The Politics of Musical Space, Place and (Temporary) Escape
By Melina Sherman
In a recent article published in The Guardian, dance music journalist Simon Reynolds offered an insightful commentary on the growing popularity of electronic dance music in the United States. Reynolds notes how EDM only recently exploded within the U.S. musical mainstream, where it is now produced and consumed on a massive scale – at commercial concert events which are often referred to as megafestivals. While the size and scale of today’s stateside EDM scene is historically unprecedented, Reynolds argues that the megafestival itself is actually part of a historical pattern, a cyclical trajectory in which EDM emerges from the underground, toward popularization, massification, and eventual fragmentation. According to Reynolds, the rise of megafestivals is the main indication that bass music has been “re-branded” in the American musical mainstream (Reynolds, 2012).
Indeed, it is undeniable that the stateside megafestival is a growing phenomenon within the commercial mainstream. But I also think there’s more to the story: Rather than talking about the bass music festival as yet another example of a subculture “selling out” or as a bombastic commercial superspectacle, I’d like to focus on discussing the megafestival in terms of its situation within a globally networked scene of musical practices, where it is part of a much longer history that is marked by issues of race, identity, and the flow of culture. More than “rave re-branded,” the story of the EDM megafestival is a story about how culture gets “remixed” in new ways as it migrates through space and time.
This is a story about bass migrations.
“Bass migrations” is, for me, a way of thinking about electronic bass music culture as both an object and a process. It is also a way of telling a story about the evolution of a musical paradigm that has been articulated in different ways – with particular musical spaces, places, and practices – at different moments in history. Bass migrations emphasizes the dual nature of bass music culture as global and local; it inhabits and extends multiple localities in a transnational network. The megafestival, then, is best thought of as an expression of a global-local music culture whose roots have always been informed by its routes. That is to say, the stateside EDM megafestival is but one coordinate in a global network of bass migrations. As such, it represents just one of the many places this type of music has ended up.
While I want to insist on focusing on the migratory dimensions of bass music culture, a balanced discussion of bass migrations also includes thinking about how this music corresponds to local place and the social, technical, economic, and political practices constructed therein. In tracing the migration of bass music cultures over the past half-century, my analysis of bass migrations depends on case studies of three distinct, yet interrelated bass music cultures: I look at the articulation of bass music in the 1970s, with the construction of the “remix”, a novel musical paradigm that was born out of Jamaican dub sound system culture in the early years of Jamaican independence. Then, over the following two decades, I trace the migration of Jamaican bass music culture to post-imperial Britain where, in the midst of a cultural and economic crisis, many of the elements of dub were nurtured and re-purposed in the underground dubstep movement, before migrating to the United States in the mid-2000s.
Jamaica, the United Kingdom, and the United States represent three key nodes in the global-local network of bass music migrations. These three coordinates and the lines of flight that connect them also correspond with a historical pattern of cultural flow that sociologist Paul Gilroy has referred to as the “Black Atlantic” (1993) – a transnational network of routes that mobilize complex histories of decolonization and the formation of fragmented diasporic identities.
In an essay discussing cultural flows and the globalization of “world music,” Martin Stokes (2004) explains that “relatively free movement of sounds (and other commodities) across the border contrasts with the relatively restricted movement of musicians and their audiences” (Stokes, 2004: 63). This is an important insight, because it emphasizes the nature of migratory processes as always-already disrupted, where nothing that flows remains perfectly intact. That is to say, when cultural commodities (like bass music) circulate, some of their dimensions are lost in translation. They fade, they mutate, or they are remixed into new and unrecognizable forms. Put another way, when music migrates to other parts of the world, the structure of it—its spaces, sounds, and practices—are subject to transformation in different geopolitical and economic contexts.
But how, exactly, is the musical space, place, and practice of bass music culture transformed when the sound moves? How do musical routes generate new musical roots? And how are routes transformed by musical routes? How has the political power of bass music taken on different forms in different historical and geopolitical contexts?
And what kind of politics is this?
Recognizing and describing the political power of bass music at the megafestival requires us to traverse the roots as well as the routes this sound has taken, while acknowledging that the bass music culture has always been shaped, yet not determined, by circuits of commerce and the multi-directional flow of popular culture. Borrowing from George Lipsitz, I want to suggest that we think about the megafestival as a “dangerous crossroads” where a plurality of cultural practices coincide with the politics of place, as well as with processes of identification and community formation that are interconnected within the broader sphere of capitalist culture. Here, the political is not in contradiction with commodification, but is actually mobilized through participants’ highly selective and creative uses of commercial culture. The commercial space of the megafestival is used by festival-goers who craft a space of autonomy where they can perform subcultural identities in a relatively risk-free way. My hope, ultimately, in traversing the routes of bass migrations, is to contribute to a theory of the political dimensions of aesthetic part-taking that will force us to refine our understanding of how identity and community function within youth music subcultures.