Some heavy discussion of Mike D’Errico’s latest piece Going Hard: Bassweight, Sonic Warfare, & the “Brostep” Aesthetic this week. While I’ve been adding my two cents on twitter, I wanted to take some time to try to concisely formulate my notes.
I jumped into the conversation after DJ/Rupture posted his response Brostep, Mansplained which criticizes the gender politics in the piece centered around an initial misquote on D’Errico’s part of Julianne Escobedo Shepherd. The quote in question was originally presented as Shepherd’s description of brostep, though going back to the source as Rupture does was only meant to categorize a single artist under the brostep banner.
In his critique one of the things that Rupture does is challenge the notion that the production aesthetics of brostep can be categorized as masculine. He notes parenthetically that coming to such a conclusion is never simple unless you’ve been going to the ‘wrong clubs’. This was the exact point when my ears perked up. It begs the question – is brostep a genre or a scene? In my twitter diatribe I separate those two out to ‘the music’ and ‘the culture’. Ultimately this is my main contention with the whole discussion – are we discussing the music or are we discussing the culture or scene.
In his piece D’Errico refers to brostep primarily as a subgenre of dubstep, but with a weight of importance that makes bro seemingly trump its predecessor. Is brostep a separate entity though? Are there enough musical distinctions from its predecessor? The focus of the piece was on the wobble bass which can directly be heard in dubstep before the arrival of bro. If you take all of D’Errico’s discussion of the production techniques attributed to brostep and replace them with dubstep it all still works until you include the cultural analysis which makes the bro.
Brostep was born from the analysis of certain american dubstep parties which were dominated by a male fraternal demographic who liked to refer to themselves as ‘bro’s’. At its inception there was no brostep music just a scene. That scene however became the dominant american dubstep scene, with the bro as the mascot of what dubstep would become in the States. In typical American fashion once that scene reached a critical mass the broader media picked up on it and before you know it brostep was selling video games and blockbuster action movies, not to mention cereal.
[Incidentally this is not an American commercial]
Now its important to note this Americanized dubstep as brostep does not sound exactly like its predecessor. There are differences and indeed those differences are cultural, in the way there are differences between Detroit Techno and German Techno. But these differences are more stylistic aesthetic than genre defining. Brostep is still dubstep even if its predecessors may wish to disown it. It is what happens to dubstep in the socio-political context of American mass media.
I’m currently reading Peter Price’s “Resonance: Philosophy of Sonic Art” and it’s naturally skewing my own view point, but I think within it he offers an interesting approach to looking at this issue. In the book Price introduces Jean-Jacquez Nattiez’ trinity of critical musical analysis as ‘genesis, organization and the way its perceived’. Within this context brostep has a genesis, organizational principles and then a perception(s), each of which can be analyzed from both a musical and a cultural perspective.
The genesis of brostep as stated above was the demographics of those who attended american dubstep parties. Dubstep was the music, the parties were the culture. It became organized sonically with the popularity of these parties and the demands of that demographic for the harder edgier sound of dubstep as opposed to the more minimal post-dubstep styles which were on the rise elsewhere.
In terms of organization, there are any number of socio-economic variables which could be analyzed to give indication for how these parties gained such cultural weight. Musically however the organizational principles revolve around the available technology to produce the sound of dubstep. D’Errico sites Native Instruments Massive plugin instrument as a big influence of the sound, noting the way the software is able to automate the production of the wobble basslines with ease. The ease of production in brostep stems from taking the signifiers of dubstep and driving them to their max. In many ways there was also a simplification which took place in this process. The subtle nuances of dubstep (some of which I discussed here) were removed for those aspects that had the strongest bro club impact – heavy wobble bass, strong two step drums, loud monophonic synth lines and of course the drop. This reductionist maximizing of form is deeply rooted in American pop culture, of which the frat bro is an intricate participant.
The last aspect is the perception which goes strong in the subjective side of discussion. If you are a bro in a club playing brostep surrounded by other bros, everything you hear fits within your conception of what the music should be. On the other hand if you’re a bloke from the UK who was at Plastic People back in the aughts, you might have some musical problems with the selection you hear in a bro party. Neither perspective or perception is intrinsically wrong or right, they all flow from the genesis and organization of expectations which the individual listener comes with.
Tying back to D’Errico’s piece my biggest critique is the treatment of brostep as a genre signifier without the qualification of it as a genre rather than a scene or culture. He presents it as the pinnacle of digital maximalism when digital hardcore was pushing a sonic max beyond anything brostep has done twenty years ago.
“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.
Remove the second to last word and it could be describing digital hardcore and a number of other different genres and styles. It’s a musical aesthetic that’s too broad to hoist brostep as anything more than the latest to sonically emerge in American mass media. I believe there is validity to the connection he’s trying to make between a maximal aesthetic and what’s called the Military Entertainment Complex, but I think there’s a error in trying to link that directly to the bro aesthetic. Musically I would say brostep isn’t distinct enough. Culturally I think the influence flows in rather than out of brostep.
To that last point Robin James’ analysis even in it’s bro-centric outlook is an interesting take on the politics of maximal cultural aesthetics. There’s a lot of discussion to be had around the topic, I just desire we take care of separating the musical influences from the cultural ones. The genrefication of music in the last few years has led to every style and movement in music to be attributed a name and from that name identified as culture, when in fact it is the act of genrefication which is the cultural aspect which has been flowing into music and criticism. But that’s another topic for another time.