Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Majestically Not Hip-Hop

I'm happy that someone bought the very cool Majestic Theatre, renovated it and started booking live music there again. It's a great old building (built in 1902 as a vaudeville theatre) with a storied history, some of it more notorious than others. In the final months of its last incarnation, there were several incidents of brawls and stabbings happening out front. The media usually pointed the finger at the hip-hop DJs and acts playing inside, blaming the allegedly "violent culture" that went along with the music for all the riff-raff and associated criminal activity.

I'm pretty sure that's a load of horse shit, but enough people bought into it that eventually the reputation was set and the venue's future looked extremely gloomy.

Then Scott Leslie and Matt Gerding came to town, bought the place and decided to give it a new lease on life. In the process of renovating the historic space, the new owners decided to tear out the DJ both entirely. An article on dane101 sums up the potential reasons and ramifications of the move nicely:

As Scott Leslie and Matt Gerding petitioned city leaders and community members who were nervous about once again allowing music in the historic theater they had to repeat over and over that they would not be hosting DJ parties. For better or for worse, the letters "D" and "J" used in succession with the word "party" in Madison have become synonymous with "bad scene." While the dismantling of the booth was aesthetically necessary to achieve the goal of increasing the capacity of the venue to 600 - it can also be viewed symbolically as a new era for the controversial Majestic.

Regardless of their actual motives, the equation of DJs (and, by proxy, hip-hop music) with "bad scenes" has taken root in the public conscience. It's a shame, really, because there's nothing inherently wrong with DJs, the music they play or the crowds they attract. Madison also suffers from a dearth of venues that will play host to DJs and MCs who play/perform hip-hop and rap, so the loss of one has far-reaching reverberations.

In the end, though, it's well within the rights of the new owners to book whatever kind of music they damn well please. I'm happy to note that a number of the acts in their initial line-up are local Madison bands. Support of homegrown groups is always welcome. But I noticed another, perhaps less exciting trend (at least for me): the vast majority of the acts in the initial line-up are Top 40 rock and/or singer-songwriter acts. For instance, the much hyped kick-off show on Sept. 29 boasts headliner Mandy Moore with bland alt-rocker Ben Lee as an opener.

No offense to Ms. Moore, (I admit to being strangely intrigued by the idea of seeing her perform--could be like watching a train wreck, could be cheesily entertaining), but I'm a little disappointed. The other slice of white bread in this musical sandwich comes in the form of The Verve Pipe (Dec. 14), who I didn't even know were still touring.

I can only wonder, was it really necessary to go so far to the other side of the musical pendulum to appease concerned city and local officials? Maybe it was, which means there's still a lot of work to do to show the public that one specific type of music does not equal one specific type of person associated with it, and that all forms of musical expression should have their fair place in our city.

(photo credit: Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

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