Dubstep, Space, and the Malleability of Now

Sometime this past year, I ventured out for an eighteen-and-over night of dubstep. Nights on dance floors are now rare, as I can hardly stay up past 11 pm. But my friends offered me a ticket, so I went, and drank some beers to keep myself oiled. I stood in the middle of the dance floor, amongst teenagers grinding their bodies against each other and as the bass seeped into my skin.

All I could think about was how old I felt.

But the sound…

There’s just something about dubstep. It is unlike the music I used to go out and dance to. Good dubstep wraps around you. You get lost inside it. Or, it can get lost inside you.

It morphs and shapeshifts, it clings to your body, it transforms into the moment.

* * * * *

I read a piece about dubstep on the Verge a while ago, and I’ve been thinking about what Simon Reynolds says:

In house culture, or even dubstep in Britain, there’s a lot of referencing of roots reggae, or the early days of house, or the early days of jungle. In dance culture, the purist stuff, there’s sort of this in-built reverence to the past. And what I liked about the EDM vibe, there’s none of that: it’s just like ‘now, now, now.’ And if you happen to know about music you could hear things that harken back to [earlier dance music], but that really doesn’t seem to be what the kids are into. I sensed that ‘this is our music, this is our generation.’

Simply put, dubstep is the sound of now.

I have a love-hate relationship with dubstep. But for the longest time, I’ve thought my distaste and fickleness was with the sound itself.

I realize now that’s not so.

I suppose I came of age in the warehouse rave scene in the Bay Area, and part of me is permanently stuck in that dark, hazy dimension. And while I love today’s drum and bass and tech-house—the sounds of labels like Hospital and Shogun and Dirty Bird—I have not been more attached to any genre of electronic dance music than the jump-up jungle and cybertrance of the mid-nineties. Back then, they were the sounds of now. But today, they’re classic, yet dated—ticks on a music timeline.

Music, of course, becomes part of and triggers the past. And that’s the beautiful, eerie thing about it, especially the jungle and trance tracks from those years that seem to rewire my brain each time I hear them, even today. When I listen to these sounds, I am reminded of the passing of time, how I have grown and changed, how there was a then.

How I love swimming in then. Call me nostalgic. Call me a purist.

And then I think about dubstep at this moment—how electronic dance music has exploded, how everyone from teenagers to frat boys to Hollywood have embraced the wub, the wobble, the drop.

“The thing I liked about [dubstep],” says Reynolds, “was that this was music that had absolutely no sense of the past being better.” Dubstep reminds me of everything and nothing at once: of original and borrowed, of remixing and reblogging and recycling. It makes me envision a timeline with no clear beginning, middle, or end. I think about the dubstep generation’s disregard, perhaps ignorance, for what has come before: the absence of history and hierarchy.

I realize my love-hate relationship with dubstep stems not from a dislike for the sound itself, but from not being a part of the movement. From not fully identifying with or understanding the sound.

From being excluded from now.

In other words, maybe I just no longer get it.

And I’m not quite sure what this says about now, but it has made me think about time in a different way.

* * * * *

In a post on time, photography, technology, and proof, Miranda at A Literal Girl writes:

We can now reside in a ‘now’ padded as heavily with what has been and what might someday be as we want, and yet in a sense ‘now’ itself is obsolete.

Some moments, when I swipe data with my forefinger on my iPhone screen, or raise my arms in the air as a body scanner at the airport twirls around me, I sense today is finally the future. I think of Project Glass; of the entertainment screen illuminating from the middle seat in front of me on a plane at 37,000 feet; of facial recognition tools prompting me to tag people online, some of whom are dead, as if to sustain them.

But then I think of the history of the future that never was, à la the Jetsons, or the retro-future Tomorrowland attractions at Disneyland (flying cars and all), and realize I don’t really know when it is.

Recently, I asked my husband to set up the wireless HP printer collecting dust in the corner of my office, as I’d been unsuccessful in connecting it the first time, over a year ago. After several attempts, nothing. And once we were able to send a document to the printer, the sheet of paper that printed was blank.

What is it with printers? Why do they aggravate us so? I then gave up. I told him it felt strange to be so quick and effective in some ways, yet inept and frustrated in others.

* * * * *

SOMA street art

I’m fascinated by abandoned places—looking at pictures of destroyed spaces, like grand theaters of a bygone era, and reading about urban ruins and exploration. Part of it has to do with my love for street art and graffiti, for the physical and metaphorical underground of a city. But I’m most intrigued by the concept that the past, present, and future is all right there, in that physical space.

In a piece on the atemporality of ruin porn, Sarah Wanenchak says that abandoned spaces are “physical spaces in which the experience of linear time breaks down.” I love this. When I see ruins, I see then. I see now. I see what’s to come. Blended, coexisting. A different kind of now, where lines and boundaries are fuzzy.

* * * * *

I’m reminded of Facebook as a virtual repository of both the living and the dead, and my good friend Aki who passed away this spring. His name appears in my news feed every now and then, each time someone tags a photo with his name. Usually, the tagged images are of his two little boys, whose eyes and smiles remind me of him when we were nineteen years old, curious and happy in college.

I also think of the blogs and social networks I’ve deleted, poke around the accounts I have deactivated or let sit in limbo, and the iterations of Cheri that rot in the nooks and crannies of my Internet. And then I visit this blog, look at it as if I am not me, and ask myself: who is this person, musing on the past and ruminating on the future? The lapses of disconnect between me and my avatar are occasional, but odd.

It’s a weird space, this Internet. I get lost in it and resurface not knowing when it is. Memories can be easily edited or deleted. Time is malleable.

* * * * *

And so I think about now, and then, and what is to come. But I wonder: is it worth thinking about time in such ways when these boundaries seem to disintegrate?

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

34 thoughts on “Dubstep, Space, and the Malleability of Now

  1. Dubstep causes you to see the passage of time more sharply than anything else, because of your deep attachment to the roots of electronic music. I totally feel you on this. I was there in the 90’s and early 2000s during the hayday of the underground scene. Partying in warehouses and experiencing a closeness of community that makes me think it was our “hippy movement”. In a way it was.

    How cool is it though that we were there for the birth of a major style of music? Imagine if you were there to experience and witness the birth of jazz, or rock’n’roll? The first time I heard sasha and digweed’s northern exposure vol.1 it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. And yet now electronic music is mainstream, and I think that is a great thing, because now everyone can experience what we knew all along.

    I think we should embrace the now, embrace dubstep (it’s hard not to). Great article, you really got me thinking!

  2. Very well written story. I’ve never been a big fan of dubstep, but I also realize that I’ve never given it a chance. Like rap, I’ve dismissed it off-hand as a fad, something not worth my time because it doesn’t possess or require any real talent. I think I’m against the movement it represents as a whole. Now I feel as if I should go back and give it another listen.

    1. As a whole, it’s nowhere close to my favorite genre of music — but I did dismiss it too quickly when I first heard it some years ago. Because when it’s good, it’s ridiculously good.

  3. I’m a few days away from becoming 44, and I am entrenched in the Dubstep scene…in my living room and my car. My husband gave me a pair of very nice headphones for Christmas and it made my experience with Dubstep even more enjoyable. Love of music is a commonality I share with my daughter, who lives far away from me; she shares new music with me and it is my cosmic connection with her. I don’t know what it is about Dubstep in particular for me, as I have been a ballet dancer since the age of 3. I think it speaks to me in ways that classical music does not: classical music reaches into my soul–Dubstep reaches into my very cells themselves, and revives in me all the youth that my inner child still wishes to experience. It feeds my internal teen, and when I am experiencing it, I am eternally young. Dubstep gives me the Now moment, and lets me feel the absence of time and space. I’m so happy to have come across your post. You’ve somehow gotten a secret out of me. Gasp!

    1. Dubstep reaches into my very cells themselves, and revives in me all the youth that my inner child still wishes to experience.

      Wow, this is beautiful — I completely understand what you mean, and love how you’ve expressed/revealed your own experience with the sound.

  4. Interesting post. For me, I think Dubstep is like any other kind of music: some of it is good and engaging, wrapping you up, as you said, and some of it isn’t. That’s the interesting thing about styles is that it is difficult to say whether or not music (or art, or literature, etc) is improving because the manner in which people express themselves is always changing little by little. More of the strangeness of “now”, I suppose.

  5. Funny, I had similar thing with comedy. Escapes me right now, but there was a show my kids thought was so funny and I thought it was absurd. Started to wonder if it was generational?

  6. I loved reading this post! My background is very similar to yours and I felt very much alike you in many circumstances, cannot but second and like all you wrote!

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. And your description of what you see when you look at abandoned places is quite on-the-spot in my opinion. There’s something special about them.

    1. Thanks, Adam! Yeah, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of “abandoned space” in general (both physical and digital). Ruins are indeed special in a strange, multi-dimensional, and beautiful way.

  8. I’ve only been aware of Dubstep in the last couple months or so. I haven’t listened to any Dubstep artists, I don’t even know any to name, but the times I have heard it featured in a song on the radio, as some of the pop artists are playing with it, I genuinely like it. I’m usually anti-electronic-trance-pop music, it doesn’t resonate with me. Music to me is Classic Rock, 80s (The Cure, Billy Idol, etc), 90s Rap/Hip-hop/R&B and Alternative/Some Grunge and Hard Rock. Everyone has their preferences. I did thoroughly enjoy your piece on it and now, thanks to you, I understand a lot more about it. 🙂

    Queen of long comments.

  9. I agree with the fact that dupstep is the “now”. We must embrace the dance culture of today and appreciate that it has evolved from the “past, of jungle, roots of reggae, and early house.” I myself too, have come to succumbed the love-hate relationship with dupstep, but it is the present that we must appreciate the ‘then and now’.

  10. I think you answered your own question in that it is worth while to think of time using more traditional boundaries, especially when you find such comfort in the nostalgia.
    And your question about whether you “get it” makes me want to deconstruct what you mean by “it,” because I am not sure that dubstep encompasses all that is “it.” A part, for sure, but not all.

    1. And your question about whether you “get it” makes me want to deconstruct what you mean by “it,” because I am not sure that dubstep encompasses all that is “it.” A part, for sure, but not all.

      Well said. I guess in this context — in a discussion about my own timeline of music — it sure feels like dubstep, or “what the kids are listening to these days,” encompasses it. But I like what you’ve expressed here, and I agree — it’s part, but not all.

  11. that was the first and last dubstep party that i went to.

    “pc load letter?! what the does that mean?!” –michael bolton, office space

  12. I floated through many realms reading this. Altering who we are and remember what once lived and breathed always eludes us. And, in the end, it’s only those momentary insights and warm embraces that really matter. Lately, I’ve been feeling much the same way you have.

    1. “I floated through many realms reading this.” This post had been sitting in my dashboard for two weeks; I revisited it every now and then, hoping to connect each bit in a more cohesive way, and I couldn’t do it. It’s disjointed and incomplete at best, but your comment about floating through different realms speaks to me — and makes me feel a bit better about what I’ve posted. Thank you.

  13. A wonderful piece of writing, as always. I particularly like this: “When I see ruins, I see then. I see now. I see what’s to come. I take in all of it, blended and coexisting. A different kind of now, where lines and boundaries are fuzzy.” Reminded me of a little of an essay on Leptis Magna by Geoff Dyer – “Ruins do not make you wish that you had seen them earlier, before they were ruins – unless, that is, they have become too ruined. Ruins – antique ruins at least – are what is left when history has moved on. They are no longer at the mercy of history, only of time.”

    1. You and your Geoff Dyer quotes! I always enjoy them. Love that first bit — ruins do not make you wish that you had seen them earlier

      Totally off-topic, but we’re heading across the pond for the holidays and will be in the UK mid-Dec to mid-Jan. If you’re around, we’d love to meet up again.

  14. What a beautiful reflection on the past, the present, the past-within-the-present. I also have flashes (especially when I wonder what my kids’ teenage years will be like) of zooming back to a time when I was open with wonder at the world, tasting new scenes, music, styles, ideas, films – everything that London had to offer. That was now almost ten years ago – I definitely feel old! The newness of now is something that easily starts to lose its lustre once we get into the rhythm of things, work, career, housework…the mundane routines, the adultness that we so longed for as kids and now ends up being as dusty (at times) as your wireless printer. But I do think we can find ways to make the present as fresh as it was to us then. Probably it’s different for everyone, but I like the saying ‘A change is as good as a rest’. Might be why I don’t end up resting much…Great article as always.

    1. Love your thoughts here on the newness of now — thanks for sharing your take on this post. I like how you identify the past, the present, and the past-within-the-present. Thanks for sharing.

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