“Dance music is my love, is my passion, is my life. I live for my fans and take my art very seriously.” Steve Aoki
Well, this one does, and though I know I’m going against the grain – I’ll always do so.
I work at alternative ends of the spectrum as far as dance music goes, and though I play and do mixes of Handbag music, my preferred dance genre is Uplifting Vocal Trance. My roots lie in a mix of Handbag and House music in the 90s, and HI-NRG in the 80s.
I started DJing as resident DJ in the Oxford Hotel in Sydney’s Golden Mile (the gay ghetto) of Darlinghurst in 1990, and had a resident Sunday night spot at The Stronghold Bar (a leather bar), situated in the Clock Hotel in Crown Street, Surry Hills from 1992-1996. I will be the first to admit that back in the day, my muxing wasn’t all that great…but I was saved by selecting great music that gave me a following, and a certain popularity. The dance style that really made me popular was – Handbag.
The Urban Dictionary defines Handbag House dance music as “A type of House music. Handbag house consists of the obligatory disco diva lyrics, simple four-on-the-floor TR-909 kick drums, hi-hats on the upbeats, Basic synth stabs in a minor key, and sometimes a snare on beats two and four. Videos often feature the singer in a leather costume dancing around while a sculpted bald black man gyrates his hips whilst also attempting to look threatening. Its name comes from the phenomenon of a group of women dancing around a pile of their handbags.
Damn son this handbag house shit is GAY!” Perhaps a bit cliche…but close to the truth.
It is often referred to as trash or cheese music due to its “fluffy” style, and artists such as Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Jason Donovan, Bananarama, Mel & Kim, Pepsi & Shirley, Dead or Alive, Rick Astley, Paul Lakakis et al, and music labels such as SAW, PWL, and Almighty specialised in its production.
“Serious” DJs hated it – with a passion! Wikipedia is a lot kinder in its description, and historical background. They use the “Diva House” terminology, and assert “The term “handbag house” appears to be particularly popular on British dancefloors and refers to the notion of a group of female club-goers dancing around a pile of their handbags. Dance culture’s usage of the word ‘handbag house’ started life as a derogatory term.
In the 1990s, as gay clubs and gay culture became more mainstream so did house music. The accessibility of diva house lead to the mainstreaming of gay club music. In the UK especially, handbag house became emblematic of the clubbing culture. According to music historians Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, by the mid-1990s handbag house had helped to make clubbing into a “mainstream leisure activity.” With the mainstreaming of gay culture in the 1990s, “diva” was the word that bound house music to the gay dance scene, which was previously only defined by Italo disco compositions.
Music critic Simon Reynolds asserts that handbag house was “initially a disparaging term, coined by condescending cognoscenti vis-à-vis the anthemic, chart-penetrating house tunes that allegedly appealed to women, and above all to the folk-mythic construct of Sharon and Tracy.”  According to electronic music producer Ewan Pearson and academic Jeremy Gilbert, “handbag house” is often derided as “plastic disco” by dance music fans who prefer “the more esoteric sound of musics which eschew the ‘mainstream’ musical priorities of melody and verbal language.”  The mainstream appeal of handbag house caused underground dance music purists to flock to the spin-off genres of hardbag, progressive house, deep house, and garage house. Sociologist Dunja Brill argues that criticism of handbag house carries a “misogynist slant in club cultural representations of the denigrated mainstream of ‘Handbag House’ against which Ravers define their subculture.” Brill maintains that bias against handbag house “is expressed most clearly in a femininisation of the denigrated ‘mainstream’ of pop culture against which subcultures define themselves.””
Despite being considered “plastic” , and the term Handbag being used in a derogatory way, it continues to be popular, especially amongst gay males across all age groups. When DJing at The Oxford Hotel, its popularity was instantly noticeable by the bopping around of clientele, miming the words and a general feeling of fun, which yas always geen associated with the genre. I was initially introduced to Handbag through Stock Aitken Waterman, and despite often disparaging their music…I still played it, as I knew that despite every track sounding pretty well exactly the same – it was popular. In the 90s I was exposed to the covers and remixes released through the British “Almighty” label (“Call Me Tonight” by Destiny Love was my first exposure to the label – a track I played to death), and which I primarily still,play now, as they have covered and remixed many popular gay dancefloor hits from the 80s – an era I have a particular affection for. Again, the purists are aghast that anyone would dare cover the music of that era. But to je, it is all about keeping the music alive, and relevant – despite who is doing it.
Handbag is, at its very heart, fun party music. If you were to put on a 2 hour mix of handbag tracks at a party at home you would ve watching nearly everyone there moving to the tracks, miming the words, and talking about memories the tracks invoked. Isn’t this what, in some respects, the music should be about? Does it always have to be serious and esoteric, existing on strobed dancefloors amongst a drug culture that needs a continual mind-fuck!
I upload all my mixes – both Trance & Handbag – to an online DJ service called Mixcloud. Of everything I upload, the most favourited, and most shared, mixes are the Handbag ones. Indeed, within minutes of going up, any mix with the word “Handbag” in the title will be shared. Because they are so popular, I continue to do them. I can’t say I don’t enjoy mixing them…because I do. They are a lot of fun to compile.
Instead of pigeonholing and denigrating any form of dance music, perhaps we need to pose the question – why is it popular? Surely that a form of music like Handbag can initiate sensations of fun and frivolity, girlishness, and just getting people dancing can’t be a bad thing! It’s about a feeling, an atmosphere, a scene of jubilation and nostalgia. At its heart is the intention to…just make people smile!
Tim Alderman (C) 2016
3^ “handbag house@Everything2.com”. Everything2.com. 2001-12-14. Retrieved 2011-02-10.
4^ Brewster, Bill; Frank Broughton; Frank Broughton (2000). “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey”. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. Headline Book Publishing. p. 396. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
5^ a b Reynolds, Simon (August 21, 1998). Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture. Picador. Retrieved 23 October 2012.
6^ Gilbert, Jeremy (September 19, 1999). “Discographies: Dance Music Culture and the Politics of Sound”. Discographies: Dance Music Culture and the Politics of Sound. Routledge. p. 70. Retrieved 23 October 2012.
7^ Brill, Dunja (Dec 15, 2008). Goth Culture: Gender, Sexuality and Style. Bloomsbury Academic.
8^ Brill, Dunja; Deicke, Wolfgang; Hodkinson, Paul (2007). “”Gender, status and subcultural status in the goth scene.””. Youth Cultures: Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes. Routledge. p. 122.