This past Christmas season, I spent many hours working in an HMV store in one of Victoria’s major malls. For those unaware, HMV is a big music retailer in Canada and was in the UK, evidently. What made the job so engaging for me, speaking as a major audiophile, was the conversations I got to have with customers who desperately needed help finding the perfect CD for those on their shopping lists. Looking for a CD for a Michael Bublé fan that already has all the Bublé? Try Michael Kaeshammer, friend! Your girlfriend loves Norah Jones but has all her solo stuff? Well get her The Little Willies, guy! These are the conversations I live for and talking music springs life in me the way few other conversations do.
I’d have to say that the most memorable conversation, however, was with a sweet old lady who was looking for some music for her fifteen-year old grandson.
“Do you have something called… um… Skr-Skrielex?”
“Yes. That one”
“Right this way.”
She told me that she always loved giving the gift of music but that this new trend that her grandson was into was totally beyond her; what exactly was Dubstep and could I explain it to her?
“Well, it’s electronic music but it’s most known for the moment when ‘the beat drops’, as they say. Dubstep is characterized by the moment when the song is reduced to a very simple bass beat that holds the song together while a cacophony of various electronic noises make a great deal of seemingly random noise… Does that make sense?”
“That sounds awful,” was her honest reply.
“Well… it is but it isn’t… It’s kind of designed to be… awful… in a good, dancy way.”
“It’s sort of an acquired taste,” I choked.
So what is Dubstep and how does one define it? As a musical genre it is very minimal is scope and pretty unimaginative. There are only really so many ways you can “drop the beat” before the trend gets tiring. Or at least one would think but it seems that more and more artists, even those well outside the realm of electronic music, are picking up Dubstep and running with it.
Despite what Dubstep’s detractors might say, it seems as though the trend is picking up more and more listeners. As much as I can recognize the limitations of the genre, I find the music eerily catchy and, well, provocative. I have to confess, hilarious but accurate descriptions my friends have associated to the form aside (like “two fax machines fucking each other” or “robotic whales battling while being consumed by a shredder”), I like Dubstep.
So I have a theory as to what Dubstep is and why it resonates, but first, dear reader, I need you to become familiar with this song. I recommend listening to it as loudly as possible for the greatest effect.
This is Dubstep at it most pure and easily dissected. It also has the distinction of being the only Dubstep song that I have heard that is actually about something. Muse has used this form to create cacophonous tune depicting the current crisis facing our natural world to great effect. So, let’s dissect it, shall we?
We have in this track two very specific camps of which music is originating from. Firstly, you’ll notice, the song starts out with a full orchestra without a hint of electronic influence; all of the sounds generate from an organic source. Let us call this “The Natural World”. “The Natural World” clips along rather melodiously for a bit but then we are made aware of the crisis facing the availability of our natural resources thanks to our abuse of the world’s goods. And then, we are told that what we are doing is unsustainable.
And then the beat drops.
This introduces us to the second camp: “Technology gone wrong”. The sounds and noises it emits are awful, high-pitched, and dissonant. Here we are subjected to the angry and mechanical sounds of what, according to Muse, is happening to Planet Earth.
For a time in the middle of the song, both camps play together be we hear the full-orchestra being drowned out slowly by the elements of Dubstep. “The Natural World” is losing its place and technology is taking over. We are treated to another grim warning and the beat drops yet again. We won’t be hearing from “The Natural World” again. Then, abruptly, on the final “Unsustainable”, the song dies. This, to me, seems to propose the idea that once Nature is eradicated, technology will only take us so much further before it too meets a sudden end.
So what does this tell us about Dubstep as a whole? Well, as mentioned earlier, this track is about something specific and highlighted in the song itself: the degradation of the natural world and its resources. In this sense, this song is an anomaly. What doesn’t make is distinct is its sense of anxiety and anger expressed through a bombardment of awful sounds set to a beat.
And to me, Dubstep is all about that feeling of dissociated anxiety and disembodied rage set to music. Ever have that feeling when you feel all pissed off and have no understanding as to why? Can’t find the words as to what’s troubling you? Well then Dubstep is the music for you! At least in those moments, anyway; a diet of pure Dubstep would be pretty unhealthy for you, I’m sure.
This is also why I think, despite what many people wish, Dubstep is not going away. It is the music of those that feel powerless facing-off against invisible or overwhelmingly complex oppressors while still being high-energy and danceable. It is the music of the digital and the angry in the 21st century.
So on that note, since I’ve been listening to non-stop Dubstep while writing this post, I’m going to go off and listen to anything else! As for you, dear reader, perhaps you’d like one more listen so here’s a video for your listening pleasure.
Then again, maybe you don’t. And that is perfectly understandable.