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Drag Music

Apathy Syndrome, “whendawurldends”

(For this entry, I asked my informant, who is a hobbyist underground music producer, about the genre of drag music, which is a form of remixing that my informant has had significant experience with, both as a producer and a member of the culture. A transcription of his explanation of the genre and its culture is included below.)

“Drag music came along as an extension of, um, what DJ Screw was doing with “chop and screw” remixes, which was taking a track and manipulating time, and specifically slowing it down, and what DJ Screw would do also was he’d have parts repeat and make it very choppy, hence the “chop and screw”. So what drag remixes did with that is they took it and they really emphasized the slowing it down and exaggerated the slowing it down, and then, in most cases, it took that and it applied it to popular music, pop songs, rather than just hip hop, and it would create a slowed down, darker version of whatever song you were drag remixing.

“I want to say my first exposure to drag, like actual drag, was…I want to say it was Salem’s “Until the World Ends”* or whatever that song’s called, but I’m not one hundred percent on that. It’s definitely the one that sticks out in my mind as being the first, um, yeah I think that’s the first.

“Drag is really tied into the witch house community, so, it’s not that they’re interchangeable, but most witch house groups – well that’s not true – most drag groups identify as witch house groups. So, as far as witch house communities, witch house has this thing where they try to be very underground, almost to an absurd degree, right? So they spell their names with symbols that can’t be Google searched and so it’s really hard to form a community around that. There is a message board, um, that I don’t personally, I’m not personally a member of, I very rarely log onto, but that message board, as far as I know, is the closest thing that witch house has to a community.

“So for typical drag, there’s not a whole lot to [the production]: you would take a track and you would, either digitally or with live turntablism, you would slow it down. What some groups, well depending on the group they’ll change up the drums, or maybe they’ll only [slow down] the acapella and then they’ll add in their own instrumentation, um, or else they’ll add effects on it. They’ll add reverb and, um, delay, or – it’s pretty much fair game. It’s not defined enough to really have a step-by-step process, there’s a lot of different ways to approach a drag piece. I’d say really the core aspect is the slowing, is the tempo manipulation and making it slower.

“It’s definitely deriving from elements of house music, um, but it really emphasizes tone and I would argue that really, that emphasis comes from goth music, like 80’s synth-y goth music. And it also pull from, whether they know it or not, pulls from a lot of music from musique concrète, found sound, really where sample manipulation first came from.

“I guess the most famous examples [of drag remixes] are pop songs. The first drag track to I know have existed, well it was a collection of tracks from sort of a proto-witch house group, Aids-3D, and they did an album called 11 Songs I Like More when I Slow them Down, and those songs were all pop songs, and that album was a huge influence on, like drag music now, so you’d have something like people remixing Justin Bieber or Britney Spears, or just whatever pop music comes up, and they’d take it, this sort of up-beat, pop music, and turn it into a down-beat, sort of dark music.

“You know, it’s interesting in that, um, I wouldn’t say Drag music specifically, but certainly from its associations with witch house, witch house has definitely cross-pollinated into popular music. Now you have artists like will.i.am have symbols, because a lot of witch house is about symbols, right? So you would have someone like will.i.am now have a music video where he raps in front of a black pyramid, and black pyramids, in their pagan and Christian sense, are a symbol in witch house.”

(At this point my recording became corrupted and the rest of the interview is unintelligible. The following is a summary of our conversation after this point, using notes that were taken during the interview.)

My informant continued to elaborate on the visual culture associated with drag and witch house music. In addition to the black pyramid, my informant included daggers as another common symbol, as well as many symbols drawing from paganism and Christianity, both Gnostic and modern. These symbols used both as art associated with the music, such as on album covers, and also in the names of drag groups and songs themselves, to add to the mystery and unsearchable aspect of the drag culture.

When asked to conjecture as to the spread of the style of drag remixing, my informant made a tie between the often-used popular music subject matter and the idea of guilty pleasures. While this couldn’t be confirmed, my informant guessed that many of the artists associated with drag remix culture actually do enjoy the music they are remixing, even though there is often a stigma against doing so within underground music circles. By dragging a favorite pop song, one can recontextualize the music into a new form, one that’s more abstract and thus acceptable as part of the underground, as well as a new way to enjoy a favorite song. There’s also an element of satire in the process of drag, that by taking a polished, easily digestible pop song and slowing it beyond recognition, one can corrupt the original with an individual’s distinct mark, transforming the gloss of a hyper-polished Justin Bieber or Britney Spears track into a dark, gothic dirge.

When asked about the idea of authorship in drag remix culture, my informant suggested that drag artists prefer to be thought of more as co-authors of a track, rather than just remixers. He makes this distinction: in a typical remix, the remixer usually credits the original artist first, delegating the remixing artist credit to either a title mention or a production credit. A drag artist, however, will often place their name first in the song’s credit, taking claim as the song’s artist, and then give credit to the original artist of the song they are dragging. With drag remixing, the remix artists present themselves as a coauthor of the song along with the original artists, where the ordinary remix artist relegates themselves to obscurity, not to be seen as an additional author to the track, but simply a remixer.

My informant is of the opinion that the trend toward co-authorship in drag music could derive from the amount of reimagining that goes into the process. With original chop and screw music, the remixing of a track was done with physical records and tapes, which was something a remixer had to physically acquire and put physical effort into manipulating. Even in the digital age, what emerges from a drag remix is often a very different song aesthetically, tonally, and atmospherically, than from where the track began. It’s very obvious where the drag artist’s influence comes into the sound of the drag remix.

The interview with my informant ended with a discussion of the practical element of drag music. The culture of drag music, according to my informant, has strong ties to drug use and drug culture, specifically codeine and cough syrup. My informant believes the development of drag music was at least partially spurred by a need for music to accompany the use of such drugs, the slowing of popular music turning songs that might be otherwise unpleasant in an altered state into music that could compliment the user’s experience.

 

Analysis:

As one who dabbles in music critique and culture beyond just popular music, I have often encountered “music snobbery”, where one can be made to feel inferior due to one’s tastes in music, often for enjoying what is most popular at the time. With my informant’s piece, whendawurldends, the masking of guilty pleasure can certainly be seen in the piece’s production. My informant divulged that the main source material for the remix comes from a Japanese Pop Song, which carries the stigma of both popular music and the “otherness” of foreign music and art that can be alienating to those outside of the culture. It is important that my informant pointed out the link between “guilty pleasure material” and the pieces of drag music that become popular, like the remixes of Britney Spears and Justin Bieber found on the Aids-3D “original” drag album. While my informant believes there is both an element of homage and corruption in the drag process, I propose that the element of homage, partaking in the guilty pleasure in a way that is not so guilty, is a much greater factor in the creation of drag music. Even the titles and personas of drag culture seem to suggest this, ranging from the trivial misspellings and reckless disregard for grammar of whendawurldends to the outright absurdity of Aids-3D. For such a dark, secluded culture and sound, drag remix culture does not seem to take itself too seriously.

It is perhaps this absurdity that has drawn these artists together to create a movement. My informant believes that drag remix culture actively defies categorization and popular exposure, due most drag artists having unsearchable names and rare releases, though such absurdity unites these artists in a more abstract way. The corruption of common music and artist tropes, the steps taken to stay underground, all these factors point to a singular desire to just be an “other”, undiscovered, always underground. It makes these artists mysterious; it makes them “cool”; but in the end, it helps place them together as drag.

*Citation: the song my informant refers to here as his first exposure to drag music is actually titled Till the World Ends. The official video for it can be found here (warning: video contains disturbing content).

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