It may be safe to say that techno, house, and electronic dance music in general is reaching a zenith in popularity in recent times. The level of public awareness of the genre is only rivaled by the Big Beat movement of the mid to late ‘90s, to which it seems to have already surpassed. There are of course many sects – electroclash, glitch, witch house, but the one sub genre that is repeatedly filling up clubs left and right is dubstep.
The popularity of this genre may be partly due its accessibility through simplicity – industrialized beats, screeching alarm synths, and a bottom heavy bass drop. The ability to break it down to its essentials may give some cause to dismiss it, but it should be at least considered that the hand that is switching that dial is the same one that switched off the rock & roll station in the early ’50s.
A fellow Death and Taxes writer recently asked if dubstep is just warmed over nu metal. It’s not, but the genre does however have a quality that is indeed disposable, but not in the same way. While the public may have tossed out bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn when they realized their lack of worth. The music was unmistakably horrible to begin with, relying on meat-head aggression and indiscernible detuned guitars. Needless to say, the fans that took them seriously most likely didn’t have “Kid A” in their shopping carts when they went to go pick up “Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water.” To classify dubstep as that brainless is really ignoring the genre.
Dubstep is the result of the natural progression of electronic dance music. When the club beats of the Chicago and Manchester house movements of the ‘80s weren’t fast enough, it begot Breakbeat Hardcore in the early ’90s. When both sides of happy hardcore and darkcore began to sound too thin, it was bolstered by Big Beat in the mid ’90s. That sound got grimier in the ‘00s, with the beats getting harder and bass getting more engulfing. That combination took on a more mechanized grit, which more or less led to the emergence of what we now know as dubstep.
While dubstep is not a far cry from previous techno movements, it seems to have the most opposition than any other preceding division of electronic dance music. Some of that opposition is valid. Getting back to the disposable element – dubstep thrives on the aforementioned formula, making it extremely limited, and when considering the common clang and heady bursting speaker effect heard in all dubstep songs, it can get pretty tiring. That being said, there’s also the superficial reasoning. It’s well known for instance that Skrillex, who many could consider one of the figureheads of the movement, was in a screamo band called From First to Last, before switching the guitar for the sampler (and producing tracks on Korn’s latest album certainly doesn’t help his cause). That fact has been like a credibility vacuum against the artist.
There’s also the fan base. The crowd that you would find at a Deadmau5 or Rusko concert are typically young ravers in desperate need of a bass drop, which would best be exemplified by the response to Skrillex’s Facebook post in December where he proudly proclaimed “Flim” by Aphex Twin to be his favorite song of all time. His proclamation was met with bewilderment from his fans, all uniformly asking “where’s the drop?”, as if they had never heard a synthesizer before “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.”
This mentality of die hard dubstep fans is what I believe has made other fans of dance and other electronic music, not just shy away, but approach the style and its fanbase with malice. I myself am not a particularly large fan of dubstep, but to say it has no worth is silly. For starters, Skrillex’s “Bangarang” was panned on this site when its video was released a few weeks ago, but as a commenter on the article pointed out, the song is not a far leap from Big Beat’s heyday, or even more specifically, the song, “Face to Face” by Daft Punk, which employs a similar funky groove meets mechanical stutter in its hook. It doesn’t merely fall into derivative aping though, its loud synth scrapes are a suitable update on the other song’s Euro-house flex.
The problem though with the dubstep genre is its formulaic nature. The style is all climax with no foreplay, which is why there are no true definitive dubstep albums. Even James Blake, probably the most celebrated artist to emerge out of the genre (so much so, he seems to be resting on the safer tag “post-dubstep”) used his laptop abilities to make a singer/songwriter record for when it came time to make his debut LP. Dubstep has yet to prove it can make a lasting album, it seeming to be more of a singles-and-EP-based genre. Still, some styles just work better in limited formats. Outside of a record like “Loveless,” shoegaze was a genre that worked much more efficiently in the realm of 4-song EPs rather than full lengths, as material by bands like Ride, Chapterhouse, and Lush could attest to. Even the acid house movement of the ‘80s produced a slew of excellent 12” singles but not many memorable long players.
Dubstep is not the enemy. While the DJs that have made it famous have a limited trajectory on their own material, their abilities can easily be used for good outside of the recesses of a bass soaked club or a passing chrome-plated SUV. It’s been done, and in some cases, several years before there was a name for draggy mechanical beats — check out PJ Harvey’s “My Beautiful Leah”, which nearly invents the genre in 1998. That’s just one example, and there’s plenty of room for more productivity if we’re willing to give it a chance.