‘This is where I heal my hurts’: musical therapy on SoundCloud & YouTube during the COVID-19 pandemic
As you begin reading, could I invite you to start playing the mix embedded below, as long as you are comfortably able to read and listen at the same time:
The anthropologist Scott R. Hutson has written about the self- and group-healing capacity of raving in a 1999 paper that can be freely downloaded here. ‘Raves don’t cure disease, but when someone claims that “last night a DJ saved my life,” it is reasonable to suspect that at least some form of healing takes place’ (ibid., p.71). For Hutson, reflecting on raving and ravers at the apex of the nineties, the agency of rave culture to maintain its aesthetic and ethical underpinnings beyond the liminal realm of the rave as (physical) practice was yet undecided: ‘rave communities dissolve when the rave ends,’ Hutson argued, and are only ‘sometimes revived over the web’ (ibid., p.67). This post will explore the extent to which digital platforms, specifically SoundCloud and YouTube, not only serve to maintain networks of ravers (i.e., DJs, label bosses, promoters, clubgoers, etc.) but also to mediate and preserve some of rave culture’s most central tenets that have – like those of other (sub)cultural spheres – been placed under threat during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when gatherings have been highly restricted. (There have, for example, been some illegal raves in the UK and Berlin’s Resident Advisor page is starting to become populated with events again as one promoter advises prospective clubgoers: ‘remember to behave appropriately for the current situation.’)
(1) In the opening section of this post, I will give a brief introduction to pre-pandemic vs. pandemic SoundCloud mixes, describing the emergence of a pandemic-responsive genre of mix on SoundCloud. (2) I will go on to analyse the British DJ Dax J’s “Isolation Mix” as a case of this emergent genre of mix, specifically focusing on the comments section of this upload, contrasting this with a discussion of the same upload to YouTube. (3) Finally, I will discuss the formative – yet, too readily disregarded – contribution of black artists to the cultures I am here writing about.
1) Pre-pandemic and pandemic mixes on SoundCloud
The ability to freely stream music has been crucial in helping me to get through the tougher moments of the pandemic and, perhaps more importantly, to appreciate the lighter ones; actually, to forget about the pandemic in hours immersed in a sonic world outside of this one (see Figure 1., below).
I find my sense that streaming sites can be drawn upon to soothe COVID-19-related anxiety echoed across SoundCloud in the emergence of a new mix genre, which is variously styled by the accounts uploading these mixes as “isolation,” “lockdown,” and “quarantine” mixes (see Table 1., below). Whereas platforms like Spotify and iTunes are primarily oriented around single-track, EP, and album distribution, SoundCloud is home to many DJ mixes (the sequencing of musical tracks), which tend to be between one to three hours in duration, although they feasibly could last anything up to SoundCloud’s limit of six hours and 45 minutes (per continuous upload).
|SoundCloud Search Term|
No. of Mix Uploads:
Past Wk. (03.07.2020 – 10.07.2020)
|No. of Mix Uploads:|
Past Mth. (June 2020 – July 2020)
|Total: 354||Total: 1239+|
There are probably further relevant examples beyond “isolation”/”lockdown”/”quarantine”, but these are the three linguistic designations I’ve notice surface within my own SoundCloud bubble. As I have written in an unpublished working paper for DiscourseNet’s COVID-19 series, ‘[t]hese such mixes can be considered cases of a nascent genre of mix emerging on SoundCloud that is neither contingent upon nor specifically influenced by a fixed musical genre but rather the context of the pandemic, such that this choice of mix title can be observed across many musical genres.’ (For the purposes of the analytical component of this post, the main musical genre focus will be techno, although you are currently listening to AAAA’s ambient mix.)
Prior to the pandemic, mixes uploaded to SoundCloud might have been recorded at a club event, in which case the co-textual written material accompanying the sonic mode might seek to evoke something of the first-hand, corporeally and spiritually harmonizing experience of that night, as does Bassiani’s page here in its synopsis of Rødhåd’s mix (see Figs. 2. & 3., below):
This mix by Rødhåd via Bassiani, recorded during his all-night spectacle at the Tbilisi-based club in September 2019, promises to conjure the deepest shades of techno as they were emitted on the night itself, to hypnotize the listener as the mass of ravers were hypnotized at the actual event, and to mirror the mounting cascade of basslines that drew night into day under Rødhåd’s mastery back in that (pre-pandemic) moment that has been temporospatially suspended via SoundCloud.
If you have been letting AAAA’s mix play out until this point, I would like to invite you to prepare yourself for a change in mood and listen for a while – for as long as you like! – to the first mix below before trying the second, embedded directly beneath the first; both are recordings from Rødhåd’s all-nighter in Tbilisi, but the shift in momentum from the subtle promise of the opening tracks in the first to the audible cries of exaltation from ravers overlaying the drama at 15 – 20 seconds into the second is palpable.
It is clear that – even before COVID-19 social-distancing measures became globally commonplace – SoundCloud listeners are to be served a holistic experience when they access mixes there. Beyond the music itself, this is achieved by Bassiani through drawing upon a wellspring of (linguistic) signifiers of techno discourse – a wellspring that has been collectively formulated by the global techno community. In this way, the kind of poetic resynthesis of that night formulated by Bassiani’s writing here complies with Biehl and vom Lehn’s (2016) discussion of the ‘aesthetic work’ – a multimodal, semiotic-discursive kind of work – contributed by members of techno (and rave) communities to ensure the aesthetic and ethical domains of their culture continue to circulate beyond the bounds of the rave itself, rather contrasting with Hutson’s view that rave as discourse is over when rave as physical practice is over (‘rave communities dissolve when the rave ends’). (Unfortunately, Biehl and vom Lehn’s article is behind a paywall, here, but their abstract can be accessed here.)
This so-called ‘aesthetic work’ serves, in Huston’s words now, ‘…to create a framework for spiritual healing’ (1999, p.63). This framework, always evolving, is continually – and multimodally – re/constructed as a means to self- and group-soothe under a phenomenon that Hutson calls ‘technoshamanism’ (ibid.). The emergence of “isolation”/“lockdown”/“quarantine”/etc. mixes, which I have observed on SoundCloud since the introduction of social distancing in the UK (March 2020), can be considered a (mostly resistant) response to the disruptive context of COVID-19 by artists, labels, promoters, and so forth, which helps regulate individual and collective emotions. The resistant nature of this response owes, on the listener side, to the distinct lack of discussion of the pandemic in the comments section of these such mixes despite their pandemic-oriented titling. (This was uncovered in a pilot analysis, demonstrated in the following section.) This works by partaking – through the multimodal entextualization of signifiers of techno and rave – in a tradition of (digitally mediated) access to what music scholar Witek, whose full paper can be freely accessed here, terms ‘the vibe’ (2019, p.99), which is:
collectively shaped by a range of elements, such as the DJ and the music that they are playing, the dancers and their style of movement, the particular space of the club or the landscape (in the case of outdoor raves or festivals), the sound level, the tactile vibrations of the bass, the tempo, the lighting, the temperature, the smell, and the fashion. While some of these elements remain more or less stable throughout the night (the space and the sound level), many of them fluctuate and are dynamically transformed on a minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour basis (the changing of DJs, arrival of new clubbers, rising heat).
2) Dax J’s “Isolation Mix” on SoundCloud vs. YouTube
Note the complete inversion in detail from Bassiani’s lyrical description that accompanied the sonic mode in their upload of Rødhåd’s mix. Dax J offers no real description to match Bassiani’s of the Rødhåd experience since there is no such special atmosphere to describe; the context has already been clearly explicated by the choice of title (“Isolation Mix”) and no further ‘aesthetic work’ is attempted in the co-textual bio. This deviates from some other mix series that are lately being live-streamed, which try to restore most elements of pre-pandemic raves apart from the ravers – the venues, the lighting, etc. (see Video 1., below); it also contrasts with the formality of broadcasters like HÖR, which has produced digital-only sessions since it was founded in 2019 and releases programmes in advance of its digital events that have hardly changed in their semiotic design from November 2019 (see Figure. 5, below) to July 2020 (see Figure 6., below).
Take a quick moment to consider this video:
Prior to the pandemic, SoundCloud afforded listeners from around the world a secondary pass to nights like Rødhåd’s in Tbilisi, which they may not have attended themselves. Dax J’s informal mix instead seems to anticipate the atmospheres that his listeners are most likely to access it from: their homes, the bases of their newly restricted, newly challenged lives. This shared context crafts a unified form of pandemic-related isolation, galvanised in the case of Dax J’s mix by techno, letting empathy easily shift between the DJ and the (at-home) dancers, carried across time and space by their selection of tracks. The message? “We may be missing out on doing that together, but we can still do this together.” (The relationship between DJ and raver has traditionally aspired towards a non-hierarchical ideal, whether or not the ever-expanding economy of clubs truly accommodates this.)
While for Dax J’s SoundCloud upload there is no audiovisual representation of the mix session, the association with COVID-19 social-distancing measures forged by his choice of “Isolation Mix” for title lets us know that the mix was not recorded in the provocative liminal space of a club like Bassiani. Still, the mystical techno aesthetic invoked by Bassiani’s description (outlined in the first section of the post) is somehow maintained in the semantic quality of the mix’s name and, further, the ethic of unity expressed throughout rave culture is cautiously maintained by the platform feature that gathers listeners’ avatars along the audio bar as an algorhythmic sea of dancing bodies are digitally unified (see Figure 7., below). Whether or not you’re still listening to any of the three mixes I’ve already introduced, or still have the above video playing, could I now invite you to press play on Dax J’s “Isolation Mix,” embedded below, and pay attention to the sequential unraveling of user comments along the audio bar that erupt from their avatars at time-stamped moments as the mix progresses. (This feature may not work in a mobile browser, but what I am referring to should be clarified by Figs. 7. – 9.)
Rather than discussion of the pandemic’s impact on themselves and/or the rave scene and community, ravers’ comments season the mix with a joyous blend of emojis, expletives, and one declaration that Dax J is a god! The strangely melodic utterings of ravers reveling at the sounds surrounding them wall-to-wall inside clubs like Bassiani, which become partly audible in the second of Rødhåd’s two mixes (embedded earlier), are somehow conjured up by the collection of comments scattered throughout the mix. One listener applauds “PERFECTION” at 1:16:26; “You can’t just listen to this track without starting to move spontaneously,” another listener claims at 1:02:08; and only spaceships and love-heart eyes will suffice at 8:58 and 44:49, respectively (see Figs. 8. & 9., below).
While these SoundCloud functions of course predate the pandemic, they acquire a new salience when we consider that they now serve to impart the only form of collective sharing of Witek’s notion of ‘the vibe’ accessible, a digital one, and not merely an alternative/subordinate one, which was the case when Bassiani uploaded Rødhåd’s mix.
I ran a quick word frequency analysis on the 119 listener comments appended to Dax J’s “Isolation Mix” when I first imported these into CAQDAS (June 2020) and found that commenters did not remark or ruminate on the stifling conditions of the pandemic at all, which is the kind of response that Dax J’s choice to title the upload an “Isolation Mix” might’ve cued. (Further analysis of more mixes of this genre and listener comments would be required to generalise this, of course). Instead, they are – performatively? – enacting the same kinds of responses to the collective experience of rave that are initiated at club events, as suggested in the examples of listener comments given above. Indeed, plenty of commenters do away with linguistic responses altogether, favouring emojis to express the sublime affective domain tapped into by their sharing in ‘the vibe.’
This emergent mix genre might well be a response to the pandemic’s isolating measures initiated by artists uploading to SoundCloud; as demonstrated in Table 1., Dax J isn’t alone in choosing to index the pandemic with his title. Still, it seems this emergent genre functions for listeners more as a cathartic portal to their pre-pandemic lifestyles than as motivation or a primer to share their experiences of the pandemic itself. This could make good sense given the thick saturation of the broader media landscape with COVID-19-related content. Again, further analysis of a larger set of comments accounting for a variety of musical genres and artists would be required to generalise, but this phenomenon coheres with a prime ethical dimension of rave culture and musical genres like techno: their healing power. ‘[T]he rave [is] a form of socially produced spiritual healing,’ and now more than ever it falls to sites like SoundCloud to nurture the connection of people to this therapy (Hutson, 1999, p.53).
Intrigued by the lack of direct engagement with the pandemic cued by Dax J’s choice of title that I observed in these SoundCloud comments, I wondered how platform-specific this pandemic-escapist/pandemic-resistant response might be, so I imported into CAQDAS the comments on his YouTube upload – now an audiovisual journey into the same mix (see Video 2.). (This data amounted to 518 comments at the time of import.)
Please, pause the SoundCloud version of Dax J’s mix now, and hit play on the YouTube version (below), which I’ve set to begin later into the mix:
In a pilot round of coding the comments from SoundCloud and YouTube, I focused on finding pandemic-related terms in the YouTube comments that I had already observed were completely non-existent in the SoundCloud comments, while I also wanted to account for expressions of gratitude (“Thank/s”), love (“Love”), nostalgia (“Miss/ing”) and the trope of “God is a DJ,” (“God”) that might be found in both sets of comments:
On the strings running inwards from the two mixes (SoundCloud in orange on the left; YouTube in red on the right) is a numerical figure accounting for the frequency of linguistic references to certain exploratory terms as they occurred in the comments of the SoundCloud vs. YouTube uploads of Dax J’s mix. So, for the comments on Dax J’s SoundCloud upload, we can note from my visualization that there were four uses of the word “love,” whereas for the YouTube upload there were 19. In this visualization, any terms that only featured in the YouTube comments splay out from the right of/beneath the YouTube icon (“YouTube: ‘Dax J Live from Isolation’”), which means that none of the following terms featured at all in the SoundCloud comments but did feature in the YouTube comments: “isolation,” “virus,” “lockdown,” “quarantin/e,” “COVID,” “corona.” (The YouTube set of comments is bigger (518 comments) than that for SoundCloud (119 comments); yet, COVID-19-related terms featured in 2.9% of the 518 YouTube comments, which means we might expect at least 3 occurrences in a dataset of 119 comments if the probabilities matched one another, but there’s not a single occurrence in the SoundCloud set of comments.)
It’s also curious that there were two occurrences for “miss/ing” within the YouTube set and none within the SoundCloud set, inviting us to consider what the affective mechanism of the audiovisual ensemble on YouTube is in terms of inflating feelings of nostalgia that might not be so highly charged by the sonic element on SoundCloud. Of course, these are very preliminary thoughts, and a larger dataset would be required to test such theories.
In total, there were 15 references to these pandemic-related terms in the YouTube comment data that I collected. Some examples of these are:
“Damn you coronavirus”
“As soon as this isolation thing is over, I’d be the first to see you play live!”
“The worst part of this quarantine, is that I won’t be seeing this man”
“When this virus is over, everyone will party like animal[s]”
From these examples of pandemic-related commentary on the YouTube upload of Dax J’s mix, we can begin to see how a typology of comment types might be sketched out differently between the two platforms. This raises some interesting questions about why YouTube might invite extended written responses that more freely disclose commenters’ experiences of the pandemic vs. SoundCloud, where engagement with the pandemic-as-context is very much limited. On SoundCloud, expressions of the subliminal affective domain that short, sometimes expletive, and emoji-heavy responses seem more functional at tapping into is preferred. What has this to do with SoundCloud vs. YouTube literacy as it is formulated within the techno and rave communities? Would it seem to kill ‘the vibe’ – Witek’s conceptualisation as it is digitally mediated – to write monologic SoundCloud comments about how the pandemic is making us feel? To what extent could we account for how YouTube’s foregrounding of the audiovisual (vs. SoundCloud’s foregrounding of the sonic) might work, affectively/cognitively, to draw out this variance in response?
3) “Justice. Unity. It’s a revolution.”
Now that I’ve (hopefully) gotten the reader-listener-viewer thinking about the different emotional responses elicited in them from the material introduced so far, could I ask that you deeply listen to this recent release from the Montreal-based producer, Jaymie Silk:
Faithless’ 1998 song, “God is a DJ,” prefaced what Hutson – a white anthropologist – would write about the healing power of rave culture and the musical genres that contribute to that culture the following year. Faithless’ vocals proclaim: “This is my church / This is where I heal my hurts / … Between voice and drum.” The lyrics go on to celebrate “Respect, love, compassion.” But over two decades since “God is a DJ” was launched into the world with a title that continues to resurface as the trope that some of Dax J’s commenters recirculate through their declarations of his godliness, we can hardly argue that respect, love, and compassion faultlessly emanate from a scene whose foremost destination, Berghain, has been steadfast in its refusal to speak up on racism. This lack of solidarity was noted by the Berlin-based artist LSDXOXO_ in a Tweet the week after the murder of George Floyd by police on 25.05.2020. (The club has also been accused of operating a racist door policy.). The disappointment of Berghain’s silence is compounded by the fame and profit it directly owes to a cultural heritage built by black artists, who were driven to counter the ‘programming … stagnating the minds of the people; building a wall between races and preventing world peace.’ A recent article in the Washington Post points to the selective anti-racism of the techno scene when it states that ‘in the summer of 2020, loving black music is not the same thing as loving black people.‘
‘Techno’s roots can be traced back to the black community that originally congregated around the music in Detroit in the 1980s, but you’d hardly know it looking at today’s biggest dance festivals, where white DJs dominate the lineups, playing for massive crowds and ungodly paychecks‘ (ibid.).
You can learn a lot more about techno’s origins in the reading list compiled here.
The ideas in this post have implicitly depended upon a notion of freedom: a freedom finding ways via SoundCloud and YouTube to habituate itself in our new world, “unprecedented” as it is; a freedom still able to soothe its ills with music, finding small ways to escape the stresses of the pandemic in the company of its favourite sounds. But this is a deviation from true freedom.
There is no true freedom until freedom is shared and not stolen, and no lives matter until ALL black lives matter. If you are able to help the family of Sheku Bayoh seek justice five years after he was killed in police custody in Scotland, please do.