Bro-step, Euro-Dance and Roland Barthes.

While it’s difficult to say exactly when the designation of “brostep” became a legitimate genre identifier, along with, chill wave, future house, future techno blue wave, etc, its arrival does signify a potential shift in the sphere of dance music. The idea of a hyper masculine sound, one that, regardless of the artists’ intent has, according to James Blake, “has hit upon a certain frat boy kind of market” not only elaborates upon certain historic trends in dance music, but also introduces some new elements.  If we are to understand how and why this new genre could be potentially disruptive to our current understanding of EDM culture, then we first may want to look at how this world has been previously understood.

In Discographies, Jeremy Gilbert’s and Ewan Pearsonk’s work on dance music culture, they discuss what they call “the metaphysics of music”, an exploration that largely centers around Roland Barthes’ definition of jouissance, which basically concerns human conceptions of pleasure, specifically an “eroticism, which is in some sense pre-sexual.”  Hence, to the authors, Barthe’s concept of jouissance is one that is decidedly un-gendered, a concept they link to dance music whose “asexuality might be seen as a deliberate strategy, a pursuit of neuter jouissance”—not to mention the MDMA influenced environments in which it used to be consumed.  The reason sexuality seems to be so important to the authors, in their study of dance music, is that, unlike other forms of music, dance music is something that is used rather than listened to. They posit that rock n roll stopped being a “dance” music with the entrance of Bob Dylan using the electric guitar mixed with Western literature, thus becoming a “sanctioned art form” rather than the EDM which “valorized…pleasure” a value that has historically been looked down upon by Western critics.  However, today, when much of mainstream music could be decidedly split between “brostep” and what the authors refer to as Eurodance, it’s hard to consider the music only as something intended to be used as a means to pleasure.

With disco, there was a backlash against dance music’s sudden popularity, which was then largely pinned upon its association with homosexuality and black men, today, perhaps a potential backlash is brewing against music that is made “only to be used”.  While it may have made sense to the authors then to directly dichotomize dance and pop music, again focusing on the audience’s listening versus using of the music, now that dance and pop have become synonymous, this differentiation becomes more complex.  For the authors, another key part of the jouissance of dance music was its’ abrasive sounds those that constitute  “the grain” and explain how “jouissance is actually often experienced as unbearable pain.”  However, today, these abrasive sounds are almost the norm, perhaps painful out of context but exciting when placed within a traditional EDM structure such as heard here:

However, when taken out of the four on the floor traditional dance structure, I am curious if these “granular” sounds become engendered. For instance, with brostep, this type of abrasive sound never evolves into a funk/disco-influenced groove but rather results after a long build that then moves into a hip-hop rhythm.

Hip Hop, arguably the predominant dance music in the 90’s and early 21st century, has been one that is quite engendered.  The rappers tend to be male. Traditional notions of masculinity such as toughness and heterosexuality have always been mainstream themes.  The dances to hip hop, from grinding to the perrero also seem to be male dominated. In fact, when considering hip-hop dance music, many of the authors’ arguments disappear, as hip-hop seemed primarily intended to be listened to. Although the difference between the hip/hop beat and its connotations and a more traditional dance rhythm may seem trivial when we look at the authors’ arguments concerning what was then called Euro-House we begin to better understand some of the forces at work.

Essentially Euro-House is dance music that has been simplified to appeal to the masses.   It is a music characterized by artists like Avicii, who I’ve mentioned previously, and it serves to “negotiate a space” in which members of society raised by “western discourse” are able to experience a form of group “jouissance.”  The music is formulaic and simple, but perhaps most important, it is accessible. Acid house tracks are not meant to be songs with breakdowns, builds, and releases but are meant to be mixed, with the ultimate song structure ultimately decided by the DJ.  However, in Euro-House songs, the structure is included in the song almost as though a DJ had already mixed what was formally simply a track.  The problem I’m trying to attack, ever so tangentially, is where “bro-step” fits in.  If we take something like Benny Benassi’s Cinema, remixed by Skrillex, we see the cheesy Euro-House structure, but are met with what, to many, would be simply noise at the time of the “drop”. However, rather than the repetitive, ambient characteristics of techno, acid house, house, minimal and deep house, where “turning the beat around” releases that untold pleasure, that collective orgasm, bro-step regresses into a popular hip hop rhythm, one that most Americans are already familiar with, especially those that grew up in the nineties. Considering this seems to be a negotiated space, a space occupied by music that has “no purpose other than to be used” with a Euro-Dance structure, a hip-hop groove, and “granular” sounds it seems questionable how without a purpose only has so much time to remain in the spotlight—unlike “real” dance music bro-step serves to negotiate a space more so than to incite ecstasy.  However, as dance music takes over the top 40, perhaps it will bring more listeners to accept it as the dominant music of the club. Just as classical music moved towards an emphasis on the musique-concrete in the early 20th century perhaps Americans are finally starting seeing dance music as the music for a club, one that unlike hip hop, is not meant to be learned, and sung along to, but rather only used. While in pop music, the craze of four on the floor will surely fade, perhaps the historic American discomfort with music only for the body has finally ebbed enough so EDM will assume its place in American night clubs, as it has done in Europe for decades.


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