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In post-modern society, house or dance music is seen as much a part of commercial music as pop, R ‘n’ B, Indie and rock. Acts such as Calvin Harris, David Guetta and Armand van Helden have all had UK number one hit singles within the last year. However, the roots of house music are far more underground and sub-cultural than the music we now hear on our mainstream radio stations.
House music combines disco, soul and funk with pop samples and vocals. The heavy repetitive bassline and electronic synths make this a distinctive sound. Originating in Chicago, USA around the early 1980’s, house music became popular in discos frequented by the gay communities, African American and latino American communities. The sound also linked with the electronic sounds of acts such as German outfit Kraftwerk and spread across Europe and later on a global scale.
It would be true to say that during the later 1980’s and early 1990’s, the emergence of house (or acid house music) in Britain could certainly be defined sub-culturally. A subculture can be defined as referring to
‘Groups of people that have something in common with each other which distinguishes them in a certain way from other social groups’ (Thornton, 1997) .
Acts such as SL2 and The Prodigy were at the forefront of this powerful movement (see video on the left). A distinct mix of clothing styles, footwear, drug use, gathering places and jargon characterised those parts of the sub-culture and lifestyles could be classified by the phrase ‘living for the weekend’. Driving around the M25 waiting for instruction to the latest warehouse parties became part of the norm for those involved.
By the mid 1990’s, diversity in musical genres was highly evident and the commercialisation of house music and its cross over into mainstream culture was underway. It could be argued that The Criminal Justice Act of 1994, brought in under a conservative government, not only served to shut down much of the illegal involvement, but also paved the way for this cross over.
Is house music still a prominent part of youth culture?
It would be fair to say that the validity of such a statement could be proved when applied to a late 1980’s / early 1990’s setting, however it could also be argued that there did not appear to be any clearly defined class, age, gender or ethnic boundaries of a ‘typical’ raver. In this sense, this unique style of music crossed more boundaries than previous youth cultures.
Functionalist arguments would undoubtedly see the emergence of such a subculture as providing those involved with a safe route to adulthood and bringing people together. The house/rave scene provided people with a community feeling of unity and spirit. Durkheim argued that ‘Various forms of society will develop their distinct concepts of cohesion and trust. While pre-modern societies need to be based on mechanic forms of solidarity, requiring organic solidarity’ (Durkheim 1893)
This may hold some validity, but the emergence of a wide variety of genres and loyalty from followers could be argued to cause conflict amongst groups too Marxist arguments would view such an emergence as a reaction to exploitation in a capitalist society. The rave scene in particular is often described as a part-reaction to Thatcher’s money obsessed society. Unfortunately the rave scene itself fell victim to the capitalist regime, as it began to grow the powerful music companies began to attach themselves to the scene in an attempt to push tracks into the charts and merchandise the labels into a mainstream culture.
Whilst house music is a genre of dance music, the genre itself is diverse. Musical styles such as electro, funky, minimal, tech, hard, vocal, dubstep, drum and bass etc are constantly evolving and adapting to meet consumer demand. Having been absorbed into mainstream culture, house music remains a prominent musical genre in a society now characterised by freedom and diversity. Postmodernists would argue that youth now have a ‘supermarket of style’ (Polhemus, 1997) characterised by choice.
Every year thousands of clubbers make the annual summer ‘pilgrimage’ to Ibiza to see their favourite DJ’s play the music they want to hear and it would be true to say that the island does cater for a spectrum of musical styles.The more rowdy resort of Ibiza San Antonio tends to attract a younger mainly British crowd, who primarily go to attend the islands house music parties. However, resorts such as Playa d’en Bossa and Ibiza Town tend to attract a slightly more mature European crowd between the ages of around 20-50. These holidaymakers have again travelled to the island to revel in the islands parties, but in a somewhat extension of their experience of youth culture. Such evidence would serve to disprove that house music is reserved only for youth.
Such a pattern could only be seen to be a repeat of the devotion given to 1960’s music in present day by those who were involved with the ‘mods and rockers’ subcultures of the 1960’s, many of those youth are now in their 60’s, so why should a genre such as house music be any different and those involved through their youth not follow suit?
The cheap and easily accessible format of the genre means that it now has mass commercial appeal and is enjoyed by both the working and middle classes. It is also true to say that many of the big name house DJ’s have come from a variety of social backgrounds.
It is certain to say that Marxist ideas on class exploitation could be applied to house music in a postmodern society. The commercialisation of house music and uptake by the record industry could be seen to be exploiting the consumer in a number of ways. Multi-million pound nightclub franchises and marketing campaigns aim to market house music as ‘a way of life’ and logo’d merchandise can be found everywhere. This is a very different story to 20 years ago, when a DJ mixtape and club flyer were the prized possessions following a weekend out.
It could certainly be argued that the 1000’s of clubbers travelling to Ibiza each year are being exploited, with nightclub entry fees being charged up to 70 euros in 2009 and drinks prices in nightclubs costing on average 4 times the price of in Britain. Is it really those jetting off on holiday that will be having ‘the time of their lives’ or those owning the means of such entertainment?
The transition from sub-culture to global culture
The mass media has certainly played a large part in this transition. The negative media reporting of rave parties in the late 1980’s would be interpreted by Interactionists such as Stan Cohen as providing suitable grounds for subcultures to develop. Amplified media coverage of ecstasy deaths in the 1990’s undoubtedly led to a moral panic and provided more publicity for the house music scene. Ravers themselves became the ‘folk devils’ of the time, in other words ‘a media scapegoat’:
‘A moral panic occurs when a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’ (Cohen 1972)
The commercialisation of house music over the past 15 years has seen household name DJ’s play regular weekly slots on the radio, sitting at the forefront of station branding and enjoying a celebrity status. House music is played in shops, supermarkets, gyms, in television and radio adverts and at school fashion shows illustrating this move into the mainstream.More recently, tabloid newspapers have included pullouts on Ibiza clubs and DJ’s and many top selling magazines focus on the house music industry.The internet has served to globalise the phenomenon. Websites devoted to house music and DJ podcasts can be brought up within a click from any major search engine.
For many British youth, the weekly journey to a house music venue has become a tradition and gained mass following. Many global DJ’s could be seen to be ‘worshipped’ by their followers and House events are structured with the DJ’s being the main focal point of the event, which could be likened to the delivery of a sermon in church. In this respect, house music events could be seen to provide a suitable alternative substitute to weekly church attendance. ‘Secularisation refers to the belief that as societies progress, particularly through modernisation and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance’ (Norris & Inglehart 2004)
Therefore, Could it then be argued that the spread of house music could have a part to play in the secularisation of postmodern British society?
It is evident that the house music has for the past 20 years or so, played a part in youth culture. In the earlier part of this period, sub cultural theory could be applied, but due to globalisation and commercialisation of the house scene, there has been a major shift into mainstream culture. There is also evidence to suggest that the widespread appeal of this music is no longer confined to youth identity.
This article has been narrowly focused on house music, which is only one genre of dance music, which in itself only forms part of a musical spectrum. It is important to note that there are many other musical aspects of youth culture and each one has started as a sub-culture before organic development and growth.
Evidence of exploitation can be seen through the commercialisation of a sub-cultures and high prices being charged to the consumer are a world away from the house parties of the 1980’s, ‘run by ravers, for the ravers’. Whilst it should be noted that there are a number of sociological explanations for the secularisation of British society, the interest in music in general could be argued to play some significant part.
Durkheim (1893) ‘The division of labour in society’ Press, Paris.
Norris and Inglehart, (2004) Sacred and Secular. Religion and Politics Worldwide, Cambridge University Press Chapter 1.
Polhemus, T. (1997). In the supermarket of style. In S. Redhead(Ed.), The clubcultures reader, Oxford: Blackwell
Thornton, S. (1997) ‘General Introduction‘ in K.Gelder and S. Thornton(eds) The Subcultural Reader, Routledge, London
Early 90's Prodigy documentary
BBC House music documentary part one
BBC House music documentary part three
BBC House music documentary part two
Pacha nightclub in Ibiza charges up to £65 entry at peak summer time
Privilege in Ibiza- The biggest nightclub in the world, the main room holds 10,000 people
Once an undergound club, the Ministry of sound is now a huge multi-national corporation
The Ibiza vibe continues
Ben Grundy is a Sociology and Psychology lecturer at Sussex Downs College in Lewes. Ben teaches on both the GCSE and A-Level programmes.