DJ Sprinkles' Strategy: "Make It the Audience's Burden to Work It on the Dance Floor"
Back in 2011, we here at Crossfade included Terre Thaemlitz, AKA DJ Sprinkles, on our list of the World's Least Douchey DJs. It was a nod to her longstanding work as an educator and activist promoting awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.
Like many others, we'd first gotten wind of DJ Sprinkles in 2009, following the release of her critically-acclaimed artist album Midtown 120 Blues. While winning over a new generation of deep house fans with its lush, elegant compositions, the LP was also a political statement on the millennial music market's exploitative appropriation of house, a sound originally rooted in 1980s America's disenfranchised gay and ethnic minority communities.
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"House is not universal -- house is hyper-specific," intones Thaemlitz on the album's intro. "The contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, H.I.V., ACT-UP, Tompkins Square Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment and censorship -- all at 120 beats per minute."
Of course, this was hardly the first politically-charged work for Thaemlitz, whose discography since the early '90s ranges from avant-garde and ambient to electronic jazz and house forays, always heavy in subtext and commentary on issues like identity, gender, sexuality and lingustics. Even her first commercial CD mix release, 2013's Where Dancefloors Stand Still, is a statement on the controversial anti-dancing laws of Japan, the country which the American-born Thaemlitz calls home.
Crossfade caught up with Terre Thaemlitz ahead of her Miami debut performance for SAFE's off-Basel event at the Electric Pickle on Friday alongside Francis Harris, another musical iconoclast and philosopher in his own right. Topics of conversation included the politics of dance music, life as an expat in Japan and her new projects.
Crossfade: What drew you to Japan and what keeps you there? What has your time there imparted to you?
Terre Thaemlitz: Miami has a lot of immigrants, so I think most people can sympathize with the reality that we aren't operating out of free will and desire -- even though the U.S has a tendency to think of immigration as motivated by "dreams." Realistically, most people move based on what is possible within limited options. A lot of it is about chance, timing and hoping one's decisions won't end in regrets. I feel fortunate that my move to Japan was a good move for me. And I'm also grateful that I moved here before the whole 9/11 thing happened, so I absolutely knew I was not simply reacting to the conservative cultural changes that came about after that. I always describe George W. Bush to people outside the U.S. as "America's great moment of honesty." He laid bare to the world the kind of conservative and hypocritical U.S. I grew up in.
So was leaving the United States a reaction to your quality of life or society and culture here?
In large part, yes. It's certainly why I can't imagine returning. You know, when you're 32 years old, living on the outskirts of the "Gay Mecca" of San Francisco, and still getting called "faggot" almost every time you walk out of your apartment, it just summarizes life in the U.S. for me. I'm 45 now, and I haven't been called the equivalent of "faggot" once in Japan. It doesn't mean people don't have prejudices -- it's just that the Japanese way of expressing dislike is to ignore someone. For me, coming from the US, that silence of being ignored is golden. Of course, it's not a paradise. For some people who were born in Japan, they'd prefer being screamed at and spit on U.S.-style, because they'd feel acknowledged somehow. So it's about conditioning and experience.
I'm aware that Japan works for me based on my experiences in the U.S. But I definitely find daily life in Japan much safer. The three main reasons are: very few guns, very few Class-A drugs, and way less ghettoization. The classes are less segregated as a result of the tendency for wealthier people to live next to their lands, rented to poorer people. Poorer people aren't so physically isolated as in the West, so the links between poverty and violence born of desperation and exclusion are diminished. The relationship between the histories of ghettoization, segregation and the concepts behind Western individualist identity formation -- racial, ethnic, sexual, gender -- is a whole topic in itself, and it doesn't really apply here. The methods of domination are different.
Many people, perhaps naïvely, will claim that the house music scene has historically embraced a philosophy of Peace Love Unity Respect and provided an inclusive environment on the dancefloor, where the barriers that exist in society between races, religions, and sexual orientations come tumbling down -- Chuck Roberts preaching "This is our house." Why do the politics of dance music continue to be a big preoccupation for you, especially where gender and sexuality are concerned? What would you say are some of the most important issues that remain unresolved or unexamined about dance music?
First, we have to think historically. The "PLUR" rhetoric you mention -- which is totally '90s techno-raver noise -- has a way of erasing time and making us forget that listening to house music in 2013 is as dated and nostalgic an experience as listening to '50s rockabilly or '60s Woodstock-style rock. I've often described today's dance floors as "wakes" for times past.
So what did it mean for the emerging house scenes in the '80s to constantly invoke images of family and nation -- the "house nation" -- when many of the people in that scene were runaways or disowned by families due to their sexual and/or gender orientation, as well as systematically ostracized and ignored by their government? This abandonment by both family and government -- including via health care systems or the lack thereof -- was particularly volatile during the '80s AIDS panic. Clearly, house music's continual reference to family and nation was rooted in a desire for acceptance by those social structures from which people were alienated. And that is in itself symptomatic of trauma. Trauma that has left people trapped in desires for reintegration with those social formations that oppress us.
But at some point we have to ask, why have we so thoroughly allowed that romantic desire for belonging within those fucked up systems of exclusion to dominate our linguistic framework for speaking of our experiences? Why do we so eagerly sell and consume ourselves through images of family and nation? That is a huge problem, in my mind. By our own hands, we are left with no ability to critique family or nationalism. I suspect this will forever be the case, and the genre will fade away before these issues get opened up. But this tension has been an underpinning of house from the start, particularly as it developed among queer and transgendered communities. And I have seen that original tension transform itself into a language of reconciliation with today's younger and broader audience -- a post-9/11, post-Soviet, pro-family LGBT era audience. The language of family and nation have lost almost all irony or skepticism. What a nightmare.
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