{ Can You Dance? Can You Jive? What Kind of Time Are You Having? }
Stephen Yeager

let's danceA few months ago I had the good fortune to watch this band, the Gossip, play an all-ages show in west Philadelphia, and although it was a good concert the experience was a trying one. The paper listed the show as starting at 7:00 p.m. and, chronically early, I thought showing up at 8:00 would be sufficiently rock-and-roll late. Of course, the Gossip didnąt take stage until 10:30, the hours between filled with...well, filler. This particular concert was part of a film festival, and before I could see the Gossip, I had to watch various film shorts and listen to other bands, the first two of which could only have received billing because the members were involved with the festival. While the filler did steadily improve as 10:30 approached, it did so only after a beginning so inauspicious my roommate was driven to call it "the worst live music act I have seen in my life."
   Basically it was two guys in black slacks, shirts, and ties, pressing pedals to turn on and off various repetitive electronic sounds, all the while rolling around and jumping and shrieking incoherently. Some kind of parody of Kraftwerk or Devo? Only their best friends know for sure. I and my fellow concertgoers stood back at a distance, some of us chuckling or shaking our heads, but most of us too embarrassed for them to even comment, as if afraid to justify them with a response. If this performance could be said to have a point, it was was revealed when one of the guys removed his black slacks, revealing a pair of terrycloth shorts with a word emblazoned across the back, which he would periodically bend over and point at throughout the remainder of the wretched exercise: "DANCE."
   Because, for many indie-rock kids, this kind of display is the essence of dancing: uncontrolled movement inspired by beats without context, a display unsettling as it is invasive, essentially an invitation to watch with horror. While this is partially because most indie rockers aren't very good dancers, it's gone beyond these origins to become almost a pathology, an aversion that explains a good deal about the so-called indie-rock aesthetic. How different is this attitude from that of our primitive ancestors, for whom dancing and singing were holy activities, indicative of personal transcendence and communication with the supernatural. In that context the dancer has both lost control and is in complete control, celebrating both his awe of the diety who possesses him and the beauty of his own body, its worth as that diety's vessel. These peoples respected dance because they grasped intuitively that it was specific as no other art form has ever been—a dance only happens once, and dancers use only their bodies for expression, the physical reality of themselves. Dancing in this sense not only brings together the earthly and the spiritual, but makes a distinction between the two seem paradoxical, like trying to seperate the dance from the dancer.
   Obviously, things have not been this way for a long time. Our whole civilization is built on the supposition that the mind and the body are at war, and to justify that premise we've tended to lump dance together with sex, the other activity that calls our theory into question. After all, dancing often functions among animals as a way to attract potential partners, and dances and dance clubs have long been the obvious places for people to do the same thing. While this is a fair connection to make, Western society has tended to limit dancing to sex, so that when Billy Idol's out there dancing with himself, instead of enjoying it for what it is he can only wait forlornly for his love vibration.
   Thus, an activity as religious as it is carnal has been denied half of its significance, while simultaneously getting pulled into a whole host of issues to which itąs only tangentially related. There are still Baptists, for example, who not only deny the religious aspects of dance, but see it as anti-religious and an abomination. At Baylor University in Waco, the largest Baptist university in the world, the first school dance in history happened within my lifetime. Their distaste for the activity goes back to the Puritans, and comes from a belief that holiness is a state of complete conscious control over one's body. The fun part of dancing is the freedom from self-restraint, where the movements of your body are determined not by your will but by the beat of someone else's drum; the awful side-effect is that your desires are set free to tempt you into who knows what lasciviousness. Dancing is not only sexy, but dirty, the stuff of Patrick Swayze's dangerous aura and precarious socio-economic status. This interpretation of dancing could not be further from its origins in primitive society, just as the self-negating Puritans could not be further from their pagan ancestors. Thus, like so much else that's fun, what should have just been a good time has become this whole complicated thing.
   Still, despite the burden of interpretation put upon dancing by generations of hang-ups, people still like to do it. The social movements of the Sixties that aging hipsters love so dearly find their origin in an endless succession of dance crazes, going back almost to the turn of the century. Before it came closer than anything has in generations to casting off the intellectual tradition of the West through sheer adolescent chutzpah, rock and roll was dance music, letting loose our parents' collective id to shimmy like unreasoned beasts, as if they'd been told what to do for too long and it was finally time for the feedback to roar.
   The quality of rock and roll that led to its ultimate failure is the same quality that the annoying guys at the concert demonstrated so obnoxiously; it was music, but music that was no longer an immediate art form. Song and dance used to be just about the same, both existing only in specific moments, indistinguishable at the time from the artists who created them. The transition from live music to recordings was too gradual to seem dramatic, but the fact that people could dance to Elvis' music all their lives and have never seen him in person—much less perform—is utterly new and changes the relationship between performer and audience entirely.
   This is the paradox: how can a movement dedicated to uniting the mind and the body be propogated by a technology that seperates the singer from the song? Which leads us to indie rockers, whose very name comes from the kinds of recording labels that make the records they like to listen to, and who associate the experience of music as much with the fetishistic acquisition of EPs on vinyl as with actually watching the band (and the way they talk about the energy of "live recordings," without even noticing the oxymoron). Indeed, indie rockers are Protestants to the Catholicism of "classic" rock. Rejecting its gaudy light shows and materialism, they prefer a personal, even secret relationship to the music, not to mention their minimalist dress and notion of "indie cred," a quality as unattainable in practice as salvation in Calvinist doctrine. They do for rock what their ancestors did for Jesus; take a message of inclusion and acceptance, and make it into a tool for division and dissent.
   Believe it or not, this is all fine with me. I'm not one of these indie rockers who's embarrassed that he doesn't dance at rock shows, and when Jack White made comments at the White Stripes show in March to the effect that we were paying a lot of money just to stand around, it pissed me off. Because rock music is not losing its soul as an art form; it's simply becoming a new kind of art form. In the same way that Shakespeare wrote plays ostensibly for performance that function better as written works, recording artists from the Beatles onward have taken what was supposed to merely be a record of their art and made it into art itself. If this is divisive, that's okay too; interesting, challenging art has never appealed to everybody, but that hardly means anything is wrong with it. And while it would be better if indie rockers didn't look down on everyone who doesn't like their music, it's not like they're oppressing minorities here, however often they may comment that Hall and Oates deserve to be put out of their misery.
   What is a problem, though, is the vestigial memory that bothers indie rockers and leads them to protest too loudly: the sense that they should be dancing, or at least experiencing the transcendence that dancing used to communicate. Though they try to suppress and control this feeling, all they do is allow the nagging doubt to continue, their denials eventually sounding shrill even to themselves. But at the same time, as an administrator at Baylor is said to have wryly noted, it's amazing how quickly everyone learns how to dance. Whether your undies are made out of wicker or cotton, dancing around in them has always seemed right; the beat goes on, and sometimes you just have to follow it.
   In other words, indie rockers do know how to dance, and they probably like to dance. They just don't think it's cool or that they're good enough at it to seem cool doing it. Whatever. I can tell you this much: if you're dancing and you mean it, you have a much better chance of seeming cool than you do in a raggedy ass pair of terrycloth shorts, passing off your insecurities as postmodern aesthetics. So if you're reading this, annoying guys, put on your red shoes and dance the blues—for real this time—and the rest of your clothes while you're at it. Or better yet, get the fuck off the goddamn stage.

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