Let’s get one thing clear. Dubstep is not popular because it is “good.” But it is popular nonetheless. Popular enough that even Microsoft is utilizing it in commercials to get mass-appeal. I’m not here today to criticize dubstep any more than I’ve done in the past, but rather to analyze what it is that made dubstep so tremendously popular when compared to “edgy” or abrasive subgenres in other types of music (e.g. metal or punk).
I mean, it is rather odd, initially. Dubstep’s fanbase used to be something like the metalheads of electronic music (or the metalcore heads, or however you want to compare). Those people have been completely usurped by the mainstream. That kind of thing never happened to the likes of death metal, underground hip-hop, or old school punk. These genres have a lot in common, though. They’re all unorthodox, noisy, often considered displeasing, and not easy to come by unless you’re looking for them. And to be frank, their fans rarely did anything constructive toward bringing their respective genres to the mainstream. The people I remember listening to dubstep a couple years ago would not be happy that it’s reached Party Rock Anthem status in the meantime. And the people who are new to dubstep these days probably don’t even know who used to like it. In short, I don’t credit the fans for dubstep’s rise.
To be honest, I think dubstep came at the right time, and other genres did not. The most popular electronic genre for potentially the last two decades has been house, and for many years, house has not changed much. By itself, it’s not a genre with much potential, because they figured out what worked back in the 90’s and stuck to it with only a few tweaks as technology improved. In terms of incorporating electronic music into pop, it could be said that house has been there way before the recent trend. The recent trend, however, happened right when dubstep was getting going. It worked perfectly. Modern pop was due for an image change. Electronic music was experiencing a boom around the world. Ordinary electronic music had “been done” before in pop, but something extreme like dubstep was new, and it turned out to work like a charm. Artists like Rihanna were able to feed off dubstep to generate a bad-girl vibe. Had this been 10 years ago, that wouldn’t have been an option.
I’d say this didn’t happen to metal because rock was never in that “place.” We all know that rock has had image changes galore, and I think the fact that rock never found itself constrained to the requirements of pop music (basic, catchy, danceable, fun) prevented there being a vacuum that metal had to fill. That’s not to say that metal didn’t have its impact on rock music – there are plenty of new genres today that exist because of metal; metal didn’t become the new “thing” for rock the way dubstep has taken over electronic music and the pop artists that utilize electronic sounds in their music. With pop, I think a lot of artists/producers found themselves realizing that they had been doing the same thing for too long, and needed a clever way to spice it up without breaking the pop formula. Guys like Skream and Skrillex could not have had better timing.
To me, that explains where mainstream dubstep got its roots. The final question is “why do people that would not normally like abrasive music suddenly like dubstep?” The truth is, they simply didn’t have a choice in the matter. There are a lot of people out there who listen to music because it’s there. That is pop’s market, after all. When Nicki Minaj says she’s going to make a song with dubstep elements, that’s what people are going to listen to. When clubs play this music, that’s what people are going to get used to. After no time at all, it’s the norm, and they like it. Now, we wait to find out what ridiculous sound comes after the time of drops and wobbles. Hell, I’m interested.