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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Regan: Contemporary Music

House music is the pulse of the 21st century.

House music is a vague term for the vast and eclectic sea of sounds that are coming out of speakers everywhere around the world. Similar to jazz, it is a term that cannot do justice to the feeling and spirit of the music that it describes. If someone asked you to define the forlorn and fey sound of Miles Davis playing the trumpet, the best explanation you could give would be to put on “B—es Brew,” as recorded by Miles Davis. As Jesse Saunders wrote in her brief history of house music, it “is a feeling that can’t really be defined.”

There are many subgenres of house music. Delving into each and any is a rewarding experience. Tropical house indulges those with a taste for music that sounds like a stream with occasional rapids, and dubstep is for people who want to use mining equipment on their minds. Like most art forms, each subgenre is related to the original, but the collective whole still does not do justice to the feeling of the music. In order to understand that, one needs to understand the artists.

DJs are the artists of the house music scene. This might confuse you if you think that being a DJ is no more than pressing play on a playlist. It is far more. A true DJ is akin to a jazz musician. Rather than create tracks to be played on the radio or in the club, a true disc jockey sifts through records and sounds in order to recreate the sound of their soul. If people want to listen, fantastic; if they do not, the musician is playing for their self first anyways.

House DJs, at their best, are as improvisational and incandescent as Kendrick Lamar freestyling, John Coltrane making poetry come out of a saxophone, or any musician of any time or place who is independently pursuing their unique sound. You might disagree with this, because most people’s understanding of house music is the bassy version of pop music that sometimes comes on the radio. However, like most things, the best is unlikely to be what most people hear because those who are creating it are not hiring publicity managers and selling themselves.

In the early 1970s, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles blended rock, soul, rhythm and blues into what was at the time the standard disco experience at Continental Baths, a gay-friendly nightclub on the Upper West Side of New York City. People loved it so much that Frankie Knuckles was enticed to The Warehouse in Chicago. House music still did not exist, but the man who would create it had taken the first few steps. Knuckles had realized, by mixing and altering existing records, that sound was his material to work with, within certain rhythms and rules. At The Warehouse, he began to make his own sonic creations and continued to mix and style existing records. There was an ecstatic response, and house music was borne by bewildered record store clerks who were at first unable to meet the new demand for what “we heard at The Warehouse this weekend.”

In the coming decades, house music became the sprawling network of clubs and radios and DJs and fans that it is today. As a genre that is generally voiceless, it is remarkably good at bridging divisions, which is reflected in the international tour schedules of current avatars of the movement. Peggy Gou is one such example, and she has recently played in Amsterdam, California, Berlin, South Korea and Paris, to name a few places. If you aren’t listening to Peggy Gou, you should be.

Gou is representative of house music at its best. In a recent interview, she said, “I don’t consider myself just a DJ; I want to be an artist who can do everything, if I can.” Earlier in the interview, it had been revealed that “people often shout her name so loudly during her sets that you can barely even hear what she is playing.” Not bad for a musician you likely have never heard of, nor knew has been selling out shows for the last year and was the first female Korean DJ to play at Berghain, Berlin’s most exclusive night club.

Gou is at the cutting edge of a music that has no borders and incorporates everything. Listening to her music is like sitting across from someone dear to you at a small table on the cobblestones of a Parisian street with the amount of wine in your glass that would result if Pinot Grigio had fallen in the light drizzle that just swept through. There is a softness to the music that is youthful, and it flows like it is coming from another world, or perhaps transmitting the sound of the space and stars in between.

House music is the sound of this century. It is wild, international and personal. There are the true musicians, the partiers, the superstars and the aspiring musicians. It is the inspiration for the beats and rhythms of the hottest new tracks, and it is also its own rich genre. Go listen to “It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)” if you have any further questions.