I’m a big fan of Vice, and particularly enjoy the writing of people like Clive Martin and Joel Golby, whose takes on modern life are both refreshing and amusing. However, yesterday an article appeared on Thump, Vice’s music section, written by one Angus Harrison. The piece was called “Electro-swing is the worst genre of music in the world, ever”. As you might imagine, I didn’t see eye to eye with the premise of the post.
Angus’s article is flawed in many ways – the research was cursory at best. Here’s a tip, Gus: if you are going to ridicule an act for not having an imaginative name, it is probably best not to have invented the act in the first place. There is no act called ‘Electro Swing’ that I or anyone else in the scene has heard of. However, knowing what I do of Vice, I’m prepared to accept that this may well have been written with tongue firmly in cheek. In fact, the whole piece lacks the sort of coherent argument that I would expect of an op:ed, which makes me think the whole thing may just be an exercise in pisstaking. However, I don’t think we can let the piece stand unchallenged, joke or not. Perhaps I’ll come across as taking it all a bit too seriously… but then, that’s my job, really. In many ways I’d like to thank Angus: he has forced me to think about why I and so many others love electro-swing, despite its unremitting silliness.
As you may have gathered, Angus doesn’t like electro-swing. That’s fine. He doesn’t have to. We are all free to listen to Coldplay, we are all free to like Coldplay. We are even (though the circumstances under which this could happen escape me) free to think that Coldplay are the “greatest dance act of alltime”. I may be reading it wrong (and after all, I like the worst genre in the world, so don’t trust me), but by my reading of the article can be summed up with the sentence – “I don’t like electro-swing because it’s all a bit vintagey and hipstery and I don’t like those things; and the fans all seem to actually enjoy themselves at gigs, whereas I like being moody and cool, and worse, my friends actually enjoy it too and now I feel left out, why can’t I join in?”
Well, buddy – I’ve got good news: you can. Just leave the attitude at home.
It takes Angus a little while to get going with his article. I suspect that he secretly knew he was thin on material and needed to pad things out a bit. Having expended 700 words explaining what electro-swing is, that he hates it, and that he didn’t like the night he went to while at University, he arrives at the main point of his article: “Why,” he asks, and you can almost hear the plaintive bleat in his voice, “Why in 2015 are these bands and DJs still getting booked? Why are offshoot nights like Itchy Feet still so popular? Why, despite it clearly being the worst genre of music in the world ever—and it is, this isn't an opinion piece alright?—does it sustain a following at all?”
Interestingly, many of the questions he rhetorically asks of his electro-swing loving friends (“"Why?" you asked them, tears welling in your eyes, "Why are you doing this? You don't wear brogues! You don't throw Alice in Wonderland themed tea parties! You don't own lace gloves! These aren't your people!") offer hints to answer the larger question as to how electro-swing continues to capture the imagination all these years on.
Here’s why Gus is wrong, and electro-swing is the best genre of music in the world ever:
It’s a ridiculously friendly, non-judgemental scene
You see, one misapprehension that Angus appears to be labouring under is that you can only like electro-swing if you like vintage clothes, vintage fairs and “vintage cockrings.” Nothing could be further from the truth
Speak to anyone involved electro-swing, and ask them what they like about it, and one of the first things you’ll hear is that it is an amazingly open and friendly scene. There’s no word of a lie when I say that electro-swing brings people together in a way that no other dance music does. It seems to transcend barriers of class, age and race, and brings people together in a positive atmosphere. There’s never any aggression at an electro-swing event, and more importantly, there’s no judgement. You don’t have to have a vintage trilby or lace gloves to go to an electro-swing event, and no one is going to look you up and down and sneer at your choice of outfit. No door-keeper is going to turn you away because he doesn’t like your trainers. Nor is anyone going to sneer at you for liking the wrong DJ, or get all beard-strokey about it. On the other hand, you may well pick up a compliment or two if you’ve made a bit of an effort, and the DJ may come and have a chat with you after her set.
Classic tunes are… classics
Angus seems to have a problem with the sort of people who like electro-swing, which is, as I have suggested above, a bit of a problematic position to take. To say that you don’t like the kind of people who like electro-swing is rather like declaring your distaste for everyone. The scene is not only universally accepting, but has universal appeal. The very definition of the sound – blending classic swing (and other) sounds with contemporary electronic music - means that it appeals to fans of those two broad styles. The source material, by artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Peggy Lee, is, nearly a century after it was first recorded, still instantly recognisable and evocative. Familiarity is a powerful thing in music, and to hear something that one knows well reworked and reimagined is always interesting.
A place in the history of popular music
This, of course, says nothing about how important to the history of western popular music that original swing sound was. Without swing there would be no rock n roll, no hip hop, no dubstep, no Coldplay (sorry Angus). It is also worth noting the social significance of the swing sound. Swing was the first true dance music in popular culture. You might think that boshing a few lines of marching powder on a Saturday night is a hyper-modern thing to do, but those jazz musicians were hoovering it up like Dysons nearly a hundred years ago. The fact that we are doing the same thing all this time later, to the same tunes, is very pleasing to me – there’s a lovely completeness to it.
The social factor
Electro-swing has been described as “the music of the first great depression mixed with the technology of the second”, and it is hard to overestimate the truth in this statement. It is no coincidence that the two movements – swing and electro-swing – took place against a background of financial upheaval and hardship. Just as in times of recession the hemlines of ladies’ clothes tends to creep upwards, in tough times people seek escapist experiences to deaden the pain of existence. The glamour of electro-swing stands in stark contrast to everything else on offer in dance music. There’s no denying that deep house, with its moody minimalism, or dubstep’s industrial, urban grittiness offer much solace to those seeking respite from the grinding reality of everyday life.
The variety within the scene
So, with such great source material, the danger of utterly destroying it by dicking about with it is ever present. There is no denying that there is some truly shitty electro-swing out there, as with any genre. The success of acts like Parov Stellar and Caravan Palace has resulted in lots of formulaic, copycat producers appearing like a rash: token vintage sample with a 4x4 house track laid underneath – electro-swing by numbers. But this is the bad end of the spectrum. Forget Gramophondzie and “We no speak Americano”. Having interviewed a wide variety of electro-swing producers and artists in the last few years, one thing I know is that they are all extraordinarily talented, with a real appreciation for the skill of the original musicians. The best of them take the rhythms and melodies of the original swing style and weave them together with a variety of different styles to create something that reinvents while respecting the original.
Swing’s position at the root of all popular music means that it is remarkably versatile in terms of what it can be blended with. The formula house+vintage sample no longer holds true, and has spawned a variety of awkwardly named sub-genres: swingnbass; dubswing, swing-hop – there’s even some reggae-swing sets out there. Before I came across electro-swing I was into both swing and dance music, but I found that attending either sort of night could get dull, listening to the same types of rhythms all night. Drum n bass is all very well, but 6 hours of it is too much for me. An electro-swing night, on the other hand, can see the bpm moving right through the gears, taking is a massive variety of styles. Artists are also experimenting with other source materials – blues is a fertile hunting-ground, as is funk, which has given birth to its own parallel genre “Ghetto Funk”. The musicality of swing comes though into the reworkings, so you get dancable music with meaningful (well, sometimes) lyrics and melody.
For me the contrasts, the juxtapositions, are what make electro-swing so much fun. Until you’ve heard a dubstep remix of the Pink Panther theme, you just haven’t lived.
It is sexy
It really, really is. All those stockings. And the wiggly bottoms.
It is unremittingly silly
Angus is cynical about the ‘fun’ aspect of electro-swing, and rails against the idea that it can be seen as “an antidote to “boring” or “pretentious” club music.” To an extent, he is right – there is a sense in which electro-swing stands apart from ‘trendy’ music. He rightly worries about anything that sets itself up as ‘fun’. I personally hate this time of year for all the enforced festive jollity – sod off with your egg nog and hot wine, bugger off with your Christmas music and your Christmas markets – so I completely understand. I also understand his concern about electro-swing existing in opposition to mainstream club music.
However, we have all been in club nights with some big-name DJ geeking about with deep house, only to be met with a sea of frowning, nodding heads, no one dancing, just instagramming each other photos of the DJ and making hand-hearts. You’re not going to see this at an electro-swing night. And that is because electro-swing is, with out question, one of the more ridiculous genres to have emerged in recent years. Electro-swing is silly. Really, really silly. There’s no sense in denying it. And I think that this is where Angus has missed the point, really. He thinks its all about posing, about being ‘different’ and proving oneself cool. But the reality is the opposite. It is basically impossible to be cool and be at an electro-swing event. The two are just mutually exclusive, like Britain First and the ability to spell, or Donald Trump and reasoned debate. If you want to go and enjoy yourself at an electro-swing gig you’re going to have to leave any hopes of looking cool at the door. The music, the clothes, the way it makes you dance: it’s not going to end well.
And it is this that I think is stopping Angus from having fun with his friends. Stop worrying about whether its cool or not, old chap. It doesn’t matter. Just let those muted trumpets wash over you. Don’t fight it. It’s ok. It’s ok. Yeah. That’s it. Daddy’s got you. Just let it go. Just. Let. It. Go. There you go. So much better now.
You’ll be so much happier, and you’ll get your friends back.
But seriously, Gus, if you want to come to an electro-swing night and leave the judgement at the door, I’d be happy to take you.
*everyone has one.