Darkness Dancing: Why Peter Rauhofer Mattered

For gay men of a certain age, Peter Rauhofer's sound is instantly recognizable, and probably conjures up fond memories of circuit parties and nights at the Roxy. I am of that age - I came out in the New York nightlife scene of the 1990s and 2000s, which Rauhofer ruled. But for younger LGBT folks, I wonder if it's possible to appreciate the impact of a DJ like Rauhofer, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 48. I wonder if his sound has become so commonplace that it now sounds dated, or cliché. I wonder if he can be listened to as if new.

Consider, for example, what Rauhofer does with one of the biggest hits of 2012, Gotye's "Somebody that I used to know":

The first ninety seconds, there's no Gotye. Instead, Rauhofer sets the tone himself; with his unmistakeable combination of deep house beats, minor-key keyboard riffs, and tribal repetition. Finally a line or two of vocals, a snippet, really, just a bit player amidst the music. Two minutes in, there's a crescendo break - now cliché but mostly invented by Rauhofer himself - which for those of us who were there conjures a frozen moment with the dance lights shining out like rays of moonlight and a thousand shirtless men, hormones pulsing so fiercely that they scent the air, waiting for the drop, waiting, waiting, waiting - until it finally comes in at 3:45. Now, no more vocals, just more tribal energy, reverb, echoes, a shorter crescendo. The way Rauhofer treats this infectious little pop song, its words melt into a ecstatic blur. Even listening to it alone, you're taken into a space of community, into a culture that spans the globe and bonds together disparate gay boys searching for one another.

Now think of how someone else might've done it: a cutesy remix, some peppy dance beats, maybe a dubstep break here or there. Or think of one of the DJs who don't deserve the name, spinning pop songs on a Saturday night.

Rauhofer's sound offers the possibility of transcendence and community - experiences that are usually polar opposites (one is individual, the other collective; one goes beyond, the other connects between) but which find their union in dance clubs, churches, and similar liminal, spiritual spaces. When combined with the right setting, lighting, and, yes, intoxication, the endless one-two-three-FOUR that Rauhofer helped pioneer becomes a kind of shamanic ritual. Circuit parties, though denuded of overtly spiritual vocabulary, retain the grammar of ritual, and its transcendent possibility. This is a pagan spirituality - reveling in the body, rather than in its abnegation. But it is spirituality nonetheless.

Of course, neither the scene nor Rauhofer himself was ever so idyllic. Some men are just there to get high, others to get laid, and there's plenty of the bitchiness, misogyny, drug abuse, narcissism, and superficiality that marks "A Gay" culture. A lot of what Rauhofer's denizens are trying to transcend is their own unworked-out stuff, usually featuring a toxic mix of internalized homophobia and unresolved pain. Underneath the laser-smooth pectorals (in the 1990s, anyway), there's often a lot of unresolved muck, a lot of darkness.

Yet I think Rauhofer's sound captures this too. Like Radiohead's soaring "Creep," in which Thom Yorke's soaring vocal undermines his claims of pathos, Rauhofer's remixes, from Whitney and Madonna to Danny Tenaglia and Offer Nissim, usually convey an ambivalent blend of grandiosity and shadow. There is a sense, in the best of Rauhofer's deeper work -- for example, this awesome remix, under the Club 69 moniker, of Tenaglia's "Ohno" :

-- of celebration and ecstasy. Yet there is also a darkness in the music that reflects the darkness that is often part of the communities in which it is played. Somehow, the beats include the pain.

Greil Marcus wrote, of punk rock, that the immediacy of art is the sudden recognition that, in fact, "This Is Actually Happening." I had that realization over and over again under Rauhofer's spell - usually at the Roxy, sometimes at parties elsewhere. At the times when I could forget about chasing tail and let go into the music, there were mergings, emergings - senses, at times, of an eros that possessed all of us, rather than something that we possessed. The music would take control, past four, five in the morning, and the only words to disturb the trance were tiny snips of language, rendered meaningless by cut and paste.

I know these moments of unity and transcendence are possible across all genres of music. I've even seen them happen with dubstep, which I mostly can't stand. But Rauhofer's untimely passing does mark the end of a certain era, in which a certain kind of music marked a certain kind of underground gay culture that is no longer possible in the age of acceptance, integration, and normalization. Today's outré gay productions are pastiche - they quote deviance, rather than embody it - while the mainstream of gay culture long ago abandoned the smoke-machine haze of vast warehouse spaces. Today the edges are elsewhere: queer cultures which mix and match, smaller undergrounds far away from the $200-per-person circuit world. These and many other subcultures are vibrant and inspiring. But for a while there, that kind of adventurousness was almost a mass phenomenon. It was a global community, and Rauhofer taught it to dance.