Last Sunday I went to the Pitchfork Music Festival. The act I most wanted to see was Major Lazer.
Well, I saw Major Lazer. And during the set, in the midst of all the onstage daggering antics, I started thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Nietzsche lately, in particular his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). That work was in its time a critical failure (so much so that Nietzsche later pseudo-disowned it, calling it “dubious”), but we still remember today its distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Nietzsche begins drawing that dichotomy with the very first sentence:
We will have achieved much for scientific study of aesthetics when we come, not merely to a logical understanding, but also to the certain and immediate apprehension of the fact that the further development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, just as reproduction similarly depends upon the duality of the sexes, their continuing strife and only periodically occurring reconciliation. [All quotes from TBOT are taken from Ian Johnston's online translation.]
A few sentences later, Nietzsche distinguishes further between the Apollonian and Dionysian as being, respectively, “the separate artistic worlds of dream and of intoxication.” The remainder of the first two chapters continue drawing other distinctions, which I’ll summarize here:
- “the visual arts”
- the plastic arts
- brightness, light
- higher truth (“in contrast to the sketchy understanding of our daily reality”)
- “the deep consciousness of a healing and helping nature in sleep and dreaming”
- the thought that art makes life “possible and worth living”
- the prizing of illusion over reality (“the joyful necessity of the dream experience”)
- trust in artifice, craft
- individualism (“the principium individuationis“)
- separation from nature
- “the non-visual art of music”
- intoxication (narcotic drink, “the powerful coming on of spring”)
- singing and dancing
- awe, the ecstatic rapture
- the prizing of reality over illusion
- the fading of the subjective “into complete forgetfulness of self”
- reconciliation with nature (Nietzsche’s writing here is extremely beautiful: “Under the magic of the Dionysian, not only does the bond between man and man lock itself in place once more, but also nature itself, no matter how alienated, hostile, or subjugated, rejoices again in her festival of reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. The earth freely offers up her gifts, and the beasts of prey from the rocks and the desert approach in peace.”)
Very simply put, the Apollonian is order, the Dionysian chaos. Speaking of Dionysian celebrations (“exuberant sexual promiscuity, whose waves flooded over all established family practices and its traditional laws”), Nietzsche writes:
From the feverish excitement of those festivals, knowledge of which reached the Greeks from all directions by land and sea, they were, it seems, for a long time completely secure and protected through the figure of Apollo, drawn up here in all his pride. Apollo could counter by holding up the head of Medusa, for no power was more dangerous than this massive and grotesque Dionysian force. Doric art has immortalized that majestic bearing of Apollo as he stands in opposition.
Nietzsche’s interest in the Birth of Tragedy lies ultimately (as signaled by the first sentence) in the dialectic reconciliation of these two opposing forces:
These two very different drives go hand in hand, for the most part in open conflict with each other and simultaneously provoking each other all the time to new and more powerful offspring, in order to perpetuate in them the contest of that opposition, which the common word “Art” only seems to bridge, until at last, through a marvellous metaphysical act of the Greek “will,” they appear paired up with each other and, as this pair, finally produce Attic tragedy, as much a Dionysian as an Apollonian work of art.
TBOT is a response to Schopenhauer’s Nihilism, then much in vogue; Nietzsche is looking for a way to detach Nihilism from pessimism and find it instead optimism and opportunity—a lifelong project that would ultimately result in works like Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–5). Nietzsche proceeds to read the Apollonian/Dionysian struggle as a productive, dialectical one—when they are in balance. However, Nietzsche further argues that, following the creation of Attic tragedy, Western culture has been largely out of balance, in favor of the Apollonian.
Generally speaking, I’d agree with his assessment, although one can make cases for particular times and places—and particular cultures and subcultures—being more Dionysian. This is ultimately a subjective and rather contingent argument, so allow me to say something perhaps more specifically defensible: contemporary US culture, when viewed broadly, is overwhelmingly Apollonian. Apollonian ideals hold dominance over Dionysian ideals.
Hence my interest in Major Lazer’s set at Pitchfork.
Pitchfork can in many ways be viewed as the epitome of the Apollonian ideal. The site’s reviewers notoriously rank music to a tenth of a decimal point, display a clear preference for the intricate and clever (wit), and gravitate toward music that weaves a spell of dream and illusion (a replacement for immediate reality).
Consider a “dream pop” band like Beach House:
We have here a heavy soporific effect (plodding music, a sense of daydream); careful intricacy (studiousness, even); formal dress; a fondness for the technical (the music toy, Polaroids, the turntable); word play (“Heart of Chambers”); and a wishful desire for escape (“I’d like to be someone / you could finally learn to love again”). Even when the video grows more exuberant, and Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally rush outside (0:57), note how things turn childish: they run around with a shopping cart, have a tea party, discover a dollhouse. (The nostalgic fondness for childhood that we encounter so often in contemporary indie music is an avoidance of adult sexuality.)
The music and the video, overall, invite us into a world of fantasy make-believe, promising a return to the lazy, daydreamy days of childhood. (Consider the titles of other Beach House songs: “Apple Orchard,” “Astronaut,” “Better Times,” “Childhood,” “Tokyo Witch,” “Turtle Island,” “Used to Be,” “Walk in the Park”; their third album is titled Teen Dream.)
(Mind you, I’m not judging or criticizing the music. I like Beach House very much.)
Major Lazer was nothing like this. While Beach House implores all Pitchfork attendees to sway gently, hands held, eyes closed, the very Dionysian Major Lazer calls for a very different response:
This song is about two things, really: dancing and having sex.
Me and my friends rolling like rock stars
So we by the bar
All eyes on us, girls watching from far
We shining through the dark
Saw this sexy little thing, she was biting her lips
Looking at me hard
So I just went over there and just whispered in her ear
Do you wanna start?
“Girl I wanna party with you”—Ricky Blaze doesn’t mean let’s have a tea party! The twins Nina Sky respond in kind:
I’ve got the girls in the truck ’bout six chicks deep
And you know girls we rolling with is straight sexy (x2)
Tonight can you keep up?
When we hit the dance floor you know we turn the heat up
It’s like the roof on fire, everyone’s desire
All eyes on us, DJ, turn it up
I’ve heard you play before but tonight we going harder
So DJ play my song and keep it going louder
…Before I myself go any harder, I should note that Major Lazer is a fantasy construct, a Gorillaz-type project conceived of by the DJs Diplo and Switch:
Major Lazer, Diplo and Switch’s new multi-vocalist project, adopts a band of hand-drawn-and-colored personae to help out with the branding and marketing. (The Major Lazer character himself was, per a press release, “[A] renegade commando with a lazer arm and a rocket-powered skateboard who fights the spoils of vampires, zombies, pimps, mummies, and other unsavory forces of evil.”)
And, to be sure, in the above video we see the Major arriving to fight zombies and monsters, saving the dancers from…well, from something. And that’s cute. (We do live in extremely Apollonian times.)
See also this video:
So even the two-fisted Major has his more contemplative, wittier, nostalgic-for-childhood-toys moments.
Nonetheless, the major impact of Major Lazer—what I think most take away from the videos and songs—is the project’s infectious energy, and obsessive focus on the body. Even the fantasies are heavily Dionysian: the video for “Keep It Goin’ Louder” involves club-goers being possessed by fantastical forces; when the Major shoots them with his lazer (ahem), their bodies convulse orgasmically (see 3:11–3:16).
Furthermore, despite whatever branding Diplo and Switch originally intended for Major Lazer, the project’s public face has proceeded to become not a cartoon, but rather the frontman Skerrit Bwoy, and the dance style known as daggering:
A kind of MC, DJ, dancer, promoter, stuntman, performance artist and comedian rolled into one, the 26-year-old Skerrit, whose real name is Dale Richardson, has been the New York dancehall scene’s most colorful character for nearly a decade. The Antigua native also claims a role in the recent popularization of “daggering,” a coed dance craze of sorts that could more accurately be described as a highly animated and greatly exaggerated simulation of sexual intercourse. (The dagger in question is the male participant’s package.) While the practice has, understandably, become a source of some controversy in dancehall’s home Jamaica turf, Skerrit’s approach is perhaps too comedic to elicit much backlash. Using props like ladders, wheelbarrows and, yes, mattresses (“There’s no way you can have a mattress in the club and not have it pop,” he says), the diminutive showman has been known to create a circuslike environment at gigs.
“I just always liked jumping off of stuff— that’s the way we do it at block parties in the Bronx,” Skerrit says. “I don’t call myself a dancer. A lot of people out there are real dancers, man. I’m just a dude that goes to parties and wiles out. The whole daggering thing started when all these male crews were dressing alike, doing synchronized dancing and stuff. I wasn’t interested in that. I was just interested in dry-humping chicks, rubbing on butts and getting it popping. When the ‘girl songs’ came on, all the dudes were chilling in the corner waiting for the dancing songs to come back. That’s when I came out. Boom! We just started doing it harder and faster, and going crazy with it.”
Initially a fringe member (he doesn’t appear on Guns Don’t Kill People or an upcoming EP, Lazers Never Die), Skerrit solidified his role as Major Lazer’s live-show frontman after a memorable turn in the innovative video (directed by Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) for Guns Don’t Kill People single “Pon De Floor.” In the tradition of the Jamaican sound-system DJ, he is more of a hype man than a proper vocalist. “We can count on him to get the people really crazy,” Diplo says. “When we toured Australia people thought he was Major Lazer, which is pretty cool.”
That video for “Pon De Floor” is here—alas, I can’t embed it. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you check it out.) Meanwhile, here’s a live version with “EPIC LIVE DAGGERING”:
OK, another contrast: images from Beach House’s and Major Lazer’s respective Pitchfork sets.
First Beach House:
Now Major Lazer:
The Major Lazer set didn’t disappoint. It was the highest energy performance I saw all day. Diplo and Skerrit Bwoy brought out Chinese lions, dancers, ballerinas, other dancers. Gallons of water went spraying everywhere. Much alcohol was consumed. The now-infamous ladder did not go unscaled, unleapt from. (I tried my best but couldn’t keep up—I was exhausted well before Diplo brought everyone back onstage for an encore.)
So how did my Apollonian friends react to the Dionysian Major Lazer?
“It was boring.”
“It was interesting, but only for about twenty minutes.”
“It didn’t go anywhere.”
“It wasn’t as good as Beach House.”
(Me, exhausted though I was—I could have watched it for five more hours! I would have gotten my second wind at some point.)
What is the source of this disconnect?
I don’t think it’s controversial to claim that the audience at Pitchfork is primarily Apollonian. (It’s hard not to be these days—and I certainly include myself, a bookish dude from Scranton, Pennsylvania, among such ranks.) The dream-and-wit-loving Apollonian stares at Major Lazer and finds—especially in the live act—little to appreciate. Neither the music nor the lyrics are all that clever or intricate. There’s no wit, no artifice, no textual allusion. There’s little or no fantasy to escape into; the insistence rather is on the here and now: on our present bodies, our movements, on our collective exuberance. Confronted with this drunken, irrational “complete forgetfulness of self,” the individualistic Apollonian retreats, having grown impatient. (“It’s OK for twenty minutes.”)
In order to understand what Major Lazer is up to, you need to approach it from the Dionysian perspective.
The very first thing that Skerrit Bwoy said was, “Let’s make it crazy!” And from that point on he was very busy indeed, leaping about the stage, dancing, drinking, stripping, daggering. Making it crazy, chaotic, Dionysian.
Let’s focus on one thing he said repeatedly: “Put your hands in the air.” The Apollonian sees nothing admirable here—it’s just a cliché, offering no ground for intellectual appreciation. But the line is meant to be obeyed, and the appreciation of it is a physical one. Skerrit Bwoy is coaxing the audience to dance, to transform the audience from standing around, head-centric, Apollonian, into participating, body-centric, Dionysian. The music wants to be danced to, not stood around and thought about. It calls for a physical appreciation–a body intelligence, and not a mental one. (It’s telling that in the West we have very little concept of bodily intelligence, thinking of intelligence as a purely mental and abstract thing.) To accomplish this shift, Skerrit Bwoy must transmit instructions—body teachings. “Get those hands up! Keep those hands up!”
You can’t really dance unless you move your pelvis and shoulders. You can’t keep your arms low, held at your side. You need to swing them, raise them. And so Skerrit Bwoy was working to activate first the shoulders, by getting our hands above our heads. That loosens up the torso. (Try it right now and see for yourself. Stand up and raise your arms as quickly as you can. Feel how your body rises in response!)
From there, Skerrit Bwoy encouraged us to bow, to wave—to move the entire torso, the pelvis, the hips. At the same time, he invited us to join him in shouting and yelling (“I say Major, you say Lazer!”). This opens the throat and chest, heats up the body, raises one’s physical energy.
These are strategies, practiced and refined, akin to what a yoga teacher or aerobics instructor will ask of you. Consider this description of Major Lazer’s set at SXSW:
[...] what we got was Diplo mixing up his insanely fun dancehall music while a hype man, Skerrit Bwoy, and a dancer, Mimi, pleased the crowd. It succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.
Mimi was an absolute marvel of athleticism, part stripper and part gymnast. She stood on her head, she did splits, she got lower than low, she vibrated like a Nokia, she wrapped her legs around Skerrit Bwoy and a lucky dude who got pulled from the audience. Skerrit Bwoy, a ball of energy topped with a yellow mohawk, climbed on just about anything and everything, much to the chagrin of the Cedar Street Courtyard’s security. He brought a bunch of female audience members on stage and danced lasciviously with them, he swung a gold chain violently around his neck. He and Mimi made a superlative comedic and acrobatic team, so much so, that I almost forgot that Diplo was even on stage– until he dropped Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” and the crowd went apeshit.
(The two dancers onstage with Skerrit Bwoy were similarly marvelous, really incredible dancers. I regret not knowing their names.)
These collective strategies (and they are strategies, both practiced and rehearsed) activate the audience physically, converting them to a different mental and physical state. Gradually—if the audience members obey—they transition out of head-space and into body-space. They lose their inhibitions. They experience the Dionysian, as described by Nietzsche:
[...] all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power or “saucy fashion” have established between men. Now, with the gospel of world harmony, every man feels himself not only united with his neighbour, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with him, as if the veil of Maja had been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around in the face of the mysterious primordial unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community: he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures. Just as the animals now speak and the earth gives milk and honey, so something supernatural also echoes out of him: he feels himself a god; he himself now moves in as lofty and ecstatic a way as he saw the gods move in his dream. The man is no longer an artist; he has become a work of art: the artistic power of all of nature, to the highest rhapsodic satisfaction of the primordial unity, reveals itself here in the transports of intoxication. The finest clay, the most expensive marble—man—is here worked and hewn, and the cry of the Eleusinian mysteries rings out to the chisel blows of the Dionysian world artist: “Do you fall down, you millions? World, do you have a sense of your creator?”
Sixty minutes into Major Lazer’s set, things looked and felt a lot different than they had at the beginning. (And they certainly looked a lot different than they did during the entirety of Beach House’s set!)
But, if those Dionysian impulses are not obeyed, the Apollonian remains critical, just staring, eyebrows arched, mouth a grim line. Or, as Nietzsche puts it:
Even in the German Middle Ages, under the same power of Dionysus, constantly growing hordes thronged from place to place, singing and dancing; in these St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dances we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, with its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea. There are people who, from a lack of experience or out of apathy, turn mockingly or pityingly away from such phenomena as from a “sickness of the people,” with a sense of their own health. These poor people naturally do not have any sense of how deathly and ghost-like this very “health” of theirs sounds, when the glowing life of the Dionysian throng roars past them. [my emphasis]
Ultimately, the Dionysian is not to be favored over the Apollonian. I finished writing this between 5–7 A.M. in my office at DePaul, after having been awoken around 3 by my downstairs neighbors. They’d decided that that was a great time to drink, smoke up, have a little party. Well, I love my neighbors, and due to their exuberance there was no real use in arguing with them, so I got dressed and headed downtown. While walking to the train I thought, there are times when the Dionysian should be in bed (experiencing “the deep consciousness of a healing and helping nature in sleep and dreaming”).
But even when it’s obnoxious, the Dionysian can still be appreciated. My neighbors were having a good time. They inconvenienced me, but they didn’t kill me. I came downtown, got some coffee, finished writing this post.
And outside the train station, I passed some young girls and guys excitedly climbing the Logan Square Monument (a Doric column, I couldn’t help but note—talk about the Dionysian confronting the Apollonian!). My next thought was: When was the last time that I climbed something? Too long a time, I’m afraid, because I’ve been too busy doing other things instead: teaching, writing, sitting in front of a computer screen. Being out of balance.
As Nietzsche understood, the Apollonian and the Dionysian want similar goals: to escape out from under Nihilism and pessimism, to pursue a life worth living. Both offer routes toward fulfillment, and both routes should be taken—alternately when necessary, but simultaneously, ideally.
The trick lies in being open.