredibly loud and consistent beat of music (primarily House and Techno) combined increasingly more often with drugs, a different type of experience is being realised.  One cannot help but make the comparison with trance-dancing in Bali.  They have a special term for what could be translated as ‘crowdedness’: ramai.  It involves the joy of becoming part of the group, of being lost in the crowd.  It refers to the phenomenon in Balinese traditional performance, but also to the experience which is had in Balinese discos where Balinese young people are also able to lose their sense of individuality to become part of the mass.  It is a sought after ontology which certainly has significance with relation to trance-dancing in Europe.  According to Van Veen this relationship to the dance-floor answers a need of the youth of today to reach a unique state (1994: 26).  A Dutch deejay (Dj Rein) comments on the experience as follows:


"Je probeert een trance op te wekken, waar het publiek in mee gaat.  Het mooiste is als het contact helemaal vol is.  Dat ze begrijpen wat je bedoelt, er helemaal in zijn zodat je echt in de lift gaat.”

[You try to produce a state of trance which moves the audience.  It is best when the contact is complete; when they understand what you are trying to do so they can participate and get you involved.]

(Van Veen, 1994: 66)


The deejay has become the contemporary shaman thanks to the almost magical mixture of sounds and lights and the almost hallucinatory atmosphere which is created (especially when combined with alcohol and drugs).  For the audience during these dance marathons, the deejay is indeed the king of the castle:  “platen zijn de ingrediënten voor zijn hallucineerende toverdrank, waarmee hij zijn publiek meevoert naar een bevrijdende catharsis” [albums are the ingredients for hallucinatory magical drink which you bring the audience into a liberating form of catharsis] (Van Veen: 29).  The deejay has to play in on the needs of his or her audience.  Such a large group of people is more comparable to a sports crowd than a passive theatre audience. 


The early days of disco haven’t been completely forgotten however.  According to Van Veen, House music in its early days left a degree of creativity allowing influences from Funk and Soul music.  Unfortunately as the trance-craze increased, this aspect of the music began to disappear and it became increasingly harder and more industrial.  It was at this time that the acid jazz or the jazz-dance phenomenon began which brought a more creative element back into both the music and the dance styles.  Their have been other brief periods as well during the eighties and nineties which have introduced particular dance-styles, such as the typically New York style of ‘Vogueing’ which would catch individual dancers in poses like the shop mannequins (Van Veen: 71).


It seems a difficult task to be able to conclude after introducing such a wide range of different styles.  Perhaps that is what is most unique about rock music, the dynamic way it has been used in many different periods and for many, many different and sometimes contrasting purposes, while still retaining some of its essential characteristics.  It has meant a great deal of different things to a great deal of different people, and it has expressed a wide range of theatrical styles, from the most erotic to the most stylised, from the most outrageously expressive to the most monotone, from the lightest dynamism of the musical to the darkest pits of punk.  It would be difficult to find a genre as interesting as this one.








BILWET, “Het Derde Lichaam” in De Duivel in Vermomming, Amsterdam, Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 1994.


BUCKLEY, David, “Still Pop’s Faker” in The Bowie Companion, London, MacMillan, 1993.


CHAMBERS, Iain, “Among the Fragments” in The Bowie Companion, London, MacMillan, 1993.


CHARLTON, K., Rock Music Styles: A History, Mc-Graw-Hill, 1998.


CORE, Philip, Camp: the lie that tells the truth, New York, Delilah Books, 1984.


LUCKY, Jerry, 20th Century Rock and Roll: progressive Rock, Collector’s Guide Publishing.


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[1] A film was made around 20 years later directed by Milos Forman but it was by then outdated and thus flopped at the box-office all over the world.

[2] Even though the figure of Ziggy seemed to be parodying or providing a painful allegory or commentary on the devices of the rock star.

[3] See: PEACOCK, J., Rites of Modernisation, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1968.





© May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



Major Writings