Friday, April 15, 2011

Dancing at the Festival of Faith and Music

When you decide to be a DJ, a lot of things happen at once. First, you can no longer play a song solely for your self. You turn what used to be personal enjoyment into a grueling job, accepting money in exchange for a less dignified taste in music. It's humbling work for a music-lover, but work that may alternately indulge the ego and increase self-confidence. Of all the people in the bar, there is only one person playing the music. You. Girls flirt with you for no other reason than to hear an Usher song. They touch your arm, and you say "yes." Endorphins run wild. It's hard to fall asleep the night after a good party. But you keep the party on. You keep them thirsty.

DJs need alcohol. That is, we need people to buy drinks from the bar. Two reasons we need people to drink: dancing, and a higher payout at the end of the night. At least for rookie DJs, for most of our gigs we are paid according to a percentage of the bar sales. This is why your annoying DJ friends are always asking you to come out to their gigs on Thursday nights. They are promoters as much as they are taste-makers. And sometimes they're not even taste-makers, they just take requests for a few hours and act cool behind a laptop.

I had the opportunity to DJ at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Music last week. I had the last slot on the schedule. After shows by Matisyahu, My Brightest Diamond, The Civil Wars and Jon Foreman, Dylan Peterson DJed on Saturday night.

On my drive up to Grand Rapids, I wondered, "what kind of kids are going to come out for this? A Saturday night, on campus, without alcohol... Am I going to bomb?" Up until this point, I had only DJed in places where the alcohol was the selling point, and not the DJ. People had fun at my gigs because they were buzzed. How will the people of "faith" react to my set?

My set started quietly, with some remixes of HEALTH by Little Loud. Only a few kids were in the space, dancing probably out of pity, or boredom. But about 15 minutes after I started a stampede of people charged in with balloons, party hats and foam glasses. They were dancing before they even knew what song was on, so I quickly threw on Gettin' Jiggy With It to see how they'd handle it. These kids moved every inch on their bodies. There wasn't even a pivot foot on the floor. It was insanity.

And this went on for two straight hours. Past midnight. On a Saturday night. On the campus of a Christian college.

It reminded me of an interview I did with Ratatat a few years prior. They played a show at Calvin College, and told me that the kids there were crazier than any other city in the country. They guessed that the kids must have been drinking paint thinner or something, because they never saw anything like it.

I thought the same thing last week. There was no way these kids could be dancing as hard as they were without some foreign substance inspiring their movement.

But this week I've been thinking about it, and it's starting to make sense. Even though it's liberal compared to other Christian universities, Calvin is still a Bible college. A lot of restraint is encouraged at this school, under a guise of "personal discernment." This was the school that less than a year ago, cancelled a New Pornographers concert on campus for the sole reason that the band's name wasn't savory. This school is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the only real cultural attraction in the town is Rob Bell's Mars Hill church.

These kids are champagne trapped under a thumb, and I popped the cork last weekend. In Chicago where we drink every other night, there's no pressure to dance. But at Calvin College, you might hold yourself back for months until a fleeting moment actually gives you a chance to release some energy. It was a blast to be able to play music for these kids who didn't need anything other than their own excitement in order to go crazy.

However, I noticed that when they haven't had anything to drink, the girls don't flirt as hard with me. And while that's not as great for the old self-confidence, at least they dance.

Because, ultimately, being a DJ is just being a part of the crowd. If the mob demands Black Eyed Peas, they will get Black Eyed Peas. And the DJ will get retarded with them. It's a communal experience, moving around to rhythms. There's no time for taste when we're dancing. No time for discernment. It's just about movement. So whether I'm at a Christian college in Michigan or a gay bar in Chicago, we're all just having some fun.

So drink up, or not.

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