When was the last time you danced?
Like, really danced—none of that timid head-bobbing or casual side-stepping that people do these days. That shit reeks of non-commitment. I know it can be hard to put yourself out there when everyone’s playing it cool, trying to look composed in front of the cute girl with the done-up hair. But there’s something electric about a humming dance floor packed just tightly enough with bodies, human limbs let fully loose, motions dictated purely by the pulsating vibrations of the music.
If DJing means curating remixes and matching beats with sophisticated equipment meant to look archaic, then I’ve never truly done the deed. At its core, jockeying discs is rooted in something much more simple. It’s about curating an experience that’s both memorable and immersive; raising eyebrows and eliciting sighs in equal measure; making people truly dance. And in my limited experience, you don’t need more than an iPhone and an aux cable for that.
The winter of my freshman year, I began crafting the perfect playlist. Back then, the hot songs on the party circuit included gems like Flo Rida’s “Whistle” and the freshly pop-y singles off T-Swift’s “Red.” The bar was, in one DJ’s humble opinion, relatively low. But I still swung for Platonic perfection. My sometimes esoteric tastes meant that most current Top 40 tunes were out; in their place came a host of throwbacks to the disco era—think “Disco Inferno,” “Kung Fu Fighting,” the obligatory “YMCA”— alongside upbeat indie acts like Spoon and St. Vincent. My handcrafted playlist made its debut at an overcrowded dorm party during reading week. The speakers were blown out by the end, but a late-night singalong to the Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight” made it all worthwhile.
The playlist remains a work in progress. But many parties are more group-led affairs: Some- one’s phone is hooked up to—or “paired” with— the speaker system, and a rolling Spotify queue
plays host to the tunes. Whoever has a song idea can queue it up, which means that for an awkward music nerd like me—for whom starting a conversation can sometimes feel akin to a dive off the Mass. Ave. bridge—the most comfortable spot in the room is right by the speakers, scrolling through an endless sea of potential bangers.
These are my principles of good DJing: Keep the energy consistent; wildly vary the style. If they turn their heads but don’t stop moving, you know you’re doing a good job. If they yell your name and freak the fuck out when a new track comes on (and they also don’t stop moving) you’ll feel a little bit like a God. One time, I segued smoothly from the crunchy funk of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” into the subdued string intro of “Come On Eileen.” Don’t think it’ll work? Try it sometime. Oh, and then I hit ’em with the fat claps of Lil’ Mama’s “Lip Gloss,” picking up some nostalgia points to boot. There’s an intoxicating power involved in having the room at your fingertips. You can trigger mass euphoria with a gentle tap.
Of course, you can also trap yourself in the comfortable bubble you’ve constructed. Once you’ve had a successful five-song run, people will want more, and soon, you’re stuck manning the iPod for the next 20 tunes. In all fairness, I’ve enjoyed watching the world from my cushy perch as playlist purveyor: I’ve born witness to hookups and near-misses, weary folks swiping right on the couch, circles of friends building invisible walls to leave out a poor hanger-on. But as comforting as it can be to just droop hair over my face and nod along with eyes glued to the screen, there’s a part of me that wishes I were out there, making a fool of myself like a real person.
And that’s the thing about the DJ: More often than not, he or she is less of a person, per se, than a request-filling machine. Back in the days before I downloaded Spotify, droopy-tongued partygoers
would commandeer my MacBook, find my iTunes library unsatisfactory (“Not enough EDM,” I believe they said), and pull up a 12-minute house track on YouTube. I guess a couple Deadmau5 and Daft Punk offerings weren’t enough for them. More recently, I’ve had to field requests for newer songs that I’ve sworn to never play—“Gas Pedal” comes to mind, though I’ll admit there’s a time and place. “Sure,” I’ll say. “It’s not like I’m the DJ or anything.” Then I’ll shove whoever’s iPhone it is into the hapless requester’s hands and storm off like the exacting snob I am.
I’m reminded of an old tune called “Panic,” by my favorite sad ’80s band, the Smiths. In his typically melancholy tenor, lead singer Morrissey denounces the sunny pop music on the BBC airwaves for being detached from politics, the world, anything real.“HangtheDJ,”heurges,overandover like some vitriolic mantra. On the dance floor, revelers don’t need relevance. But they’ll hang you for less if you’re not careful.
In September, my roommates and I threw a party. After a brief discussion, it was decided that I’d handle the music. For 48 hours, I carefully ordered 66 songs into a calculated sequence: Two hours would be devoted to hangout music: the likes of Springsteen, Amy Winehouse and Public Enemy. At 11:30, I’d ramp it up, and the dancing wouldn’t stop until 2 a.m.
The music was kept on a locked iPad; nobody could change the playlist. Surprisingly, I found my way into conversation and stayed there for a couple hours. Eventually, though, I paused to admire my work. The song—something by Earth Wind and Fire, maybe?—was not of this decade, but who cared? There was no DJ to complain to, no choice in the matter. Just the music. All I could see was an ocean of arms in the air, heads tilted high, exulting in the madness I’d created, the prison that keeps me whole.