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Psy-Trance in the Realm of Disco Essay

Admittedly so, being myself no less a stranger than a fan of the latent psychedelic rave culture of the last decade, with its steady pounding trance-inducing techno-grove, I was altogether rather curious to discover just what kind of a picture that Richard Dryer had to present in his famous essay (Dryer, 1979). For years, before they lost most of their covert appeal, stealing away to a Rave was somewhat popular for my generation; at least in the places where I grew up.

So there was just something exciting to me, anticipating what he was about to relate of this earlier pop culture often rumored to share the same DNA of the psy-trance music of today’s Technocratic Age. It seems as if disco, understandably at its time a more readily accessible form of escapism had also quickly spread to far off distant lands overseas. It was probably the anticipation of some new and exotic twist that I was about to discover of the past that suddenly had my head inadvertently bobbing back and forth to some memorable however invisible beat. It seems to happen almost instinctually that way.

Somehow, even before I turned the first page, my mind wandered to that pounding ecstasy-driven scene at the very beginning of the movie Blade, 1 where the music intense as it is drives the scene so powerfully that you just cannot stand still. There is just slightest sense of horror though, because everybody including the audience knows the inevitable; except that careless fool who has allowed lust to direct him into a den of vampires. The strobe lights pierce the atmosphere bouncing off the ceiling and all over the walls; forcing a familiar rush of anxiety. Soon, he is set to become their latest entree.

It’s that environment of undisputable cool, the fashion, and the excitement that I love, but you can keep the blood. Dyer employs the analysis of a socialist and goes to great lengths to dissuade any notions that disco is just some crude form of capitalist production. He then launches into his narrative charging disco with three distinct characteristics: egotism – romanticism – and materialism. Although he somewhat claims that his argument is not as simple as capitalism is evil, in time you get the sense that Dyer really believes that all music is created with some measure of subversive super-sexual intent in mind.

Disco he calls “naked eroticism” (Ibid). However, he sees it in a better light than the simple patriarchal rhythms of rock and roll, — “rock’s eroticism is thrusting, grinding – it is not whole body, but phallic… even when preformed by women – rock remains indelibly phallocentric music” (Ibid). The movement and the culture which would grow up around this musical genre are shown in light of a powerful force that would ultimately come to influence the future of gay politics in the United States.

Suddenly, I had found that unexpected nuance from out of disco’s past that I was searching for. In the end, he states his case. Disco he believes has an ability to celebrate the intensity of romantic adoration and the lament of being let down at the same time. It is the tension between the two that he seems to be reaching for. All that I know, is that when I used to hit those clubs late at night, I just wanted to dance. If Dyer seems to take a hatchet to this subject, in Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied): Repetitive Musics and Recombinant Desires, Susan McClary employs a scalpel.

However, her unique intellectual dexterity makes her tool that much more devastating. She neatly deconstructs old arguments that she seems to believe were built upon over-wrought modalities of Western tradition; that have today simply gone astray. Disco is placed along the side of other “repetition-driven [pursuits] of ecstasy(p7)” along with the avant-garde minimalist schools of thought coming out of the 1960’s. 2 McClary dives into a narrative that focuses upon stripping away illusions.

She gives us a nice panoramic view of the minimalist history and the creative motives that evolved into the psy-trance music that became known as disco. At the heart of her prolonged study is a reliance upon what she calls an “analytical argument (p7) … built around an in-dept comparison of form and process in Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians (1999) and Donna Summers [and Moroder’s] Love to Love You Baby (1975). She naturally rejects the argument that disco is solely a minimalist form which is inherently non-teleological (without design or purpose).

This may appear to be a neat stretch for those in the know. But, I was just happy to be along for the ride. As with Dyer, McClary argues against “traditional hierarchies of musical value” (p9). To her, Reich is the minimalist reaching for the edges of a musical trance-like state, and Summer is the erotic practitioner who belts out a classic vamp that surprisingly simulates an amazing 22 orgasms (p11). At last, she reaches just that much closer to what I have come to believe that the great body of psy-trance music is really all about; even thought she quickly abandons it.

However, it is here that she poses her most salient point: “Teleological music’s ‘climax mechanism’ is akin to the [Western male] orgasm; teleology is thus the drive to orgasm; banishing teleology must mean banishing orgasm. Minimal music is anti-teleological, and is thus akin to trantric [‘Oriental’] sex, where the ability to put the [male] body into orgasm-defying stasis even as it engages in what for most humans is the most goal-directed activity imaginable is the sign of profound yogic accomplishment”(p12)

Both of these authors seem to be seeking the same thing; just going about it in their own separate way. Yet, they both seem to miss the point as far as I am concerned because the aim of this psy-trance music is the same wherever it may be found. It is the search for that endless climatic moment that leads to a higher spiritual purpose. This same search for heavenly escapism can be found in many of the native Indian dance rituals that can be found right here in America.

Even thought this spiritual quest has so often been obscured by the popular use of hallucinogenic drugs, still the psychedelic-techno music, the dark covert meeting places, and the strict social boundaries often found together in the mix wherever this type of pure eroticism abounds; all of it has a purpose. Even when the ‘raves’ were popular just a few years ago, still it seemed that even this generation could find some higher meaning in the heat of the dance. The pounding repetitious beat that always seemed to somehow naturally marshal the entire crowd into a circle; why does this always seem to happen?

It is all a part of that necessary escapism just like that which draws thousands of young Israeli men to travel each winter far away from their homes and to a place called Goa in southern India. They are called Goa freaks (Saldanha, 2006), because they live a solitary existence almost like zombies forever strung out on ecstasy. However, it is the abandonment to the music that draws them there in order to find a solitary refuge, while being seduced into a trance-state that perhaps will help them to forget the anguish of their shattered lives.


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