THE NUUM AND ITS DISCONTENTS, # 2
GENRE versus SCENE
Strange that my innocent analogy with Australia should prove such a stumbling block with the assembly!
The choice of Australia was arbitrary, but I almost seem to have been guided to it by my unconscious, as it's perfectly suited to my argument.
I was referring--and I thought this would be obvious--not to Australia as a political unit, which is obviously a man-made convention, nor to the population, but to the land mass denoted by the word Australia. No one, surely, would deny that this land mass exists and would exist whatever we had decided to call it?
What makes it such a fitting analogy for the hardcore continuum is that it is a substantial body of land, large enough to have several different climate zones in it, but in the grander planetary scheme of things it is eclipsed by much vaster, more densely populated continents. Australia is also relatively isolated. There are territories quite near it--the Philippines, New Zealand--but it is cut off from the other continents. And as a result its ecosystem has a number of animals and plants you don't find elsewhere in the world. Evolution took a different path there.
Until really quite recently this has been one of the striking things about the hardcore continuum: its relative insularity and its evolutionary peculiarities. Note the word "relative". Nonetheless I believe it operated in a relatively self-contained way through the Nineties and a good way into this decade. It assimilated stuff from outside--as influences or through sample theft--but this was funneled into its own internal dynamic of evolution and the creative war of all against all. The scene's focus was inward; centripetal, you might say.
But what about my contentious assertion that the hardcore continuum is an entity, some kind of thing?
I'm not a philosophy student so don't have the squeamishness about certain words ("empirical"; see also vitalist, Romantic, etc) that seems to come with that training. I have what I suppose must seem like a rather literalist/realist--even commonsensical--approach, in so far as I think that things I've witnessed and participated in actually… existed. Perhaps if I'd used the word "phenomenon" rather than thing it would have gone down better. Probably not, there are so many forbidden words in philosophy, aren't there? (Such that certain texts often seemed to be produced out of the contortions made to avoid contamination by certain yuck-yuck concepts or unclean bodies of thought!).
The philosophy students haven't actually had too much to recoil from in this discussion, though, because the experiential and empirical have mostly been eschewed in favour of musical taxonomy. So far the discussion has almost entirely been on the level of genre as opposed to scene. The scenic aspects of the hardcore continuum--the stuff you can see (and feel and smell)--hardly came up at all at the UEL seminar. My Liverpoool talk had a bit more on this aspect, especially at the start but quickly fell into the typical mode of genre-focused talk, tracking the evolution of the music, etc.
Genres can exist without scenes, but it doesn't happen often and in the case of the hardcore continuum the two things are virtually indivisible. When you contemplate the scenery of the hardcore continuum, the analogy with Australia makes complete sense, merely states the obvious. The scene is everything that surrounds and supports the music: the clubs and raves, the media (pirate radio primarily) and the retail network of independent specialist record stores, the labels and DJ agencies. The scene consists of flows of money and of drugs, of energy and emotion. The scene is everything that the music catalyses in terms of behavior and discourse: dance moves and crowd rituals, clothing styles and the graphic imagery of flyers/zines/ record sleeves. And finally the scene consists of the punters, the individuals who come together to form the massive(s).
In a nutshell, "scene" contains and refers to everything in the hardcore continuum that isn't music.
(I think I could make a case for the music as a thing, to be honest: soundwaves have material impact on the ear drums and limbs and other body parts of the dancing crowd; until it's activated the music is trapped inside various recording formats, vinyl or mix-tapes; the music has discernible patterns and structures in it. But we'll leave that argument for now).
So when I say the hardcore continuum is like Australia, what I'm saying is that for a period of some duration, multitudes of people gathered repeatedly, participating in a great number of events that took place at various geographical sites--sometimes one-off parties, more often regular locations--where they behaved in particular ways, expending energy and passion and time and money in a fashion that had direct consequences on their day-to-day lives, and, indirectly, incalculable (meaning hard to calibrate but also "big") effects on the society they lived in; that there was a material infrastructure supporting this through which substantial revenue passed, ranging from the legal (promoters, retail, record labels) to the criminal (drug trade, etc). The nuum was (maybe still is) a socio-economic force in the world and a cultural force (maybe even a proto-political one, more on this in a later post).
In all these senses, the hardcore continuum was (maybe still is) a concrete, material entity of real consequence and impact. By all means stop using the term; that won't unmake the referent it was coined to describe, any more than a worldwide ban on the use of the term "Australia" wouldn't cause that isolated continent in the Southern Hemisphere to cease existing, let alone cause it to never have existed. The only difference is that the hardcore continuum was a historical entity as opposed to a geographical one.
Of course there's another difference, which is that the term "hardcore continuum" is a specialist one as opposed to a generally used term like "Australia". True, it has currency only within a milieu of people who enjoy analyzing music and subculture, and if you went up to most actual inhabitants of the nuum they would look blankly if the word "hardcore continuum" was uttered. But the thing that it describes--a family tree of genres + scenes that runs, in the simplest formulation, hardcore/jungle/UK garage/grime/dubstep--is material and consequential in the same way (if not degree) as Australia is.
"Scene", then, is everything in a musical subculture that isn't the music itself. Scene, but not heard.
Why did we hear so little about "scene" then, and so much about genre?
Genre is easier to talk about. To illustrate a talk, you can play examples of the music much easier than you can convey what it's like to be in the thick of the scene, what the vibe is like (although I tried to get some of that across with the flyers and other ephemera projected on the FACT big screen). There isn't much footage and what there is doesn't really convey what it was like to be on the dancefloor, the sensory overload, the crowd reactions, etc.
At UEL, as Dan Hancocks was quick to point out (and pat himself on the back for), he was pretty much the only person in four hours to actually mention dancing, what this music is ostensibly created for. And the snippet he offered--that the rhythms of funky prompt a different kind of dancing than dubstep or earlier nuum genres--was fascinating. It actually gave me a way into funky, to learn that moving to it involves the hands and arms and shoulders much more than hips or feet. (Perhaps it's the case that different zones of the drum kit activate different zones of the body, so that the higher in tone/timbre percussion sounds tug at the upper body? Or is it just the intricate flickering rhythm patterns invite sinuous finger and arm movements?). This one, brief morsel of data opened up funky for me much more than all the detailed breakdowns of influence-constituents in Track X or Track Y, the micro-taxonomic analyses of miniscule eddies of style-flava within the genre. (Such a pity he immediately went back to dredging up 2006 blog posts of mine!).
Here's an article from early 2008 where I talk about dance music journalism's strange silence about dancing.
"Scene" is the most objectively undeniable and vividly concrete aspect of the nuum, yet it's the thing we habitually neglect to talk about, instead wrestling endlessly over genre theory, tracking various auteur-hero musicians and the influence they had or the influences that made them, discussing intricacies of technology and production. Meanwhile, the affective, the experiential, the behavioural, the social, the participatory… all these "aspects", which are less aspects and much closer to being the whole raison d'etre of the music, get short shrift. Why do we do this?
The pro-nuum camp tends to fall into this approach because of the emphasis on theory, which abstracts the music from the experiential; it will talk about scenius dynamics in an abstract and machinic way, but rarely about the specific ways that the massive create the screenplay to the music's soundtrack; it will celebrate "energy" but in a depersonalized way, as though it was not embodied or enacted by flesh and blood people. The anti-nuum camp has little motivation to evoke the vividness of the nuum as lived historical reality, since it wishes to wish it away. Besides, as I pointed out in my previous reflection, anti-nuumers tend to have an auteur-ist bias and are therefore less interested in scene reporting or participant-observer type documenting of the scene.
Plus, it's what boys do, and the majority of us appear to be boys, regrettably (and the reasons deserve further investigation). Boys like getting stuck into the aggy business of taxonomic disputation and border skirmishes.
Thinking again of Australia (a small continent or large island, who can say?) led me to another analogy with the hardcore continuum that may be less contentious and even more apt. A smaller island that is (or was, until really quite recently) also a relatively isolated music culture. Jamaica. Yes yes, reggae starts with New Orleans R&B misheard, rhythmically inverted. But the focus of Jamaican music culture was inward: the sound systems in the early days might have sent people to the U.S. mainland to scoop up obscure R&B singles but the systems were warring with each other and very soon the music evolved into a totally indigenous sound. There are obviously historical links between Jamaica and the hardcore continuum (transplantation of the sound system/MC, rewinds, dubplates culture to the U.K.) but the parallel works on a more abstract level, in the sense that you have a relatively insular music culture that becomes a kind of pressure-cooker of runaway musical evolution. And what you have in Jamaica is both a macro-genre and a macro-scene. The two things are tightly tethered to each other but they are not identical, which means that the genre can slip out of alignment with the scene and even have a kind of lingering post-scene afterlife. The classic example here is what happened to reggae. It's commonly thought that reggae is synonymous with Jamaican music but strictly speaking it's a phase--after ska and rocksteady, before 80s digital dancehall and ragga. What happens is that reggae-as-genre slips away from the scene that spawned it and becomes a global music, thanks to Bob Marley, The Police, et al. In response to this internationalisation, the native scene renamed itself dancehall, as if to acknowledge that the local audience must always takes primacy over any specific genre of Jamaican music; it named itself after the social spaces in which the music is heard, where its audience gather. At first dancehall was just digital reggae but then it gradually becomes what we think of dancehall today. And that is based around rhythms that actually predate reggae and predate ska, folk rhythms from rural Jamaica. Ultimately though "dancehall" means whatever the Jamaican audience dance too, which includes dancehall-as-genre, old style reggae riddims now and then brought back into favour, hip hop instrumentals from the States, other Caribbean rhythms like soca, and now, it's said, even some funky from London… But if the Kingston massive started shimmying to Radiohead instrumentals that would become "dancehall" too.
I think the relationship between nuum-as-macrogenre and nuum-as-macroscene is similar to Jamaica. The paradigm example in nuum terms is the switch-over from drum & bass to speed garage--drum & bass becomes untethered from the scene, becomes a UK-nationwide and increasingly international genre, while the scene itself, the nuum heartland of London, embraces a new genre that restores some of the junglistic things that D&B had lost but in a new slower and sexier rhythmic template.
So if not Australia, then perhaps we can accept the notion of the hardcore continuum as a sort of Jamaica-like entity within the UK… a nation within the nation, without borders in the conventional political or geographic sense, but certainly with privileged sites, gathering spots, centripetal zones. The fact that the idea of "nation" even rises to the discursive surface of nuum culture sometimes, with names like Jungle Nation and Garage Nation, suggests this analogy is sound. A tribe is a small nation, and likewise a subcultural tribe is a form of micro-nation organised around musical affiliation.
Finally, I have to disagree with a notion several people have brought up, the idea that the concept of the hardcore continuum is motivated by a canonic impulse, and therefore rooted in snobbery (boo, hiss! Critics should never say what's good and bad, should they?). This is a misconception. A canon--as with Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (which I've actually read in its entirety--meaning his book, as opposed to all the books he anoints therein!)--is the selected masterworks within an art form. In terms of the nuum, the canon would be the tracks that a community of informed opinion nominated as groundbreaking, innovative, epoch-defining anthems, or just plain killer. But the hardcore continuum is the sum total of all music made in this macro-genre during its historical span (1990-to-20??), not just the first division but the second and third division too, the mediocre and substandard. (The hardcore continuum also consists, as I've argued in this post, of the sum of all the behavior, the socio-economic and infrastructural etc--it's the macro-scene as well as the macro-genre).
The nuum is not equivalent to the canon of Western Literature; it's equivalent, in this argument, to Western Literature itself. Or to sculpture, or cinema, or... any vast body of artistic activity that varies widely in quality. The nuum is that entity itself, in its entirety, prior to the filtration exercise of aesthetic judgement and fan debate (which creates a canon).
To say that the hardcore continuum never existed (as a lunatic fringe now propose) is to me as silly as saying Western Literature never existed. The latter is a category that humans invented, for sure, if you really want to be pedantic. But it exists in the sense that millions of pages of "Western Literature" exist in the world, millions of hours were spent on the writing of it by real persons in the belief they were contributing to it and a similar amount of time and energy expended in the criticism of it by people who believed they were furthering it or protecting it; it led to billions of hours of enjoyment and also non-enjoyment by innumerable real readers who really existed. That's real enough for me.
Ditto (on a much smaller scale) for the hardcore continuum.