THE BIRTH OF TECHNO: MEDIATIONS WITHIN THE CONTRADICTIONS OF POST-INDUSTRIAL, GLOBAL CAPITALIST MODERNITY
“It’s the emptiness in the city that puts the wholeness in the music. It’s like a blind person can smell and touch and sense things that a person with eyes would never notice. And I tend to think a lot of us here in Detroit have been blind to what was happening around us. And we sort of took those other senses and enhanced them, and that’s how the music developed” – Derrick May, 1992
“Alleys of your mind/Out of sync, out of line/ Paranoia (paranoia) right behind” – Cybotron, 1981
Detroit in the 80s, in the midst of an industrial wasteland. The story of Detroit’s deindustrialization has been embedded into the American mythos. A symbol of the industrial might of the United States, the city’s decline has signaled structural shifts in the American, and global, economy. As new technologies enabled outsourcing, Ford’s assembly line reached its logical conclusion with production taking place overseas. These structural shifts had serious consequences for the inhabitants of Detroit, notably resulting in the race riots of the late 1967s. In the 1980s, Detroit’s decline had become old news to all except the poor living in the inner city, who, lured to the city with the promise of entry-level factory work, were left stranded without the resources to leave once those jobs never materialized. Conversely, Detroit’s middle class grew in the suburbs where service industries flourished. Enter Cybotron, an electro-funk inspired duo composed of the now famous Juan Atkins and the comparatively forgotten Richard Davis, whose futurist sound would inspire the next three decades of techno. The following paper is intended to contextualize the emergence of Cybotron in larger political-economic processes which were taking place in the 80s, namely the international free market economy made newly possible through new technology and trade liberalization. As a result of global capitalism, the influx of available consumer products is reflected in the figure of homo economicus, embodied by techno’s founders, the simultaneously empowered and powerless consumer. These phenomenon, in the cityscape of Detroit, formed a highly syncretic environment as social and economic stratification, coupled with a cultural vacuum, resulted in the highly innovative and socially aware genre of techno.
Technology, Techno, and the Rise and Fall of Industrial Detroit:
Changes taking place in Detroit in the early 80s were a result of larger structural economic changes brought about by “trickle down” domestic Reaganonomics and the “liberation” of a number of economies internationally. The symbolic weight of Detroit’s decline exists in relation to the city’s embodiment of American industrial production values, largely the American Dream. The Motor City’s promise of material wealth through production is reflected through the industrial architectural design of the city, and overbearing industrial architecture within, relaying the industrial promise of man-within-machine and machine-within-man. In the face of this promise, the continual contraction of the auto-industry adversely affected the large African-American population, which had for the most part migrated to the city since the 40s with the promise of entry-level jobs. De-industrialization continued in the 80s, as the rise of a middle class with the auto-industry resulted in a shift to white collar rather than blue-collar industry. More affluent, generally speaking, white families were able to re-locate to service jobs in the suburbs and recently-immigrated, less mobile African-American families were forced to stay as the city amenities and conditions declined. Despite the general decay of the city, and rise in poverty rates amongst the urban poor, an African-American middle class also grew in the suburbs. The first techno tracks, produced by Cybotron, responded directly to the larger structural changes taking place within the city, and the resulting technological dys-utopia. In reference to the track “Techno City”, Atkins relates the futurist construction undergirding his early work to the segregation and class conflicts of Detroit: “the idea was that a person could be born and raised in Techno City, the workers’ city, but what he wanted to do was work his way to the cybodome where artists and intellectuals reside. There would be no Moloch, but all sorts of diversions, games, electronic instruments. Techno City was the equivalent of the ghetto in Detroit, which is overlooked by the Renaissance Tower” (Dalphond 34). At work here is both the industrial promise of technology to create social mobility and the possibility of creative artistry. However, track “Industrial Lies” refers to the violent failure of this promise:
“You buy the missile, buy the laser, buy the tank/Evict the widow, put the money in the bank/You do it all in the name of economics: economics, economics, economics”
Inspired by futurists and Afro-futurist musicians, Cybotron produced music with a vision of a futuristic dystopian society, which mirrored the reality of Detroit in the 80s. Techno’s machine inspired aesthetic interacted with the Detroit technological narrative, referring both to its failures and successes. Richard Pope writes on the “affective disjunct between a utopian capitalist ideal and a dystopian capitalist reality” (34) which can be read through the sensation of simultaneous paralysis and forward motion through repetition. The structural contradiction of techno in many ways embodies the contradiction of technology itself, as both progress and the violence of unequal change.
Consumerist Youth Culture in a Cultural Desert:
The cultural gap left by the Motown label’s move to Los Angeles in 1972 was filled by a youth culture comprised of a confluence of continued racial inequality and class tensions between the working growing middle classes. While techno was partially inspired by European electro groups such as Kraftwerk, it was equally influenced by Funk and contained a number of elements characteristic of music coming from the African Diaspora, such as polyrhythm, the by-then ubiquitous emphasis on the second and fourth beat, and DJ-dance floor performance methods. However, beyond abstract debates about the African-ness or European-ness of techno, it is more helpful to look at the community and cultural necessity out of which the style came. Dan Sicko, in his seminal book on the beginnings of Detroit Techno Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, documents the widespread and socially complex music scene which had grown in largely segregated Detroit High Schools to dominate the nightlife of African-American youth. Teenage utopia’s depicted in movies like Ferris Buhler’s Day Off and John Hues’ films (in which African-Americans are conspicuously absent) interacted with formations of cultural capital through events-centered clubs. While clubs were not consciously class-based, the reliance upon cultural consumerism meant that money played a necessary factor. Clubs were almost exclusively named after elite Italian designers, demonstrating that they existed in relation to one another, but differentiated themselves through elite musical and cultural tastes. While new styles and fashion sensibilities reflected the need to create a cultural in the wake of recent migration to Detroit, and the cultural desert due to a lack of public funding, the way in which youth culture was constructed along class lines is significant, especially considering Atkin’s vision of social mobility. An increased availability of foreign goods in the U.S., the growth of marketing and advertising methods, and relative prosperity resulted in the mentality that “consumption could produce empowerment” (Sicko 25). The party scene represented both the possibility of race and class mixing, through shared tastes and cultural mixing, and the impossibility of poorer youth to acquire the goods, be they clothing or audio equipment, to fully participate in the culture. The parties were greatly influenced by the 5-hour nightly radio show Electric Mojo, which in turn received support and musical input from the party scene. Although the Belleville three, Juan Atkins and his side-kicks Derrick May and Jesse Saunderson, were somewhat distanced from the scene, discussed in length in the next paragraph, the tastes which influenced techno’s sound are evident in the track “Sharevari” by Anumberofnames, the artists title being a reference to the large number of scenesters which contributed to the track’s production, and the title of the track being a reference to a specific club. The track was released in 1981, within a couple of months of Cybotron’s Alley’s of Your Mind, and both are credited as the first techno tracks. They stylistic similarities are undeniable, while Anumberofnames focuses on decidedly less dystopian themes. Techno was produced within a social milieu which was largely the product of a new relationship between consumerism and empowerment, a combination which has made events centered social groups a staple of most cities around the world. Ironically, the very global flows of goods, culture and capital which made techno possible, have resulted in its global diffusion, and co-optation by the very big music industry its originators were against.
Homo Economicus: Artists Navigating Fields of Consumption and Production
Through themes of individualism and the pro-sumerist nature of music production, the music of Atkins and Davis embodied the contradictions and ambiguities of life in a city ravaged by global capitalism. The duo took on the role of post-industrial flaneurs, observing, synthesizing, and responding to a rapidly changing Detroit and planet. The process of music production was literally a synthesis of the external contradictions they faced, such as the relationship of man to machine, taste-formation, and the possibility of being a creative agent in a consumerist society. The Belleville three, named after the suburb a half hour out of Detroit in which they lived, were never at the forefront of the party scene. The distance undoubtedly lent not only the ability to focus on making music, but a critical lens to parties. May is quoted, “all those so-called snob parties, playing for all those kids and organizations—for us it was dress rehearsal. Even though we were young, we had serious dedication for what we were doing. That’s why Juan called it Deep Space. We always saw ourselves as being ‘out there’” (32 Sicko). Living in the suburbs, they were both alienated from the poverty and violence of inner city life, and were able to perceive the larger systems at work due to their distance. They were both critical towards capitalism and consumerism, and embedded within these systems. The ambiguity of simultaneously being embedded within a system, and feeling alienated from it are clearly expressed in Cybotron’s first releases, culminating in the first album Enter. Understood in its entirety, the album begins with a simultaneously ominous yet welcoming urge-command “Welcome to Techno City”. The track continues, “We are just dreams and space/Stranded in this funky place/No transport out of here/I guess we have to put away our fear”. The welcome song is no joyous invitation of shared humanity, but rather an acceptance of alienation. Again, in the track “Alleys of Your Mind”, which continues “Out of sync, out of line”, “paranoia”, disjuncture, and fear are the primary emotions evoked, but are juxtaposed with hopeful evocations of “Earth is ours for us to stay/Tomorrow is a brand new day”. The production-paralysis contradiction is a reflection of the modern condition, a state of perpetual doom; nuclear warfare, global warming, increasing economic stratification, but somehow continuing to build a world in which to live.
Through the lens of the political-economy of the 80s, the birth of techno in Detroit is sonically imbued with structural shifts in the economy, resulting in the large scale disenfranchisement of the largely African-American urban poor, a turn to consumerism as empowerment, and ambiguous agency of the individual within these larger processes. Techno was a response to a number of contradictions faced particularly by Atkins and Davis, related to the beneficence of technology, alienation from and embeddedness in an urban context, and their own relationship to cultural capitalism, and capitalism writ-large. The pervasive sense of doom, or existence in the face of doom, is a sensation characteristic of modernity, both in terms of the way in which free-market societies place increasing risk and responsibility upon individuals, and the way in which disenfranchised populations are othered, and represent threats to technological utopia. It is perhaps the ability of techno to bridge the contradiction of post-industrial modernism, and to speak to youth growing into a dys-utopian world, which has resulted in its global popularity.
Cybotron (Juan Atkins and Richard Davis), Enter 1983 (Youtube)
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Annie Heslinga hosts the radio show Easyjets. You can tune into her show every Wednesday at Noon on WNYU 89.1 FM. Easyjets focuses on the underground electronic scenes of a different non-western metropolis each week, and how these scenes relate to traditional Western centers of electronic music. Guest DJs are invited to talk about their scenes, as well as play a set. Archives of Easyjets can be found on Soundcloud.