When Toronto DJ Yale Fox performs for a young crowd, he’ll generally only play a song for a minute or so before mixing out to the next one. “I rarely play past the first chorus,” says Fox, 24. “It sounds weird, but it’s nightclub standard nowadays.” When he played his first corporate gig (where the audience was 30-plus), Fox was surprised. “Everyone kept saying, ‘You’re mixing the songs too fast,’ ” he says. “I had to slow myself down and play the whole song.”
That night, Fox became aware of what he calls a “generation gap” in how younger people (say, those aged 25 and below) listen to music, compared to older crowds. He sees it when he’s driving with his parents, too: Fox will skim through tracks on his iPod, while his parents “scream, ‘Just let the song play!’ ” Working with University of Toronto sociologist Robert J. Brym, Fox has written a paper that coined a term for his generation’s inability to listen to a piece of music that lasts more than 90 seconds: musical attention deficit disorder, or MADD. It’s a condition he’s been studying—as a DJ, first-hand—and one he believes is on the rise.
With endless digital distraction at our fingertips, says Fox, our attention spans have grown shorter. People of every age are affected, no doubt; yet he and Brym believe the younger generation is especially susceptible. Today’s teens and twentysomethings, Fox notes, were “born into technology.” The two define MADD as a condition associated with frequent song skimming and a greater ability to multi-task than their parents’ generation.
It’s a change that’s reflected in, and exacerbated by, today’s dance music. Indeed, Fox, who believes he’s “one of the few people in the world studying nightclubs,” thinks he and his fellow DJs are partly to blame for all this musical ADD. Instead of vinyl records on a set of turntables, many of today’s best—Fox included—use Serato Scratch Live, a digital DJ system that lets them mix songs faster.
Back in the disco era, when records were king, 16-bar intros were common, Fox says, so DJs had more time to transition into the next song (Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell has a 32-bar intro). Fox, who used to work with records before switching to Serato in 2004, remembers how cumbersome it could be: “I’d have to find the next record, get it out of the sleeve, put it on the turntable, mix it in, and hope the dance floor stays tight.”
With Scratch Live, DJs can now play digital music on a computer, using time-coded vinyl to scratch, beat-match and do other tricks. “If you drop the needle one minute in on the vinyl, you’re one minute into the MP3,” Fox explains. As a result, DJs are mixing into the next song faster, he says, a change that’s being reflected in songwriting and producing, too: compared to Ward’s disco anthem, Akon’s Right Now, a popular club track, has just an eight-bar intro.
In the days before Serato, record releases would spark near-riots among DJs: the best vinyl was a scarce, and finite, resource. “We’d jostle each other to get into the record store first, to pick up the latest and greatest cuts,” says dance music producer Ben J. Abbey (stage name Division By Zero). Montreal DJ and promoter Paulo Cardoso remembers paying close to $20 for a record, then jettisoning it after just one use because “by the next Saturday, all the DJs would have the same one.” And carting records around was back-breaking: each record crate, Fox says, “weighed, like, 75 lb., and then you only have 150 records with you for the night.”
How times have changed. “Now, we go onto a website like iTunes and purchase songs, and then import them onto the computer and play them the same night,” Abbey says. Instead of 150 records lined up in a crate, Fox now has upward of 20,000 tracks on his computer. (Even in the digital era, DJs are finding creative ways to one-up each other, trolling blogs for bootlegs or unusual remixes.)
Serato’s been a godsend, to be sure, but there’s been some backlash, too. Since new technology made it more accessible, “it seems like everybody and their mother’s a DJ,” Cardoso says. Countless are guilty of transitioning from one song to the next too quickly, he believes, showing off for promoters, club owners or other DJs, instead of playing to the crowd. “By the time a group of girls hits the dance floor, the DJ’s already mixing out,” he says. “It’s a problem from coast to coast,” and it’s gotten worse “since the Serato phenomenon took over.”
No wonder the new music sounds skittery and strange to an older crowd, who grew up listening to entire songs instead of a musical highlights reel.
Fox doesn’t think musical attention deficit disorder is a bad thing, necessarily—just a trend worth understanding. But if teens are constantly multi-tasking (listening to music, say, or on Facebook) while doing homework, doesn’t the quality of the work suffer? Fox doesn’t think so: “I was definitely multi-tasking while I was writing this paper.”