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Chapter 2, Part 1: Touching Strangers: Touch and Intimacy on the Dancefloor

July 16, 2011

Somewhere in Paris, 11eme arr., 2006

Back when I had just returned from my second year of fieldwork in Paris, I had this great moment of short-circuited intimacy. I was at Souvenir#3 warehouse party (with Seuil headlining), when a woman came up and introduced herself as a Lola, a friend of some friends I had in Chicago. We talked briefly, and then went back to dancing. More than twelve hours later, as I was leaving the after-party, our mutual friend asks me and Lola if we had met each other. Lola replied, “Of course! We’re best friends,” and we gave each other a big hug and a peck on the cheek. When I wrote about it on my old blog a few days later, I was really struck by the way we went from perfect strangers to “best friends” in the space of a night of partying. This chapter is about making sense of this sort of time-warped intimacy and heightened tactility.

(This is the fourth installment of a series where I summarize my dissertation in through blog posts. You can find the inaugural post here.)

This chapter focuses on the peculiar status of intimacy in the EDM scenes that I studied. I describe this by pointing to the gap between conventional “common sense” notions of what intimacy is and the way it is practiced in these communities. I focus on touch—tactile practices and touch norms—as a way of talking about intimacy in these contexts. Based on interviews (as well as my own experiences), I’ve found that people are generally more tactile with each other at EDM events (i.e., more open to touch, more ready to touch others), and that their attitudes about what kinds of touch are appropriate are also more flexible. However, this increased tactility can have ambivalent consequences for people who are subject to unwelcome touch—especially women—and so I also focus on how women navigate the difficult terrain between tactile intimacy, sensuous pleasure, and sexual harassment. In any case, I also examine how the music itself aesthetically represents—and maybe elicits—this heightened tactility: EDM genres such as house and techno foreground percussion, use sound-samples that index the body, and favors granular sonic textures—all of which encourages a touch-oriented engagement with sound. All of this work leads to a reconceptualization of intimacy as proximity and contact, which highlights the ways that intimacy actually happens on the dancefloor: with strangers and acquaintances, among bodies dancing in close quarters, and through communicative/expressive channels other than talk.

A Night Out

Before going into the “meat” of this chapter, I start with a section that gives the reader some idea of what “a night out” partying can entail in the EDM scenes that I work on. This part is mostly directed towards non-clubbing academic readers, who might not have a clue about what an afterparty is or how an EDM event in a club is different from one in a bar, warehouse, private residence, etc. If you’re reading this on my blog, you probably know all of this pretty intimately, so I’m not going to bore you here with what will probably sound like overly-generalizing over-explanation of the obvious. Nonetheless, to give you some idea of what I cover in this section, here are a few important points: 1) Although there is usually a main event that you’re going to attend on any given night, “a night out“ often includes some sort of pre-party activity, the main party, and then an after-party (“optional, but recommended”); 2) there are a bunch of different kinds of venues that are in frequent use for EDM events, including nightclubs, bars, industrial spaces (e.g., warehouses), and domestic spaces; 3) Berlin tends to be relatively lax and permissive about regulating nightlife, and so parties tend to run on longer, be more free-form, and take place in more unusual venues than in Chicago (heavily policed, more “underground”) or Paris (thoroughly regulated, integrated into entertainment industry).

Touch on the Dancefloor

I start here with an observation that might seem obvious to party kids, but still merits some explanation: at EDM events, there’s an intensification of touch between people (friends, acquaintances, strangers) that is in contrast with regular “everyday” behavior. In addition to my own observations at EDM events, I also draw from interviews, in which my interlocutors compared the way that they interacted physically with strangers and friends at EDM parties to the way they interact with others in everyday public life. Many interviewees mentioned particular gestures that were common in EDM contexts but unusual/inappropriate in others, such as: arms around waists or shoulders while talking, hugs and/or kisses as greetings, a squeeze on the forearm to say hello on the dancefloor. During my analysis of interviews as well as my own observations, I often used the concept of social or behavioral “norms” to talk about these levels of intensified tactility: even though each person has her/his personal tendencies regarding touch, groups also tend to develop a shared sense of what is permitted, encouraged, expected, and forbidden. In this sense, norms are the usually unspoken and vague “rules” that usually only come to light when someone violates them (you could compare this to the concept of “social fact” in Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method1901).

Most people used a sort of daytime/nighttime comparison to articulate these differences in touch norms, but some also compared EDM events to other nightlife events (e.g., indie rock shows, jazz jam sessions, noise music concerts) or even between EDM sub-styles (e.g., house parties vs. trance parties vs. dubstep parties). Also, there were a few people that I interviewed who have lived and partied in more than one of the cities that I studied (Paris, Chicago, Berlin), and they would also make comparisons between the EDM scenes of each city. Although these inter-city comparisons mostly characterized Chicago’s EDM scenes as most tactile and Paris’s scenes as least tactile—which is a comparison that also pertains across everyday touch norms from city to city, in my experience—everyone agreed that the touch norms in the EDM scenes of each city were more open to touch than their respective everyday touch norms. In other words, touching between strangers and friends is more frequent and more intense at EDM events than in public settings, regardless of what city you’re in.

Many of the people I interviewed made other interesting comments about touch at EDM events, in addition to this comparison about intensified tactility. For example, several interviewees said that their own attitudes about touch changed as they went to more EDM events: they became more comfortable with this heightened tactility at EDM events, and they also became more tactile in their everyday life outside of the EDM scene. Several people mentioned the role that drugs played in increasing an openness to touch—especially Ecstasy (MDMA)—although almost all of them also insisted that these drugs only heightened the tactility and intimacy that was already occurring (i.e., drugs aren’t uniquely responsible for these effects). One interviewee talked about how touch was a way of “passing energy” between bodies (which actually foreshadows some of the argument in Chapter 4).

In keeping with the focus on touch norms, many interviewees were interested in articulating the difference between “good” and “bad” kinds of touch. People often did this by sorting instances of touch (i.e., specific gestures) into different modes of touch. Although everyone had their own way of naming and sorting these modes, they fell into recognizable patterns that characterized touch as: a functional gesture of perception (e.g., moving through a crowd) or communication (e.g., getting someone’s attention); an expressive gesture; a sharing gesture (e.g., hugging or squeezing an arm in order to share a powerful musical moment); an erotic gesture; or a possessive/violent gesture. So, for example, some people said that touch was OK when it was expressing friendliness or sharing an intense moment, but not so when the touch had erotic intentions. Other people, however, thought that erotic touch could be wonderful—even between strangers—but that it must not be coercive or violent. This is something we’ll get back to later, when I talk about gender and sexual touch.

With all of possible meanings and layers of interpretation, you can see how one gesture can have multiple meanings (e.g., a hand on the shoulder = “excuse me, I need to get through,” “Hey! You’re hot,” ”Hi, friend!”, “Hey, how’re you feeling so far?”, “OMG this DJ is amazing!”, etc…) and a whole array of gestures can have the same meaning (e.g., “Hey, buddy!” = a wave, a hand on the shoulder, an arm over the shoulders, a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a kiss on the lips, a smack on the ass). These complexities leave a lot of room for misunderstanding, and collectively-held touch norms only partially (and vaguely) resolve them.

Sonic Tactility in EDM

EDM events are intensely tactile spaces, as can be seen by the various modes of touch that interviewees use to make sense of tactile interaction. These modes describe a pattern of tactile practices that provide the basis for a vague and loose set of touch norms. These norms—as well as the tactile experience of the dancefloor itself—are rearticulated through music, both thematically and texturally. By “thematically,” I mean that the styles of EDM played at these events make touch a kind of musical theme by emphasizing percussion, using sound samples that index the human body (i.e., sounds that treat the body as an “instrument”), and sometimes by making explicit reference to touch (through lyrics, when applicable). By “texturally,” I mean that the sound of EDM also appeals to our sense of touch: the sonic texture of EDM tracks references touch by employing rich, “granular” samples as well as by layering loops of contrasting sounds in order to create a complex overall texture.

In my dissertation, I give a bunch of examples for this “sonic tactility” in EDM tracks, both thematically and texturally. For my purposes here, I’ll just mention one for each mode of sonic tactility. A good example of a thematic use of touch in an EDM track would be the Martinez remix of Matthew Dear and Seth Troxler‘s 2010 track, “Hurt (Martinez Dark Soul Remix)” (Discogs link):

This track foregrounds touch through two sets of samples: 1) prominent, resonant percussion; and 2) embodied vocal sounds. The bass kick is deep and resonant throughout the track, and it’s quickly filled in with layered mid-range percussion patterns (congas, tom-toms, and other “acoustic” percussion sounds). The embodied vocal sounds come from the voices of Matthew Dear and Seth Troxler, which were “close mic’d” in the original version, that is, recorded with the microphone close to the mouth, which picks up the sounds of the breath, teeth, lips, and tongue. In this remix by Martinez, these intimate body sounds are complemented with other mouth sounds, chopped into fragments and scattered in compressed loops. From the beginning of the track, you can hear gasps, half-muttered words, drawn-out sibilant/fricative consonants (ssss and ffff), and what sounds like a muffled voice asking an upward gliding “Wha?” again and again.

A clear example of a textural reference to tactility in EDM would be Oliver Hacke‘s track, “Milliepieds (SLG Remix)” (Discogs link):

SLG’s remix of this minimal techno track fills in the track’s texture with a proliferation of granular sounds, from coarse to fine-grained: from the beginning of the track, one can hear a back-and-forth scrubbing sound like sandpaper (on the third beat of every 4/4 bar), a zipper-like rasping sound (on the third beat of nearly every bar), a hissing sound (at the end of nearly every bar), and a wide array of other pops and crackles that occur less frequently. All of these are sounds that “sound like“ textures or textured objects (e.g., zippers, sandpaper, a güiro scraper, etc.), which engages not only our auditory senses but also our tactile memory. (Another place to look for good examples of this is among the tracks and remixes of Hamburg producer Stimming).

On the dancefloor of EDM events, the experience of listening and dancing to EDM tracks such as these invites an engagement with sound that is alive to texture, touch, and other fleshy excitations. Through granular/percussive samples and sounds that index the body, the rich textures of tracks such as “Millepieds” or “Hurt” might encourage partygoers to experience the whole party as intensely tactile.

Previous in series: Introduction, Part 2: Fieldwork Sites and Methods

Coming up next: Chapter 2, Part 2: Gender, Sexual Touch, and Rethinking Intimacy

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