Written by Pete Armitage
It’s an age old question of aesthetics: are certain forms of artistic expression superior to others? The tackling of the broader conundrum of the subjectivity of taste has been the mainstay of some of the greatest thinkers of the last 500 years, Kant’s epic Critique of Judgment comes to mind.
More recently stricter attention has been owed to the debate. James Young argues that classical music (referring to that produced between 1600-1900) when compared to popular music, ‘…has greater potential for expressiveness and, consequently, has more potential for psychological insight and profundity’. Literature regarding the aesthetic integrity of ghetto house is thin on the ground to say the least, so let’s assume for now that it falls under the umbrella of ‘popular music’ for the sake of analysis.
Aficionados of ghetto house might argue that, at best, furtive classism inspired Young to identify classical music as more refined, or to paraphrase him directly, just ‘better’ than popular variants. Unfortunately, at worst, his writing comes across as eurocentric and xenophobic, and seems to contradict the notion of subjective taste in favour of vague qualitative observations dressed as measurable phenomena.
In his 1941 publication ‘On popular music’, Theodor Adorno argues that popular music is by nature restricted in its form, going as far as suggesting, ‘…the fundamental characteristic of popular music [is] standardisation.’
Before we take offence from these toffee-nosed luddites who’ve never got down to it on a Sunday morning in Berghain, let’s look at a 2014 study by Gamaliel Percino, Peter Klimek and Stefan Thurner which opposes the aforementioned assertions. Percino et al’s research suggests that for the most part, the instrumentational complexity of popular music genres decreases over time as sales numbers increase, pointing to simplicity being more commercially viable. This is an easy observation to make - when listening to the most streamed music on Spotify, it’s almost exclusively simple fare. And surely sales numbers speak for themselves?
Indeed, in 2019, Taylor Swift’s mind-numbing (sorry, it would be insincere not to acknowledge this) album Lover topped sales charts, shifting 1.1 million copies, whereas the best selling classical album was Andrea Bocelli’s Sì with a paltry 126,000 units moved.
Ghetto house, as one iteration of ‘popular music’ is simple, which is more popular with consumers as demonstrated above.
Perhaps there is another more abstract intrigue to such art too, not addressed by this study. Ghetto house artists have specific aesthetic sensibilities which typify the genre - sexually provocative song titles which dissolve taboos and rhythmic, monotonous passages that induce a trance-like state owing to the club environment. In 1600-1900, classical music was only experienced live, and attendance was only possible by the select few - the wealthy bourgeois.
The fact that ghetto house might be perceived as crude and inferior by the establishment serves to empower its community and alienates the establishment in the process, thus strengthening subcultural community bonds. Indeed, the repetitive aural nature of ghetto house crystallises all that irks the classical music pundit.
Marx’s concept of commodities as ‘social hieroglyphs’ comes to mind; where something’s meaning can be socially altered or reconstructed. Let us apply this idea to Ghetto house as a commodity - a commodity irrefutably lowbrow and unsophisticated in the eyes of moral entrepreneurs, is chosen as an emblem by another community; a new meaning is appropriated, symbolic of the group and their resistance to society’s elite. As Beatrice Aaronson puts it, ‘...dance floors have become a secular ritualistic locus of emancipation and liberation from society's ever growing stranglehold.’ (Aaronson 1999)
Seemingly, the experiential ideal for the ghetto house appreciator is to engage with a community and find a sense of identity and meaning, as postulated by Goulding et al, ‘...What the club environment offers is a location for the creation of new social forms of interaction, or alternative communities, which although temporary, have the effect of anchoring the individual and provid[ing] meaning to their experiences.’ (Goulding 2002)
The euphoric and ecstatic states we associated with club music are visceral and non-intellectual, further supporting the idea that its consumers are seeking something other than a maximally heightened momentary emotional response.
Distilling outsiderness, the appealing characteristics of electronic subgenres such as ghetto house allow their proponents to escape and experience a sense of community outside of cultural norms. Therefore, we ought not to compare classical music and ghetto house using the same axioms.
In the period of 1600-1900 non-religious music was an intellectual pursuit, and its ostensible purpose was to intellectually stimulate its highbrow consumers. The musical choices of consumers in post-modern 20th century society speak of more complex meaning, allowing consumers to increase their own sub-cultural capital by means of identity and expression.
Perhaps the essence of highbrow aesthetic material such as classical music is by nature exclusive - it requests one’s cognitive engagement, whereas ghetto house does the opposite and disengages cognition for sake of escapism - feeling not thinking, providing a brief holiday from the hierarchical society we exist in.
We might summarize ghetto house’s strengths when compared to classical music as being a vehicle for community, self-expression, escape and spirituality - without the books.
In conclusion, the jury’s out on which is better - but somehow it feels like ghetto house has got the edge, in terms of post-modern appeal. As already mentioned, there are presently few academic research papers flying the flag for ghetto house’s superiority. But let’s just say that we think the ‘Booty Call Records’ back catalogue pisses all over Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
- James Young - ‘How Classical Music is Better than Popular Music’ [Philosophy -1:1-18 · August 2016]
- Theodor W. Adorno - ‘On Popular Music’ [Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941, IX, 17-48]
- Nikolaus Steinbeis, Stefan Koelsch and John A. Sloboda - ‘The Role of Harmonic Expectancy Violations in Musical Emotions: Evidence from Subjective, Physiological, and Neural Responses’ [Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18(8): 1380-93, September 2006]
- Bradley, M. M., & Lang, P. J. (2001). ‘Measuring emotion: Behaviour, feeling, and physiology.’ In R. Lane & Nadel (Eds.), Cognitive neuroscience of emotions (pp. 242–276). New York: Oxford University Press
- Christina Goulding, Avi Shankar and Richard Elliot - ‘Working Weeks, Rave Weekends: Identity Fragmentation and the Emergence of New Communities’ [Consumption, Markets and Culture, 2002 Vol. 5 (4), pp. 261–284]
- Beatrice Aaronson - ‘Dancing our way out of class through funk, techno or rave’ [Peace Review 11(2):231-236 June 1999]
- Percino G, Klimek P, Thurner S (2014) ‘Instrumentational Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells.’ PLoS ONE 9(12): e115255. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0115255