Post-Genre Aesthetics, Race, & Gender
The virtue of genre-transcending eclecticism is the underlying theme of Jonathan Shecter’s March 2015 interview with Diplo. I want to read this interview closely, to consider how exactly this diversity is described, and in particular how Diplo’s and Shecter’s accounts of post-genre aesthetics intertwine, throughout the interview, with discussions of race and gender. Because musical genres are often defined in explicitly racialized and gendered terms, what race/gender politics are at work in white men’s claims to transcend genre? How is the claim for genre transcendence itself a performance of white masculinity? What sort of white masculinity?
In the third and fourth paragraph of the interview’s introduction, Shecter, aka Sheky, describes Jack U, Diplo’s collaboration with Skrillex, as “diverse”: “the album is diverse by design;” Diplo and Skrillex each took “deep journeys through diverse music subcultures.” They’re diverse in both method–“Skrillex soaked up styles, mastering multiple instruments and production techniques”–and in content–“they’re into all kinds of rock, rap, pop, house, trap, twerk and other styles.”
In this context, “diversity” means something like the ability to flexibly navigate a range of genre-specific sounds and put them to work in a way that does not appear to settle into a new set of genre conventions. Schecter’s description of Diplo is telling: “Without a defining hit single or an easy-to-identify style (to the contrary, by defiantly embracing many styles) Diplo became an icon of hipness, working with a startling array of genres and stars, including Madonna, Beyonce, Usher, and his own electro-reggae outfit Major Lazer.” Unlike artists squarely within a genre, Diplo is flexible, adaptable, and advanced enough to rise above the limitations of mere genre. n this particular passage, Shecter doesn’t characterize Diplo’s musical style by genre conventions (like, say, trap’s 808 snares), but by the artist’s personal characteristics: “defiance” and “hipness.” Hipness is always about white people identifying with non-whiteness in order to establish their elite status over basic white people. In the mid-late 20th century, this generally happened through an identification with blackness and/or femininity. In Diplo’s case, he appropriates a diverse range of femininities and non-white masculinities (Madonna, Beyonce, Usher, electro-reggae, just to name a few) as a way to establish his elite status over any and all genre-identified artists.
Diplo describes his own proto-hipsterism in precisely these terms. In some sort of meta-hipster move, he says that when he got started, “hipsters didn’t exist back then…scenes didn’t mix. And me and Low Budget, I think we kind of were the precursor to like what hipsters are, which is people who are just into cool things. Not any particular genre, you can’t mark them as being from a certain space or community. And we were just mixing everything together at the time.” So, hipsters or meta-hipsters aren’t into everything–they’re into anything that’s “cool.” This is a curated mix: only ‘cool’ things, things that embody Diplo’s own personal style, can get into that mix. So it’s not that these mixes lacked a unifying, localizing, identifying trait; what unified, defined, and localized them is Diplo’s taste. Instead of following established genre conventions, “We were just doing whatever we wanted. And we had like a certain style and we developed mixes that we loved.” All of these songs share the characteristic of being loved by Diplo. And Diplo is the kind of guy who is, as Shecter puts it “fresh and cutting-edge” enough to ignore hidebound genre boundaries and be open to cool sounds of all kinds: “I play records that I love 100 percent. But I love everything.” (Well, not EVERYthing–he does say later in the interview that he won’t play a straight up Top 40 record without remixing it in his own style…).
This “freshness and cutting-edge” quality manifests in several ways. First, it appears as the virute of multicultural togetherness. Unlike traditional genre boundaries, which separate people into scenes and subcultures, Diplo’s music brings everyone together, “the kids, like the younger kids, raver kids, black kids, white kids, it’s crazy how the crowd grew.”
Diplo uses the ([sigh], ableist) term “crazy” to describe the juxtaposition of genres, too. Comparing his approach to Skrillex’s, he says, “The way I like to DJ, he doesn’t really take any influences, he just kind of mashes it up and he is able to make something sound like it’s coherent, even though it’s crazy.” “Crazy” seems to mean mixing together things that would otherwise be incompatible. Diplo associates “craziness” with “cool,” and “progressive” style. “We’re trying to make songs that are crazy sounding production-wise, like they’re from the future.” Mixing racially- and subculturally- incongruous sounds is “progressive” and appears “futuristic” because, in part, it’s what draws together an implicitly ideal mix of kids of from a diverse variety of backgrounds (not all backgrounds, though). It seems “crazy” because it goes against the traditional commonsense wisdom about genre boundaries: you can mix hip hop and techno, but not EDM and country, for example. But it’s futuristic because it feels like a utopian transcendence of society’s current limitations.
In fact, Diplo describes his quest to transcend genre in quasi-Messianic terms: “we’re trying to break the genres down man. Like, it’s a big genre castle, that’s Babylon. We’re trying to break it down and set it on fire.” Genre categorization is Babylon, it’s what oppresses us, and it’s what Diplo and his coolness will liberate us from.
Throughout their discussion of Diplo’s post-genre aesthetic, Diplo and Shecter couch their evaluative aesthetic claims in racialized, gendered terms. There are three moments in particular that stand out. First, Shecter attributes to Diplo and Skrillex some fairly conventional musical masculinity. In the introduction, Shecter writes:
When the mostly European “big room” EDM sound blazed through American pop music, these U.S.-born, blue collar stalwarts emerged as the counter-point to the formulaic glitz and V-necked button-pushers. Diplo and Skrillex (along with Kaskade and Steve Aoki, two more American titans of the DJ game) showed that hard work and
Diplo and friends exhibit blue-collar (and American) authenticity and hard work, which is positively contrasted to feminized, commercial (and European) pop superficiality. How much more cliched can this gendering get? Diplo and Skrillex make good music because they perform the proper kind of white masculinity, the kind that applies elbow grease and doesn’t merely push buttons. Shecter seems to be applying some fairly conventional rockist gendering to EDM here.
Toward the end of the interview, the discussion turns to the role and presence of women at Diplo’s parties. With the type of creepy “nice-guy” that thinks he’s feminist but really isn’t manner, Diplo emphasizes the presence of women at his parties as evidence that he’s somehow better than the DJs who put the “bro-” in brostep. Unlike the promoters who pay women to work as go-go dancers at parties, Diplo just plays music women want to dance to for fun (emphasis mine):
I actually love that… that moment is the best in Vegas. Because when I play like Mad Decent Block Parties for instance, a lot of young kids and I don’t even want to bring girls on stage anymore. Pretty much Vegas is like girls who dance all week long and this is the time when they can dance with their friends. They’re not getting paid to dance, they’re dancing because they want to show off to everybody else in the club, and this is a dope place to have that song go off…It’s all about girls dancing. If you get girls in the club and they are having a good time—trust me, everybody else will show up. If you just make songs for dudes to jump and pound their fists to, girls are eventually gonna leave and go to my club.
In a totally basic patriarchal move, Diplo uses women as a means to do some macho posturing: he’s not like those brostep DJs who just make aggro macho music. Unlike DJs who play for rooms full of fist-pounding dudes, his music attracts a diverse crowd. In the same way that his parties attract all different types of kids, they attract both women and men.He makes music that women like to dance to, that attracts women, and women attract men, and men have money. His music compels women to work for him for free. Instead of paying women in Vegas to be go-go dancers in the club, Diplo counts on their free labor. Like any good neoliberal capitalist, Diplo subsumes their leisure time into his business model. In terms of exploitation, he’s actually worse than those dudes who pay women to dance at parties. So, even though his parties might be more mixed-gendered, they’re not necessarily less patriarchal, more feminist, or better places for women.
So, there are these two moments of macho posturing, where Diplo is contrasted to Euro DJs, who are too feminine, and brostep DJs, who are too, bro-y (i.e., they exhibit too much of a devalued kind of masculinity; “bro” is a derogatory term, after all). His masculinity is perfectly tuned to make music that’s “cool” enough to attract an apparently genuinely diverse crowd.
The masculinities he trades in are obviously white: “bros” and Euros. This makes the interview’s one explicit discussion of Diplo’s race, which is already kinda racist, extra bizarrely racist. He says:
I’ve always been like, a DJ that plays black music. And a few people, I meet them at parties sometimes, they’re like confused that I’m white actually. I don’t know why people can’t Google me or look at the photos on my Twitter page, but they’re confused. They might just hear my music and hear the mixes I do.
Here, he sounds like he’s earnestly articulating the desire that James Chance parodies in his song “Almost Black”: his music is so good it sounds black, even though dude is actually white. It’s almost as if Diplo thinks of himself as embodying the same diversity he thinks his songs exhibit. I mean, that’s why his taste and sensibility (what he “loves 100 percent”) is a sufficient gauge for selecting “cool” music that draws together diverse crowds, right? It’s almost like some weird Platonic virtue-ethics aesthetic: because Diplo embodies racial diversity and flexibility (He’s Almost Black!), he can make artworks that similarly embody this apparent virtue that’s actually a totally racist neoliberal ideal.
What I’m interested in is this: the post-genre aesthetic that Diplo expresses in this interview is not his alone–it’s a broader trend, not just in music or in art, but in how we understand and handle difference. Nowadays mainstream Western liberal society thinks it is better to incorporate differences into one diverse mix rather than separate out different populations into (supposedly) internally homogeneous segments. This is, more or less, the shift away from identity politics to post-identity politics. How are the supposed virtues of post-genre aesthetics actually features of MRWaSP (multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy)? How does the claim to include and attract everybody (all kinds of kids, “girls,” etc.) actually work to further marginalize already marginal groups? Feminists and critical race theorists already have some ideas how this works, politically, and what this interview points us toward is how that works aesthetically, in music. Claims to genre transcendence are credible when they are made by what kinds of artists? Beyonce and Rihanna, for example, work across all sorts of genres–Bey even sampled Diplo’s Major Lazer in “Run The World (Girls)”–but they’re never praised or credited for transcending genre. Why is that? Is genre transcendence a feat we attribute only or mainly to white musicians? How do claims to transcend or not care about genre create gendered, racialized hierarchies of aesthetic value?
I’m working on those questions. More later (I hope).