As an openly geeky DJ and a DJ for geeks at their weddings and such, I have often stood at the precarious nexus between multiple vectors of musical taste that – even in this era of the apparently “omnivorous” musical consumer – endlessly poses the question: “Is this the right track?” Actually, if you’re not asking yourself this question as a DJ, then you’ve either got a killer set or you’re no DJ at all. Let’s look at some of these vectors of musical taste, including their origin and their direction:
* The MAINSTREAM Vector – If they can play it in the grocery store, then people inclined toward this taste vector will be satisfied. The origins of this particular taste category are from the comfort and familiarity of music consistently fed to us in the rhythms of our upbringing and lives. “Happy Juice,” as Daniel Levitin calls it, floods into your brain when you hear certain select canonical songs. You feel good while grocery shopping because they’re playing Michael Jackson and Madonna, and you feel like dancing because they’re playing Michael Jackson and Madonna LOUDER at a party. No need to feel ashamed: everyone will feel the same!
* The INDIE Vector – If a band is played primarily on college radio stations or, even better, only in exclusive locales as part of a scene that is gaining in popularity and becoming slowly co-opted by the mainstream, then those inclined toward this vector will likely enjoy it. It is founded on the paradoxically entwined grounds of simple pleasure in the unusual and Bourdieu-style class distinction. In its traditionally negative connotation, the indie taste vector plays on one’s ability not only to become an early adopter of a musical style, but also, as David Brooks argues, an early discarder as well: “In order to cement your status in the cultural elite, you want to be already sick of everything no one else has even heard of.” In its rarely invoked positive connotation, however, the indie taste vector exposes us all to new and different musical material that may considerably complicate and deepen our musical taste. Even though it was a little overdetermined for Natalie Portman’s character Sam in Garden State to call The Shins’ song “New Slang” “life-changing,” it certainly got a lot of us hooked on The Shins!
* The MY Vector – We’ve all got our own taste that isn’t entirely determined by the poles of music everybody listens to and music nobody but cool people listens to. I, Evan Torner, have songs I like because I’ve somehow mentally possessed them. My musical taste was shaped by falling in love with electronic music in high school and somewhat resolutely refusing to buy albums outside the genre… up until the present. On the one hand, people know some of the artists I enjoy – The Prodigy, Prefuse 73, Squarepusher, Orbital, Chemical Brothers – and find a great affinity with my musical taste on their account. Yet I listen to the outliers of the genre as well – Black Strobe, Ghostcauldron, Timo Maas – who may only be known in select clubs and circles in Europe. I have to be very careful about throwing on, say, a Tim Deluxe house track or something I’ve composed because of its simultaneous lack of mainstream or indie cred.
The GEEK Vector – Then there’s the Bantha in the room: I’m a geek. Geeks may or may not be comforted by the mainstream music, might become offended by the indie music, and outright dismissive of the electronic craziness. They’re likely to jointly appreciate the sounds of Weird Al Yankovic, Celtic melodies, The Phantom Menace soundtrack and Monty Python Sings on their iPods. The origin of the taste vector stems from a sense of shared understanding about the absurdity of reality and the total awesomeness of the fantastic. The main problem with geek taste is its eclectic field and often corporate origins. The Matrix soundtrack is as much a product of the establishment as it is “anti-establishment.”
So what tracks should you play at, say, your New Year’s Eve party to appease a specifically geeky audience? What tracks should I play to please myself while pleasing a geeky audience? I’ve come up with a few over the years that are becoming time-honored components of my track “arsenal” that I only reveal and explicate to you as part of my holiday goodwill.
(Note: This is not a prescribed set-list. The songs are listed in my brain’s order)
R.E.M. – End of the World – “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” There’s something very poignant in the combination of this song’s fast tempo and utterly apocalyptic lyrics that make us all join in chorus to sing of our own demise. And the geeks at the beginning of ID4 are playing golf to it.
David Bowie – Suffragette City – With the presence of Rock Band and Guitar Hero in our lives, certain songs have taken on radical new meaning. We can imagine ourselves jamming on them with our plastic/electronic guitars, trying desperately to keep the song’s audio on the television from embarassingly cutting out and disappointing the digital audience. This song – WHAM BAM THANK YOU MA’AM! – has become as geeky as it ever was cool.
Chemical Brothers – The Salmon Dance – This recent addition to modern line-dancing will have you dancing “like a salmon floating upstream.” That’s also the only move, and there’s no “correct version” of it so as to not intimidate people off the dancefloor.
Madonna – Like a Prayer – This song has swept away the heart of those born between 1975 and 1985, thereby answering Madonna’s prayers and dreams. This entry also goes out to everyone who graduated from Grinnell College within the last two decades…
Wylde Nept – Wylde Mountain Theme – So, you’ve got some people in capes and you want to see them whirl around? Throw on the local Eastern Iowa Celtic pub band Wylde Nept and watch the clapping ensue. It’s so local that even the indie heads won’t know where it came from.
Jamiroquai – Canned Heat – This song was a great dance number for those into acid-jazz and disco even before Napoleon Dynamite came out. Now we have his crazy-ass choreography to follow.
House of Pain – Jump Around – Get down to the sounds of 1993! For some reason, this song hits nerves across the social spectrum, with geeks and non-geeks alike thoroughly appreciating its timelessly dated (that’s right) quality. Even school teachers will start to jump.
Tori Amos – Bouncing Off Clouds – One of the very danceable Tori Amos songs, “Bouncing Off Clouds” reminds girl geeks that the time of their life when they were smoking cloves (or wishing they were) and applying liberal amounts of dark eyeshadow was legitimate and enjoyable.
YMCK – Pow_pow – This song is a good example of thoroughly obscure music that everyone will enjoy on some level. YMCK is a Japanese chiptune band, a musical genre based off the 8-bit square-wave noises generated by our old Atari and Nintendo game systems. These guys concoct bright and crazy jazz within their timbral pallette of bleeps and bloops.
Aqua – My Oh My – In the era following The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, there was the fantasy techno song by the band that everyone is slightly afraid to admit they love. Scandinavian artists Aqua take the cheesy princess story to the next level.
Techno Syndrome – Mortal Kombat Theme – Whoops! How did this get on here? Still, this’ll get a laugh… and inspire geeky men to fake spar in the middle of your living rooms. It was composed by Praga Khan, who helped found the sexually explicit Lords of Acid.
They Might Be Giants – Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – This one’s a real sing-along song, as are many from their album Flood. I selected this one over Particle Man because it is more danceable.
…and last, but not least:
Yoko Takahashi – A Cruel Angel’s Thesis – The theme song to Neon Genesis Evangelion has delighted fans for over a decade, with its serious, techno-inflected J-pop opening every episode of one of the greatest anime series of all time. I have used it at any and every wedding at which I can get away with it. People who don’t know the series think the song’s catchy. People in the know are in ecstasy, and are – in all likelihood – geeks.