Why Are You Staring at the DJ?

Last week, Questlove of the Roots performed as the DJ for the last major party at Sutra before the venue closed permanently. The behavior of the crowd revealed a departure from the intense dancing that made the hip hop club famous. Patrons were more interested in taking pictures of a celebrity than enjoying the music. It got so bad the normally laid back and friendly Questlove had to jump on the mic several times to beg people to stop blinding him with their flash photography.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It’s a trend among people who go to celebrity DJ performances. It might even be the new normal for DJ shows to resemble live music performances with everyone staring up at or filming the DJ on stage.

But what’s the point of that? DJs spin music for dancing, creating a mood or sending a message. They’re not visual performers. They often dress in the most banal and comfortable t-shirt and jeans they can find. They don’t do anything worth looking at, unless you count the over exaggerated manipulation of the mixer many DJ’s put into their sets. Going to a dance club to stare at the DJ makes about as much sense as  paying to go to a restaurant, looking into the kitchen to watch the chef cook but not eating the food.

How did this happen? Did Guliani’s enforcement of the Cabaret Law alter the behavior of subsequent nightlife generations? Did it come from the big concert DJ’s like like Daft Punk and Theivery Corporation who actually incorporated a visual element into their performances? Maybe it started with the rise of the celebrity DJs, whose fame or infamy far outweighed their skill with music. Maybe it came from EDM DJs like Skrillex and David Guetta. It could be a by product of the general revenge of the nerds time we live in (See We’re All Nerds Now), since no one has to be embarrassed about not being able to dance if no one is dancing. Perhaps all these factors played a part in separating dance music from the act of dancing.

The shift from an active nightlife culture to this kind of passive herd gazing stifles many fundamentals of nightlife activity. Most people won’t dance if no one else is dancing. They’re not watching a show because the performer on stage isn’t really doing anything as parodied in the recent SNL skit “When Will the Bass Drop?”. Talking to the people around you is difficult because of the music volume. The only activities remaining are drinking and using your phone to capture the “action”. If herd gazing is your first or only experience with nightlife you might decide it isn’t worth the effort and avoid going out completely.

Questlove’s last at Sutra might be just another sign of the end of an era. People still dance at large venues like Output and Freedom Party, medium sized spots like Cielo and tiny bastions of dancing like bOb Bar and Bembe. And nightlife culture isn’t just about dancing, so the rise of herd gazing doesn’t mean nightlife is dying. It is changing into something different from nightlife eras of the past. Dance clubs playing dance music might one day have no dancing at all.

Have fun.