The Pulse of the Beat: Aura, Technique, and Masculinity in House Music
Electronic dance music, popular culture, and modern science inject the flesh with fantasies of immortality, limitless pleasures, and unadulterated agency. With their tax-funded market research and their potent techno-imaginings… they passionately fabricate the human-machine hybrid known as the cyborg, the fembot, and the posthuman. (Loza 349)
Ah, the glorious pulse of the 4/4 kick drum. House music has had a long and storied history since its birth in the Chicago club scene during the waning years of disco, attaining primacy in the early to mid 1990s and rising once again in recent years as a driving force of current trends in pop. As a product of musical subculture, scholars over the years have analyzed electronic dance music from a host of perspectives, covering the genre through both hetero and homosexual lenses. They have focused on the agency of individual vocalists, the producers that create the musical space for vocalists, and the culture of the dance club where house music is disseminated by DJs to the dancing masses regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. This essay will seek to highlight what distinguishes house music from other modern music genres, in relation to Hebidge’s concept of subculture introduced in his seminal work Subculture: the Meaning of Style. House music does not seek to resist authority or be political; rather, it’s a celebration of the physical and the sexual, and often associated with signifiers of masculinity. We will also highlight house music’s place in the postmodernist cultural analysis that has replaced Benjamin’s “age of mechanical reproduction” with a concept of more relevance to music in the 21st century: the “age of digital reproduction.” Peter Wollen has established the link between Benjamin and the postmodernists as follows:
As Benjamin’s “age of reproduction” is replaced by our “age of electronic reproduction,” the trends which he discerned are further extended. Reproduction, pastiche and quotation, instead of being forms of textual parasitism, become constitutive of textuality. (Wollen 169)
Central to Benjamin’s analysis is the concept of the “aura”, the uniqueness of a cultural artifact that provides it with agency and relevance to the spectator or consumer. For Benjamin, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of a work of art.” (Benjamin 79). Cultural theorists have argued that we have evolved from this age of mechanical reproduction into a new era, the age of digital reproduction. For Goodwin, in the age of digital reproduction the aura has been further demystified by the fact that anyone may now own an “original.” (Goodwin 259) Therefore, ours is an age in which the aura itself can be mass-produced, and consecutive advances in technology, from cassette to compact disc, from DAT to lossless Mp3, have allowed motivated consumers to obtain exact copies of a musical performance.
Furthermore, the rise in computer-based music production software has made it simple for producers of electronic dance music to deconstruct old texts and create a pastiche of old and new that appeals beyond dance aficionados to the widest possible audience. Technology provides the means for the sounds of the pulsing kick drum, deep basslines, and repetitive vocals to move beyond the realm of club subcultures into pop music’s field of large-scale cultural production, and those producers that harness the technology effectively are rewarded with increasing fame and larger audiences. For electronic styles such as house, this is nothing new, as DJs and producers have been using turntables, tape splicing, and other “analog” techniques since the 1980s to breathe new life into old texts and create hybrids of dance music motifs and vocal and instrumental passages created by another artist, often without the original artist’s permission. This technique, known as “sampling”, has been a key component of house music production since its inception. Early house sampling was tied to largely African-American motifs like blues, funk, jazz, and soul. What has changed in recent years is the ease of aspiring artists to appropriate the artistic endeavors of their forbearers, and the diversification of the producer’s source material.
Advancements in technology have merely made it easier for the producer to utilize samples, creating a proliferation of remixes and “mash-ups” of old and new motifs both in the underground and in the rising popular form of “euro-pop”, a genre which owes its success to its progeny in the club scene and essentially fuses the sounds of underground house music with vocals rooted in classic American and British hip hop, rock, and pop. Linking this to Benjamin’s analysis, the “technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition…it reactiviates the object reproduced.” (Benjamin 79) Recent popular songs have moved beyond mere sampling and have ‘versioned’ passages from diverse sources such as 80s dance pop (Flo Rida’s “Right Round” appropriates the chorus of Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round”), and 60s rock and roll (Benny Benassi has achieved global recognition with his sampling of both verse and chorus of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”). Again, we must remember that this phenomenon is simply an evolution, or pastiche of, the hip-hop sampling culture of the 80s and 90s, or going even further back, the practice of ‘versioning’ in reggae of the 70s, where numerous vocalists share identical rhythms and vocal refrains. (Hebidge xiv) Currently, the Black Eyed Peas are storming up the pop charts with the Time (Dirty Bit), a song that fuses the instrumentation of underground house music with hip-hop and a blatant sample of the 80s hit “(I’ve had) the Time of My Life.” These words present an instantly recognizable refrain to anyone familiar with the film Dirty Dancing, and indicate an obvious ploy for cross-cultural appeal.
A landscape that revels in the fusion of originals and copies, where we cannot distinguish humans from machines, populated by cyborgs and fembots, appears to be strange territory for authors and auras. (Goodwin 267) For Benjamin, the “uniqueness of the work of art determine[s] the history to which it [is] subject to throughout the time of its existence.” (Benjamin 78). Furthermore, he states that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” (78) As eloquently stated by Barbara Bradby, dance music’s “concepts of authorship (originality, art) and of authenticity (the real person in the real performance) developed around this use of technology and not in opposition to it.” (Bradby 157) These concepts drive the production of modern dance music, and have become increasingly evident in the rise of the “euro-pop” sound epitomized by artists such as David Guetta, Flo Rida, and the Black Eyed Peas.
Dick Hebidge is recognized as one of the key scholars of subculture and style, particularly as it pertains to youth subcultures, groups that often appropriate music to epitomize their ideals and practices. For Hebidge, subcultural style “is not merely a matter of content (different signs), but one of form (different signifying practices).” (Frith 41) Simon Frith once wrote that “music is not just something young people like and do. It is in many respects the model for their involvement in culture.” (Freccero 90) However, when looking at house music one must steer clear of the common perception of subcultural style as politically motivated and grounded in resistance to the mainstream. Arguably, house music has survived over the past three decades as a result of its opposition to the subcultural norms of politicization and resistance, as it is a genre that is celebratory in nature.
This begs us to answer the question: what does house music celebrate, and how and why did this allow the style of house to cross the boundaries into mainstream pop consciousness? First and foremost is the celebration of sexuality. House music has long been a central part of homosexual club culture, and is a part of the soundtrack to subcultural style represented by the gay club scene. Hall and Jefferson alluded to a link between cultural products such as music and the ethos of a group long before house music superseded disco. (Amico 361) As well, though ‘subversiveness’ is often considered a de facto correlate with gay/lesbian/queer culture, house music in relation to homoerotic masculinity is not defined by such a dynamic. (Amico 359) As well, though the rise of Chicago house in the early 80s is often linked to gay/minority subcultures, identifying with this music is by no means restricted to a certain gender or sexual preference. For example, by the late 1980s in New York City house music had become the dominant mode of expression for DJs resident in the city’s largest nightclubs.
Using the tools of post-feminist critical analysis, Barbara Bradby sees dance music as a culture that subjugates the female. She states that “women have once again been equated with sexuality, the body, emotion and nature in dance music, while men have been assigned to the realm of culture, technology and language.” (157) However, Bradby also acknowledges the role of female vocalists in bringing house out of the underground to reach a wider, more diverse audience. (156)
Loza identifies in her article “Sampling (hetero)sexuality” a desire to “focus on how electronic dance music, to borrow Barbara Bradby’s apt formulation, ‘samples sexuality’ in the diva loop.” (Loza 350). The diva loop became an especially common component of house tracks with modern improvements in production software, and essentially takes the tail end of a phrase and repeats it in succession in order to build the dance floor into a kind of orgiastic climax. As has proven to be the case, this effect has crossed into pop pastiche, and can be heard in the time (dirty bit)and other euro-pop hits involving female vocalists. The feminist critique re-genders the role of the diva and suggests that “each sexy computerised simulation of the diva brings the hetero male achingly closer to those essential truths of sex and race.” (Loza 353) The voice of the singer is mediated, manipulated and re-presented through the filter of the ‘masculine’ pursuit. (Amico 365) For Loza, the representation of the female in house music serves simply to celebrate the hegemony of heterosexual masculinity. Amico suggests by ‘building a climax’ through techniques like the diva loop and the breakdown, house music allows dancers to build up their “muscular masculinity”, though in this case he is referring to an idealized image of muscularity fetishized by homosexual club-goers. (361)
Masculinity is represented in house music through the composition of the rhythmic elements of the music itself. The drum, in this case the 4/4 kick drum, is the dominant representative instrument in house, and it cannot be ignored that in popular music drummers and percussionists have been overwhelmingly male. By impelling dancers into physical action – remaining on the dance floor for hours on end – the drumbeat also engenders the construction of masculinity through a physical response. (Amico 364) One who dances the night away is effectively participating in a ‘sport’ in which masculinity is perpetuated by continuous physical activity; this occurs regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the participant.
The analyses presented in this essay form only a fraction of the ideas that cultural theorists have applied to house music and its associated practitioners and consumers. It is clear that house is becoming more and more an integral part of modern pop music styles, and at the turn of the decade, further integration into the consciousness of today’s youth can be expected. The evolution of the “age of digital reproduction” will continue, and perhaps in 2020 we’ll see a DJ’s appropriation of the Black Eyed Peas storm the charts much like BEP’s pastiche of Dirty Dancing conquered the airwaves in 2010. Sexy divas and muscular beats will continue to provide an outlet for sexualized masculinity, and production techniques will be refined to provide a new spin on old forms. As long as there are producers and willing consumers to lap up 4/4 rhythms, and clubs to provide a venue for the efforts of a new generation of DJs and dancers, the pulse of the beat will live on.
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