“Emerging in 1954-55, rock music was initially referred to as ‘rock ‘n’ roll.’ After 1964 it was simply called ‘rock music.’ The change in terminology indicates both a continuity with and a break from the earlier period; rock music was no longer just for dancing.”
In 1955, authorities in San Diego and Florida warned Elvis Presley that if he moved at all during his local performances, he would be arrested on obscenity charges. The same year, CBS canceled Alan Freed’s Rock ’n’ Roll Dance Party when a camera focused on Frankie Lymon, the black singer of Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, dancing with a white girl.
When Rolling Stone asked R&B queen Ruth Brown to name the specific moment when R&B became rock ’n’ roll, she replied, “When the white kids started to dance to it.” From Elvis’ hips to disco’s flamboyant moves to punk’s mosh pits, rock ’n’ roll has been partially defined by the audience’s physical reaction to the music. As fey as it may sound, rock ’n’ roll’s history is inseparably tied to dancing.
Entering 2003, however, rock fans have lost their happy feet. No longer is the rock show a throng of teens trotting out new dance moves. It’s no longer a battlefield of bodies slamming against each other. At your normal concert nowadays—from the tiniest rock dive to massive arena shows—the audience is a static entity. Arms aren’t thrown in the air—they’re folded across the chest or buried in pockets.
When did rock move from a nubile orgy to a stationary spectator event? How did rockers lose their groove?
Zack Wentz, frontman for local band Kill Me Tomorrow, points to the mosh pit as the turning point. Originally from Portland, he recalls a Fugazi show in the early ’90s when vocalist Ian MacKaye came down hard on stage divers and the “skinheads beating the shit out of each other and everybody else.” MacKaye’s authoritative presence, Wentz says, had an impact on the entire scene.
“After that, a lot of the leading hipsters in popular local bands started dressing more downbeat with blank t-shirts and Chuck Taylors,” he says. “Lots of shaved heads or otherwise blank haircuts and moshing or doing anything other than paying very strict attention at shows was totally uncool.”
Wentz says around that time, rock bands became more “cerebral and streamlined” whereas before they had been “pretty eclectic and wacky.” For him, it was the end of his punk era. The positive side effect, he says, was that rock shows became less violent.
“After Nirvana blew up and punk became a more mainstream commodity you could buy those clothes and boots and hair dye at malls in the suburbs and learn to mosh from seeing it on MTV, Lollapolooza and all that. The mystery was gone so the core of the thing became more introverted.
“The freak flag had been lowered, taken down and unceremoniously burned. Being conservative was the only logical way for the rock kids at the front lines to stay ahead of the pack. Playing sloppy and loud and going apeshit was passé. You learned to play more classically, turned down and started making serious songs. Needless to say it set a new standard for a decade.”
Granted, other genres picked up the slack. Though no longer the cultural force that it was in the ’90s, raves still pack in droves of mobile music lovers. Hip-hop and electronica shows get the crowd moving far more often than rock. And the whole groove jazz movement—spearheaded locally by artists like Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Robert Walter—gets people off their asses.
Partially to blame is the environment: rock dives like the Casbah are notorious for what local scenester Kim Sparrow calls “the Casbah forbidden zone”—a sort of no-fly grid that usually forms between the musicians onstage and the immobile crowd.
“I am on an ongoing mission to find the wily and elusive dance shows,” Sparrow says, noting that bands like Zen Guerilla, Har Mar Superstar and local band Gogogo Airheart got the “forbidden zone” moving.
“At first I was thinking it was the funk and electronic-tinged bands that had a hold on the dance segment,” she says, “but the the Dirt Bombs, Zen Guerilla, Les Savy Fav and the Gossip [all bands on her “dance shows” list] aren’t funk or electronic at all.”
Jeff Trageser, one half of the electronic jamboree known as Rotator, says it’s not just indie or rock crowds that don’t dance. Even though Rotator plays music that is custom-built for boogie, fans are reluctant to let loose at their shows.
“If we can get 10 cute girls to dance at a Rotator show then maybe a few guys will join,” he says. “Otherwise, they all stand arms folded around the periphery—even people who tell us they dig our music, which is straight up house/big beat. People will only dance to DJs in San Diego. It makes me want to move to the U.K.”
Local electronic musician The Snodgrass thinks it’s a silly discussion. It’s just personal preference—the pressure to dance is just as insidious as the pressure not to.
“Different people go to different shows and enjoy them in different ways.
“Who’s to say one should or shouldn’t dance at a show?” he says. “Chances are, those who are getting criticized for not dancing are in turn critcizing those who do. You just can’t win. And at the end of the night, does it really matter? No.”
He’s not really bothered by people who don’t dance at his shows, even though his music is categorized as IDM (Intelligent Dance Music).
“I’ve got problems with the ones that do dance,” he jokes. “They twitch and flail around like pseudo-hippie whirling dirvishes and elbow those of us who are listening to the music in the face.”
However, Wentz, who also heads up an electronic side project called Tender Buttons, says he sees the tide turning once again.“Just recently—surprise, surprise—it’s become cool to make noisy, wild dance bands and look and act like a freak again. No-wave, disco-punk and ‘ass-shaking’ are all making a comeback,” he says. “I think it’s a good thing. I’m enjoying new music more now than I did through a lot of the ’90s.”