BROSTEP, MANSPLAINED

Today the Sounding Out blog posted an article called Going Hard: Bassweight, Sonic Warfare, & the Brostep Aesthetic. Now, when people say ‘Sonic Warfare’, that’s usually my cue that it’s naptime… Turns out the essay by Mike D’Errico can springboard some interesting discussions, but his core conceit involves over-gendering brostep. The best example I can give of this is by examing how Mr D’Errico misconstrues & misquotes writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd.

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Discussing brostep, D’Errico writes: “Julianne Escobedo Shepherd describes the style as ‘frat-hazed, misogy blow-job beats.’” That gave me pause. Sure, it supports his reductive thesis, but Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is one of the best music critics around, and DJs an excellent radio show to boot. She’s got her ear to the ground in a way that few others do, and that includes being sensitive to how sounds actually play out on the dancefloor – where context and intent can queer up even the most heteronormative sounds –, and besides, hasn’t Shepherd, like me, championed the work of brostepping Mexican DJ Javier Estrada among others? Strenuously working to position a music production aesthetic as masculine is a tricky proposition at best. Not only does it reinforce gender binaries (male = hard!) but if you’ve spent any time in clubs, it’s never that simple. (Or if it is that simple, then you’re in the wrong clubs, but don’t worry, my friends can help you out).

Since D’Errico’s quotation of Shepherd felt so weird to me, I decided to follow the link to check. What I found was shocking. He had taken two sentences out of context, combined them into one phrase, and slapped an adjective used to describe fans of a single musician onto the music itself — all in the service of inverting her nuanced points about the reductionism required to align mid-range bass frequencies with bro culture!

A male music writer chopped up, distorted, and misquoted – ‘modulated’ to use his parlance – a female writer’s words, willfully ignoring her article’s clear points, in order to support his thesis that Brostep is a hypermasculinst hypermediated control gambit. The mind boggles.

Here’s what Shepherd actually wrote, in a 2012 article discussing how brostep is in fact on the wane:

The concept of “bro-step” as a typecast is also strange — because, what makes mid-range bass so overwhelmingly bro-y? Perhaps I’m missing the point, but I consider myself far outside the realm of brozones, and as a female-born, feminine woman who loves gut-rumbling wobble and monstrous subbass, its codification as particularly bro-y is unnecessarily exclusive and of course super-reducto. Of course in certain realms maybe it makes sense — the misogy blow-job beats of Borgore, say, probably hold a greater fascination for the recently frat-hazed than, you know, me, although I still can appreciate the gnarled nastiness of the rhythm section.

It is as if the twisted distortions of hypermasculinist Brostep have invaded D’Errico’s writerly sensibility. Perhaps this is because they can’t be found in the musical world, especially in 2014, when brostep as a genre is clearly on the way out — although, as has been the case since the beginning, many artists continue using techniques gleaned from it in fascinating, unanticipated ways. Sure, the sounds of brostep are used in violent video games and movies — so are many other music genres and aspects of sound design… And the brosteppy wobble is also present in easy listening radio pop…

To suggest a relevant alternative to D’Errico’s starkly schematic area of inquiry: where does Hatsune Miku fit into all this?… A post-gender android singing synthesizer whose use requires enormous amounts of ‘hypermediation’ to sing well, a feminine-avatared piece of proprietary code that sparked a popular phenomenon where you have boys and girls and women and men spending as much time any brostepper programming synths, and as a bonus, Hatsune’s case gives us uncanny and confusing challenges to standard notions of voice, body, sexuality, transmedia fandom, and more…

Perhaps the Hard, Loud sounds of brostep left D’Errico desensitized to the considerations found in Shepherd’s take. Perhaps the best music critics really are dancers and DJs, not because they engage with the songs at a bodily level but because in order to dance reasonably well one must first be a good listener, and aware of all the many other bodies in the room.

6 thoughts on “BROSTEP, MANSPLAINED

  1. Thanks for the response, you’ve actually hit on a lot of the things that I’ve struggled with in presenting this research.

    I totally agree with you that I’ve “over-gendered” the music in a lot of ways, and that it can be very reductive to explain gender dynamics through the lens of a specific form of digital audio production. This research actually came out of my experiences clubbing around LA, where I saw a lot of crazy shit happen at clubs. For example, at a Dieselboy and Rare show on the Sunset Strip, multiple physical fights broke out, one in which a guy punched his girlfriend in the face and was taken away by the cops. Also, at Hard Summer 2012, I witnessed a lot of sexual harassment going on, and this research was an attempt to speculate about the ways in which there may potentially be an underlying logic of contemporary entertainment that was related to broader, contemporary conceptions of masculinity.

    I realize the piece didn’t come across this way, but I actually really like this music, and I understand that the events are never entirely one-sided in terms of gender demographics. The pessimistic aspect of the piece actually concerns what I see as a more dangerous ethical stance towards technology that has perhaps always been around, but has emerged more clearly with the rise of what many are calling the “military entertainment complex.” I certainly didn’t have enough space to deal with all of that in 1500 words, but Steve Goodman’s work on the topic is really great.

    It should also be noted that although Julianna’s work takes a specific stance on the gendering of electronic music, Tara Rodgers is also a DJ and producer, and she believes in the gendering of electronic music production in the way I describe it. Her work, as well as the work of Mara Mills, highly influenced the speculative argument that I made in my piece.

    Anyway, it’s great to hear such a thoughtful response, especially coming from actual DJs involved in the scene. I’m actually presenting on this research at a conference on gender at UCLA in a few weeks, and I’m definitely going to address the critiques that you brought up.

  2. Thanks for this comment Mike! I appreciate the additional background & context.

    Those experiences in LA sound awful — yikes. There’s no doubt that much of clubland is very Cro-Magnon. In my experiences as a DJ brostep sonics haven’t made that worse; clubland misogyny and bigotry came before the wobble and will outlast it. Have you considered the relationship between masculinity and machisimo and bass aesthetics in reggae culture (esp. dub reggae, which is brostep’s grandparent in a sense, but widely praised as having ‘warm, embracing’ bass in contrast with the harsh hard bass of Skrillex and co)? I wonder if that would provide some useful comparisons.

    & sure, I certainly pay more attention to the moments in club culture that have a utopic cast to them, that actively push against societal norms rather than reproduce them… which means I’ll never step foot in a Hard fest (unless they pay me to DJ, ha)

    I’m very interested in the ways in which software encodes us, and while I didn’t agree with your take on the Massive synth, it’s refreshing to see a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of how these sounds are made. You might be interested in my music plug-ins project, which attempts to bring issues of interface & cultural presets to the foreground:

  3. I remember coming across the Sufi Plug-Ins project a while back, and I think the whole suite is excellent. Also, I think making projects like that gets at fundamental arguments and concepts in a much more immediate way than text (as is perhaps proven by my post, haha).

    It makes me realize that arguments about the cultural encoding of software are greatly strengthened by ethnographic or practice-oriented perspectives. Have you come across any of the “software studies” literature (Matthew Fuller’s _Software Studies_ collection, or Lev Manovich’s _Software Takes Command_)? Your project is great because it serves as proof-of-concept for many of those scholarly arguments, but also advances really interesting ideas in itself.

    I’m actually working on my dissertation proposal, which will deal with the ways in which digital audio production is influenced by the logics or creative practices of other media, and I want to deal with questions about interfaces much more fully. Maybe we could chat about your project more fully at some point, if you’re interested.

  4. Now _this_ is what a critical discourse ought to look like. Big ups to two of the most creative minds I have encountered in my adventures in musical making/thinking.

  5. Woah, this discussion in the comments section is amazing! I almost overlooked it.

    I love the direction Dutty Artz is heading with Boima in the driver’s seat, but I do miss the days when you all nerded-out on the blog like this.

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