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Sunday, February 25, 2024

How Bloghouse’s Sweaty, Neon Reign United the Internet

This article is adapted from Never Be Alone Again: How Bloghouse United the Internet and the Dancefloor, by Lina Abascal

The first thing to know about bloghouse is that, when it all began, nobody called it bloghouse. During its sweaty, neon-slathered 2000s reign you might’ve called it electro, or indie dance, or maybe you didn’t know what the hell to call it. The point is that bloghouse wasn’t a traditional music genre. Was it a fashion trend? The gateway drug to EDM? The mid-aughts equivalent of hair metal? Music was at the core of the thing, but more than being unified by any specific sound, bloghouse was about how you found it: on MP3 blogs, the Hype Machine aggregator, or auto-playing from Myspace pages.

The sound was like obscenity—hard to define, but you’d know it when you heard it. Here’s a brief list of some of bloghouse’s super-stylized subsects: the Ed Banger roster’s dafter, punker French house; banging electro mercenaries à la Mstrkrft and the Bloody Beetroots; the chiptune rave nihilism of Crystal Castles and HEALTH; rock bands who took the “Losing My Edge” parable about selling your guitars to buy turntables literally, from Simian Mobile Disco to Van She Tech; “nu rave” crossovers like Klaxons and Does It Offend You, Yeah?, though preferably in remixed form; just about any group of three to four Australians with v-necks and a synth keyboard; Robyn-esque electro-pop like Yelle and Ladyhawke; the dirty bass lines of fidget house circa Crookers and Switch; nostalgic ’80s dreamwave from College and Kavinsky; rappers in skinny jeans and Creative Recreations; pre-Bieber Diplo; a Calvin Harris who sang live; anything remixed by Erol Alkan or 2 Many DJs; mashups presented as a totally legitimate art form; whatever American Apparel was currently stocking at the register; Kid Cudi “Day ‘n’ Nite”; Kid Cudi “Day ‘n’ Nite (Crookers Remix)”; and exactly one Kanye West record.

In the early years of the new millennium, clear-cut divisions between “mainstream” music and the indie “underground” were steadily eroding. If you wanted to point to the moment that distinction became passé, you could consider The O.C.’s 2005 second season, in which Modest Mouse and the Killers played at a fictional Newport Beach venue, and Daft Punk’s “Technologic” and LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” soundtracked a house party. Also under revision: how music was being found in the first place. Deep in the post-Napster age of torrents, zShare links, and iPod shuffles, the idea of staying in one lane started to feel played out.

“When you could download whatever and go crazy, it seemed kind of dated to just be into one scene,” says Greg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, a biomedical engineer turned college campus party-starter whose 2006 album Night Ripper almost singlehandedly put mashups—supersongs made up of parts of two or more songs—on the mainstream map.

Gillis played in noise bands as a teenager in the ’90s, but he also had a sincere love for Top 40 bangers. “There was a classic ’90s indie snob thing where a lot of people really looked down on pop and sometimes rap music. I was in this noise band, and we were smashing televisions at shows and lighting up fireworks at the audience, clearing rooms all the time, and the fact that we were playing Britney Spears was just one aspect of that.” While rule-breaking was part of the promise of the underground, the scene came with a taste code that carried its own set of boundaries. “I wanted to smash those rules if possible,” said Gillis. “Not just for the sake of smashing rules, but because I actually liked the music we were sampling.”

At the time, bloghouse felt revolutionary; in retrospect, it presented a now-defunct version of the internet as a utopia for culture and community. There were no corporate streaming services employing algorithms to create the illusion of “discovery,” and social media had yet to usher in competitive personal branding. The Man hadn’t yet figured out how to bounce back from the post-Napster CD sales crash or how to monetize the untamed digital landscape. For the moment, the power was in the hands of the people—the bloggers, DJs, bands, promoters, and bored kids for whom finding new tunes and reading about other people’s parties felt like a day well spent.

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Myspace was many music fans’ introduction to the new landscape of social media. For a half-decade following its founding in 2003, the site was the most-visited social network in the world, and the first popular platform for musicians and wannabe scene celebs to build a following. On Myspace Music, artists could upload tracks, connect with fans, and control their own branding. For free.

On Myspace, musicians could be weirder and more personalized than in an album’s liner notes or on the websites of major labels. Creating a fun profile was a free growth hack, ensuring fans would share an artist’s music to millions of other potential fans. Does It Offend You, Yeah? drummer Rob Bloomfield says of the group, “The stupid name plus the pornographic up-skirt Lolita hentai avatar we used meant that thousands of people put Does It Offend You, Yeah? in their Top 8 friends.” Industry folks quickly came calling, looking to monetize the digital middle finger the band was giving the whole internet.

Myspace knew that its platform was making and breaking careers. The company built out features to keep the momentum up, but it was users who were really pushing things forward. A generation of kids was customizing profile layouts in HTML, adding in a line of code to trigger songs to play automatically. The ability to directly link a song to your personality became a pissing war of coolness, resulting in incalculable free publicity for artists.

“You had kids that turned into publicists for you, for free,” says Isac Walter, a former A&R of Myspace Records. “You had an editorial side who did nothing but promote music for the sole sake of generating more musicians, more views—and you had labels, which were the worst off because they were in a crisis of not selling any records.” Myspace was turning DJs into stars popular enough to secure record deals, but they still weren’t solving the problem of how to make money off music outside of touring.

Australian electronic duo Bag Raiders attribute much of their early success to the platform: “We did a remix for this band—friends of ours—the Valentinos, then all of a sudden the dudes from Kitsuné in Paris messaged us on Myspace.” Placement on a Kitsuné mixtape, which was available online for free download, was a quick ticket to massive Myspace hype, better bookings, and remixes by other artists in the circuit.

Bag Raiders’ success story wasn’t an anomaly: Uploading tracks to Myspace as a form of free promotion quickly became the norm, from bands to DJs to rappers. “I can remember one year we were doing tours in Australia, and I’d be booking ads in actual street press. Literally a year later, we were selling out tours just by telling our Myspace friends about them. It changed that quickly,” says Julian Hamilton of the Presets.

As the traditional media barriers around embargoes, press releases, and label-manufactured marketing rollouts were dismantled by teenage bloggers across the world, music critics, naturally, were also losing their footing. “Rolling Stone didn’t matter anymore because now there’s Pitchfork. Of course, Pitchfork has become the new Rolling Stone, but for a while there it seemed exciting and fresh, like the world was really changing,” Hamilton says.

This brief moment in music history could never be replicated today. For one thing, the crunchy, MP3-bitrate sound wouldn’t fly now, and after so many years of digital content proliferation neither would writing for free. Even more importantly, maybe, is that the life cycle of a song in the bloghouse generation would not legally be possible. “The entire reason that moment happened and dance music in general got to the level it’s at in the world is because of remix culture and reinterpretation. So much of it was mashups or unofficial remixes outside the bounds of the law,” says Clayton Blaha, a publicist who represented clients including Diplo, Justice, and Fool’s Gold Records.

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Bloghouse’s free-for-all tone shifted when MediaFire, a popular file hosting service, cracked down, ensuring that tracks could be hosted only by a song’s owner. As a result, a lot of niche, remixed tracks from the late 2000s survive only in personal Dropboxes. “At the time, you had to know where to look and what site to follow, and [a song] was usually only available by some weird direct download with a low-bitrate MP3 that would expire quickly,” says Ben Ruttner of the Knocks. If you were a dedicated fan at the right place at the right time, you might download the track and preserve it, transferring the file from hard drive to laptop to USB. Some of those don’t-listen-to-this-on-a-fancy-speaker tracks are still lurking like ghosts in the deep corners of the internet.

In 2008, Does it Offend You, Yeah? released their anthem We Are Rockstars as a response to the burgeoning micro-celebrity happening on the internet. Bloomfield explains: “The digital revolution was a double-edged sword because super-talented people were able to have their 15 minutes of fame, but equally, untalented people were too. [In the song] James was despairing at everyone on Myspace behaving like they were rock stars. Little did we know that this trend would be the new normal.”

Now, no one creating music, music criticism, or new communities online is doing so with a blog, let alone feeling like Does It Offend You, Yeah?’s “rockstar” while doing it. Even if the best, most dedicated bloggers came back to start new micro-sites today, the need and the space for independent blogs to push music forward just isn’t there. In fact, traditional media hardly makes a tangible dent in an artist’s career. “A magazine doesn’t fucking matter at all. You could be in 10 magazines, and no one listens to your music. The curatorial power dynamic is now with the streaming services and the algorithms that populate playlists as well as the users that populate playlists,” Blaha says.

Steve Reidell, one half of the Chicago-based mashup duo the Hood Internet, ominously jokes, “Forget bloghouse. If genre names are based off where music was bubbling, next is ‘playlist house.’”

By around 2010, Myspace, and with it Myspace Music, was over. Facebook—devoid of music offerings—had taken over as the social network of choice. Independent and even major artists with unreleased tracks migrated to Berlin-based Soundcloud to host their music, but the site lacked the social media element, particularly the feature that put songs on profile pages, that made everyone an A&R in the Myspace days. It was closer to an all-audio YouTube.

In today’s corporate-dominated, social-media-saturated online landscape, it often feels as if there are no alternative routes left. The playing field is larger, and only brands have the power and the access to make rock star moves. “With legal streaming, the labels won,” says Dave 1 of Chromeo. “Billboard covers Beyoncé, Pitchfork covers Beyoncé, Beyoncé rules Coachella. Someone like Dua Lipa wins on the internet front with her streams, which reflect her crushing it on the radio front, which in turn is now reflected on the festival circuit.”

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Some bloghouse tracks hold up today. More of it—the 128-kbps baile funk remixes made by some kid in Cleveland, the DJs in Friday the 13th masks, the American Apparel sweatband club attire—feels insane in retrospect. But it’s hard to forget how uncompromisingly fun the whole thing was. For a brief, weird moment in the digital wild west, there were ways for the little guys to sustain themselves off of art on their terms, and for an ecosystem to thrive. The internet’s endlessness felt freeing instead of exhausting, “tastemaking” had yet to transfer hands from obsessive nerds to corporate sponsors, personal brands weren’t full-time jobs, and, for maybe the last time, dance music felt truly alternative—even if it was all built to self-destruct. Bloghouse might’ve been a drunken, neon-slathered mess, but it was our drunken, neon-slathered mess. May its spirit live forever—even if it never could have happened at any other time than when it did.


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