ESSAY: Has COVID-19 Set the Stage for Techno to Revisit its Protest Music Roots?

by | May 11, 2020 | Essay | 0 comments

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, techno’s latest resurgence was approaching a critical mass. A culture of commercial icon worship grew ever present in the wake of the festival boom. The undercurrent responded by tightening its grip and rejecting new ideas, contradicting the movement’s futurist philosophy.

Then came the pandemic. Among the novel coronavirus’ first economic impacts was the crash of said festivals. What followed was a domino effect of quarantine restrictions imposed by lawmakers around the globe whose ethicality continues to be hotly debated. Ahead lies a severe global recession at the least, and an era of bitter unrest in countless regions at the worst. 

As dismal as 2020 has turned out thus far, though, this year’s affairs have arguably equipped techno to re-emerge as the powerful social commentary tool that it once was. 

COVID-19 would itself be a great DJ name if not for the gravity of the disease’s dire implications. The abbreviation is now firmly embedded in our collective unconscious; its very cadence conjures imagery of panic and isolation. While event bans may prevent techno from being enjoyed in the industrial spaces for which it’s best suited, music of all genres is accessible as ever amid a rise in live streams and virtual events. Moreover, the state of affairs has given artists willing to make a statement a veritable wellspring of subject matter.

To the uninitiated, techno’s calculated noise and unrelenting kick drums may not smack of protest. Those with a keen ear – or, perhaps, a cursory knowledge of the genre’s roots – can hear the disenfranchised yearning in its cold, truthful throbs, however. If the work of a few artists is any indication, though, it may soon be more even more obvious.

Historically, at least, it hasn’t been overt. A deeply rooted musical kinship between Detroit and Germany has led to a common point of confusion regarding techno’s supposed birthplace – but one that, when untangled, illuminates much of the movement’s politically charged roots. By many accounts, German producer and DJ Talla 2XLC is credited as having coined the descriptor in Frankfurt as discussed in the film, We Call It Techno! Detroit electronic music pioneer Juan Atkins corroborated as much in an interview with Wired, recounting, “…there were a lot of electronic musicians around when Cybotron started [in 1980], and I think maybe half of them referred to their music as ‘techno.’”

Originally an umbrella term for numerous early electronic music styles, each of techno’s manifold permutations reflected the drudgery of Cold War Germany in its own way. The industrial/EBM sound of English band Nitzer Ebb was a mainstay of early techno clubs, with song titles like “Warsaw Ghetto” and “Murderous” speaking to the anti-establishment attitude of youths at the time. It was in this place and time that techno figurehead Sven Väth laid the foundation of his own career, at the time championing much of the same.

Across the pond, Atkins and other African-American artists in Detroit took cues from the Germans while forging their own sonic legacy. Seeking to differentiate their sound from disco-derived Chicago house (especially acid house, which has been described as “proto-techno”), he adopted the term to describe the emerging style of his Motor City contemporaries. Atkins released a compilation titled Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit through U.K. Virgin Records imprint 10 Records in 1988.

If Detroit artists indeed took the Germans’ terminology, however, they repaid the debt with a sound that greatly influenced the European techno landscape. The compilation – which featured tracks by first-wave Detroit techno mainstays like Eddie Fowlkes, Blake Baxter and Kevin Saunderson – achieved little commercial success but was warmly received in England, the Netherlands and Germany. Younger fans in the latter country especially preferred it to the spectrum of styles traditionally known as techno.

The electronic music coming out of Detroit at the time leaned more towards melody than what is commonly called techno today. That much remained the same as a second wave of producers carried the torch. The dissonant chords of songs like “Java” by Kenny Larkin and “A Wonderful Life” by Carl Craig managed to eerily capture the hardships faced by the city’s black communities in the wake of the 1967 race riots and energy crisis of the ’70s nonetheless. 

For some, techno represented a utopian escape from the Detroit’s squalor and urban decay. “We never felt like we were really part of the city,” said Detroit innovator Derrick May in the documentary Techno City. “But at the same time the resentment and the anger developed this underground and demented passion for Detroit … so we sort of lost our anger and we gained our passion.”

Others weren’t as eager to let go, perhaps most notably Underground Resistance founders Jeff Mills, Robert Hood and “Mad” Mike Banks. Referred to as the “public enemy of techno” not long ago by Vulture, the label and collective founded in 1989 donned masks during performances in what came across to many as a deliberate attempt to evoke fear. In defiance of what they considered a commercial whitewashing of their music, they branded themselves with allusions to militarism and uprising.

Around the same time, though, something resembling the first-wave artists’ utopian vision began to take shape in Germany. 1990 marked the fall of the Berlin wall, symbolic of the end of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany’s oppressive regime. A Berlin party series called Tekknozid was among the first gatherings to unite East and West Germans on the same dancefloor. This cross pollination led to East German DJs playing in West Germany and vice versa – a microcosm of the country’s greater reunification.

Despite much of techno’s politically charged folklore fading to the background in the economically prosperous years that followed, themes of social commentary still emerge around it from time to time. In 2018, a far-right rally in Berlin was met by thousands of protestors. Booming out over their rainbow flags and signage from a loudspeaker were more contemporary iterations of the genre.

Similar scenarios have played out in other countries. Raids of creative spaces like Bassiani and Café Gallery by local authorities in Tbilisi, Georgia elicited backlash from demonstrators. Chanting “We dance together; we fight together,” their assembly at the capitol building pressured officials into calling off their investigation. Politicians in Ecuador are also said to have flirted with the idea of appealing to younger voters with techno after the country’s capital city, Quito, emerged as a music hub.

Such instances may be growing more frequent in light of the pandemic – albeit in a different form.

Likely owing to the all-pervasive presence of COVID-19 in 2020, references to the novel coronavirus have now crept into the music itself. Although a more commercial tangent within techno, Pleasurekraft’s “Panopticon” (from their April album, Love in the Age of Machines) offers up such an example. The track was accompanied by a music video that, without directly mentioning the virus, offered up commentary on fears of mass surveillance that have been stoked by lawmaker response to it.

Tyranny” from Portugese artist Ninna V touched on totalitarian overreach through spoken-word samples. Other examples only relate to the virus insofar as their inspirations are concerned. Such a track is “Tear Down The System” by Milwaukee multidisciplinary producer and DJ SubXtort, which garnered support by Perc Trax during a recent live stream set (Disclosure: SubXtort A.K.A. Brian Douglas designed the artwork for this article).

It remains to be seen whether the handful of electronic musicians exploring techno as protest music turn out to be the early adopters of a broader trend. It also begs the question of whether the scene’s culture could grow to embolden public advocacy, either for or against restrictions, and independently of creative content.

What is certain is that sociopolitical pressures like the ones that gave shape to techno will be widely felt in the wake of the pandemic. Even if lawmakers were to lift all restrictions immediately, job losses have already surpassed those of the Great Depression in much of the developed world. As coordinated as lawmaker response to the coronavirus has been, it’s also set dangerous precedents in more politically corrupt regions where incentive to infringe on public liberties could extend lockdowns longer than necessary.

Amid polarized messaging from officials that leaves some fearful of poverty like that of Detroit and others of fascist overreach reminiscent of Cold War Germany, perhaps the unyielding sincerity of techno will resonate with a broader audience. With dystopian scenarios all the more plausible, the utopian subtext of its familiar soundscapes might fall on far fewer deaf ears. In a perfect world, however, the sense of global citizenship it seems to foster will present an alternative to nationalism as establishments fail their communities in the face of the crisis.

Officials around the world have begun to gradually loosen business restrictions, but larger gatherings remain much further out on the horizon. Uncertain as the coming months may be, time has told that the music, in any event, will play on.

Artwork: Brian Douglas A.K.A. SubXtort

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