Do You Believe? — Thematic Analysis

Do You Believe? — Thematic Analysis

As I listen through the seemingly endless stream of house music that's been created over the past 30 years since the genres inception in Chicago, I've started to notice more examples and evidence to support my idea that there are a handful of common themes running through much of house music. To what extent these are obvious varies between tracks, vocalists, producers, labels, sub-genre etc. These themes are detailed on the Research Aim and Themes page. This analysis is particularly interested in the last theme:

  • Belief, Affirmations and Struggle — common to many house music tracks is an expression of hope through belief. Whether this is a belief in a spiritual/religious figure, in the power of music, a romantic partner, or something else is often left ambiguous.

In the post-war century music has bombarded us with affirmations of one form or another. The bands and nodes of transmission during disco commanded us to “get on the floor” or “boogie down”, psychedelia begged us to “freak out”, rock n roll ordered us to “twist” or “shake rattle and roll”, even punk told us to “kick out the jams”. But those affirmations were activity based; they were something we could act on. Dance music presents a problem, in that the exact response to it’s particular brand of genre-specific affirmations/suggestions is somewhat more vague.

The contents any “Best Dance Album Ever” compilation, or similar selection, is replete with vocalists and samples telling us to “keep on pushing”, or “take me higher”, or “to rise”, or “believe”. But what do these lyrics actually mean? And why on earth would I want to believe in some ill-defined goal? How does one “believe” on command?

The structures and nuances of the “Belief” theme are one of the less complexly woven areas of this project. Perhaps what is most striking about the theme is just how common these examples of affirmation are, and particularly how common the use of "belief" as a notion is used in house music. Most examples of this date between 1993-2000. It seems to have become a significant voice within the music in the aftermath of the second Summer of Love (88-89), and disenfranchisement with the rave scene in general. House had become more sophisticated in it’s sound and construction, and very specific gospel influences start to make themselves heard (possibly from a disco root).

Sound Of Blackness’ I Believe (mixed by David Morales) is one of the most religious examples of this theme. This piece certainly comes from an expressly christian group, and is remixed into a more obviously house track by Morales. Regarding the problem of intention I discussed previously, this comes from an obvious perspective i.e. that of a specifically christian background. We hear the reference to “the power in the sky” and “Him”, making it impossible to deny a christian expression rather than a secular one.

However when compared with Jamestown’s I Believe (remixed by Smokin Beats) we’re presented with a similar sonic palette (although slightly more skippy, NY garage sound). Musically we hear pianos, organs, Black gospel style vocals provided by Jocelyn Brown in this example, and most obviously gospel choirs in BOTH examples. Yet the second example sounds very much like a love song presented in the format of a gospel track. Whether this is the case or whether it’s a more subtly coded reference to a god and an invocation of “god’s love” yet remains to be seen. I’ll try to ask Brown if I can arrange a meeting.

There are also less obvious pieces. You Gotta Believe by Fierce Ruling Diva comes from the harder Sound Factory/Junior Vasquez aesthetic. The vocalist constantly asks us a repeating question:

You’ve got to believe in something. Why not believe in me?

It’s a fair point, but what does it actually mean? That's half the point of this post I suppose; to question what this belief actually MEANS. Is it a belief in something religious? Is it a call to believe in the power of love or community? Or is it simply an invocation of something spiritual? What that something is remains to be seen. Perhaps the best example of how vague this idea of belief can be is found in the Ministers De La Funk’s Believe (again, with vocals provided by Jocelyn Brown). Assuming we’re in a club/dancefloor situation; asking dancers to “believe in themselves” seems an odd incantation. I fully appreciate such positive sentiments can be uplifting, and may well improve one’s mood and the perceived experience of dancing to such music, but the sheer frequency of this theme's appearance would lead me to think there’s more to it than that.

Yet the insistence of so much music begging us to believe seems to water down whatever message may have been intended initially. The message is overtly and obviously positive, but lacks a specificity in many places. Sounds Of Blackness present a consistent and religiously rooted approach to the theme, and expressly uses music as a way to worship and minister to their listeners. But what Fierce Ruling Diva or Ministers De La Funk are trying to achieve baffles me somewhat.

After reflecting I think the most likely explanation for the belief theme is as some form of mimetic convention within house itself. People sing about belief because that’s what you’re supposed to do in house music. Perhaps the simple repetition of the thematic device has stripped away a lot of the meaning; it becomes possible to express belief without believing in something specific. Maybe it becomes possible to believe in house music and, in this instance, house music takes the place of another target of belief, such as a religious figure.

Classic house/club refrains implore the dancer to ‘‘free your body’’ ‘‘move your body’’ ‘‘give it up’’ and ‘‘let yourself go’’ which may be interpreted as sexual innuendo, and is also understood in the space of the dance club as an exhortation to a deeper psychic and spiritual freeing that only takes place through the pleasures of the body. This social transcendence, or at least temporary respite, is related to the legendary spiritual transcendence that so many underground house partiers (in)cite.
— Jafari Sinclaire Allen (2009)

Perhaps Allen is right in his 2009 paper For "The Children" Dancing The Beloved Community. It would certainly explain the prevalence of such ideas in house music. It could be an idea that’s ineffable by it’s very nature, and can’t be qualified outside of the experience itself. It may also be understood as an attempt to link to a communal, historic sense of faith and faithfulness in one’s peers and community. Faith and belief as a way to strive forward together. Given the utopian and/or communal nature of so many house tracks this would certainly reinforce those ideas also.

It is certainly possible to interpret some of the tracks that reference belief as something akin to romantic, or specifically a christian message. But many pieces drift into an area that almost purposefully lacks specificity. Flexibility allows dancers and listeners to take what they will from the music. Regardless, what is certain is that belief is a key component in house music’s DNA. The focus of that belief, however, remains to be confirmed.

House Music & Spirituality Mix Pt.2

House Music & Spirituality Mix Pt.2

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