Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Why I Can Never Return to (the) Womb
Last weekend we had a veritable slice of Berghain here in Tokyo. On Thursday night (Friday was a public holiday) Marcel Dettmann played at Module, an intimate club with an almost pitch-black dancefloor that was the perfect setting for the three-hour set of steel-edged uncompromising techno the Berghain resident served up. I’ve heard quite a few of the Dettmann sets that are floating around online and I’ve enjoyed them all immensely – but being able to totally lose myself in the darkness as the sounds carried me along at a breakneck pace turned the experience into something special. It reminded me of how utterly crucial context is.
The following night featured the killer double-bill of Ben Klock (DJ set) and Shed (live set) a mere 300 meters away at Womb, a club that is often touted as being one of the best in the world.
And I didn’t go.
I know. Klock. Shed. Part of me is still thinking, “Why the hell didn’t you go?” But then I remember why - Womb. I just can’t bring myself to go back to Womb.
Opening its doors in 2000, the four-floor superclub regularly presents many of the biggest names in house and techno. Extreme care is taken on visual presentation, with the club apparently employing its own art director, as well as boasting one of the biggest mirrorballs in the country and as many lasers as the Death Star. It came in ninth place for “Atmosphere/Vibe” in RA’s 2008 Club Awards, fifth place in DJmag’s 2008 Top 100 Club Poll, and usually receives rave reviews from first-time visitors. In other words, it seems everyone loves Womb. Except for me, that is. So why do I have such a problem with the place?
Womb has very carefully styled itself as a paragon of “cool” in Tokyo’s clubbing scene. From its visual aesthetic to its DJs (a selection of both big names and cutting-edge up and comers), everything is meticulously arranged to ensure a night out at Womb is a uniquely “cool” experience. In other words, Womb has branded itself – it is a “total club concept” that club-goers buy into. And not just club-goers – the club offers itself as a conduit that can put corporate sponsors in direct contact with the fickle and fashion-conscious urban youth demographic. (Although some elements are dated, such as the growth in Tokyo’s club scene, this article provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset behind Womb.)
The staff, as is natural anywhere “cool”, are generally rude and stuck-up. The bouncers are arseholes who enjoy throwing their weight around. (I should stress that this is extremely unusual in Japan.) And the crowd largely consists of cool kids and scene queens who have come to the club in sunglasses and casual-yet-expensive urban wear because they’re guaranteed a cool night out. They certainly haven’t come for the music – the music is merely the soundtrack for your evening of cool, pre-packaged hedonism. (One time in line outside Womb somebody behind me asked his friend, “So, who’s playing tonight?” His friend replied, “I dunno, but with such a big line he must be good!”)
That said, don’t imagine everyone coolly standing by the bar – the dancefloor most definitely fills up. Then again, it has to – Womb has a habit of being dangerously overcrowded. The dancefloor is murderous, a churning sea of bodies, elbows constantly in ribs, as the crowd whoops excitedly at every build, peak, and kick. This may seem exciting, and at first it is, until you realize that the crowd doesn’t really care who is playing, or what they’re playing, just as long as it’s loud and it thumps like a motherfucker. Usually this leads to DJs who would normally play more nuanced or subtle sets just “banging it out”. I’ve seen far too many great DJs at Womb reduced to “banging it out” because that was what the crowd responded to.
I know. I’m starting to sound pretty elitist here. I mean, hey, what’s wrong with just going out to a club because you know you’re gonna have a good time there, regardless of who’s playing? Well, nothing I suppose. But in the end clubs get the audience they deserve. Compare the audience at Womb to the audiences at such great Tokyo clubs as Yellow (sadly defunct), the Liquid Room in Shinjuku (sadly defunct), and Unit (sadly de – oh, wait, it’s still there). Certainly there were exceptions, but most of the people at those clubs were there for the music – not because it was cool. They were clubs that (in my personal experience) honestly were “all about the music”. The atmosphere was exciting and vibrant … and honest. It certainly didn’t feel manufactured or “cool”.
I know that Womb has plenty of defenders out there. And that’s okay. I’m not saying you’re a bad person if you like going to Womb. I’m not trying to change your mind – really, I’m just trying to explain mine. But, speaking for myself, I find that there’s something very calculated about Womb. I would usually leave in the early light of dawn feeling that I’d somehow been used. In the end, I just couldn’t take the dangerously crowded dancefloor, the cool kids, the scene queens, the rude staff, the aggressive bouncers, the shitty soundsystem (even though everybody tells me it’s great – this one really mystifies me), the music-as-fashion, the corporate sponsorship, and the DJs reduced to just “banging it out” anymore. Womb’s not “cool” – it’s just cold.