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Getting in the Global Groove: Professor examines how music genre unified a youth subculture

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When you hear the word “punk,” does it conjure up images of a pink mohawk, body piercings and ripped clothing? Does “skinhead” make you look around for a moody youth with short, cropped hair, a long trench coat and heavy black boots? Or maybe you’re from the “hippy” generation, where long hair, love-beads and peace signs were the rage.

Ben Carrington
Dr. Ben Carrington, Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology

When these highly stylized groups faded from the public view in the 1980s, many academics believed that youth subcultures were dead. Not so, according to Dr. Ben Carrington, assistant professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.

“I realized in the early 1990s that there was a youth subculture based on ‘house music’ that was largely unrecognized by the academic community and even by much of society,” said Carrington. “This subculture was much more diffuse than those of the 1960s and 1970s, but was having, and still has, a significant impact around the globe.”

Unlike earlier subcultures, which formed primarily along lines of social class, “house music,” which is also called “dance music,” appealed to males and females, gay and straight, and people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many credit recording artist and DJ Chip E. with creating house music, which refers to a collection of styles of electronic dance music, when he produced one of his hit singles “It’s House” in the mid 1980s. House music’s roots can be traced to Chip E.’s hometown of Chicago as well as Detroit and New York City. The popularity of house music quickly spread across continents—first to Europe and then to Asia and Africa. Its global underpinnings and influences promoted an acceptance and openness missing in earlier subcultures.

“Youth subcultures are important because they send signals about the future direction of society,” said Carrington. “They force the mainstream to evaluate itself, and change in societal norms and values is often the result of this examination.”

For instance, the various counter-cultural youth movements of the 1960s, such as the hippies, heralded a change in how society viewed everything from how people should dress and the length of people’s hair, to interpersonal relationships and sexual freedom, particularly for women, to the acceptance and use of drugs.

House Music “Classics”

Five “classics” that laid the basis for house music’s development for the next 15-20 years:
  • “Strings of Life” (1987) by Derrick May/Rhythim Is Rhythim (USA)
  • “Voodoo Ray” (1988) by A Guy Called Gerald (UK)
  • “Can You Party” (1988) by Todd Terry/Royal House (USA)
  • “Pacific” (1989) by 808 State (UK)
  • “Tears” (1989) by Frankie Knuckles (USA)

“House music culture has had a tremendous impact on technological changes and the way we hear, use and consume music today,” said Carrington. “For instance, the growth of file sharing formats such as Napster were driven by young people who were very savvy with digital technology and were able to make their own music, quite often in their bedroom or basement, and distribute it around the globe.”

The mainstream music industry was slow to respond to this change but has now, after much legal wrangling, responded with new, legitimate ways to download music.

Identity and Club Culture

“The international blending of house music unconsciously reshaped attitudes and beliefs among clubbers from different ethnic backgrounds and genders,” he added. “Its very formation lends itself to globalization because its basis is synthesized sounds, not lyrics, so it isn’t easily labeled as belonging to one culture or another.”

House music is characterized by repetitive beats produced by electronic synthesizers that are often accompanied by a heavy bass line. Different types of house music emphasize different aspects of these core qualities. ‘Harder’ or ‘darker’ house tends to be faster with more bass, ‘progressive’ or ‘uplifting’ house tends to have more melody, piano chords and soulful vocals.

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Listen to Examples of Dance Music Tracks

Record album spines

1. House
Characterized by electronic beats over a basic drum beat, often with a piano or string “riff” over the top of the track helping to provide a melody.

2. Acid House
A version of house music popular in the late 1980s that used heavily synthesized sounds. Although the origins of the term “acid” are disputed, the 1988 D-Mob song “We Call it Acieeed” helped to popularize the word and ensured the music’s association with psychedelic drugs and the ubiquitous smiley face. 

3. Electro
A futuristic version of house music, with often “robotic”-sounding elements.

4. Drum ’n’ Bass
Also known as “jungle” in the 1990s, combines a deep bass rhythm often with a very fast, high-tempo drum sound over the top.

5. Chillout
Many house music venues will have a “chill out room” where ravers can, quite literally, sit down, relax and listen to more “chilled,” slower-paced house music songs with often trance-like sounds.

Tracks 1-3, 5: Eric Jenkins
Track 4: Pete Johnson and Eric Jenkins

The sounds and rhythm of the music, which originally were heavily influenced by gay and black cultures, create an open and fluid feel and evoke a passion for dancing. Clubbers experience an alternative public sphere in which the goal is the euphoria of dance with little if any regard to race, religion, gender or sexual preference.

Some researchers assert that gender became irrelevant because early club-goers would wear unisex, baggy clothing that made long hours of dancing more comfortable. And in the 1990s, the illegal “raves,” or all-night dance parties, that took place in Northern Ireland and Sarajevo created a brief respite from severe religious and ethnic fighting when young people from all backgrounds moved together on the dance floor.

“In a time when there are few opportunities for genuine inter-cultural exchange across the globe, and when global inter-dependence has increased the possibilities for new threats to our safety and ways of living, trying to understand those avenues whereby tolerance, empathy and dialogue can be created, become all the more important,” said Carrington. “Even today, house music events are normally extremely mixed in terms of ethnicity, sexuality and nationality in a way that would have been unheard of for prior types of subcultures.”

Raves and Reverberations

The fluid, open environment of the house music scene has not always been viewed in a positive light. In the 1980s, raves sprung up at unsanctioned venues in cities across Britain. These raves were promoted through illegal radio stations and might draw 10,000-15,000 young people to a single event. As the gatherings swelled, the desire to dance all night led partiers to take drugs to boost energy. By the end of the decade, Ecstasy was the drug of choice and became inextricably linked with the rave scene. It helped participants dance for eight to 10 hours straight, synched to the rhythm of the music.

“Similar to the way that punks and skinheads stirred fears of a ‘moral crisis’ among traditional society in the 1970s, drug use prompted fears of violence associated with the club scene of the 1980s,” said Carrington. “In reality, dancers didn’t use alcohol, a depressant, because they wanted to keep dancing and the Ecstasy enhanced the positive, euphoric feeling of the party, resulting in less violence than one would find at a normal bar.”

Typical flyer for a British rave party from 1993
A typical “flyer” for a British rave party from 1993. The image and words reflect the future-looking nature of the scene and its embrace of technology with the cyborg image. The “return” to the “warehouse concept” is a reference to the illegal acid house raves of the late 1980s that would often take place in fields in the countryside or in large warehouses, hence the spatial designation of “warehouse raves.” Note too that the event is due to last 11 hours from 8 p.m. until 7 a.m.

Also similar to earlier subcultures, the media sensationalized the non-traditional aspects of the group. For instance, a drug overdose or isolated instance of violence was magnified through national and sometime international media outlets, raising health and safety concerns among the establishment. In 1994, the British government passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act outlawing raves and pushed the club scene into sanctioned venues that were ultimately allowed to stay open all night. For many clubbers, this marked the end of the “second summer of love” of 1988 and pushed commercialization on the club music scene.

“When legislation in Britain forced dance culture into mainstream clubs, the nature of the music fragmented somewhat along more familiar class and racial lines,” said Carrington. “However, many underground house promoters and raves still strive to keep the spirit and ethos of the late 1980s alive. In many cities around the globe, this effect can be seen in the concept of ‘24-hour cities’ where people live, work and play 24 hours a day.”

Another interesting impact of house music is its effect on major bands and pop music stars who often create re-mixed, dance versions of their songs to maintain their credibility with younger audiences.

“Cher and Madonna have both, in recent years, worked with leading house music DJs to re-work their music,” said Carrington. “Madonna’s popularity, in particular, seems to be closely linked to her willingness to embrace and grow with dance music culture.”

House music culture operates alongside, and in some cases within, other traditional economic channels as well. Young people are organizing parties, becoming DJs, creating new, “micro” record labels and establishing networks of distribution that allow the culture to grow and thrive. This cultural activity often takes place globally. Thus, it is not uncommon for British house music DJs to be flown to play at clubs in the U.S., including Texas cities such as Dallas, Houston and Austin.

According to Carrington, the global phenomenon that is house music might just be one of the cultural modalities that can facilitate real cultural understanding and tolerance—making it about more than “just the music.”

BY Marisa Rainsberger

PHOTOS of Dr. Carrington: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 13 February 2006
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