The nightclubs of the late-20th century, or at least the version of them we've constructed in our collective memory, always had a touch of the ecclesiastical about them. DJs were preachers, invoking ritualistic bliss with their sermons. The clubbers, the dancers, were a congregation looking to get lifted, to transcend the ordinary, to reach a higher place. And the music—house music—was their evensong. Great, glittering hymns born full of gospel vocals and spiritual sentiment. House was a feeling, and the feeling was love, and love was God and God was love.
Things happen, sounds travel, language changes, the mainstream appropriates, genres meld, the mainstream re-appropriates, and before you know it house is no longer holy. At some point in the past twenty-years, on its journey across the Atlantic, into the British mainstream and then into the bloodstream of popular culture, house became cheeky.
Cheeky house is everywhere. The UK dance chart drips with it, as does the Capital Xtra playlist. It's throbbing in the background as Deano grins and flexes his way through another episode of Ibiza Weekender. It's there in the music videos of Duke Dumont and David Zowie—works of playful suburban fantasy which have grown to resemble Money Supermarket adverts. Cheeky bangers are the lifeblood of parties like Eton Messy or elrow. They make bumbags bop and bounce at Parklife. It's on display in Jax Jones' "You Don't Know Me," the sassy shoulder shuffle, with lyrics like: "See your iPhone camera flashin', Please step back, it's my style you're crampin'." As Mixmag rightly pointed out not too long ago, even tech-house—a genre which ten years ago boasted po-faced subtlety as its main selling-point—has become naughty.
Where American EDM has followed a path of self-serious introspection, radio-friendly UK dance music has instead turned further in the direction of wiggly basslines and tongue-in-cheek "party vibes."
Of course, my use of house music here doesn't apply to all current forms of the genre. Nobody is referring to the latest Lobster Theremin release as "rude" or trading gun-fingers to the outrageous sounds of another Nick "Naughty" Hoppner release. Yet there's no mistaking that the current mainstream iteration of house music has transformed a once transcendental genre into something irreverent, full of bum-pinching, eye-winking swagger.
The reason for this new-found cheekiness has much to do with shifts in British music. The chart-bothering house music of the mid-2010s has emerged through the prism of UK garage and a reawakened grime scene—owing far more to the sounds of UK funky than the acid house of 20 years before. Artists like Redlight, Skream, and Preditah, started out producing and playing D&B, dubstep and grime, the purpose of which was to induce reaction through low-end frequencies as opposed to the heady euphoria of the disco-informed piano-house of old. When the artists' ear is more readily programmed to seek satisfaction through the release of bass—and when the energy of the track relies on a drop—the emotional resonance is totally different.
Above all, if anything can be labelled responsible for informing the sensibilities of current British house music, it's bassline. The genre, born in the Northern towns of Sheffield and Huddersfield during the mid-noughties, fused pirate-radio energy with the exuberance of dance-floor ready 4/4 beats. Return to tracks like DJ Q's "You Wot" and it's easy to see how in the space of a decade we've arrived at an iteration of house music that is more interested in silliness than spirituality. That's not a criticism of bassline by the way, as a genre it offered a far funner night out to its contemporaries in grime and dubstep. Yet it did also inform a generation of UK producers who saw dance music as something to get ladies on the dancefloor, or the speakers on a 106 rattling.
From Hannah Wants to Friend Within, UK house music inherited not only the sonic palette of bassline, but its spirit, too. Producers began engineering tracks with one reaction in mind. Jamie Jones' sets began going off with the same drops and cheers as a DJ EZ show. Rather than reaching for heaven, the purpose of house music in the popular imagination became to evoke that crystalline, back of taxi and into the club atmosphere that can only come from the urban crawl of the British high street.
Gradually, however, the charm of bassline has rubbed off in the wash and what's been left is the ultimate, inevitable, bastardised conclusion. The resulting climate of silly, naughty, absolutely outrageous vibes that has come to dominate UK club culture. It's there in the crowd of every rooftop day-party and inner-city festival, as faces screw-up behind sunglasses in response to the scandalous heaters on display. It's evident in the public personas of every half-popular DJ who shares memes about Pochettino on their Facebook feed. It is as though, in order to become truly popular in contemporary British culture—the same culture that tried to ban Kanye from Glastonbury, and wanted to call a polar research vessel Boaty McBoatface—house music had to lose its lofty ambitions. It had to become completely unpretentious.
The words we use to describe music are more than just descriptors. We use language to build a world around the sounds, to contextualise them in time and space. That house music, and dance music more broadly, has become "cheeky" and "naughty" speaks to how far the genre has become the soundtrack to a heteronormative, suburban existence. House music now lives in the same universe as thigh gaps and rabonas. It's become part of a highly-ironised lad culture. Tracks have become bangers. Mixes are fire. We've entered the age of chyyyyz-house.
In many ways you've got to admire what we've done to house music over the years. We took God's music and brought it right down to earth. We dragged it round suburban hinterlands in the back of Corsa. We covered it in Polo Red, introduced it to Daniel Sturridge and forced it to collaborate with Jess Glynne. Of course American house music has never been exclusively holier-than-thou. There was always been the brash eroticism of booty-house, or the sensual depths of pretty much everything Moodymann has ever made. Yet the emotional state UK dance music has been stuck in for a while now is a distinctly British version. We don't do sultry, we do saucy, and as such our attempt at fusing house music and the sexuality of nightlife has birthed a sound that has all the emotional power of an Inbetweeners movie.
And yes, of course, you might ask: what's wrong with that? What's wrong with making music with the prime imperative of having fun? Well, there's nothing wrong with it obviously. Everyone likes to have fun. To lambast the mainstream for not holding itself to the standards of a half-imagined past is misguided on a number of levels. However, it's also misguided to underestimate the merits of taking music seriously. The best of popular culture has always had a streak of pretension about it. 21st century pop and hip-hop artists have gotten very good at balancing self-serious artistic intent with commercial sensibilities. UK chart dance music, however ephemeral it seems, owes itself some soul-searching. Music that seeks only to commit to unwavering naughtiness risks making itself completely forgettable—a memory that lasts as long as a night out, gone in the wink of an eye.