There are a lot of stereotypes about dance music—that it's inauthentic, brainless, hypersexual, aimed at the hips and not the head or the heart. JD Samson, the DJ and leader of the indie dance group M.E.N., wants to change that. M.E.N. makes dance music, but dance music that is also intensely political.
"There's something to be said for being a band that's interested in identity politics and creating a space that's interesting for people," Samson says. "It's a space with no fear, because people know you're creating a space that's comfortable. It's easier for people. But there are people who don't like to dance. But I find when I close my eyes it's easier for me to dance."
Samson grew up outside of Cleveland, listening to pop music, but has always loved dance music. "My dad is really into dancing and when I was a kid, we'd have dance-offs in my house," she says. "My dad really likes Michael Jackson. I've always been into bands that are more dancier and high energy."
Samson worked for a year in the touring band of Peaches, whom M.E.N. is opening for. This project grew out of her work with Le Tigre, the electro-punk project of Kathleen Hanna. M.E.N. includes Samson's Le Tigre bandmate Johanna Fateman, as well as Michael O'Neill, who plays in Ladybug Transistor, and Ginger Brooks Takahashi, from LTTR and the Ballet. The group also collaborates with artist and writer Emily Roysdon. "We like to say we're a collective," Samson explains.
M.E.N. uses two guitars and a drum machine. It's not exactly the funk of James Brown, but the beats make it hard not to bounce around, even on tracks like "Simultaneously," which manages to be both mournful and high-energy.
M.E.N. is influenced as much by pop music as it is the countless club and dance scenes. But the music is clearly danceable. Thematically, the band is reacting against the homophobia and racism reflected in mainstream attitudes toward dance music, all the way back to the "disco sucks" rallying cry of the late 1970s. In this, it's also nostalgic for long-gone scenes and political movements.
The group's lyrics are somewhat cryptic, but also provocative. "Credit Card Babies" wraps gay rights, sexual politics, environmentalism, abortion rights, and family values all into one, admitting tormenting choices but demanding freedom: "Why procreate and overpopulate? There's insecurity./Questioning our liberty/I'm going to f--k my friends to get a little tiny baby/And raise our kids, radical politics, Sontag in the crib." "Boom Boom Boom" is a not-so-subtle protest against the war economy: "Our heads are in the clouds/with clocks between our thighs/Global markets demand big guns/and we have to supply."
"There's no reason that dance music just has to be about falling in love," Samson says. "People aren't really expecting there to be political conservations come out of dance music, but that doesn't make any sense. That's the kind of music we like but we're also really political. We're smart, and why would our music be any different than that?"
"Some people don't really get what the songs are about," she says, but that's okay too. Some get them in time. "Some people say, ‘I really like your music, but I didn't realize your lyrics meant so much.'"
Of course, it's not necessarily surprising that an indie dance group would put a political spin on dance music. But Samson hates the distinctions between indie and commercial, popular and underground. She loves Michael Jackson as much as anyone.
"Indie versus mainstream is totally ridiculous," she says. "It doesn't mean anything right now. People want to say they're indie to have some credibility."
But, she adds, in today's climate, "everything is indie. You have to do everything yourself to make a living."
Still, Samson likes to see a blending of crowds, getting the club kids into politics and the indie kids to shake their booties. She explains: "Our indie-rock backgrounds have met our dance-music counterparts."