It’s fitting that I should be meeting Terre Thaemlitz on May 1, International Workers’ Day — she wryly refers to herself as a “feminist Marxist” before we begin our interview in proper.
Thaemlitz, who produces music under her real name, the moniker DJ Sprinkles and several other aliases, has been active for the better part of two decades, cultivating a reputation for making challenging electronic music: both in the way it addresses complex issues, often regarding gender and sexuality (Thaemlitz identifies as pansexual and transgender), as well as the way it pushes the boundaries of musical formats — 2012’s “Soulnessless,” released on a 16GB microSDHD memory card and labeled “the world’s first full-length mp3 album” featured a piano solo more than 29 hours long as its centerpiece, as well as video files and a 150-page booklet of text in 10 languages.
Born in the United States, Thaemlitz has been based in Kawasaki since 2001, and her latest project as DJ Sprinkles — a mix CD titled “Where Dancefloors Stand Still” — takes on the so-called antidancing law that has blighted the nation’s nightclubs over the past couple of years. The selection on the CD, full of euphoric and sensual deep-house cuts, seems designed to get listeners moving, thus underlining the absurdity of the state of affairs its title refers to.
“It was around 2010 when I heard that the crackdowns in Kansai were going on. I used to do events in Kyoto and sometimes Osaka, and then one day the organizer just said, ‘Everything’s shut down,’ ” she recalls. Thaemlitz then points to the “policy evaluation law” that Time Out Tokyo picked up on in October as a plausible explanation for the timing of the crackdowns. “I think a lot of Western media, and Westerners here in Japan, are kind of disoriented by it — because we’re used to thinking about this sort of thing in relation to some sort of fundamentalist Christian backlash … we’re also used to defending clubs in relation to an argument about the mobility of bodies in society, and in particular about policing the movement of queers, transgender people, people of color, and a lot of these arguments don’t really apply to the Japanese case.”
Currently, the debate focuses on the right to dance. Thaemlitz says this is an easy way to sell opposition to the fūzoku eigyō-tō no kisei oyobi gyōmu no tekiseika-tō ni kansuru hōritsu (abbreviated to fūeihō) — the 1948 law Japan created to regulate the sex industry, in which antidancing provisions were later contained. She also worries that the deeper flaws in fūeihō will be ignored.
“In the end, the law is not about dancing, it’s about regulating businesses. It’s about creating hostile work environments for generally low-income employees facilitating services in spaces the public generally approves of,” says Thaemlitz referring to the law’s postwar origins. “On some level the decision to separate (this debate) into a strict discussion on the theme of dancing is legitimate, but that division of the dance argument from other — perhaps harder to sell — stances of solidarity with sex workers and the like, still leaves lots of questions about fūeihō that will not get settled.
“I am much quicker to ally myself with a material struggle of consequence — which, in most every case, boils down to a crisis of poverty. I really could not give a f-ck about dancing when it comes down to it.
“In the early 1990s, U.S. HIV/AIDS activists officially gave up on the prospect of socialized health care, and turned to marriage as a legal work-around to get as many people covered by health insurance as possible. The theme of health coverage was quickly lost to standard romantic rhetoric about love, but the core of the issue was health care. So when we (humans) are faced with an actual crisis, we resort to interpreting it in relation to the vacuous and inconsequential — like ‘the right to dance.’ We have to be aware of our selfishness in picking and choosing how we wish to alter legislation based on lifestyle choices — like ‘choosing to dance.’ I hope the outcome of today’s struggles will not inadvertently lock in other aspects of (Adult Entertainment Laws) for the future.”
Technically, fūeihō targets institutions that encourage dancing (nightclubs, etc.) rather than dancers themselves, although dance schools and dance halls have been facing their own battles for nearly a decade.
Thaemlitz points out that a precedent may have been set in the Edo Period (1603-1867), when women’s kabuki was banned in 1629.
“There’s another big example in Japanese history of the policing of dancing, and that would be in relation to kabuki and the prohibition of women — impoverished women — of practicing the dance form that they invented,” she says. “You would be really hard stretched to find anyone other than a complete asshole, who would look back on those restrictions as anything other than ridiculous, and there’s absolutely no doubt that 10 or 20 years from now, history will look at this time as something that was obviously ridiculous.”
Grassroots organizations such as Let’s Dance have been campaigning against the law, and the public support they’ve gathered suggests Thaemlitz is on the mark with her comments. Having amassed more than 150,000 physical signatures in favor of their movement to “protect” club culture, Let’s Dance will submit its petition to Diet members tomorrow, and the outcome should be known in the coming weeks.
The petition is likely to receive a positive reaction from at least 60 Diet members, who, according to a Jiji Press report yesterday, have established a nonpartisan alliance with the objective of changing the fūeihō law to make late-night dancing to music possible. The Diet members have said they intend to propose amendments after the July election, though it remains unclear how the police will respond to such efforts.
I suggest to Thaemlitz whether the reason the law has elicited an impassioned response from the public is because there’s almost a surreal humor to the situation, that the act of dancing actually being outlawed seems completely infeasible, even if it is only in a certain context.
“You can regulate dancing. I don’t think Japan is a country or a culture that is willing to step up and really regulate it in the sense that a fundamentalist nation might,” Thaemlitz says. “I come from an area in the Midwest, Southwest Missouri, it’s like Baptists and Assemblies of God — evangelical faiths where dancing is taboo and you burn your records … this stuff can get really messy.
“It’s easy to dismiss a prohibition on dance as being globally infeasible. I think that’s a kind of heiwaboke (complacency). If you let a culture run with the idea of eliminating dancing, there is a potential for it to happen, though I don’t think Japan has the religious fundamentalism required.”
I ask Thaemlitz whether she had intended for the mix to cover this theme from the very outset: “When I started working on the mix and thinking about titles and themes, it was around the same time that I was talking to lawyer friends of mine (from Club Noon in Osaka). It’s also always fresh in my mind that when I DJ there are always lots of people who tend to be unhappy with what I’m spinning, and also the fact that technically I’m kind of a crap DJ and that kind of f-cks peoples’ ability to dance, so there are all these jokes going on in the title.”
At the same time, Thaemlitz, who has a history of multimedia projects that supplement audio with video or even lectures, feels she could have delved even deeper into the topic, perhaps by adding a booklet of text to her CD.
“There’s a way in which these things just come out — where you have your theme and that’s enough,” she says. “The press and the world in general are kind of set up and happy to deal with content in that way and it generates discussion — and it’s true, we’re sitting here discussing it right now — but I’m never satisfied with that. The way in which artists are (currently) prohibited from using words by record labels who say things like, ‘We don’t need you to say anything, just make the music — that’s enough.’ That’s a real dumbing down of what we’re allowed to say as producers. It’s why most artists and musicians cannot even talk intelligently about their own work. They’ll back away, saying sh-t like, ‘I just want the music to speak for itself.’ That’s really a sign that people are lacking tools for discussion.”
Amazingly, despite her lengthy career in music, “Where Dancefloors Stand Still” marks Thaemlitz’s first official, commercial mix CD release.
“This was the first time in 20-something years that somebody asked me to do one — and the terms were all right, so I did it,” she says. “I don’t know why people think it’s so mysterious how this business works, but it’s business! As freelance producers, DJs, etc., we do not control our destinies. We are not freely generating income, sharing our wealth with organizers. Organizers hire us.”
On that note, Thaemlitz adds that the majority of her performances are now in Europe, and bookings within Japan are relatively sparse. That makes this Saturday a special occasion, as not only will Thaemlitz be DJing at WWW in Shibuya, but she’ll also play from start to finish to celebrate the release of “Where Dancefloors Stand Still.”
I ask whether it might almost be poetic were the police to come in at 1 a.m. and order punters to stop dancing: “I’ve been at parties (before) where the police came in … people get confused by staff requests to stop dancing. It’s important, at this point, that people understand they are helping the venues by cooperating … there are real legal repercussions for clubs and staff. The club could be shut down. It’s not just the owners who face charges, but any staff that are on the payroll, which means bartenders, people cleaning up, people who are getting paid sh-t wages to mop up your puke. And this, of course, is deliberate — it’s a way for the police and the government to intimidate people into not participating in club work. That’s just so f-cked up.”
The Let’s Dance organization did not submit the petition as they had planned on May 17. The 60 lawmakers mentioned in the story will officially launch their nonpartisan group, named Dansu Bunka Suishin Giin Renmei (shortened to Dansu Giren), on May 20. Let’s Dance is set to deliver the petition to the group then.
DJ Sprinkles plays WWW in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on May 18 (11 p.m. start; admission is free with a ¥1,000 first drink charge;  5458-7685). For more information, visit www.comatonse.com.