Pretentiousness is a vice that receives relatively little attention in the press and in popular literature. Perhaps because it is seen as a relatively harmless foible, and causes no direct harm, academics and intellectuals mostly bypass it to focus more on greed, wrath, and lust. The dictionary defines pretentious as ‘ characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved.’
One of the few writers who tackled the subject and wrote about it eloquently was the late mystic and philosopher Alan Watts. In the classic, Does It Matter? , Watts deftly demonstrated how the European/American aristocracy, along with the military and political establishment, wallowed in self-importance and pretentiousness, highlighted by their absurd uniforms. The epitome of this particular form of pomposity is the military general with his epaulettes, ribbons, medals, shiny boots, and so on.
But pretentiousness is not limited to politicians, millionaires, generals, and movie stars. If only that were true! One of the biggest groups suffering from the disease of pretentiousness is disc jockeys.
Recently I came across a promo ad for an ‘internationally renowned’ DJ who is scheduled to ‘perform’ next month in Ho Chi Minh City. The prominently placed ad was found in a glossy ‘zine marketed to wealthy expats here. The zine is called ‘Word’ and as you may have noticed from some of my previous posts, it is not a rag I am fond of or have any respect for.
First of all, isn’t it interesting that almost every promo for a DJ advertises him or her as being ‘internationally renowned’? Is there some official sanctioning agency for DJs which confers this title and honor ? I don’t think so. And even if there were, would anyone take it seriously or mention it without laughing? No. The whole thing is a charade. Any DJ can put ‘internationally renowned’ after his name, make up cards and flyers, and nobody will call him on it.
A couple of years ago, ‘Word’ magazine did an entire spread on a DJ who was doing a gig here. The tone of the article was akin to the coverage given to visiting royalty. The sycophantic writer gushed about how this dweeb was the greatest DJ in the WORLD!! and how fortunate we were that he had decided to visit this backwater. The DJ had the classic rich Eurotrash look, with the open shirt, gold chains, swept-back hair, and bored expression. The writer advised us to ‘get our tickets quickly’ as they were sure to sell out…
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against DJs, per se. A good DJ can liven up a party and get people dancing so they have a useful role. I just don’t like what the job (please don’t call it a profession) has evolved into over the past twenty years. I’m old enough to remember what DJs used to be. In the 1980s when I first started going to nightclubs, DJs were just above janitors on the status pole. They were far below bartenders and even a few notches below the waiters. The disc jockey was the guy up in the dark booth, spinning records and earning, if he was lucky, minimum wage. He was usually anonymous and had little hope of getting laid. How times have changed.
The change-over into the modern day celebrity DJ occurred in the early- to mid-90s, along with the rise of rave culture. Initially, I was very enthusiastic about the rave scene. The focus was shifting away from watching the guy in spandex on the stage and toward dancing and communal experience. The scene began almost exclusively as an underground phenomenon, with parties happening in abandoned warehouses, secluded beaches, basements, and basically any venue that could be temporarily taken over for the night. However, during the meteoric rise of the rave phenomenon, something unfortunate happened: the partygoers transferred their adulation of the band to their adulation of the DJ. Instead of remaining in the background, where he should be, the DJ vaulted himself to front and center, and even onto the stage itself, spotlights and all. The formerly anonymous nobody suddenly became a rock star.
I remember when it happened. In the mid 90s, I started noticing flyers and ads with ‘DJ so-and-so’ in flashy colorful graphics. “There’s gonna be a party and DJ pretentious is spinning. Awesome!”
I blinked and said, “Huh? Since when did DJs become rock stars?” That was twenty years ago and the DJ is still holding onto his undeserved status as ‘artist.’ In fact, he is not an artist, a musician, or an innovator. He is simply a poseur and an opportunist. Magazine reviewers, club owners and festival organizers all play their assigned roles in this elaborate game, meant to fool gullible hipsters and kids into giving up their money to see the DJ ‘perform.’ I actually saw an advertisement not long ago that said a DJ would be PERFORMING LIVE. I guffawed when I saw that. A band can ‘perform live.’ A DJ cannot. The guy is playing with his computer, not performing live. What a surreal world we live in.
You don’t need much to get into the world of disc jockeying. Certainly, you don’t need talent, music or otherwise. What you need is attitude, lots of tattoos, an ability to frequently make (satanic) hand gestures, a baseball cap, and the vocal chords to frequently shout, “How’s everybody feeling tonight? Are you ready to party?”
Fifteen years ago, I went to a concert in San Francisco at the Fillmore. I arrived early enough to see the opening act, which was…a DJ. Some joker walked onto the stage, set up his computer on a small table, lit a cigarette, and started doing his schtick. The thing about DJs is that 99 percent of what they do is look busy. You gotta have those headphones on and fiddle with the switches and make it look like you’re doing something incredibly intricate and complicated, something almost..magical. A few people in the audience started to sway a bit back and forth and a few more made a half-hearted effort to dance. The rest of the audience appeared confused and not knowing what else to do, watched the guy on stage staring at his computer and smoking a Marlboro. I stood in disbelief, wondering how the Fillmore, the band, and the promoter couldn’t manage to get a real band to open the performance.
When I watch Henry Rollins’ spoken word performances, I sometimes think, ‘Wow, he’s really sounding like an embittered, middle-aged man.” But hey, sometimes I sound like an embittered, middle-aged man too, so it’s ok. Plus, Henry and I grew up in the same neighborhood, and I like his take on a number of subjects, including DJs. He has nothing but contempt for them, especially the pretentious European variety, and I love it when he fixes his gaze at an imaginary DJ and says, “Hey dude, you’re a record- player, player. Get over yourself. You’re not a musician. You simply borrowed someone else’s music (and sweat), sampled it on your macintosh and then got up on stage.” Those aren’t his exact words, but it’s close enough. Right on, Henry.