Electronic Dance Music in the Dubstep Era
Abstract and Keywords
The first decade of the 2000s witnessed the transnational proliferation of dubstep, an electronic dance music style that quickly became ubiquitous across media platforms and audiences. This article traces the history of dubstep, from its origins in the underground clubs of south London to its presence on the silver screen of Hollywood films. First, the transnational musical relationship between England and the United States is interrogated, in an effort to highlight the significance of “local” scenes in light of increasing globalization. Second, the article examines the use of dubstep across media platforms, positing the more general cultural practice of technological mediation in electronic music as a gendered practice.
Throughout the history of electronic dance music culture (EDM), the “underground” has served as a dominant sonic and social force in the establishment of a subcultural identity. From the warehouses and clubs at the outskirts of the city to the futurist penchant for UFOs, robots, and cosmic cars, the sounds and spaces of EDM have always been guided by signifiers of alterity and abstraction. Mixing hallucinogens and amphetamines with frenetic dancing and obsession over the latest technologies, the various incarnations of disco, house, and rave music ushered in a youth culture that values fantasy as the new reality—simultaneously moving in and out of step with a socioeconomic and technopolitical milieu always on the verge of collapse.
Yet, just as the social organization of various EDM cultures remains contingent on notions of isolation and independence from “commercial” structures, subgenre forms such as disco, trance, house, and hip-hop have—throughout the past forty years—managed to top the popular music charts and shape the aesthetic values and direction of “mainstream” music more broadly. In this way, we may view the perceived underground/mainstream dichotomy not as a polarization but rather as a dialectical continuum among which producers and audiences move, driving the rapid pace of stylistic and demographic change that continues to define EDM in its broadest sense. While much of the cultural history of the music has developed as a result of a productive push and pull along this continuum, scholarship has yet to tackle the social, political, and musical stakes at play as a result of these tensions. In this article, I highlight the complex web of relationships that emerge as a result of the underground/mainstream dialectic by way of a case study, as I contextualize the emergence, proliferation, and evolution of dubstep. While it is often argued that the rise of digital music has eschewed “local” communities in favor of “global” styles, I combine ideas of transnationalism with new media theory to demonstrate the ways in which the rise of social media networks as well as the convergence of EDM across multiple media platforms has actually served to intensify local values within an increasingly global network. In the dubstep era, the underground is no longer a refuge to which producers and audiences escape, but rather a local base of operations from which dynamic global networks emerge.
Transnational Flow in the Age of the Cloud
In the early 2000s, British producers and DJs grew tired of what they perceived to be an overproduced, ultra-commercialized sound in Grime music—a hybrid of two-step British Garage and hip-hop. In an attempt to reclaim a more “street-conscious,” underground aesthetic for British 2-step dance music, productions became murkier and generally more elusive, especially in the composition of low-end frequencies. As the story goes, dubstep emerged from the dark recesses of the south London burroughs, with all the distant echoes of the London skyline and the sonic warfare of military bunker–style clubs such as the DMZ. Yet, just as soon as it materialized into a distinct local style, social media networks such as MySpace had already taken dubstep across the Atlantic. Within just a few years of the launch of Hyperdub—a record label started by seminal dubstep producer Kode9—local scenes emerged in Baltimore, Miami, and Los Angeles, while sold-out festivals were being hosted throughout North America. The first section of this article teases out the “authenticity” debates that have ensued as a result of the transnational flow of musical style in EDM.
While globalization is often conceptualized through unidirectional patterns of exchange, with one global power influencing or transmitting culture to another, transnationalism works through both local and nonlocal networks. From this perspective, countries like England and the United States may be viewed as local sites of transnational interaction rather than strictly hegemonic, monolithic forces. In her address to the American Studies Association on the “Transnational Turn,” Shelley Fisher Fishkin writes, “the United States is and has always been a transnational crossroads of cultures. And that crossroads of cultures that we refer to as ‘American culture’ has itself generated a host of other crossroads of cultures as it has crossed borders” (Fishkin 2005, 43). With the rise of digital audio production and social media networks for music, the speed and scope of cultural products being distributed among global musical networks has intensified, resulting in exactly this form of transnational dialogue: a local site of interaction is created that eventually becomes the springboard for a larger global culture. The cultural collisions that continue to emerge with the rapid spread and stylistic evolution of dubstep—from its roots in south London’s fringe basement clubs to the silver screen of Hollywood action cinema—provide particularly fruitful case studies of the ways in which EDM cultures constantly negotiate the space between local and global, analog and digital, national and transnational.
As a key theoretical framework in understanding the connection between the local site of interaction and the global spread of sociocultural style in the transnational network of EDM, Julian Henriques’ idea of “bass/base” culture is useful in that it allows for an integrated discussion of sound, culture, and society. In Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing, Henriques describes “bass” culture as simultaneously sonic and sociocultural, as he writes, “it is the high volume, low frequencies—rather than mid or top—and distinctive rhythmic patterning that make Reggae’s auditory vibrations memorable, quickly becoming culturally laden” (emphasis added) (Henriques 2011, 13). Steve Goodman (also known as Kode9, his dubstep producer moniker) expands this notion through his concept of “bass materialism”—“the microrhythmic production and occupation of space-times by collectively engineered vibration” (Goodman 2010, 172). For Goodman, low-end frequencies are not simply aural effects of social events but rather subpolitical agents with the ability to attract and congeal populations. As a sonic event emerging from a spatialized source, bass is an inherently local and geographically specific phenomenon. Low-frequency acoustic waveforms can only materialize by spreading through a sonic medium that is “massive” enough to contain its timbral “weight.” For this reason, subwoofers are often constructed using extensive amounts of plywood, allowing the bass to fully translate from an electromagnetic signal to a physical waveform that exists as matter in space. Indeed, this physical, local medium is what makes sound.
Yet, in the moment of its sounding, bass translates from being a strictly sonic event to that of a cultural agent. As Henriques writes, “these powerful low frequencies resonate with embodied movement and furthermore bleed into the cultural spectrum to become a carrier frequency… This makes a phonetic connection between bass frequency and base matter, as the corporeal embodiment of the crowd” (Henriques 2011, 14). In this way, bass cultures are simultaneously base cultures, in that they are geographically situated in local communities. Bass/base culture thus constantly mediates between a local base in which specific communities assert regional identities and a simultaneously local (source of sounding) and nonlocal (sounding from a source) bass frequency through which these identities spread outward from their source, materializing in other (non)local bodies. In this way, EDM cultures from dubstep to bounce, trap, and hip-hop are constantly being shaped by local communities while simultaneously shaping nonlocal communities in their complex interactions with the transnational network.
As an amalgamation of American and British hip-hop, Jamaican and American dub, British and Jamaican 2-step, and countless subgenres, the genealogy of British dubstep stands as a prime example of these transnational encounters. The basic etymology of dubstep comes from a combination of Jamaican dub and British 2-step garage. From dub, there is the stylistic emphasis on digital signal processing effects such as delay and echo, whereas 2-step offers a primarily rhythmic influence, most recognizable as a response to the perceptibly homogenized “four-on-the-floor” style of house music (Figure 1).
Of course, the two genres of dub and 2-step cannot solely account for the wide range of stylistic and generic crossings that have taken (and are currently taking) place in the formation of dubstep. There is the prototypical “wobble” bass that emerged as far back as the penchant for “bass mutation” in ragga-jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, the structural likeness to hip-hop (most noticeable in the half-time emphasis on the back beat as well as the use of “bass drops”), and the formal similarities to minimal techno (in the emphasis on gradual structural development).
Indeed, the list of transnational connections can go on in an almost infinitely reciprocal relationship.1 What is most interesting about these encounters is not necessarily the wide range of connections constantly being made between styles and genres but the extent to which local and regional identities maintain their ties to specific geographies and localities in light of the potentially homogenizing forces of globalization. The dual power of globalization to simultaneously proliferate and insulate culture is made clear in the work of Arjun Appadurai, as he writes, “globalization is itself a deeply historical, uneven, and even localizing process… If the genealogy of cultural forms is about their circulation across regions, the history of these forms is about their ongoing domestication into local practice” (Appadurai 1996, 17). This quote not only provides a working definition for cultural exchange in the transnational process but also highlights what Jason Toynbee claims to be “the immense significance of geography—of networks, staging posts and conduits—for migrating music” (Toynbee and Dueck 2011, 10). While Appadurai and Toynbee recognize the “local” as part and parcel of the “global,” Patricia Clavin sees economic and politically subversive potential in these networks, defining the significance of regional organizations and identities as “transnational forces that can work against globalization” (Clavin 2005, 431).
In this context, nationalist strategies may be used by regional musical “scenes” as a means of pinpointing local sites of cultural contestation within a transnational network. British dubstep artists have created this site through the rhetorical construction of an origin myth.
Notes on the Underground
The underground has always served as a broad conceptual metaphor in EDM culture, continuously leveraged by local communities in their attempts to solidify their sociocultural alterity against an ambiguous mainstream. Establishing the boundaries of who or what is allowed to be underground continues to be a loaded process, evoking already complex dialogues on race, gender, sexuality, and class. Throughout the history of disco and house music, hip-hop artists have engaged in what Murray Forman calls a “place-based concept of ‘the real,’” evoking metaphors of the underground through the street rhetoric of “hardness,” physically distancing themselves from gay-friendly disco and house clubs while asserting their specific brand of masculinity as “real” (Forman 2002, xviii). In the early 1990s, the rising popularity and global spread of rave culture in England led to the emergence of “hardcore” as a counterculture to the raver message of peace, love, unity, and respect.2 As local identities are asserted, they immediately collide in transnational networks, allowing the tense historical dialectic of EDM to play itself out.
In employing the underground as simultaneously a physical and social marker of alterity, cultural communities are able to posit “authentic” identities as those that exist on the margins of “official” society, in a preglobal state in which claiming ownership over specific physical spaces is still possible. It is a political and militant stance, and it has obvious ties to strategies of nation-building; as Forman writes, “it is the ‘claiming’ of space that makes existence, no matter how bleak or brutal, something worth fighting for” (Forman 2002, 8). In this context, it is easy to see why underground EDM communities often invoke origin myths: the South Bronx as the birthplace of hip-hop, Sheffield as the birthplace of industrial music, Bristol as the birthplace of drum and bass. These local, postindustrial spaces left behind by the wave of global “progress” become historical sites from which regional identities emerged as living monuments to an imaginary, preglobalized past. The rhetoric of realness and the underground acts to literally ground the communities, positioning local members in the world of discourse. As Stuart Hall writes, “discourse is always placed. So the moment of the rediscovery of a place, a past, of one’s roots, of one’s context, seems to me a necessary moment of enunciation. I do not think the margins could speak up without first grounding themselves somewhere” (Hall 2011, 36). The origin myth assures the persistence of the local culture by physically securing it to a local space, simultaneously ensuring the reciprocal relationship between the local and the global remains hidden.
For British dubstep artists and audiences, the bleak, alienating south London suburb of Croydon was the perfect geographical frame from which the music could emerge. Derek Walmsley has described the sound as “a brooding journey through South London urban dread” (Walmsley 2009, 92). Sharon O’Connell notes, “it’s obvious dubstep comes from London because it has that mutant, urban explosion of ideas with a sense of complete alienation at its core.”3 For Michael Wilson, this alienation emphasizes the marginal space of Croydon as one of London’s “dead spaces”: “dubstep is an oddly contemplative aural response to city life, in which the urban environment’s dead spaces are alternately constructed as womblike refuges for solitary contemplation and liminal zones haunted by a nameless unease.”4 This process reinforces what Appadurai calls the “spatiotemporal production of locality… the production of locality as a structure of feeling” (Appadurai 1996, 180–1). As an affective “structure of feeling,” the alienation trope helps to simultaneously ground British dubstep in the physical place of Croydon, while finding sonic embodiment in the space of the recorded mix. By emphasizing the negative affect of alienation, producers and listeners are able to physically embody the raw, visceral feeling of Croydon through the music, a process further highlighted by Henriques’ notion of “sonic dominance.” Just as Croydon is posited as the inescapable border of London’s most hidden recesses, dubstep’s low end sonically reifies that limit through sonic dominance—“there is no escape, not even thinking about it, just being there alive, in and as the excess of sound. Trouser legs flap to the bass line and internal organs resonate to the finely tuned frequencies, as the vibrations of the music excite every cell in your body” (Henriques 2011, xv ).
The notion of sonic dominance highlights one of the ways in which music gets tied to place and the foundation from which origin myths are able to emerge. For example, in Bassweight—a 2010 documentary on the early dubstep scene, featuring BBC radio DJ Mary Anne Hobbs, as well as artists such as Skream, Benga, and Kode9—the musical community is both seen and heard to literally emerge from the bleak streets of south London (Hassan 2010). The film opens with short, quickly fragmenting stop-frame sequences depicting dark, disaffected corners of the south London suburb, including barbed-wire fences at the edges of an industrial park and the architectural frame of a subway station whose final stop lies just before Croydon. As a review of the film by The Fader magazine notes, “the film quality is an analogue to dubstep—grainy, elusive, dark.”5 Clearly positioned at the margins of the city, the viewer is offered fleeting glimpses of the south London underground, a material and sociocultural space under a constantly perceived threat from the mainstream presence. As an inherently localized “structure of feeling,” the graininess through which we view the film provides a technostalgic attempt at preserving the physical space of the local while simultaneously extending its presence outward to the global viewer.
A dark, ephemeral sonic backdrop parallels the impermanence of the visual imagery, as the film further attempts to fuse the geographic place of Croydon with the sonic space of dubstep. Over the background of a low-frequency hum reminiscent of a distant subway train, short string tremolos and airy synthesizer tones crescendo to a climax only to be abruptly cut off, juxtaposed with fragmented vinyl sounds and other momentary noises—closed doors, clanging metal, the shutter of security cameras—taken from the suburban architectural and economic space. As the film provides the soundtrack to our audio-visual tour of Croydon, we are gradually taken out of the street and into the club. Black and white, chopped-up images of dancing crowds and turntable DJs are introduced alongside the first moments of digital delay, shattering the ambient soundscape of the city as a sparse, minor-based riff endlessly echoes into the sonic mix. A high-frequency rhythmic backdrop emerges gradually out of these echoes, starting sparse but building in intensity with the visual imagery. Audio-visual space emerges literally from the ground up, as light, fleeting echoes come across as sonic reflections of the cold, lifeless streets of Croydon.
“Space” is crucial here: sound as spatial memory and physical space as material sounding. The origin myth of dubstep is perpetuated as the sonic space of the genre is formed from the shattered, incomplete place of a marginal south London suburb. Wobbling bass lines oscillate between multiple frequencies along the entire audio spectrum, while extended digital delay allows sound to echo into the microrhythmic margins of the sonic mix. Sparse rhythmic ideas initially inhabit the weakest, most structurally marginal spaces of the metrical framework, eventually solidifying as polyrhythmic skyscrapers, taking up rhythmic and timbral space on both a vertical (deep) and horizontal (wide) plane. The stereo mix is constantly foregrounded as musical ideas quickly dart to the most extreme peripheries of the left and right sound field, occupying a horizontal breadth that parallels the vertical depth exemplified by the full frequency spectrum. The idea of Bassweight emphasizes the grounding force of the low end, while highlighting the materiality of sonic space as a literal echo of the physical place of dubstep’s origins, a technique furthered by the use of the term “massive” as a descriptor of dubstep’s sonic space as well as its social audience.6 Utilizing the origin myth as an affective force, dubstep artists are able to posit both physical and sonic space as that which can be locally created, inhabited, and preserved.
In terms of the transnational network, the particular “production of locality” revealed by British dubstep is simultaneously physically localized (Croydon, south London) and socioculturally global (EDM as it exists and proliferates through social media networks). As Appadurai notes, “the way in which neighborhoods are produced and reproduced requires the continuous construction, both practical and discursive, of an ethnoscape (necessarily nonlocal) against which local practices and projects are imagined to take place” (Appadurai 1996, 184). Appadurai’s notion of “continuous construction” is helpful primarily in that it recognizes reciprocal relationships between the local and the global, contradicting the ontological claims of the origin myth while recognizing how it functions within the construction of the nation. The Croydon Sound is thus sonically and ideologically constructed as a local microcosm of the larger ethnoscape of underground EDM cultures: a global unit that shapes and is shaped by constantly emerging local iterations.
Indeed, the explicitly nationalist portrayal of British dubstep in the Bassweight documentary would make little sense without the larger transnational network of local sites (Kingston, Jamaica; Los Angeles; London), as this transnational network is always already at work in the construction of these highly localized sites of negotiation. Without conceptualizing the local space within the larger transnational space of EDM culture, the “production of locality” would hold little cultural and historical meaning. As Appadurai writes,
The capability of neighborhoods to produce contexts (within which their very localizing activities acquire meaning and historical potential) and to produce local subjects is profoundly affected by the locality-producing capabilities of larger-scale formations (nation-states, kingdoms, missionary empires, and trading cartels) to determine the general shape of all the neighborhoods within the reach of their powers.
(Appadurai 1996, 187)
Without the large-scale formation of a mainstream EDM culture, local formations would remain localized, yet it is precisely the position of British dubstep as a local site within a transnational network that allows transnational dialogue to occur. With the global spread of dubstep, this dialogue emerges in the form of authenticity debates between American and British artists and audiences.
The story of repulsion, rather than attraction, is so far an underplayed aspect of the history of transnational networks. –Patricia Clavin (2005), “Defining Transnationalism”
In 2009, dubstep left its perceived birthplace in south London to inhabit the pop charts of mainstream America, thus sparking a transnational debate that continues to this day. With the release of Snoop Dogg’s “Snoop Dogg Millionaire”—a track in which the rapper flows over “Eastern Jam,” a track by British producers Chase & Status—Kosta Elcher of The Independent praises the track as “a massive step forward for dubstep and for British music. We have a lot of good underground producers on our own doorstep who are often overlooked in favour of people like Mark Ronson and this is a step towards changing that.”7 For Elcher, the global flow of dubstep offers a somewhat hypocritical opportunity for the local underground to replace current mainstream artists such as Mark Ronson. Other journalists take a more conservative stance to the release, viewing American attempts at dubstep as mere appropriations that end up turning the genre into “something else.” As Hannah Lederer Alton (also of The Independent) writes in response to Kelcher:
I understand why when Americans hear dubstep they want to get involved. But it feels like they are just jumping on the bandwagon. They want a piece of it but aren’t really contributing anything worthwhile to the sound. US rappers like Snoop, Busta Rhymes and Xzibit are just too big for the British Dubstep scene as it stands right now. It feels like we will end up being crushed under their might and morphed into something else so we’ll never get that gritty, original British sound back.8
Evoking the physical and sonic space of the “gritty, original British sound” of Croydon, Alton utilizes the origin myth as a “grounded,” localized argument against the global spread of what has always been a transnational culture.
In a 2011 interview, British dubstep artist James Blake argues against American dubstep in masculinist terms, critiquing the “macho” sound of “brostep” as a “direct misrepresentation” of the British “original”:
I think dubstep that has come over to the US, and certain producers—who I can’t even be bothered naming—have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there’s this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds and the way the music makes you feel. And to me, that is a million miles away from where dubstep started. It’s a million miles away from the ethos of it. It’s been influenced so much by electro and rave, into who can make the dirtiest, filthiest bass sound, almost like a pissing competition, and that’s not really necessary. And I just think that largely that is not going to appeal to women. I find that whole side of things to be pretty frustrating, because that is a direct misrepresentation of the sound as far as I’m concerned.9
Upon the release of his 2011 EP Enough Thunder, Blake extended this critique to the “aggressive and annoying melodic basslines” that characterize American dubstep, as he notes in a Pitchfork review:
Those melodic basslines are insultingly simple and aggressive and annoying. That is now a valid genre, but it certainly isn’t dubstep. It’s turned into something else. That’s cool, I’m happy about it. I’m not like, “As soon as it became mainstream it became rubbish, or whatever.” It’s just something different now.10
For both Blake and Alton, clear attempts are made to transcend the authenticity debate altogether, arguing less for American dubstep as a watered-down imitation of the original British style and more for the American style as “something else” entirely. In essentially arguing for the invincibility of British dubstep—as a style that is above influence, unable to be “corrupted” or “copied” by a global community—artists and audiences are able to solidify the origin myth as a simultaneously physically localized and eternally reified national style. The Croydon Sound thus becomes a frozen monument, not necessarily dead, as it is eternally embalmed as a “national” style within the transnational network.
While the evocation of death metaphors may seem to buy into the notion of the origin myth—in the sense that American dubstep acts as a force of decay on the British original—they are rather used to emphasize the transnational process of exchange as one of negotiation and constant reciprocal influence. Throughout the history of EDM, death has been evoked as a way of dealing with constant cultural change, by highlighting the ephemeral nature of the culture as fleeting experiences, immortalized upon the moment of finality through the workings of collective memory.11 As the most recent transitional moment in the history of EDM, dubstep represents that moment of the metaphorical “death” of a constantly fragmenting culture.12
Anxieties surrounding authenticity may thus be viewed as expressions of self-negation—as reflexive moments in which prior identities are “killed” to make space for self-renewal. Mainstream culture allows this self-negation to materialize. Thus with the release of Britney Spears’s dubstep-influenced 2009 single “Hold It Against Me,” an MTV reviewer writes, “some wonder whether she has hammered a nail into dubstep’s coffin.”13 In “The Death of Dubstep,” Mark Doogan details this process of self-negation: “No it’s not dead, it’s just dead in the states. In the states, people go to dubstep raves and people die. Here, people come to party and be proud of the sound we gave the world. It’s just unfortunate the Americans have butchered it just like everything else they get their hands on.”14 The “death” of which Doogan speaks is, of course, not a literal death but rather a moment in which a prior identity fragments upon its exposure to the new. The dubstep wars therefore highlight an interesting moment in the negotiation of a transnationalist identity in which the pride of a local scene resonates with certain strains of xenophobic nationalism.
Paraphrasing Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Murray Foreman discusses hip-hop culture through this imagery of “incompleteness”—as that which allows for localized formations as well as debates between these localities as “discursive formations”—as he writes, “the practical acknowledgement of the incompleteness, the partiality of a given discursive formation forms the grounds for a progressive hybridity that is capable of producing discursive flexibility to move back and forth across several discursive formations” (Forman 2002, 10). The assertion of a specific, British origin of dubstep is thus essentially an assertion of ontological partiality that allows for a “progressive hybridity” and stylistic flexibility. Indeed, historicization through the origin myth attempts to cancel prior stylistic influences—historicization as erasure, British dubstep as originary itself, outside of influence. Homi Bhabha’s notion of the “third space” reinforces this sense of incompleteness, questioning the idea of the original by displacing a fixed “essence” with a constantly emerging “difference”:
“the ‘original” is never finished or complete in itself. The “originary” is always open to translation so that it can never be said to have a totalized prior moment of being or meaning… through that displacement or liminality opens up the possibility of articulating different, even incommensurable cultural practices and priorities.
(Bhabha 1990, 210–11)
As a discursive formation, the debates of realness and authenticity in EDM culture (most recently materialized in the dubstep wars) thus reflect the culture as a constantly changing entity, bound up in a transnational web of influence. The liminal space of the local (in this case, Croydon) is asserted as authentic primarily as a springboard for an articulation of cultural difference through what Slavoj Zizek describes as the “empty space of negotiation”: “this place from which we can denounce ideology must remain empty, it cannot be occupied by any positively determined reality—the moment we yield to this temptation, we are back in ideology” (Middleton 2006, 232). EDM culture as a heterogeneous, culturally different entity functions precisely by utilizing those homogenizing strategies of nationalism—historicization, the origin myth, and other authenticity tropes. In recognizing the more complex nationalist strategies of repulsion, rather than attraction, a transnationalist vision of the culture allows us to preserve cultural difference as highly localized, without ignoring its homogeneous structuring within the global framework.
Convergence Media and the Rise of the Sonic Meme
While social media networks helped in bringing the murky sound of British dubstep across the Atlantic, trends in ubiquitous computing and an increasingly transmedial space of digital audio production have taken the music outside of the club and onto the screen. With the rise of smartphone apps for making EDM, rhythm and music-based video games, and dubstep as the omnipresent soundtrack to countless cross-platform media products, EDM has spread like an Internet meme—at a speed that matches gradually rising online bandwidth and at the scale of a computer virus.15 Despite widespread optimism regarding the seemingly subversive and “democratizing” potential of Web 2.0, configurable media, remix culture, and so on, the rise of EDM as a sonic meme of sorts has not been without its discontents. If the controversies surrounding the “Harlem Shake,” Miley Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 VMAs, or the endless debates about cultural hybridization in EDM are any indication, the digital era has simultaneously liberated music from its local source and authentic cultural values while intensifying the power of those local meanings and values.
In his 2006 book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins defines “convergence culture” as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (Jenkins 2006, 2). Crucial to Jenkins’ concept is the idea that shifting media industries create highly localized and socially specific cultures of convergence that are collectively shaped by the needs and desires of certain consumer demographics. In this context, media consumption is seen as an active and collective social process of meaning construction, negotiated first and foremost through “the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with others,” rather than through technological developments themselves (Jenkins 2006, 3). The “participatory culture” that results from this productive process of media convergence and collective consumption provides the frame from which a “digital maximalist” ethos of hypermediated production emerges.
While Jenkins’ discussion focuses primarily on changes within the economic realms of film and television production that were occurring during the time of the book’s writing, one of the most dominant forms of convergence culture today exists at the intersection of EDM, action movies, and first-person shooter video games. The most prominent use of dubstep as a transmedial form comes from video game and movie trailers. From the fast-paced, neo-cyborg, and alien action thrillers such as Transformers (2007–present), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and G.I. Joe (2012), to dystopian first-person shooter video games such as Borderlands (2012), Far Cry 3 (2012), and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012), modulated oscillator wobbles and bass portamento drops consistently serve as sonic amplifiers of the male action hero at the edge. Assault rifle barrages are echoed by quick rhythmic bass and percussion chops, while the visceral contact of pistol whips and lobbed grenades marks ruptures in time and space as slow-motion frame rates mirror bass “drops” in sonic texture and rhythmic pacing. “Hardness” is the overriding affect here; compressed, gated kick and snare drum samples combine with coagulated, “overproduced” basslines made up of multiple oscillators vibrating at broad frequency ranges, colonizing the soundscape by filling every chasm of the frequency spectrum. The music—and the media forms with which it has become entwined—has served as the affective catalyst and effective backdrop for the emergence of an unabashedly assertive, physically domineering, and adrenaline-addicted “bro” culture.16
In her article “Cranked Masculinity: Hypermediation in Digital Action Cinema,” Lorrie Palmer argues for a relational link among gender, technology, and modes of production through hypermasculinity in the types of films and video games mentioned in the previous paragraph, as she states:
I propose that the prefix hyper- may connect hypermediation and cinematic hypermasculinity not just as an obvious spectacle of excess but also a function of speed. Hypermedia encourages other ways of looking, through “the glance rather than the gaze,” which suggests a similar relationship between spectatorial experience and the compression inherent to digital production.
(Palmer 2012, 7)
Some definitive features of this form of hypermediation include an emphasis on “excess and spectacle, the centrality of surface over substance… ADHD cinema… transitory kinetic sensations that decenter spatial legibility… an impact aesthetic, [and] ear-splitting, frenetic style” (Palmer 2012, 4). Steven Shaviro has defined the overall aesthetic of these practices as “post-cinematic”: a regime “centered on computer games” and emphasizing “the logic of control and gamespace, which is the dominant logic of entertainment programming today” (Palmer 2012, 13). In “The Cut: Theory and Counter-Theory of Digital Form,” Sebastian Franklin details these practices as part of a broader logic of convergence, as he writes, “a composite of film editing and computer programming is the emblematic cultural mode of the present day” (Palmer 2012, 13). Here, the algorithmic control inherent to digital forms of production is externalized through portrayals of dominating male figures that assert similar modes of control over their virtual environments. The “post-cinematic” is thus conceptualized as a threshold logic of digital form, simultaneously bound up in and exceeding a transmedial technoscape that is itself deeply intertwined with embodied notions of hypermasculinity.
In his 2011 article “Maximal Nation: Electronic Music’s Evolution Toward the Thrilling Excess of Digital Maximalism,” Simon Reynolds expands on these trends of technical convergence and transmedial sensory overload by positing “digital maximalism” as the overarching aesthetic form of contemporary EDM. As he writes, “‘Maximalism’ is vague and capacious enough to contain a whole bunch of ideas and associations, but the general slant of these verdicts is that there are a hell of a lot of inputs here, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty.”17 The “inputs” being described are not simply the artistic influences of the producer but also the hybrid, transmedial nature of emerging digital audio workstations—software that fosters the convergence of various musical tools into a coherent workflow and consequently shapes the “texture-saturated overload” of the music.18 Paraphrasing Matthew Ingram’s article on the subject in Loops, Reynolds describes the ways in which digital audio workstations such as Ableton Live and FL Studio encourage “interminable layering,” the graphic interface presenting music as “a giant sandwich of vertically arranged elements stacked upon one another.” Furthermore, the software’s scope for tweaking the parameters of any given sonic event—as well as the inherently “wired-in” nature of software/hardware connectivity—opens up a potential “bad infinity” abyss of fiddly fine-tuning.19 The sonic result of this “digital maximalism” is what Reynolds calls “audio torrent”: “rococo-florid riffs, eruptions of digitally enhanced virtuosity, skyscraping solos, and other ‘maxutiae,’ all daubed from a palette of fluorescent primary colors.” “Brostep”—the term that has emerged from James Blake’s critique of American dubstep—has become one of the primary arbiters of this “post-everything omnivorousness, structural convolution, and texture-saturated overload,” as a sensory assault from all angles, further dominating the glutted mediascape of viral capitalism.20
On a sonic level, brostep epitomizes post-cinematic, as well as digital maximalist descriptions. An “impact aesthetic” is heard in the excessive digital compression of drum samples that literally subdue the attack of other frequencies and felt as tracks pummel the listener with streams of overbearing bass drops. “Transitory kinetic sensations” are imposed on the listener through quick filter sweeps and track mutes, causing individual sounds and frequencies to sporadically duck in and out of the mix, combining with the ubiquitous, schizophrenic wobbling bass line to create an atmosphere of inescapable anxiety and excitability. Among the many descriptions of the macho effect imbued by brostep, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd has described the music of Borgore, a particularly controversial dubstep producer, as “misogy blow-job beats” that would most likely attract the attention of the “recently frat-hazed.”21 Other commenters have made more obvious semiotic connections between filmic imagery and music, as Nitsuh Abebe writes, “The way Americans have made these basslines lately, they’re aggressive, vertiginous, and adrenaline-heavy, and they conjure up obviously cool images like being inside the gleaming metal torso of a planet-sized robot while it punches an even bigger robot.”22
In his 1997 article on late-1990s drum ‘n’ bass, “2 Steps Back,” Reynolds relates the masculinist “scientific imagery” that surrounded British EDM at the time with the emerging practices of digital audio manipulation and technical practice:
The scientific imagery seems to reflect the modus operandi, the weeks of incredibly intensive and fastidious labour that go into the average drum ‘n’ bass track. Listening, you can hear the conditions under which the music came into being: bodies rigid with tension as they click the mouse; eyes fucked by the red-eye effects of ganja and staring at a computer screen all day.
In the dubstep era, the convergence of action cinema, video games, and EDM production has indeed altered the image of the digital musician. Still staring at a computer screen all day, no longer “fucked by the red-eye effects of ganja,” the brostep producer interacts with his music as he does his video game avatar: as a prosthetic extension of his masculinist desire for virtual mastery and control, immersing himself in the “maxutiae” of digital software and a technological “upgrade culture.” As the logic of digital audio production merges with the logic of gaming, post-cinematic desire is filtered through automation and control algorithms and the goal of music creation becomes the fostering of an atmosphere of exaggerated self-regulation and modulation.
The story of dubstep’s musical migration—from the sonic marker of south London’s suburban underground to a ubiquitous force in American mainstream media—represents a single case study in the increasingly dialectical terrain of EDM culture. Despite utopian arguments for the universal accessibility of music in the globalized digital age, gatekeepers of authenticity remain vigilant in protecting specific, culturally, and geographically situated musical forms from becoming corrupted by external influence. The resulting culture wars often amplify existing power plays over race, gender, and class while inculcating new forms of musical practice that do, indeed, broaden the scope of EDM audiences. With the rise of social media networks in viral capitalism, this dialectic between local and global style moves at increasingly fragmented intervals, as new subgenres emerge at a frantic pace. In just a few years, the dominant paradigm of EDM shifted from dubstep to moombahton to trap to bounce, constantly altering audience demographics and geographic nodes of practice along the way. As this push and pull between micro and macro styles continues to shape the soundscape of EDM culture, it becomes increasingly necessary to document these dialectical histories. In the dubstep era, “bassweight” becomes an affective counterpart to the “cloud,” as dynamic social, cultural, and political relationships materialize as sonic pressure—amplifying the effects of transnational collisions while grounding and stabilizing local styles.
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(1) In “How Music Travels—The Evolution of Western Dance Music,” Osman Khan presents an interactive map that geographically and temporally locates these points of transnational interaction in global electronic dance music cultures http://www.thomson.co.uk/blog/2011/10/how-music-travels-infographic/#.Trh8XlYu73J
(2) The idea of a “hardcore continuum” in electronic dance music was first posited by Simon Reynolds in a series of essays for The Wire magazine from 1992 to 1999. Reynolds revisited the series in 2013, and the entire discussion can be found on The Wire website: http://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/the-wire-300_simon-reynolds-on-the-hardcore-continuum_introduction. Further discussions on the “hardcore continuum” occurred through various publications of the Dancecult journal: see Fisher (2009), Gilbert (2009), Reynolds (2010).
(3) Sharon O’Connell, “Dubstep,” TimeOut London, October 4, 2006, http://www.timeout.com/london/music/features/2083/1.html (accessed October 15, 2011).
(4) Michael Wilson, “Bubble and Squeak: Michael Wilson on Dubstep,” Artforum, 2006 http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Bubble+and+squeak%3a+Michael+Wilson+on+dubstep.-a0165312289 (accessed October 15, 2011).
(6) As Henriques notes, this rhetoric of sonic and social space as “massive” is also utilized by Jamaican dancehall crews.
(7) Kosta Elcher, “Dubstep It Up,” The Independent, April 24, 2009, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/dubstep-it-up-1673292.html (accessed October 15, 2011).
(8) Hannah Lederer Alton, “The Gritty, British Sound of Dubstep Will Be Lost,” The Independent, April 24, 2009, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/the-gritty-british-sound-of-dubstep-will-be-lost-1673737.html (accessed October 15, 2011). Emphasis added.
(9) Liz Pelly, “Interview: James Blake’s Dub Soft-Shoe,” The Boston Phoenix, September 28, 2011, http://thephoenix.com/Boston/music/127478-interview-james-blakes-dub-soft-shoe/?page=2#TOPCONTENT (accessed October 15, 2011).
(10) Ryan Dombal, “James Blake: Enough Thunder EP,” Pitchfork, October 7, 2011, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/15904-enough-thunder-ep/ (accessed October 15, 2011). Emphasis added.
(11) From Kool DJ E.Q.’s “Death of Hip-Hop” (1995), to Nas’ Hip-Hop is Dead (2006) LP, this has been a common trope among perceived “insiders.” This debate became public particularly after the release of Nas’ LP, gaining mainstream attention with Sasha Frere-Jones’ controversial article “Wrapping Up: A Genre Ages Out,” The New Yorker, October 26, 2009 http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2009/10/26/091026crmu_music_frerejones?currentPage=all (accessed November 10, 2011).
(12) Dubstep is by no means the first genre of EDM to aestheticize this sense of decay. As far back as the 1980s, bands like Einsturzende Neubauten and other industrial music acts sonically evoked metaphors of death by way of industrial decay. Similar aesthetics were influential in the development of ambient electronic and glitch music in the 1990s. Perhaps most obviously, Detroit Techno reflected a dystopian edge that was directly connected to the urban decay in its home city.
(13) Akshay Bhansali, “Britney Spears’ ‘Hold It Against Me’ is ‘Gonna Inspire People,’ Skrillex Says,” MTV, January 11, 2011, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1655718/britney-spears-hold-it-against-me-gonna-inspire-people-skrillex.jhtml (accessed October 15, 2011).
(14) Mark Doogan, “The Death of Dubstep,” BlagBlog, June 25, 2011, http://www.blagsound.com/blagblog/the-death-of-dubstep.blag (accessed November 1, 2011).
(15) By the early 2010s, the acronym EDM had itself taken on a specific vernacular meaning, referring to phenomena such as the rise of the millionaire DJ, EDM festivals in suburban America, and arena shows mostly catering to white, teenage audiences. In contrast, academic scholarship continues to use the term in a much broader way, as an umbrella term for the various international cultures and communities that comprise “electronic dance music culture.”
(16) See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osvAiV-y9dI&feature=youtu.be for a video compilation of video game and movie trailers that use dubstep as their soundtrack. Created by the author.
(17) Simon Reynolds, “Maximal Nation: Electronic Music’s Evolution Toward the Thrilling Excess of Digital Maximalism,” Pitchfork, December 6, 2011, http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/8721-maximal-nation/ (accessed March 2, 2013).
(18) EDM artists themselves have furthered the connection between digital music production and video gaming. As Flying Lotus states, “I love that shit. For the most part I grew up an only child, I was 10 or 11 when my little sister came round. I was a little boy and didn’t have too many friends, but I had Nintendo. Those sounds are part of my youth, part of my history” (The Quietus, Interview May 18, 2010). Images of his studio attest to this phenomenon of media convergence, what LA Weekly writer Jeff Weiss describes as “a mess of keyboards, DVDs, video games, computers and a drum kit.” Across the Atlantic, Glasgow’s bass music pioneer Rustie has talked about how his production styles emulate the way gamers play video games, as he says “I’ve played the guitar since I was ten, and I’ve played video games since the eighties. I guess it’s a different means to the same end, really. There’s not much difference between plucking a string and pressing a button, I think.” (Pitchfork, Interview, May 31, 2012).
(21) Julianna Escobedo Shepherd, “Deconstructing: Rusko and Bro-Step,” Stereogum, March 19, 2012, http://stereogum.com/989392/deconstructing-rusko-and-bro-step/top-stories/
(22) Nitsuh Abebe, “Why Does America Love Skrillex?” Vulture, January 5, 2012, http://www.vulture.com/2012/01/why-does-america-love-skrillex.html