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Skrillex performs at the 45th Festival d'ete de Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec city Wednesday July 11, 2012. (CP)
Skrillex performs at the 45th Festival d'ete de Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec city Wednesday July 11, 2012. (CP)

How dubstep went from bombastic club beat to television filler Add to ...

If you watched the Grey Cup on TSN, you may have noticed the broadcaster using a little electronic music buffer to introduce certain segments, particularly when cutting to or from a commercial. That bland little buffer has a “wobble bass” – that’s the term for the now familiar buzzy wub-wub-wub bass sound – a bass note that’s extended and manipulated – of dubstep. Dubstep is a musical genre that just a couple of years ago we relegated fearfully to teenage basements, kept safely outside the news and weather. Suddenly dubstep is all over the TV news – my local all-news station, CablePulse 24, is also using a dubsteppy tune as repeated filler, and I’m sure the trend is being followed all over the country. Both the CP24 and TSN loops have the same distinctive syncopation and irregular rhythm of dubstep. Musically, it is dubstep.

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And yet the tinny TV tunes don’t sound anything like dubstep, which has been, since its creation around 2000 in London, England, dependent on massive bassy soundsystems for its effect. Dubstep has always relied on sub-bass, that is, bass so low the human ear can’t actually hear it. Listening to dubstep loud in a club means having all your internal organs vibrated in a way that feels distinctly unhealthy. Obviously your TV speakers, and even the best home-theatre setup, can’t duplicate it.

Nor can the nattily dressed TV hosts reflect the dark culture that went along with the genre when it first appeared. Every pop-musical movement has its associated drug: Reggae has its herb, punk its heroin, metal its speed, techno its ecstasy. Each of these drugs matches the music’s mood. Dubstep’s drug might well have been ketamine. That’s the dissociative hallucinogenic anesthetic that makes you alternately comatose and completely insane.

The music itself has been widely parodied and mocked. A skit on the TV comedy show Key & Peele shows two friendly and gentle guys who listen to a few seconds of dubstep and turn into homicidal, hallucinating lunatics as long as it’s playing.

As usual with these once-underground genres, there is a great deal of scorn from the purists about the current incarnations. The second anyone in the media tries to talk about it, he is deluged by online comments saying what he is describing isn’t really dubstep, it’s watered-down commercial crap and the true scene is all over now and you missed it. This scorn is especially withering whenever anybody mentions Skrillex, the DJ who brought the genre into the big stadiums and onto the TV news. His tracks are indeed an unexpected combination of pop, metal, industrial and dubstep that has been humorously called brostep because of its supposed appeal to fraternity-minded, beer-can-crushing boys.

Now that singers such as Britney Spears and Rihanna have released songs with dubsteppy musical elements, there’s bound to be a backlash, and inevitably the word itself becomes tainted.

But funnily enough dubstep has always been aware of its own caricatural elements. There’s got to be something ironic about the overuse of the letter “k” in all the dubstep names – as well as Skrillex, there’s Kode9 and Digital Mystikz and Skream and Datsik and you get the point. Zombies are a trope in dubstep art, just as the grim reaper was to metal. A recent British dubstep hitmaker calls himself Zomboy.

Which brings me to my final, perhaps tenuous connection. Zombie fiction has risen simultaneously with dubstep. It’s now entrenched not only as a horror genre but as a comic one – see Shaun of the Dead and even Margaret Atwood’s comic zombie novel being published on Wattpad (neatly combining the most youthful of recent literary trends). (That novel is called The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home and is co-authored by Naomi Alderman.) What begins as an attempt to terrify so often ends up as pastiche, as the deadly seriousness required to terrify cannot be maintained forever. A true ketamine trance can only be sustained for so many years. Everybody came down, and now we have happy dubstep zombies, and then the weather and sports.

 

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