Collective Aura: Soundsystem, EDM, and the Government of Libido


“..the mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior towards works of art issues today in a new form.”

–Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility


The last five years have witnessed a significant expansion in the domestic US market of music festivals, producing an expanding sector of the entertainment industry to compensate for declining record sales. “EDM,” a kind of kitchen sink term used to describe genres that had previously thrived only abroad, has passed into US mass culture largely on the strength of its popularity within this festival market, expanding to levels that surpass those achieved during its brief popularity in the 1990s. With the precipitous end of rock-format radio, EDM is discussed as potentially a genre that will rival pop, country, and hip hop in the American mainstream, with very popular acts in these other genres producing “EDM”-influenced hits, just as popular acts had in the disco era (e.g. “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones). Teenagers who once huddled in garages tormenting their parents with hardcore punk now huddle in their bedrooms, around laptops, tormenting their parents with loud drum machines and synthesizer noises created on pirated music software. DJs catering to this mass market have demanded booking fees once given only to stadium rock bands, and this “EDM” genre of youth culture has been discussed as perhaps a “defining sound” of the quote “multicultural millennial generation” unquote.

This genre has produced its share of cultural partisans on both sides. Detractors believe it destroys spontaneity and individual expression in the art form, reducing music to mechanics and eliminating “the human element,” a kind of hypertrophic amplification of the lipsynching and spectacle within modern pop. This essay will examine “EDM” as the latest and most successful mass production of what I will term “soundsystem,” a cultural formation that has been around since its inception in Jamaica during the 1950s. The wedding of the modern technologies of amplification and mechanical sound reproduction in recording, soundsystem constituted an unprecedented and unique constellation of musical production and participation. The genre transforms the traditional setting of performance art, in which the observer beholds the ‘human aura’ of the performer’s virtuosity; within soundsystem, music becomes the medium through which the selector enacts a government of the audience’s libido. As a cultural practice with the lowest possible capital requirements, soundsystem has been deployed to create spaces for solidarity within marginalized groups and for the organization of experimental music scenes. In EDM, this practice is transformed into a mass ritual for the worship of consumer capitalism.


Although Benjamin’s famous essay on modern transformations in the work of art focused on their ‘mechanical reproducibility,’ implicit in the exemplary form he discusses, film, is another technology that would become perhaps equally important: electrical amplification. While the film can be recorded and played back mechanically, the mass existence of the form owes much to the development of projection technologies that allowed the medium to be expanded to larger and larger audiences. In the various performing arts, music chief among them, amplification would create epoch-making transformations, beginning in the 1940s, alongside the creation of modern “sound on sound” recording. The development and mass production of microphones, amplifiers, and public address systems allowed live music to move from the classical venue of the symphony hall and ballroom to the stage and, eventually, the festival as the ultimate expression of this form.

The amplified microphone allowed an individual performer to play alongside a band without the need for the lifelong technical training required of, for example, an opera singer. Large audiences could attend musical performances in everyday venues rather than specially designed opera halls. The invention of the electromagnetic ‘pickup,’ a device that converted the vibration of metal strings into amplifier signal, allowed the guitar and bass guitar to eventually replace the standard jazz band altogether. If the technologies of mechanical reproduction in photography, film, and sound recording had destroyed the ‘ritual aura’ of the work of art in the religious sense, Benjamin observes, the singular uniqueness of the object as an artifact of the supernatural becomes displaced into the human world of the ‘individual virtuoso,’ much pooh poohed in the Frankfurt school as the bourgeois ‘creative genius,’ Kant’s artist of ‘subjective universality.’1 With amplification, the spontaneous, creative authenticity of the performer can be delivered en masse to the audience, who behold the secular divinity of this ‘human aura.’2 While the genius composer was the hero of the classical era, in the 20th century, especially in the tradition of African American music, the virtuosic performer took center stage, with songwriters and arrangers becoming less recognized.

With the invention of magnetic tape recording, ‘sound on sound’ mixing, and vinyl records in the first decades of the 20th century, music could be mechanically reproduced and distributed to mass market in the same manner as film. Unlike theater and film, however, music can exist not only as recitation, with the audience ‘beholding’ the performer, but also as participatory in the sphere of dance (a form which is no doubt much, much older). The unique form of apperception Benjamin observes in film, “‘totally passive reception in a state of distraction,’” (240) isbecomes in this form rather the active, libidinal apperception of the dancer. In jazz, these unities of performer and audience are often intertwined. Like classical music, jazz began within the context of dance, only later becoming formalized into recitation. Culminating in the bebop period, the virtuosity of the soloist existed simultaneously with the band’s rhythm, which sustained the dancefloor. In the context of a popular musical form amplified to the audience, in rock and roll, funk, jazz, etc., the libidinal economy of the dancers has as an essential moment the aura of the stage performer, whose performance stimulates enjoyment as the band creates the rhythmic space for the dance.

The historical episode in which these two basic forms of modern technology—amplification and sound recording—became completely united, however, was in the Jamaican soundsystem of the 1950s.  In the Jamaican soundsystem scene of the 1950s, however, amplification and sound recording entered into a new and unprecedented unity. While records had long been played on the radio and at home, that is, in private, soundsystem promoters built large rigs of amplifiers and speakers that played these records publicly for an audience of dancers. While it has gone by different names, “disco,” “techno,” “house,” and finally EDM, historically these forms are all repetitions of the same basic concept—amplified records for an audience of dancers—that originated in soundsystem, and for our purposes I will refer to it as such.

In soundsystem, then, the ‘human aura’ of the performer is, as in film, displaced from the moment of performance into the moment in which the work was recorded. Aside from the obvious transformation—the party can last longer without breaks, for periods that would likely kill members of a traditional band (especially the drummer)—soundsystem lays bare the libidinal economy of the dancefloor. DJs do not perform as musicians in the context of recitation; rather, they select tracks to stimulate and then manage the libidos of the audience. While there is skill involved in cueing and mixing tracks seamlessly (“beatmatching”), perhaps more important is the DJ’s ability to ‘read the crowd,’ to ascertain the audience's mood and select tracks that will engage them effectively.

In soundsystem, aesthetic consumption is therefore fully transformed from the beholding of a human aura into the experience of this shared libidinal event. The task of the DJ is therefore akin to that of a political or spiritual figure, who organizes and therefore represents this collective experience that its musical selection has created. The audience—their reactions, their collective enjoyment—becomes the material and evidence of the DJ’s specific kind of creativity, the power to govern a mass of bodies and pleasures, and DJ set is therefore spectacle in which the power of this collective is exhibited. As in film, all elements of the human aura of the producer have been displaced,3 and the aura present in soundsystem is a purely collective aura4 manifested in the government of libido, through the moments of the audience and the DJ.


This complete displacement of the production process within the soundsystem context likewise effected a transformation of that production process itself, as early as the ‘dub’ experimentation of the Jamiacan musician and sound engineer King Tubby. A pioneer of the technical infrastructure of soundsystem, in the late 1960s he began releasing ‘dubs,’ records that ‘remixed’ ska and reggae tracks into compositions suitable for soundsystem parties, released on ‘dubplaces,’ acetate records that could be pressed less expensively. “Dub,” an experimental genre combining the rhythms of Jamaica musical culture with the electronic effects of psychedelic rock, began within his professional recording studio through playing back particular recorded parts and manipulating the soundboard.

It was the development of musical production and recording technologies in the late 1970s, alongside the growth of dance clubs in the disco era, which began what is recognized as “electronic music” proper in the form of house and techno. With synthesizers, electronic sequencers, less expensive multitrack recorders, and drum machines, producers could create passable recordings at home rather than in expensive recording studios. Record-pressing houses such as Trax Records in Chicago allowed artists who were not signed to major labels to release proper recordings for DJs in local clubs.

Secrecy was a major feature of these scenes, especially the techno scene in Detroit and abroad. Production teams such as Underground Resistance adopted the tropes of subversive, revolutionary militant groups, performing with masks and, in the case of Drexciya, not publicly releasing their identities. Prominent clubs like Berghain in Berlin were and are famously difficult to get into. Although House producers like Masters at Work released on major labels like Warner Bros. in the 1990s, many if not most producers would intentionally limit releases to ensure difficulty in obtaining copies of certain records, a practice which continues in force today. By the late 1990s, ‘techno’ itself became an aesthetic within mainstream American culture representing ‘subversive’ or ‘underground’ activities, perhaps most prominently in the Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack to the film Fight Club.

There are obviously various reasons for this phenomena, not the least of which were the concerted efforts by the police to prevent these sorts of parties, which were often in illegal spaces and host to illegal drug distribution and consumption. There was the mutual rejection of mass culture, and mass culture’s rejection of soundsystem, epitomized by the organized mass burning of disco records in Chicago in 1979 at a White Sox game. As these scenes were variously organized around musical experimentation or, in the context of House and later Deep House, queer solidarity, this elitism also served the same purpose as the selectivity within other small, elite organizations: to ensure authenticity and commitment among members. Inwardly focused, lacking the capabilities and desire for mass distribution, and therefore limited in resources, these groups remained exclusive; inclusion via ‘word of mouth’ requires demonstrating a genuine interest. Yet, perhaps equally important is the limitation in scale that the basic format of soundsystem presents in the requirement of reciprocity between the DJ and the audience.5 Aesthetics and economics aside, if there is simply an upper limit to the size of a party before this reciprocity ceases to be possible, strategies to maximize the smaller space are inevitable.

Despite these limitations, of course, economics made the expansion of parties and clubs equally inevitable, and by the 1990s there were large clubs and “stadium raves” throughout Europe and abroadelsewhere. This increase in scale likewise effected qualitative transformations in the music, as producers rationalized elements that would enhance the mechanics of the dancefloor. Precisely because the DJ was removed from the crowd, on a stage physically behind a barrier and most likely a dense cloud of artificial fog, with flashing lights to block his view, and could therefore not rely on his own observation, tracks themselves had to ensure that the libidinal circuitry of buildup and release would be attained. Genres such as “Dutch Trance” perfected familiar clichés to this end, such as white noise buildups to telegraph the “release” of the “drop” section of tracks, in which partiers are not so subtly instructed to dance.

This ‘big room’ context also led to a reduction in physical space within compositions themselves, with tracks featuring prominent synthesizers in the same frequency range as the electric guitar, and producers adopting the same extreme compression techniques that were popularized in pop music during the 1990s. In the context of drum and bass, in the US especially, tracks began to resemble in sonic arrangement their counterparts in punk and metal, and DJs would often use the pre-disco technique of ‘pulling down’ a track, in which the ‘drop’ or ‘release’ section is cued directly rather than beatmatched gradually in succession. The drum and bass scene in the US was therefore very receptive to the ‘hardcore’ interpretation of dubstep in the last five or so years, which in many ways is the ultimate form of rationalized, ‘big room’ composition. While drum and bass typically involves fast, overcompressed funk drums, dubstep is slower, less percussively dense, and therefore allows a much larger space within the composition for attention-grabbing, metal guitar-imitating synthesizers.6 Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites” was a major release in this transformation, and illustrates the rationalization at work: high -pitched, heavily compressed lead synthesizers and a lower, metal imitation synthesizer, alone in succession in the ‘drop,’ are the heavy artillery with which the walls of emotional repression are battered down, with all the subtlety of an Axe Body Spray ad.


Prior to the last decade, soundsystem had existed sporadically in the festival context: in the early 1990s within “Acid House” parties along London’s M25 motorway, the “Love Parade” Festival in Berlin after German reunification, Miami’s Winter Music Conference, and a number of other festivals in Europe. The sounds of these events was varied, with the “Acid House” scene giving rise to the “90s rave” genre, with acts such as The Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and Orbital.7 Likewise, while other “electronic music” acts had been featured in prominent American festivals—(most famously Daft Punk’s “greatest hits” house review at 2006’s Coachella)—it is this “hardcore” interpretation of dubstep, with its emphasis on intense ‘drops’ that has defined more than any other genre the sonic parameters of the newly capitalized and rationalized contemporary festival market.

Within the contemporary “EDM” festival, and its “hardcore” sound, amplification achieves its ultimate form. DJs, physically removed from the audience in the same manner as “stadium rock” bands, compete to produce tracks with more and more intense “drop” sections to maximize their sonic power over the audience. Adopting the spectacular musical theater of pop, and dropping even pop’s pretense of recitation, festival EDM attempts a ‘total immersion of consciousness’ through massive, elaborate lightshows, often synced to the music.

In this setting, the displacement of the virtuoso accomplished in soundsystem is taken a step further. While the development of CD turntables allowed DJs more flexibility over vinyl in cueing tracks, the adoption of “software DJing” in the last 10 years allows entire sets to be laid out almost completely in advance. This is no doubt a product of the risks associated with failure, as a minor glitch that would delay a smaller show would be catastrophic for all involved in front of a 60,000-person audience.8 With a booking based upon the ‘brand recognition’ and celebrity aura of the act, the audience neither knows (nor could know) nor cares if the DJ is (or could be) responding to the moods and reactions of the crowd, whatever that might mean in the context of 60,000 people.

With the liquidation of the collective aura of the DJ, its ability to organize and govern the libido of the audience, then, the organs of mass culture and the hypertrophic spectacle of pop music take its place. Surrounded as far as the eye can see by a mass of bodies, assaulted by rationalized, monotonous ‘drops,’ the festival audience is immersed in mass organism of monotonous consumption. If mechanical reproduction destroyed the mastery of art by tradition by shattering the utility of the genuine art object and its ‘aura’ within ritual, EDM installs a new regime of tradition through the celebrity of the superstar DJ, a manifestation of the ‘sublimity’ and objectivity of mass consumption as such through the festival crowd, which beholds itself. Rather than the human aura of the pop star, or the collective aura of emotional exchange through the DJ selection, which it exists to fabricate, in EDM the DJ is rather the passive signifier of its position as helmsman of this biological organisms’ monotonous, predetermined consumption, which it directs from above and beyond, a ritual embodiment of the psychological manipulation of modern advertising and the corporate executive. EDM is therefore, in Benjamin’s language, not a moment in modern technologies’ “liquidation of the traditional value of cultural heritage”; it is rather a reconstitution, through soundsystem’s unity of amplification and mechanical reproduction, of a ritual aura of the human biological organism within capital, and that organism’s worship of itself.

This reconstitution is itself in the process of being heavily capitalized and reproduced across the global markets, with large festival production companies such as Tomorrowland, Electric Daisy Carnival, and Global Gathering organizing into “international festival” brands on multiple continents, themselves being acquired by large international conglomerates such as American SFX, which owns a number of US nightclubs and the EDM retail music site If capital has lost mechanical reproduction, through vinyl and CD sales, as a viable model for sustainable profit, the festival has begun to serve as capital’s platform for industrial expansion in the next decade. In the same manner that the 20th century music industry, through Top 40 radio and MTV, generated and capitalized the unitary mass culture that soundsystem rejected, the massive concentrations of capital currently invested in festival EDM will no doubt attempt to generate a 21st century mass culture, complete with anonymous consumption and celebrity worship for the many, massive profits for the few.

1 Benjamin argues that “…that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art… (it is) the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage...” “In the imagination of the beholder the uniqueness of the phenomena which hold sway in the cult image is more and more displaced by the empirical uniqueness of the creator or of his creative achievement.” Adorno’s critique of jazz music, later partially recanted, is the most famous example of this attitude. In the Kunstwerk essay, Benjamin also expresses skepticism of the new celebrity status of the actor, seeing it as a side-effect of the destruction of the ‘aura’ of the stage actor in the film recording process, and a completely fabricated ‘marketing’ scheme by film studios. Curiously, he reduces acting to a ‘skill’ to be ‘tested’ by the public in the disciplinary sense, and in fact negatively anticipates the development of ‘method acting’ in observing that film acting rationalizes and splits the character of the actor into separate moments. While a film performance is split into separate moments, many actors (Daniel Day Lewis being an extreme example) in fact counteract this reality by staying ‘in character’ during the entire recording process. (The film Tropic Thunder brilliantly satirizes this technique). Suffice it to say that the virtuosic ‘human aura’ of the actor is not destroyed, but displaced temporally in the recording process. Just as Adorno, hearing cheap commercialized recordings of classical pieces reworked into jazz and not, for example, John Coltrane, saw jazz and the popular blues scale as a sort of infantile parlor trick, Benjamin’s analysis of acting was done likewise in the early years of film acting. Hindsight is, of course, equally cheap.

2 Charlie Murphy famously observed, on meeting Rick James for the first time, that he had ‘an orange aura.’

3 There are hybrid forms of this ‘displacement,’ for example in the context of ‘live techno,’ in which a producer basically brings their home studio to the event and plays the set using their gear, rather than playing back mastered compositions as a DJ does. Often this is somewhat disingenuous, as the set itself has been laid out in advance with electronic drum patterns, samplers, and sequencers, and the spontaneity of the “live” playback is largely simulated, a phenomenon we will discuss in part IV. In any event, the object of these sets is largely the same as that of a DJ set, and the manipulation of the hardware serves the same purpose as the DJ’s musical selection: to stimulate and manage the libido of the audience, not to display musical virtuosity as in the blues or jazz context. Even purely ‘live’ techno played by, for example, classically trained musicians like Laurel Halo, does not have ‘solos’ in the traditional sense, and the progression of the composition takes the same dimensions as a recorded track.

4 It is this kind of governance that gives rise to the utopian pretensions within many episodes in the history of soundsystem. House music in particular took funk’s trope of self-congratulation to extremes. George Clinton’s “One Nation Under a Groove” is reworked in The Creator’s “Let There Be House,” an anthemic statement of purpose that likened House to the universal creation myth of Genesis. Basic Channel/Round One’s “I’m Your Brother,” a remake of the Isley Brothers’ “Caravan of Love,” is perhaps the most sublime example of these pretensions. As writer and house producer/DJ terre thaemlitz argued, however, this ignores the reality that most of soundsystem has largely existed in relatively brief, marginal, and ‘hyper-specific’ episodes, often among marginalized groups “House is not universal. House is hyper-specific: East Jersey, Loisaida, West Village, Brooklyn—places that conjure specific beats and sounds.”

5 Benjamin observes issues of scale in the public exhibition of painting in comparison to film. “Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception.” That is to say, painting is simply a medium which cannot attain mass reception in the manner of film due to the technical limitations of displaying the work, which requires physical authenticity. Soundsystem raises similar ‘corporeal authenticity’ issues in the creation of a collective aura.

6 It should be noted that the entire narrative just described is contained in the last 10 years of dubstep: the emergence of an inwardly focused soundsystem scene in the basement of a club in South London, its rise in popularity, and its rationalization in relatively short order by heavily capitalized promotion companies.

7 Luis-Manuel Garcia, “A pre-history of the electronic music festival,” Resident Advisor.

8 Swedish House Mafia explains: “People just assume that a DJ would mix it up and do things on the fly, but they forget that this is not a 300-person club. This is a sold-out concert.…We have live visuals, lasers and effects teams, so we want to give them the best opportunity to be synchronized.”

9 Garcia, ibid.

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