Sunday, January 21, 2007

In The Dock: House music

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: House music

The case for the prosecution (Caskared)

Before coming to write this I kinda forgot why I had put down to prosecute house music. I adore with a passion my electropop and synthpop, hip-hop works for me, I enjoy a night of trance, and I love dancing the night away, so why did I jump on house music? All of the aforementioned genres use samples, beats, loops, clicks, cuts, electronics... so what’s so different about house? Well, having a quick glance over some articles about house (of which there are many right now with the resurgence of rave so it’s all rather timely), and more importantly, LISTENING to some house, my hackles began to do whatever it is hackles do when they’re a bit grumpy, and it all came flooding back, and here is my list of reasons why I am the prosecution:

1. House as played in the Ministry of Sound and the like of superclubs or small-town house nights is one of the most arrogant genres (although R'n'B wins the title for most arrogant in my book), it’s all about strutting your stuff on the dance floor and not in a good way, in a meat market club where oneupmanship is the way. It’s smarmy, glib, and both like and liked by the girls at school who decide they are more popular than everyone else even though when you look at their actual number of friends they are no more than any other social group in the class.

2. House music is the child of disco with no imagination. I’m talking the mainstream stuff here – the stuff that found its way onto the terrible compilations mixed by superstar DJs or on Radio 1 on Friday nights in the 90s. It is never surprising, it never takes any twists or turns, it just reiterates.

3. It’s offshoots like happy hardcore and the like are horrible.

4. It’s the soundtrack to the reinforcement of the bad reputation of British people abroad through the phenomenon of Ibiza. (OK, I’ve turned into my mum now... hey, my mum rocks! I don’t mind!)

5. On the more personal note, house mix tapes were played in the car-share on my way to college when I was 19, it was hell... especially when there would be a remix of something I otherwise liked - for example 'Spin Spin Sugar' was wrecked.

6. House music that reaches the charts is some of the most cynically made stuff in this life. Lazy inanity mass marketed, ugh.

7. The videos are generally utter rot. In the comments box last week Eric Prydz was mentioned, and that shows the current nth of terrible videos. Because there is no content to the songs, there is no content to the video, so lady-ogling is rife. Pseudo sexy girls singing sampled line over and over are put in increasingly silly situations or over CGI fractal graphics in the early days, has developed into a whole myriad of scanty-clad ladies dancing in front of increasingly odd CGI settings, not to forget the affiliated genre of singer-in-front-of-cheap-set.

8. Perhaps I’d have more affection for it if I had been more than nine years old in the Summer of Love ’88 but I doubt it. I’ve danced in fields or under bridges for hours to the more intelligent electronic stuff, the stuff where you don’t need ecstacy to keep your toes going. House surely demands chemical assistance.

9. Kick drum 4/4 and irritating tinny high hats are as shallow as the rest of the music, and serve only to make headphones inadequacies more startling.

10. It’s tedious and blandly bland, perfect for its natural home – aerobics classes.

11. That "oo-ee oo-ee" thing drives me nuts, and rightly made fun of by Tyres' "Oi Oi" in Spaced.

12. It hasn’t stood the test of time. I love the fact that there’s a faction now known as "dad house", showing the element that’s dated through not innovating away from the core annoying stuff. There’s also an argument that goes that the democratisation of music production through cheap software has highlighted the fact there is limited novelty (read special in a good way) and so sales slump, everyone can make their own music-by-numbers, there is no unique selling point... but everyone isn’t making their own house music (using MySpace as a testing ground: only 5,000 or so qualify themselves as house, compared with 79,000 hip-hop, 9,000 electro, even 10,000 techno – far more inventive mediums).

The case for the defence (Del)

"Ooh baby, I feel right, the music sounds better with you."

I could just leave it there, but that might seem a little flippant. Even arrogant. But Stardust's 'Music Sounds Better With You' is a great place to start a defence of house music, isn’t it? For starters, it is quite simply a wonderful tune. One of the best. It gets you dancing. It's deliciously French. It's all about the music. It was written by two faceless white geeks. It samples Chaka Khan, a black American disco legend. It was originally released on a small independent house label, before being signed to a major off the back of huge popularity in the clubs. Because it made people dance. Oh, and it went on to take over the entire world.

Let’s go back at look at some of that in detail. Someone once described house music as the revenge of disco, and they hit the nail on the head. At the end of the 70s, disco finally floundered under the weight of its own decadence and the negative, homophobic Disco Sucks campaign. So a new sound emerged, played at the Warehouse in Chicago. And the wonderful thing is that it took the black funk and soul elements of disco and attached them to the stark electronic sounds coming from Europe. It was music created by and danced to by that most alienated selection of society, black gay men, and those early records still sound incredible. There’s a glorious, untouchable naïve optimism, songs about love, freedom and acceptance. Songs like Sterling Void’s ‘It’s Alright’, Joe Smooth’s ‘The Promised Land’ and, a personal favourite, Ce Ce Roger’s ‘Someday’.

Of course, the records spread across the world. Ibiza was a stronghold. Then the raves in the UK. Clubs across Europe, and then the rest of the world, couldn’t resist. Like disco, house has the universal language of the 4/4 beat. It doesn’t really matter if you can’t understand the words. It’s truly cosmopolitan, independent of race, sexuality or nationality. Everyone can dance to it. And with cheaper technology, you didn’t need the full bands and orchestras that made disco so exclusive. You could get by with a drum machine, a synthesizer and an idea. Come up with a few words of English, or just sample someone elses. Or just make it instrumental. So long as it worked on the dancefloor, you could do it.

And that’s what makes house music one of the most pure forms of music in terms of success. It’s all about dancefloor reaction. The DJ has to keep the dancefloor busy and the club full. So the DJ wants tunes that people like. The people decide. If a record gets played a lot, a label, most probably run by a DJ, will sign it, and it will get bigger and bigger. If the record is rubbish, it will quickly vanish. Image counts for less than in almost any other genre. Reputation does count for a little more, but mistakes are still seldom tolerated. Few house artists ever record albums. Stardust released one record. No B-sides. No sloppy album tracks. No filler. You could walk past them in the street and not even notice them. It’s just a great song.

Sure house isn’t perfect, but few other genres press my buttons in the same when I’m dancing. It may be obsessed with the late 70s and early 80s, but so is so much hip-hop. And rock similarly worships the 60s and 70s. Sure, ecstacy was key to house music’s success, but drugs are part of almost all musical revolutions: one of hip-hop’s seminal LPs is called The Chronic. Amphetamines fuelled early rock 'n' roll and punk, and there have been scores of cocaine bleached rock records, or opuses dragged out on heroin.

Yes, house can be trashy. Cheesy. Disposable. So? I love it. I really do. The unashamedly camp piano layered handbag anthems. The dark pounding minimal odysseys. The funky remakes of indie or R'n'B classics, that add a hidden dimension to great tunes, or even buff up turds til they shine brightly. Records made entirely from the best bits of other records, sampled, and looped to infinity, disposing of the chaff until only dancefloor dynamite remains. I don’t want depth and hidden agendas from house. I just want to dance.

Music without complication. Music without a subtext. Music that make me want to dance like no-one’s watching. Music I can lose myself in. Music that just is.

* * * * *

Thanks to Caskared and Del. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...


Blogger Damo said...

"Music Sounds Better With You". An all-time classic. Using one example to make your case? There's a tactic I might find myself using in the near future... you'll see.

Errrrrrrrrrm. Defence. Just. It's the same thing again - there are some examples of the genre that I really like, so I can't see it put in the dustbin just because there are (many many) bad examples. Limp Bizkit and Korn exist but I couldn't prosecute rock...

I should apologise for trotting out the same case in the majority of the genre debates we're having. I might abstain next time if I have no well-formed opinion...

8:42 pm  
Blogger paul said...

NOT GUILTY! I could tell I was going to vote not guilty when I found myself more or less dancing along to the music I could hear in my head whilst reading the case for the defence. There is also some really grown up and intelligent house music out there in amongst the disposable pop-nastiness of the house-by-numbers that the bad videos mentioned in the prosecution's case get made for - I'm thinking of the renaissance compilations or Northern Exposure...I've also had some beautiful (and sometimes not even chemically enhanced) experiences of togetherness on dance floors listening to house...

Anyway, I could go on, but like the man said - not everybody gets. house music. it's a mind thing. a body thing. a soul thing. not everybody gets...(repeat until blissed out)

9:50 pm  
Blogger Mark said...

I vote for the prosecution

11:53 pm  
Blogger mike said...

Grr, Blogger ate my comment.

In a nutshell: not guilty, but only if you take a broad time perspective and judge the genre over the last 20 years. Yes, current house music - especially at the commercial Ministry of Sound end - is largely tired and played out, deathlessly re-hashing the same box of tricks - but I can never forget classics such as the ones which Del mentions, and the emotions and memories which they evoke.

12:33 am  
Blogger Ian said...

Damo actually convinced me - Limp Bizkit and Korn wouldn't convince me to prosecute rock, but they would convince me to send nu metal up the river. Similarly, the river of crap Caskared describes wouldn't convince me to send up all of dance music, or electronic music, but house? Guilty as charged.

Not that there aren't a few counter examples (like every other right thinking human being, I love "Music Sounds Better With You"), but wanting to save them doesn't mean I want to save the whole genre.

6:15 am  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Definitely not guilty - I used to listen to house music compulsively on pirate radio when I was a teenager - uplifting, soulful and occasionally really moving; a minor chord change in a house record can be one of the most delicious pleasures.

10:39 am  
Blogger Betty said...

Have to vote for the defence. I love house music across the spectrum from the soulful classy stuff to tacky Eurohouse.

I'm not concerned if it's "disposable" music or not. As Del said, the artists are as good as their last track. No waiting around for three years as you would for some rock band to release their great opus to an adoring public!

It's difficult to explain the enjoyment you can get from being in a club (or at home!) and listening to house music to a lot of people though, so I'll stop gushing now.

12:05 pm  
Blogger Geoff said...

I'm with Betty (literally, so can we have one and a half votes?).

I'm a middle aged man who's never been to a decent club, never taken drugs, and listened to miserable indie music in the 80s.

House music makes me happy.

Vote Del.

1:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the author of the article pretty much nailed the defense on the head there. I mean, as a DJ and fellow general music enthusiast, I know that house has its ups and downs. A lot of people rag on it, calling the genre an abyss of creativity, but, frankly, I think some drum machines have more soul than drummers... or at least their sequencers do. Furthermore, I personally find comfort in the 4x4 beat - something familiar I can always get into, regardless of what's put on top of it.

I might also add that House is an umbrella genre at this point. There are SO many movements within House that classifying it solely on what makes it to superclubs is stupid. You hear it in lounges, you hear it in commercials, you hear it in Soul music, and its components are being incorporated into R&B (which may end up being an argument for prosecution).

In any case, if you get out of mainstream house, and delve into Soulful House, you'll encounter things that are garaunteed to make you smile (and sorry if my spelling sucks). The sheer variety of it is something I try to evince on my radio show every week.

So my vote is for the defense.

8:29 am  
Blogger LB said...

Imagine the scene: I am working at the reception desk and main incoming telephone line of the University of Warwick Students Union on a Saturday night circa 1994.

The phone rings, and I pick up the receiver. "University of Warwick Students Union", I say.

This is, word for word, what I hear next:

"Hey, man, this is Farley Jackmaster Funk. Where you at, man? We are outside Bejam and need directions."

He then handed me over to his driver for directions from Coventry to the University campus.

For that reason alone, having heard one of the godfathers of house music use both the phrase "where you at, man?" and the word "Bejam", I should find the topic not guilty.

But then I dislike almost all house music with the very odd exception and so I'll side with the prosection, if I may.

Farley, however, is a *legend*.

12:41 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

This is hard for me. This is a genre of music that I am very ignorant of, but generally can't stand. However, the prosecution's mention of R'n'B had me scooting back in the art of noise archives to the debate held there, and I came across what was called there "the crazy in love" theory: that you can't prosecute a whole genre if there is even one great song in it. R'n'B was acquitted (more or less) on the basis of that when lots of people who basically disliked the genre felt they couldn't convict.

I hate to hold a grudge, and I have no intention of storing this argument up and bitterly throwing it back in everyone's faces in every debate we have here, but I'm going to have to side with the defence here.

Not guilty. Just don't make me listen to any of it.


(and farley jackmaster funk outside bejam? that's quite a mental image)

2:42 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

... I believe it's called "precedent".


2:43 pm  
Blogger Betty said...

The Farley Jackmaster Funk outside Bejams quote is the best thing I've read on the internet this week, actually ...

8:57 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

For the first time since the feature started, I'm going to sit on the fence. Not something I do without having thought about at length - after all, it's essentially copping out of making a decision one way or the other - but nevertheless the right course of action on a personal note, I think.

On the one hand, I've found the vast majority of the house music I've heard to be creatively sterile, formulaic lowest common denominator stuff, so am naturally inclined to go for the prosecution.

But on the other hand, Del goes some way to stop me from doing so. For a start, I really like his argument about the democratic and cosmopolitan nature of house, I'm also partial to a bit of Daft Punk and over the past couple of years I've really started to appreciate the value of repetitious and danceable music that you can submerge yourself in.

What ultimately makes me hold back from giving a verdict, though, is my ignorance. Not a genre I know much about at all - and though I may be inclined towards antipathy, I'll leave it to those of you who know what you're talking about.

12:25 am  
Blogger LB said...

Betty - thanks.

"We are outside Iceland" wouldn't have had quite the same ring, I don't think.

12:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Music made for the express purpose of dancing can't be a bad thing. The problems arise when it get taken out of its intended context.

I hated it at school but then was converted when I started going out clubbing.

I'll gladly 'throw shapes' to a bit of quality house music in a club or at a festival, but sitting on my sofa or down the pub I'd much rather listen to something a bit more well, musical. Those who try to fill the 'outside world' with constant house beats should be found guilty, not those who made it (or those who enjoy it responsibly).

The worst parts of house music are the trashy charty europophouse tunes, but the days when the charts and airwaves were filled with them seem to be declining anyway....


Not Guilty.

2:19 pm  

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