Some thoughts on James Chance & No Wave

No Wave legend James Chance passed away this week after a long illness. You can read up on his career in the many obits, such as this one from Pitchfork. Musically he was like a combination of Ornette Coleman and Jello Biafra. What interested me as a critical philosopher of race was the way his work very explicitly addressed the racial dynamics of 20th century American popular music. For example, his 1978 “Almost Black, pt.1” lays out the whole gender/race/sexual dynamics motivating white mens’ appropriation of Black music and Black masculinity via blues, jazz, and rock-based musics.

I wrote about this and other songs in this chapter (unpaywalled Google Drive link…) from George Yancy’s edited collection on whiteness.

Part of the “No” in “No Wave” was its embrace of disco and dance music as rock’s abject other (it’s the wrong kind of Blackness to appropriate, too queer for the tastes of white cishetero rock fans). No Wave said “no” to that sort of basic bourgeois white masculinity. It’s also worth thinking of Chance’s embrace of disco and dance music with respect to his background as a saxophonist. As jazz studies scholar Dale Chapman wrote about in his book, the 1970s jazz scene was experiencing its own moral panics about fusion and the influence of disco and Afro-Latin musics. Bebop saxophonist Dexter Gordon became the center of the neoclassical jazz movement, his straightahead bebop style and respectable Black cisheteromasculinity were perceived to be untainted by all the bad new influences threatening jazz’s lineage. That sort of respectable and unquestionably cishetero Black masculinity was what mainstream white audiences wanted to appropriate from jazz and rock. Chance’s work intervenes in all these conversations.

I have more to say about this in another post I’m writing, but another thing I’ve been thinking about is the relationship between dance music and 2020s indie. Today (Friday June 21, 2024), Jae Foreman played Charli XCX’s “Von Dutch” during her regular Friday morning show on indie station In the 1990s, Foreman DJed modern rock station WOXY’s dance music program XTRABEATS, so it’s safe to call her an expert on dance music in the long post-punk tradition. What struck me is that though Charli is definitely operating in the pop space, the idea of “indie” that’s currently dominant in that same space – the one informed by Taylor Swift’s last several albums, by Olivia Rodrigo’s GUTS, etc. – has nothing to say about dance music. It tends to exclude dance music in a way that echoes The Loop listeners or neoclassical jazz advocates did in the 1970s. I think this means something, and that something tells us about how the gendered, raced, and sexualized dynamics of pop music have evolved in the last 50 years.