Another day, another endless discussion of “Whither dubstep?” at the dubstepforum. Dubstep is, simultaneously, a genre named several years ago and a genre in which a hell of a lot of major developments have happened in the last year and a half or so. It’s either having its fifteen minutes, or it’s about to, and there’s a lot of discussion online about whether the club scene is deteriorating or exploding, whether the music is being dumbed down by crowdpleasing stompers or climbing up its own butt with music that seems aimed more at listeners than dancers, and whether producers should keep their tracks as exclusive as possible for the clubbers and DJs or reach out to the world by releasing more CDs, and it all comes down to uncertainty due to the explosion in the number of labels, tracks, producers, DJs, local scenes, releases, blogs, and posts on dubstepforum.com in recent months.
There’s a scene, and then there’s a genre of music, and both are going to develop in interrelated but occasionally different ways. I don’t know anything about the scene, not being in the right place or time, but I love the music, so I’ll blather about that. Keep in mind this is coming from a North American perspective, from well outside the scene.
Evolving and splintering is what music genres do (especially electronic music). A number of musicians make music, someone notices common elements and tags it with a genre name, the people who invented it explore new directions, people making other forms of music incorporate elements of the genre into their own genres, new people come up and strip the genre down to its lowest common denominator and make formulaic stuff (which often becomes the bestselling version of the genre), other newcomers come in and try to move the genre forward or turn it inside out… dubstep is itself an example of that process in action, and it’s not going to be immune.
A lot of people into dubstep got there from UK garage or drum ‘n’ bass, both of which have had their own evolutionary and splintering processes, both of which still exist. There are people who are still loyal to those genres. The thing is, the world in general has passed them by. For the average North American music fan, anyway, drum ‘n’ bass is that stuff that was used in a lot of car commercials in the ’90s (and that David Bowie bandwagon-jumped for a few minutes), and garage is a type of ’60s rock, and it doesn’t rhyme with carriage. Triphop did make people outside its scene take notice. Portishead and Massive Attack sold a lot of albums and spawned a lot of imitators. Dubstep right now has about as much of a profile outside the billions of people for whom “nuum” is not a word as garage does, if that much; even Burial’s new album is mainly a blog phenomenon rather than a mainstream press phenomenon. Unless some album really catches on — and I did think Untrue might be that album; computer says no, judging by the number of Google news hits — dubstep’s staying underground for the foreseeable future. And what I think that may mean is that the more interesting artists will go off in their own directions, away from the wobble thump formulas, and dubstep will become a dull kind of music that’s meant for the clubs only, not home listening. It has the potential for more, though, so I’m still hopeul…