Do artists have a responsibility to push their fans into new and exciting territories? Is there anything wrong with giving your public exactly what they know they want, if it remains true to who you are? Does embracing mass popular culture somehow harm your credibility as an artist?
There's a tension in the nightlife world surrounding this very notion of "credibility" in music and what DJs include in their sets. Many of the important venues in New York City, for example, put very stringent restrictions on the music DJs can play. While some allow DJs free reign, others have a staff member that stands over your shoulder, critiquing each and every song choice that you make. One of the most common musical directives given by top venues in the city is "NO TOP 40," a credo which is believed to up a venue's cool factor. Likewise, many DJs themselves, who are competing in an industry and city where this same "cool factor" can seem to be everything, overtly eschew any and all things popular as somehow depreciating that "coolness."
I have a big problem with this. How can we define a "popular" song anyway? When I first came across Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks" over a year and half ago, it was simply an indie-rock dance jam, something akin to MGMT and Empire of the Sun, artists who never quite crossed over onto American Top 40 radio. The song could easily be played at gigs that forbid Top 40 music, and I once played it at a very selective nightlife spot that is widely known to to put fierce limitations on what their DJs play. No fewer than 12 people came up to me in the minute and half I was playing "Pumped Up Kicks" to ask about the song. The innate interest in the song by that particular crowd speaks to both to its power as a record and its status at the time as an acceptable "indie," aka non-Top 40, record that this "elite" audience felt OK embracing.
Things changed rapidly over a year for "Pumped Up Kicks," however, as it became one of the defining hits of 2011. Does the song's move from "indie dance" to "pop music" mean that "Pumped Up Kicks" is no longer a credible song for me to spin? Does artfully working "Pumped Up Kicks," and other recent crossovers like Cee-Lo's "F**k You," Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," and even Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," into my set make me a less authentic DJ? I'll never forget being scolded for playing "Pumped Up Kicks" a few months later at the very same venue where the song had been such a smash in its obscurity only months earlier, with the manager sharply informing me they "don't play Top 40 here." I was never hired there again.
The truth is that, even for songs that are more genetically engineered for mass modern audiences than "Pumped Up Kicks," a huge amount of work, talent and ingenuity goes into creating an effective pop song. Rendering music that is beloved by billions of people of disparate cultures across the globe is arguably one of the the hardest things for a musician to achieve and, whether the architect is the singer themselves or a team of other talented producers and songwriters, it is something that commands respect. The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling," while not a personal favorite of mine, was the defining hit that it was for a reason. Everyone across the globe had a moment with that song. I have vivid memories of walking through a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where day-to-day survival was in serious question for each resident, and hearing "I Gotta Feeling" blasting from busted boom-boxes seemingly everywhere I turned. The song struck a serious chord. Many records have aimed for the same and failed miserably.
It is possible and in certain instances crucial to DJ a set that will please even the most simple-minded of audiences while still maintaining one's sense of artistic integrity. You can probably discern at this point that there is no greater defender of popular music than me (a treasured Page Six mention once read: "DJ Louie XIV played 'Party In the USA' for Kesha on NYE!"). As someone who likes to find a balance between the woefully obscure and the most "mass" of pop culture, my philosophy has always been to rely on my taste to curate best of all words. Most importantly, I define myself as a DJ as someone dedicated to good music, whatever the genre or presence in pop culture, and mostly to fun, at all costs.
The truth is, I get just as much of a rush from everyone losing it to the drop in "We Found Love" as the people listening to my set do. This song, among many other premium Top 40 cuts, will eventually become the new standards, a la the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" or every Michael Jackson song ever. As Yale Fox, a professor and DJ who uses nightclubs to study human behavior, said in his TED talk, a large part of the reason we have fun dancing in nightclubs is because the act of everyone singing and connecting on one song releases oxytocin in our brain, a chemical that produces a highly pleasurable experience not unlike having sex. Creating this mass connection between everyone in the crowd and myself is as amazing for me as following "Love" with a Savage Skulls b-side that they may have never heard before but then also embrace. The bottom line is that I do not DJ so that other DJs or venue owners think I'm cool, although it's great to get respect from your industry peers. I get pleasure from what I do by using the music I love to make sure my crowd has the night of their lives.
It's high time everyone drop the too-cool-for-school mentality in urban nightlife. Going out at night is, of course, always to some degree about feeling "cool," but heading out for a romp in our fair city should be primarily about having fun, and perhaps even finding love in a hopeless place. DJs should be allowed to do what is true to them and at least be given the opportunity to please the crowd, using their skill at their profession to do so.