Experiencing Detroit and Techno Music: An observational account of Movement Festival 2015

“Detroit techno” is a musical category and a paradigm my research deals with. As a matter of fact, I was acquainted with Detroit techno mostly while living in Paris (France), where I study. Fans of this electronic music genre, clubbers and partygoers, may mention their taste through this common category called techno music. At the same time, they mention city names like Berlin or Detroit. Some of them discuss specific links techno music has with Detroit. They use artist name-dropping, historical facts about the origins of this music as well as values and aesthetic concepts in order to express what Detroit techno is and sounds like. However, by focusing on Detroit (MI) nowadays, it appears that fans lack in artistic and musical knowledge. This is what have specifically made me wonder what techno is and how it works in Detroit. Instead of staying in Paris doing research on techno, this identity/alterity anthropological perspective made me choose another focal point. So, I went to Detroit.

I lived in Detroit for a whole period of seven months split between the summers of 2014 and 2015. This ethnography took place during what Detroit city officials call “Detroit techno week”. The climax of this week was a three-day electronic music festival called MOVEMENT (Paxahau Production, producers since 2005), which took place in Downtown Detroit from May 23rd to May 25th 2015. It was located on Hart Plaza, a large public place where monuments are located. The site of the festival was circled by barriers and by the city’s main administrative, financial and industrial buildings. This was the second time I went to this festival, which has been taking place once a year since 2000.

 

“Welcome to Detroit. Birthplace of techno”

 

As any research scholar who studies a nightly phenomenon, I wake up around eleven in the morning after coming in late from an "after party" from the very first day of MOVEMENT festival on Saturday 23rd May. My room is located in an apartment near Wayne State University campus in Midtown. I ride a bike to travel and move through Detroit. According to my parents and Detroit friends, it may not seem the safest way to cross the city – especially by night – but it enables me to take time to stop and look at what happens everywhere. Today, I have about 3 miles to ride to go to Hart Plaza, where MOVEMENT festival is located: this takes fifteen minutes by bike. This is a short way, almost a straight line across Detroit's rectilinear urban pattern and road mapping.

Today is Sunday and streets are calm, at least calmer than usual. I don't say this because of my observer point of view, but because Midtown is really active. It’s because Midtown is a quite dynamic area where museums, libraries, universities and hospitals are located, but there is actually nobody outside. Indeed, based on the way the city is often depicted in the media, we may think of Detroit as a “silent”, or “empty” city, or as a criminal city full of police siren sounds. However, while I’m riding my bike down through Second Avenue, a parade of different environments, landscapes and other kinds of areas appear. Far away, I see General Motors towers incarnating what Motor City is and was. I see a sign to indicate where I have to go. To the left, there is a grocery store, a parking lot and the Bronx bar. To the right, small houses, a laundromat and a Pakistani restaurant. I cross Canfield Street, one of the oldest cobbled streets in Detroit with Queen Anne and Victorian style residences. Canfield Street is also an area with brand-new looking infrastructures, a Shinola luxury store, and fancy shops with some gadgets and high-trended local products. A little bit further, you can find a big community garden with urban agricultural activities for the needy, making this area attractive, as it is qualified as being gentrified. A few yards away the scene changes abruptly. I now enter another zone, which depicts the hard urban and social-economic side of Detroit: a few buildings are still standing but the majority of them are in ruins. The road that goes through is also in a pretty bad shape and there are not so many cars passing by.

I am now close to the city center. Downtown entrance is full of construction sites in a quite dense urban fabric. There are usually many empty parking lots, which greatens the impression that nothing goes on. And yet those parking lots are full today, as if a baseball game from the hometown Detroit Tigers was happening. Thanks to my bicycle I can simply go around the traffic jam. I also notice that some people are walking to the city center. Traffic jams are pretty uncommon here, but today they result from the large amount of cars and taxis that try to park right next to the festival site. In addition to this, many people walk out of their hotels and cross the street on their way to the event. Hotels are between 50 and a 100 yards from the Hart Plaza, and now is the only time of the year they are fully booked. Most partygoers will not see those places I have just described before because of their proximity to the plaza. They will not see the New Center or Midtown districts, the abandoned homes or the ruined buildings. They will only see the tall towers like that of General Motors. 

 

About 5.30pm at Main Stage during 2015 MOVEMENT festival

 

As I arrive to the site it is already 2pm and to enter I must pass through the press and journalist reserved entry gate (1) and make my way to the VIP area just behind the scenes. Those who have access to the VIP area can be considered "privileged" since the VIP three-day ticket price is more expensive (around $300) and includes “VIP benefits” such as discounted drinks and an exclusive Red Bull bar – the main and most visible sponsor of MOVEMENT. The regular three-day ticket is $135, which is not inexpensive considering the average wage and poverty rate in Detroit. In this VIP area some tents give shelter to some of the participants while providing courtesy services like massage and other resting areas supplied with carpets and pillows. This area overlooks the festival's site. Projection screens and speakers rise vertically in front of me like the Great Wall. 

The Main Stage is in front of me. It has been set in a low-rise area in order to provide the public with generous free space for dancing in this amphitheater surrounded by semi-circular bleachers. I approach the stage where Gabi, a 26 years old DJ and producer, has been performing her set for the last 10 minutes. It is the first time that she is performing at MOVEMENT. To know more about her and to listen to her story I contacted her back in 2014 right after seeing her perform a set in a club called The Works (2).

I take notes about the fact that I am quite “astonished” to see her in this environment equipped with “glittery, lightening effects and a huge sound system” because I used to see her in “underground places and clubs”, catering to small audiences – around 50 to a 100 people – consisting of acquaintances and members of the techno and house scene. At MOVEMENT, the audience is almost completely foreign to me, to her and even to Detroit. 

 

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Audience + Art Department on stage - Movement 2015 Sunday 24th May (7.30pm)

 

To understand the experience of entering through the main entrance, I leave the site. On a sign at the main public entrance, a clear message gives a symbolic, catchy and physical vision about what Detroit represents and wants to be identified as today, according to MOVEMENT festival promoters: “Welcome to Detroit. Birthplace of techno.”

 

Over 30 years of Detroit’s techno music

 

Milan Ariel is singing on stage with two dancers during Metroplex showcase. Her father, Juan Atkins plays tracks

 

After hours of strolling between the six stages, some techno music fans are gathered around the Red Bull Music Academy’s stage for today's main scheduled event. The stage is perhaps slightly smaller and off center than the Main Stage. I set up not far from a few planted trees where the soil seems to have been plowed. Around 9pm the event's program announces a special "showcase" to celebrate Metroplex label's thirtieth anniversary. For most of us in the public it is the first time that we see a live performance of Model 500, the artist name of techno music pioneer and Metroplex founder Juan Atkins.

The project has seen a redevelopment since 2008 with the contribution of members from the Underground Resistance such as Mike Banks, DJ Skurge and Mark Taylor. A few minutes before the show starts, Juan Atkins comes over the stage to present his 24 year-old daughter and singer Milan Ariel. She sings two hip hop songs while performing a choreographed dance with two female artists. The dancers are dressed up in very sexy fashion with high heels. The atmosphere suddenly changes. The party ambience that settled a couple minutes ago just seems to disappear. The crowd is now dispersing. Everyone seems to quietly whisper his/her opinions and stops dancing. We all look at each other and it seems like we ask ourselves: “what's going on here?”

The reason for this seizure is related to the fact that two seemingly opposite worlds from two closely related individuals are sharing the techno music stage. On the one side is the father, the incarnation of Detroit's techno music and a figure that promotes the futuristic aesthetics and independent aspects of this music. On the other side is his daughter, who seems to be a Rihanna or Beyoncé lookalike, performing American Hip Hop/ R&B.

Thus I am wondering: “How come Juan Atkins' daughter responds to mainstream music codes while her father has always supported more independent music?” While I should understand that Atkins’ daughter has her own style and path, I feel like my subject taste as a techno fan are taking over my critical judgment. 

Finally Model 500 goes onstage right after. We are back into the "techno reality" and our enthusiasm comes alive again. The particular sounds of the 1980’s synths and the first techno music top hits such as “Alleys of Your Mind” and “Techno City”, set the public on fire. Juan Atkins' vocoder voice highlights the synth’s notes. Excitement is in the air. Suddenly someone next to me screams out loud: “Wow, this is Techno history!”

 

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Model 500 on stage - Movement 2015 Sunday 24th May (11.15pm)

 

Selected discography:

. Gabi, Pangaea (EP), Clear Cut Records, 2013

. Model 500 (Juan Atkins), No UFO’s, Metroplex, 1985

. Milan Ariel, Love Dreams (EP), Metroplex, 2014

 

In 2015, I managed to get a media and photo pass for me and two members of a documentary project. In 2014 the use of the journalist status or researcher was quite ambivalent. For some of the DJs and local techno producers in Detroit, journalists have “distorted message of techno and techno musicians” (Cornelius Harris, June 20th 2014, Underground Resistance manager).

 

MOVEMENT festival is an "out of ordinary" space and time in musical life in Detroit. Ordinary times are shared between clubs out of the city center or in the city center (e.g. TV Lounge, Whiskey Disco, the Works), areas where techno has an interstice (e.g. Motor City Wine, Majestic Theater (Populux), Adult Contemporary), house parties and, more rarely, fallow places (e.g. Fisher Building).

 

Frederic Trottier (EHESS, Centre Georg Simmel) is an anthropology of music Ph.D. student. His researches focus on electronic music practices in Detroit, global/local DJ paths, music learning and heritage, crossing urban anthropology and social network analysis.

 

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