Going Hard: Bassweight, Sonic Warfare, & the “Brostep” Aesthetic

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The Wobble Frequency2

[Editor's Note 01/24/14 10:00 am: this post has been corrected. In response to a critique from DJ Rupture, the author has apologized for an initial misquoting of an article by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, and edited the phrase in question. Please see Comments section for discussion]

Time to ring the bell: this year, Sounding Out! is opening a brand-new stream of content to run on Thursdays. Every few weeks, we’ll be bringing in a new Guest Editor to curate a series of posts on a particular theme that opens up new ground in areas of thought and practice where sound meets media. Most of our writers and editors will be new to the site, and many will be joining us from the ranks of the Sound Studies and Radio Studies Scholarly Interest Groups at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, as well as from the Sound Studies Caucus from the American Studies Association. I’m overjoyed to come on board as SCMS/ASA Editor to help curate this material, working with my good friends here at SO!

For our first Guest series, let me welcome Justin Burton, Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the Popular Music and Culture program. Justin also serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch. We’re honored to have Justin help us launch this new stream.

His series? He calls it The Wobble Continuum. Let’s follow him down into the low frequencies to learn more …

Neil Verma

Things have gotten wobbly. The cross-rhythms of low-frequency oscillations (LFO) pulsate through dance and pop music, bubbling up and dropping low across the radio dial. At its most extreme, the wobble both rends and sutures, tearing at the rhythmic and melodic fabric of a song at the same time that it holds it together on a structural level. In this three-part series, Mike D’Errico, Christina Giacona, and Justin D Burton listen to the wobble from a number of vantage points, from the user plugged into the Virtual Studio Technology (VST) of a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to the sounds of the songs themselves to the listeners awash in bass tremolos. In remixing these components—musician, music, audience—we trace the unlikely material activities of sounds and sounders.

In our first post, Mike will consider the ways a producer working with a VST is not simply inputting commands but is collaborating with an entire culture of maximalism, teasing out an ethics of brostep production outside the usual urge for transcendence. In the second post, Christina will listen to the song “Braves” by a Tribe Called Red (ATCR), which, through its play with racist signifiers, remixes performer and audience, placing ATCR and its listeners in an uncanny relationship. In the final post, Justin will work with Karen Barad’s theory of posthuman performativity to consider how the kind of hypermasculinist and racist signifiers discussed in Mike’s and Christina’s pieces embed themselves in listening bodies that become sounding bodies. In each instance, we wade into the wobble listening for the flow of activity among the entanglement of producer, sound, and listener while also keeping our ears peeled for the cross-rhythms of (hyper)masculinist and racist materials that course through and around the musical phenomena.

So hold on tight. It’s about to drop.

Justin Burton

As an electronic dance music DJ and producer, an avid video gamer, a cage fighting connoisseur, and a die-hard Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fan, I’m no stranger to fist pumps, headshots, and what has become a general cultural sensibility of “hardness” associated with “bro” culture. But what broader affect lies behind this culture? Speaking specifically to recent trends in popular music, Simon Reynolds describes a “digital maximalism,” in which cultural practice involves “a hell of a lot of inputs, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty” (“Maximal Nation”). We could broaden this concept of maximalism, both (1) to describe a wider variety of contemporary media (from film to video games and mobile media), and (2) to theorize it as a tool for transducing affect between various media, and among various industries within global capitalism. The goal of this essay is to tease out the ways in which maximalist techniques of one kind of digital media production—dubstep—become codified as broader social and political practices. Indeed, the proliferation of maximalism suggests that hypermediation and hypermasculinity have already become dominant aesthetic forms of digital entertainment.

"DJ Pauly D" by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi, CC-BY-SA-2.0

“DJ Pauly D” by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi, CC-BY-SA-2.0

More than any other electronic dance music (EDM) genre, dubstep—and the various hypermasculine cultures in which it has bound itself—has wholeheartedly embraced “digital maximalism” as its core aesthetic form. In recent years, the musical style has emerged as both the dominant idiom within EDM culture, as well as the soundtrack to various hypermasculine forms of entertainment, from sports such as football and professional wrestling to action movies and first-person shooter video games. As a result of the music’s widespread popularity within the specific cultural space of a post-Jersey Shore “bro” culture, the term “brostep” has emerged as an accepted title for the ultra-macho, adrenaline-pumping performances of masculinity that have defined contemporary forms of digital entertainment. This essay posits digital audio production practices in “brostep” as hypermediated forms of masculinity that exist as part of a broader cultural and aesthetic web of media convergence in the digital age.

CONVERGENCE CULTURES

Media theorist Henry Jenkins defines “convergence culture” as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (Convergence Culture, 2). The most prominent use of “brostep” as a transmedial form comes from video game and movie trailers. From the fast-paced, neo-cyborg and alien action thrillers such as Transformers (2007-present), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and G.I. Joe (2012), to dystopian first-person shooter video games such as Borderlands (2012), Far Cry 3 (2012), and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012), modulated oscillator wobbles and bass portamento drops consistently serve as sonic amplifiers of the male action hero at the edge.

Assault rifle barrages are echoed by quick rhythmic bass and percussion chops, while the visceral contact of pistol whips and lobbed grenades marks ruptures in time and space as slow motion frame rates mirror bass “drops” in sonic texture and rhythmic pacing. “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.

Film theorist Lorrie Palmer argues for a relational link among gender, technology, and modes of production through hypermasculinity in these types of films and video games. Some definitive features of this convergence of hypermediation and hypermasculinity include an emphasis on “excess and spectacle, the centrality of surface over substance… ADHD cinema… transitory kinetic sensations that decenter spatial legibility… an impact aesthetic, [and] an ear-splitting, frenetic style” (Cranked Masculinity,” 7). Both Robin James and Steven Shaviro have defined the overall aesthetic of these practices as “post-cinematic”: a regime “centered on computer games” and emphasizing “the logic of control and gamespace, which is the dominant logic of entertainment programming today.” On a sonic level, “brostep” aligns itself with many of these cinematic descriptions. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd describes the style of Borgore, one particular dubstep DJ and producer, as “misogy blow-job beats.” Other commenters have made more obvious semiotic connections between filmic imagery and the music, as Nitsuh Abebe describes brostep basslines as conjuring “obviously cool images like being inside the gleaming metal torso of a planet-sized robot while it punches an even bigger robot.”

“Ultra Music Festival 2013″ by Wikimedia user Vinch, CC-BY-SA-3.0

“Ultra Music Festival 2013″ by Wikimedia user Vinch, CC-BY-SA-3.0

MASCULINITY AND DIGITAL AUDIO PRODUCTION

While the sound has developed gradually over at least the past decade, the ubiquity of the distinctive mid-range “brostep” wobble bass can fundamentally be attributed to a single instrument. Massive, a software synthesizer developed by the Berlin and Los Angeles-based Native Instruments, combines the precise timbral shaping capabilities of modular synthesizers with the real-time automation capabilities of digital waveform editors. As a VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plug-in, the device exemplifies the inherently transmedial nature of many digital tools, bridging studio techniques between digital audio workstations and analog synthesis, and acting as just one of many control signals within the multi-windowed world of digital audio production. In this way, Massive may be characterized as an intersonic control network in which sounds are controlled and modulated by other sounds through constantly shifting software algorithms. Through analysis of the intersubjective control network of a program such as Massive we are able to hear the convergence of hypermediation and hypermasculinity as aesthetic forms.

“Massive:Electronica” by Flickr user matt.searles, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

“Massive:Electronica” by Flickr user matt.searles, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

Media theorist Mara Mills details the notion of technical “scripts” embedded both within technological devices as well as user experiences. According to Mills, scripts are best defined as “the representation of users embedded within technology… Designers do not simply ‘project’ users into [technological devices]; these devices are inscribed with the competencies, tolerances, desires, and psychoacoustics of users” (“Do Signals Have Politics?” 338). In short, electroacoustic objects have politics, and in the case of Massive, the politics of the script are quite conventional and historically familiar. The rhythmic and timbral control network of the software aligns itself with what Tara Rodgers describes as a long history of violent masculinist control logics in electronic music, from DJs “battling” to producers “triggering” a sample with a “controller” or “executing” a programming “command” or typing a “bang” to send a signal” (“Towards a Feminist Historiography of Electronic Music,” 476).

In Massive, the primary control mechanism is the LFO (low frequency oscillator), an infrasonic electronic signal whose primary purpose is to modulate various parameters of a synthesizer tone. Dubstep artists most frequently apply the LFO to a low-pass filter, generating a control algorithm in which an LFO filters and masks specific frequencies at a periodic rate (thus creating a “wobbling” frequency effect), which, in turn, modulates the cutoff frequency of up to three oscillating frequencies at a time (maximizing the “wobble”). When this process is applied to multiple oscillators simultaneously—each operating at disparate levels of the frequency spectrum—the effect is akin to a spectral and spatial form of what Julian Henriques calls “sonic dominance.” Massive allows the user to record “automations” on the rhythm, tempo, and quantization level of the bass wobble, effectively turning the physical gestures initially required to create and modulate synthesizer sounds—such as knob-turning and fader-sliding—into digitally-inscribed algorithms.

SONIC WARFARE AND THE ETHICS OF VIRTUALITY

By positing the logic of digital audio production within a broader network of control mechanisms in digital culture, I am not simply presenting a hermeneutic metaphor. Convergence media has not only shaped the content of various multimedia but has redefined digital form, allowing us to witness a clear—and potentially dangerous—virtual politics of viral capitalism. The emergence of a Military Entertainment Complex (MEC) is the most recent instance of this virtual politics of convergence, as it encompasses broad phenomena including the use of music as torture, the design of video games for military training (and increasing collaboration between military personnel and video game designers in general), and drone warfare. The defining characteristic of this political and virtual space is a desire to simultaneously redefine the limits of the physical body and overcome those very limitations. The MEC, as well as broader digital convergence cultures, has molded this desire into a coherent hegemonic aesthetic form.

Following videogame theorist Jane McGonigal, virtual environments push the individual to “work at the very limits of their ability” in a state of infinite self-transition (Reality is Broken, 24). Yet, automation and modular control networks in the virtual environments of digital audio production continue to encourage the historical masculinist trope of “mastery,” thus further solidifying the connection between music and military technologies sounded in the examples above. In detailing hypermediation and hypermasculinity as dominant aesthetic forms of digital entertainment, it is not my goal to simply reiterate the Adornian nightmare of “rhythm as coercion,” or the more recent Congressional fears over the potential for video games and other media to cause violence. The fact that music and video games in the MEC are simultaneously being used to reinscribe the systemic violence of the Military Industrial Complex, as well as to create virtual and actual communities (DJ culture and the proliferation of online music and gaming communities), pinpoints precisely its hegemonic capabilities.

“Gear porn” by Flickr user Matthew Trentacoste, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

“Gear porn” by Flickr user Matthew Trentacoste, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

In the face of the perennial “mastery” trope, I propose that we must develop a relational ethics of virtuality. While it seems to offer the virtue of a limitless infinity for the autonomous (often male) individual, technological interfaces form the skin of the ethical subject, establishing the boundaries of a body both corporeal and virtual. In the context of digital audio production, then, the producer is not struggling against the technical limitations of the material interface, but rather emerging from the multiple relationships forming at the interface between one’s actual and virtual self and embracing a contingent and liminal identity; to quote philosopher Adriana Cavarero, “a fragile and unmasterable self” (Relating Narratives, 84).

Featured Image:  Skrillex – Hovefestivalen 2012 by Flickr User NRK P3

Mike D’Errico is a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Musicology and a researcher at the Center for Digital Humanities. His research interests and performance activities include hip-hop, electronic dance music, and sound design for software applications. He is currently working on a dissertation that deals with digital audio production across media, from electronic dance music to video games and mobile media. Mike is the web editor and social media manager for the US branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, as well as two UCLA music journals, Echo: a music-centered journal and Ethnomusicology Review.

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About mikederrico

Mike D’Errico is a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Musicology and the Digital Humanities Graduate Certificate Program. His research interests and performance activities include hip-hop and electronic dance music, video games and generative media, and sound studies. Current projects include ethnographies on hip-hop and electronic dance music communities in Los Angeles (Low End Theory, Team Supreme, Brainfeeder), sound design for the RomeLab virtual world project, and ongoing research on convergence media and interactive audio in contemporary digital audio production. He is currently the web editor and social media manager for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, as well as two UCLA music journals, Echo: a music-centered journal and Ethnomusicology Review. As a staff music writer for urbanscene magazine, Mike reviews hip-hop and electronic dance music event series in the Los Angeles area. From Boston to LA, he has performed as a DJ, drummer, and electronic musician for various experimental music acts.

11 responses to “Going Hard: Bassweight, Sonic Warfare, & the “Brostep” Aesthetic”

  1. peter s says :

    a lot of this is really interesting but the technical, music production side of it comes across as extremely naive, and possibly native instruments sponsored.

    first off, I’m not a dubstep producer so I don’t know if there are some scene conventions, but the obvious defining timbral characteristic of dubstep bass is obviously fm synthesis and distortion. the lfo is simply a way of controlling this timbre.

    secondly and much more importantly, recording automation is not the equivalent of creating an algorithm. it is a deliberate process and once you record a loop of automation, you have to do something else deliberate to create another one. this is important because actual algorithmic or generative composition (such as what laurie spiegel or mark fell are into) allows a lot more discovery of unintended consequences and variation; the fixed or deliberate nature of recorded automation is a better fit for the culture you’re talking about.

    this is a totally nerdy response, but I think the cultural aspects of what you’re talking about are interesting, and don’t want other producers who know what they’re doing to ignore them because of what appear to be some technical misconceptions.

    • mikederrico says :

      Peter,

      Thanks for your response. The algorithm/automation distinction is definitely a useful one to be made, and was also mentioned by DJ Rupture in our correspondence. I wrote this piece to appeal to a broad audience that had potentially no knowledge of dubstep or audio production, so I apologize for the perceived naivety of the language. I had no idea so many DJs, producers, and audio connoisseurs would read it, but that feedback has been essential, insightful, and certainly welcome. I’m always trying to figure out the best way to balance technical knowledge that would appeal to those “in the know,” and a language that would make sense (and be interesting) to a broader audience. Either way, the feedback has been great, and given me a lot to think about in terms of potentially expanding the piece in the future.

      Regarding the idea that the piece was “possible Native Instruments sponsored,” I’ll simply say that it was not. I chose Massive as the software to analyze because of its ubiquity among producers in a certain segment of the LA dance music scene.

      Do you produce, or write about audio production at all? I’d love to check out your stuff.

      Thanks again,
      Mike

  2. mikederrico says :

    In response to DJ Rupture’s critique of my post: http://www.negrophonic.com/2014/brostep-mansplained/comment-page-1/#comment-21291

    Many critiques to this research attack the ways in which I’ve “over-gendered” the music, and that it can be very reductive to explain gender dynamics through the lens of a specific form of digital audio production. However, my thesis is actually about carving out a space for non-bro-y, non-hypermasculine dispositions within dance music culture (which seems to be, at least partly, what Julianna is trying to do as well). This piece didn’t just come from the “ivory tower” of academic scholarship, as it actually came out of my experiences clubbing around LA, where I saw a lot of crazy shit happen at clubs, as well as my experience as a hip-hop producer, in which gender dynamics in the studio are very one-sided. Saying that there are no problems with a given culture’s gender dynamics because women exist in those scenes doesn’t negate very concrete situations that occur in those spaces. 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.

    Contrary to Rupture’s critique, my thesis is not that all “Brostep is a hypermasculinst hypermediated control gambit.” I’m actually discussing the hypermasculine, hypermediated components of Brostep that are what brings it its moniker (this is why I quoted Julianna’s description). The goal is to address how troubling (hypermasculine) notions of technology can limit our understanding of what’s possible in Brostep. In this, I see myself as closely aligned with Shepherd, as we’re both reconsidering broad ideas of what the genre is and does.

    Further thoughts on the idea of “misquoting” Shepherd: she’s describing a certain segment of Brostep with the words that I’ve pulled from her. She only mentions one example, but the implication is that there are Brostep productions that are hypermasculine, even if painting the entire genre in such broad strokes is unfair. By focusing in on MEC-related uses of Brostep, I’m working in the same area, finding producer dispositions that reach beyond the kind of hypermasculinity at play in some of the most prominent uses of the genre. For Rupture to assume I’m trying to describe the entire genre with a couple of adjectives is a reach that ignores integral portions of the published piece.

    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, albeit one that has been widely embraced by prominent DJs and producers of electronic dance music. However, Tara Rodgers is also a DJ and producer, thought working in a different subculuture, and she strongly in the potentially dangerous gendering of electronic music production. Her work, as well as the work of Mara Mills, highly influenced the speculative argument that I made in my piece. We shouldn’t simply accept prominent critics (or academics, or DJs for that matter) at their word, because there are so many different perspectives on the issue, from so many different cultures and backgrounds. Just look at Robin James’s critique of Primus Luta’s series of posts on this blog. Both writers take widely different perspectives on a specific phenomenon, but they both reflect actually existing scenes of music and culture. One is not more correct than the other.

    Anyway, it’s great to hear response like this, 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 Rupture, and others, have brought up.

    • mikederrico says :

      Again, I apologize for the initial misquote of Julianna’s work. Here is her initial passage:

      “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.”

      The initial quote did not make clear that Julianna was describing the sound of a specific album, and it wrongly connected two separate descriptors into a single quote.

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