Sunday, July 8, 2012

On Dubstep (Or What I Really Don't Understand About It's Recent Success))

       Up until recently, I was pretty excited by the increased popularity of dubstep.  I had been listening to the subgenre for quite a while, going back to the early releases by Kode 9 and the Space Ape and Burial that I discovered through the British music magazine, Wire. Through that publication I discovered Skream, Shackleton, Pinch, and Horsepower Productions, and others. In a significant manner, the genre helped me develop an interest in electronic music, getting me into everything from Underground Resistance to minimalists like Robert Hood and Ricardo Villalobos, to artists such as Four Tet, Rhythm and Sound, Lone, and Ekoplekz, not to mention a lot of significantly older stuff.  To put it another way, early dubstep allowed me to recognize the value of electronic dance music as an art form.  However, I recently realized that when I talked about dubstep, I meant something substantially different than most folks.   It turns out that the dominant force in dubstep in the United States is some guy called Skrillex, who is kind of terrible.  Although I shouldn't be terribly surprised, dubstep has mutated in the U.S. context from its moody and syncopated origins in its original U.K. context to something boring, macho, and mechanical in the United States.  To give you a sense of the contrast in sound, here are some of the U.K. acts that I am interested in.


       With this small and somewhat random sampling, I think a number of things are pretty clear.  Dubstep is developed out of the British electronic music scene, particularly out of remixes of 2-step garage music, drawing on the rich Caribbean influence on music in the U.K.  (To get a good sense of that hybrid influence, listen to the Ragga Twins and Shut Up and Dance) 1. the music is fairly diverse. The different songs fit comfortably within the genre, but we're offered a number of mutations, oscillating between the digidub influences heard in Skream and the Digital Mystikz to the percussion heavy work of Shackleton.  2.  The dub influence translates into an interest in that genre's interest in exoticism, which turns into an exploration of the the structures of migration found in the UK, particularly in the the work of Dust and Blackdown.  We're offered a diasporic and post-colonial musical formation.  3. The music tends towards the paranoiac and introspective in tone, rather than extroversion and aggression.  Portishead's Geoff Barrows argues that its a form of music best appreciated on headphones, wandering the empty streets at night.  To put another way, it's not all that macho.  Additionally, all of these tracks work well outside of a club setting, creating innovative and interesting music that bears introspective listening as well as dancing. 

    However, the music of Skrillex is considerably different, losing the experimentation and introspection found in the earlier examples in the subgenre.  Instead, we're offered a version of dubstep that is far more rigid, and at times, mechanical approach to rhythm. With it's heavy mixture of vocal sampling, relatively uptempo beat for the genre, and musical aggression, we find ourselves with a far more banal and uninteresting form of the genre.  Apparently, a lot of this stuff is called Brostep, now.  What I find disappointing is that it seems that this banalization seems the only way for the genre to move into the mainstream, destroying the very qualities that made it worth exploring in the first place.  I've long since abandoned the need for purity and exclusivity in the music I listen to.  If Shackleton sold like hotcakes, it would still be worth listening to, but I don't think that this is going to happen.  Instead, the dance floor is being transformed into another homosocial, yet heteronormative space, equivalent to the locker room.  The tedium of the genre's sociality is reflected in the formal qualities of the music.  Aggression when used creatively can produce interesting results within the genre.  The problem with contemporary dubstep is that it's aggressiveness is so tediously predicable, sounds rote and strangely dialed in.  The last record by The Bug offers a useful contrast to the predictable sounds of contemporary dubstep. 

     The question posed by the process of mainstreaming of dubstep is a fairly simple one, where is the genre going, and what impact will this have on electronic music as a whole?  Despite the fact that we can still find a number of creative records coming out, I'm not terribly optimistic about the prospects within the genre.  As the genre moves into the stadiums, I suspect we're going to find more figures such as Skrillex.  In a certain sense, the commercial failure of electronic dance music in the 1990's was ultimately a positive, rather than a negative thing, leading to experimentation, and putting a stop to the proliferation of mainstream acts such as Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and The Crystal Method (who brought the same sort of macho appeal to the genre.)  I'll be curious to see if the current crop of artists stall out like the earlier batch of artists, or if the stadium phenomenon is successful, in either case, most of the interesting music will probably be on the margins.


  1. why is your taste correct? i don't listen to dubstep, but i enjoyed the skrillex songs more than i did the more tangential spacy things you posted. it captured my attention and took me somewhere. the stuff you feel is more indicative of creative dubstep seemed like it was shyly asking me to try and find what's deep about it- whereas scrillex is TELLING me it's cool.

    dunno man. open up to the love in your heart. people like what they like. your art is not dying- and if it is, make it yourself.

  2. I think we can probably stop at, "I don't listen to dubstep." I think that the difference between these tracks is that the former tracks are trying to make different types of sound, whereas Skrillex is really obvious. It's telling me you like cliches. To be perfectly honest, I don't really care that you prefer obvious and mildly boring music. Keep listening. But I want to see the genre continue to grow and experiment, not become the next form of arena rock.
    To touch on the general tone of your 'response', it strikes me that if you had your way, there wouldn't be any musical criticism at all. After all, the purpose of the exercise is to express some sort of judgement about the aesthetic qualities of the sound. Is it interesting? Is it innovative? Do I like it? How does it fit into larger aesthetic trends? How does it shape those trends? There's obviously a subjective aspect to this. I'm making an argument. You seem to be opposed to this. I hope that you express this opinion to every record reviewer that says that they shouldn't express an opinion, because someone somewhere might disagree with them. Something tells me that you aren't going to do this.