Graduate Research Colloquium: Dr Edward Katrak Spencer (University of Oxford)

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What led to Donald Trump retweeting a video in which he drops the bass on a political rival in October 2015? Why did the video use the dubstep track Centipede by Knife Party, and where did this musical meme flourish before it became an alt-right anthem? How might we listen to the sounds of the (anti)social web in order to investigate music in all its power and perversity in the age of internet trolling and centipede politicians?

This colloquium paper investigates the weaponization of dubstep in musical trolling strategies by examining the genre’s relationship with a type of user-generated content called ‘Major League Gaming [MLG] Montage Parodies’. Mixing musical and audiovisual analysis with digital methods, the paper begins by introducing the origins of MLG Montage Parodies and then presents an account of the musical trolling that grew out of this content from 2011–2016. As a memetic timbral topic, the dubstep drop was initially deployed in MLG Montage Parodies as a form of pubescent power play to troll young male gamers. But then in 2014, it was redeployed as anti-feminist ammunition amid the toxic masculinity of #GamerGate. Trolling behaviour in the comment section of a YouTube upload titled mlg feminism is analysed with reference to a visualisation created using Bernhard Rieder’s YouTube Data Tools in conjunction with Gephi software. Finally, the dubstep drop was weaponized by alt-right trolls during the 2015–2016 ‘Great Meme War’ that accompanied the US Presidential Race. The paper presents qualitative and quantitative analysis of ‘Trump versus Clinton’ within the MLG Montage Parody battleground of the ‘Great Meme War’ using Mike Thelwall’s Mozdeh software. 

The closing remarks reflect on the ethical, methodological, and disciplinary implications of the research at hand and issue a call for memetic musical literacy through endeavours that will further the digital sociology of music as a critical field of inquiry. At a time when musicology is facing funding cuts and an uncertain future, what skills are now required in order to listen to the voices of web users as closely as Barry Cooper listens to Beethoven? Do these skills herald recalibration of traditional disciplinary boundaries within and beyond music studies? And to what extent do bass drop memes reinject life into debates concerning the ontology of music and musical meaning?  

Edward Katrak Spencer is Lecturer I in Music at Magdalen College, University of Oxford and recently finished as Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, where he worked on the AHRC project ‘Music and the Internet: Towards a Digital Sociology of Music’ led by Christopher Haworth. His doctoral research at the University of Oxford focussed on the memetic career of the bass drop in dubstep and trap, while his postdoctoral research at the University of Birmingham investigated the (sub)cultural politics of hyperpop music in online spaces as well as post-racial rhetoric in electronic dance music web fora. His publications include an article in Organised Sound that analyses YouTube comments on electronic dance music uploads; a chapter on ASMR YouTube content in the volume Sound Art and Music: Philosophy, Composition, Performance (ed. John Dack, Tansy Spinks, & Adam Stanović); and a chapter on dubstep titled ‘Music to Vomit to’ in Cultural Approaches to Disgust and the Visceral (ed. Max Ryynänen, Susanne Ylönen, & Heidi Kosonen). Together with Christopher Haworth and Danielle Sofer, he is co-editing a collection titled The Digital Sociology of Music: Music Studies After the Internet, which will be the first book to bring methodologies associated with digital sociology to the music disciplines. At present, he is co-hosting an online series of four digital methods workshops for music researchers featuring Mike Thelwall, Sal Hagen, Eamonn Bell, and Maria Perevedentseva. In August 2022, he will take up a position as Postdoctoral Research Associate on the AHRC project ‘Everything is Connected: Conspiracy Theories in the Age of the Internet’ led by Peter Knight at the University of Manchester. His research will focus on Beyoncé-related online conspiracy theories and the conspiratorial significance of two musical memes played by the Christchurch terrorist as he livestreamed mass murder in March 2019. 

About the series:
The Colloquia feature leading figures, as well as younger scholars, from across the world. They present their research in papers on all kinds of music-related topics. Graduate students Marinu Leccia and Judith Valerie Engel organise the series. Presentations are followed by a discussion and virtual drinks reception. Free and open to all Music Faculty students and members. If you would like more information, please email or