Land of milk and techno: a clubbers’ debate

How poor is the taste of Tel-Aviv’s DJs? Some posts are only truly worthwhile if read along with comments they received. I took the liberty of integrating Nadav Appel’s remarks into this and making it a duet of sorts.

Woman "fueling" before going clubbing in Tel Aviv's rough and rowdy Yad Harutzim district (photo: Yuval Ben-Ami)
Woman "fueling" before going clubbing in Tel Aviv's rough and rowdy Yad Harutzim district (photo: Yuval Ben-Ami)

Yuval Ben-Ami:

I owe someone an apology. I owe it to my ears. Sorry, ears. I should not have taken you down the surprising number of stairs leading into Tel Aviv’s Radio EPGB dance bar. As soon as we walked in I realized my mistake, but of course one can’t step out before making a round inside, looking for familiar faces. No familiar faces were to be found. None of my friends are dumb enough to try and shake to this.

What I mean by “this” is the cheapest, most manipulative kind of electronic music: Neanderthal techno that grabs you by the shirt and shakes you as though it were some imbecile giant. Its beats are augmented one by one, forming completely unnecessary tension, until breaking into an ecstasy of idiocy. This is the kind of music that demands no notes. It can be written in words. Behold the tension rising (kindly apply crescendo): Umta umta umta umta umta umta umta umta umta! Hello catharsis: Wa! Wa! Wa! Wa! Wa! Wa!

We just came from the Shesek, on Lilienblum Street, a place that only allows actual musicians and radio DJs. This being Valentine’s Day, the tendency was towards tongue in cheek eclectic. The DJ was a man affiliated with the Tel Aviv Soul Club and though some of his choices I found to be less than danceable, I could still take a seat in the corner, nurse a shot of whiskey and watch other people move to it. It’s pleasant.

What’s pleasant about torture? Stupid, violent bass beats surrounded us as soon as we moved out of the Shesek and along Rothschild Boulevard, rising from the pick up bars. Why has cheap electronic music always been so popular here? Why is it the standard playlist at Israel’s clubs? I remember an article written by the Finnish ambassador’s son, back in the 1990’s, describing the oddities of life as a foreigner here. He was amazed at hearing sounds of techno and trance coming from a kindergarten playground. I think he considered that a positive phenomenon.

I don’t. I’m just baffled. There is an audience here for fine music, also of the electronic sort, but it’s a marginal group that frequents specific clubs (I’ll give  Barzilay a mention of honor, for hosting such geniuses as dubstep legend “Mad Professor.” Then there was of course the fantastic Block Club, with its obscenely good sound system, which recently closed down. The rest of us just shrug and accept atrocities. This still is a good clubbing city, as it is reputed to be. It hosts great foreign talent and fosters local talent. Why then must it be so infected with trash that is impossible to listen to, even in spots that pretend to appeal to sophisticated clubbers?

It’s too easy to assume that we’re an aggressive society which naturally thrives on aggressive music. I’d like to take a wider, more historical approach. Tel Aviv is the offspring of a city on another continent, a city named Berlin. The immigrants who arrived into this country during the 1930s formed the first wave of aliyah that was not at all motivated by ideology. They did not come the create a new Jew who could handle a shovel, they were escaping Hitler. They had no interest in the rural moshavot (collective farms). They missed Berlin, Vienna and Dusseldorf.

This group formed the country’s first community of Jewish petite bourgeoisie. They founded kiosks and cafes, enhanced the cultural life, and strongly took to modernism in art and architecture. They formed the cafe culture that gives this city a heart. The original cafes are no longer there, but Tel Aviv amazingly survived the Holocaust as a Berlinophile city. In the poet Yonatan Geffen’s novel in rhyme, Jailhouse Rock he still mentions “the ladies who read Stern magazine at Café Stern,” when recalling the early 1970s.

Things did change, and Cafe Stern did close down. Berlin itself became reunified and turned into a powerhouse of electronic music. The disparity between a mother city and its Middle Eastern offshoot continued. Just as Tel Aviv’s cafes never achieved the dignity of the pre-war establishments that lined Unter Den Linden, so was our electronic music culture always less intellectual than that of Love Parade’s hometown, and never truly up to date. The Radio EPGB is no Berghain, and for the true lovers of Europe this will forever be a land of exile.

Nadav Appel:

Hi my friend. I wasn’t with you at the EPGB that day so I’ve no idea what music was actually played there, but I would like to try and challenge some of your evaluative criteria. I know for myself that when I’m confronted with something that I experience as “bad” music, I try and understand what it is about my conceptions that make me label it as bad.

First, I must say that this music sounds pretty great if one chooses to ignore your adjectives. You say it’s manipulative, but is there any kind of music that doesn’t manipulate? Music is supposed to manipulate you, music that doesn’t manipulate sounds very boring to me. You describe it as very powerful, like a giant that grabs you, creating a “tension that leads into ecstasy”. You say the tension is unnecessary, but it seems very necessary to me, since it works – it leads into ecstasy. What more could you ask? Yes, you say it’s the “ecstasy of idiocy”, but isn’t bliss always somewhat idiotic? It’s not an intellectual experience, it’s sensual and spiritual, and as far as I can see it erases the kind of differences and distinctions that makes labeling something as idiotic or not idiotic meaningful in any way.

So yeah, we’re talking about music that works. And I may be wrong, but maybe that’s what offended you, since your evaluative criteria seem very fixed on the standards of western art music, that privileges elements that can be notated, namely harmony and melody, while devaluing other elements, such as nuances of pitch and rhythmic complexities. So yes, the music you listened to is “the kind of music that demands no notes” – so what? It demands other kind of things that music with notes doesn’t demand. You call it “neanderthal”, that is, historically underdeveloped, but where do you expect it to develop to? Maybe it developed in a different direction than the one you’re used to? Is there only one way to your progress? Is traditional African music less “neanderthal”? It also demands no notes.

And, most importantly, it works. The discourse of western art music is basically based on the bourgeois Kantian concept of art as something that has no use, that can only be enjoyed in a contemplative manner, only for itself. But is this the only way to relate to music? Why not try to think of it as “Bauhaus” music? Something totally functional and pragmatic, something that has to work. It sounds to me, from your description, that this music works very well. You say that even kindergarten kids enjoy it. That sounds pretty amazing to me. Isn’t this the true manifestation of music as universal language? It’s not only a question of aesthetics, it’s also a question of politics: who is privileged to enjoy music?

Just some food for thought. As for the Berlin connection, it’s an interesting idea but I’m afraid that the Israeli über-love of electronic music predates the current Berlin obsession. If this interests you I recommend reading Nissan Shor’s excellent history of Israeli dance culture, “Dancing with Tears in Our Eyes”.

Yuval Ben-Ami:

Thanks for the thorough response, Nadav. I’ll mention to readers that we know each other and that you are literally a scholar of popular music, currently working on a doctoral degree in the field. This being the case, I’d be a fool to try and debunk your claims. Well, time to be a fool.

Your chief claim is that this music must be worthwhile since it “works”. Well, it didn’t. I found the dancers on the floor to be less than enthused. This really was some awful, outdated techno, the kind of music that only truly lethal, cobalt-colored powders stolen from the deepest cellers of Afghan miltary hospitals can vaguely redeem. Maybe somewhere in the depths of history, when it was concieved, there was some spark to it. These days have gone. Electronic music has developed since.

Here I’m actually contradicting my own use of the term “neanderthal”. The neanderthals did not develop. They are not a link in the chain of human evolution. They became extinct. Cheap techno did develop. There is extraordinary music made today that find its roots there, among other places. This music is to be found in Tel-Aviv, and it should be the rule rather than exception (I know we think it’s the rule, due to our scene, but please look at the big picture).

Unlike in European artistic musical tradition, where one generation’s developements never render the previous one’s work futile, electronic music is still in the first trial and error half a century of it’s history. Much of it is disposable, and too much of what’s disposable is playing in my city.

As for Mr. Shor. I’ll gladly read his book, even though he once called my girlfriend “vulgar” in a newspaper column and I still bear a certain grudge. However, I’d be hard pressed to accept that the Berlin clubbing scene took the que from Israel. I’d sooner believe that we invented the seven-day week (which we did).

Nadav Appel:

Fair enough, that music might’ve been actually very bad, I was just trying to suggest that pointing out its badness might’ve required a different critical vocabulary than the one you used.

As for the question of development/progress, I’d just like to point out (as a fan of disposable music) that often in pop music history, “develpoment” is used as a euphemism for white/middle-class cooptation of black/working-class music (the paradigmatic example is “progressive rock”).

I recommend you enjoy Shor’s book the same way one can enjoy Wagner’s music.