Beyoncé and Drake Aren't Reviving Anything
a.k.a. House music isn't in need of saving, and major labels aren't interested in that anyways.
Over the weekend, I finished a book called Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994–2007). Released last year and written by Dan Ozzi, it spotlights 11 different bands—the likes of Green Day, Blink 182, Jawbreaker, At the Drive-In, Thursday and My Chemical Romance among them—and specifically focuses on each of their major-label debuts. As someone who came of age during this time and spent a fair chunk of the late ’90s at various emo, indie and punk shows—for what it’s worth, I was also going to raves during those years—the book had a certain nostalgic appeal. However, it also provided an interesting look back at the post-Nirvana era, showcasing both the machinations of major labels in search of “the next big thing” and the internal politics of punk rock and independent music, which fractured in the face of giant checks and the sudden interest of the cultural mainstream.
What exactly does this have to do with electronic music? Possibly nothing, but in the wake of Drake’s new Honestly, Nevermind album and the new Beyoncé single “Break My Soul”—both of which borrow from house music—the cultural mainstream is once again rubbing up against a music culture and community that largely exists outside the Top 40 pop landscape. Dance music has been through this before of course—most notably during the “electronica” boom of the late ’90s and the EDM explosion that followed about a decade later—but where past surges often involved a bottom-up push in which new / relatively unknown / “underground” acts were being actively marketed to wider audiences, what’s happening now is a byproduct of literally the biggest artists in the world suddenly dabbling in the genre.
Given the world’s obsession with basically anything Drake and / or Beyoncé does, it’s no surprise that their new releases have prompted a notable uptick of interest in dance music, especially amongst those (critics included) who previously gave the genre little more than a passing thought. Unfortunately, much of the resulting “discourse” has had all the depth of a children’s wading pool, particularly amongst the more American corners of social media, where comparing the Drake and Beyoncé records to the music one hears in the dressing room of an H&M / Forever 21 / (insert chain store of your choice) apparently constitutes both high comedy and insightful analysis. The commentary provided by official music press often hasn’t been much better, and while I’m not inclined to compile all of the dreck here, the list that The Face slapped together of “The Best Pop-House Tracks to Get You Dancing This Summer” feels like a good example of the opportunistic, surface-level and (most importantly) click-friendly content that many outlets have churned out during the past two weeks.
In fairness, paper-thin Drake and Beyoncé articles have been a music media staple for more than a decade. The only difference is that now those articles are referencing dance music, a world that most pop, hip-hop and R&B writers aren’t particularly well versed in. As such, the past week has produced some occasionally cringe-worthy copy, including the following line from that above-referenced piece in The Face: “like it or not, house music is having a massive mainstream moment.” (The italics are theirs.)
That claim may or may not prove correct in the weeks and months ahead, but that hasn’t stopped the media from repeating it over and over in recent days. Here’s a sampling of headlines:
The Atlantic: Beyoncé and Drake Reimagine the Rave
El País: How Beyoncé Resurrected House Music
Mother Jones: Beyoncé Is Bringing Back House Music—and Not a Moment Too Soon
The Guardian: House Music Had Its Black Roots Ripped Up – Now Drake and Beyoncé Are Reclaiming Them
Refinery29: House Music Has BEEN Black — Beyoncé Is Just Bringing It Back
While it’s encouraging to see a few mainstream outlets loudly touting the Black roots of house music—a fact that many people are still unaware of, even in the US, despite the genre’s distinctly American origins—the larger narrative has little to do with setting the historical record straight. What’s emerging instead is a tale in which uber-famous pop artists are being cast as the saviors of house music, a genre that had, at least according to this story, apparently disappeared or died altogether. It’s not necessarily a purposeful mishandling of the facts—ignorance and star worship are much more likely root causes—but the narrative being spun remains woefully inaccurate all the same.