The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Something in the Water hints at something in the air

Pharrell’s big music festival lands in D.C. this weekend, asking a tacit question: Is music shaped by where we are on the planet?

Washington Post illustration; Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP; iStock (Washington Post illustration; Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP; iStock)
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It’s annoying to start this way, but sometimes we have epiphanies in posh places: I was walking around Paris six years ago when I encountered a copse of trees huddled together on a swatch of grass outside the Louis Vuitton Foundation. It was springtime, and the late-afternoon sun was beaming down on the flora in a way that made every leafy branch look like a Monet stroke that hadn’t yet dried. As the colors swirled in my eyes, an idea became clear in my mind. Monet and his peers painted these kinds of trees with these kinds of colors because that’s how the sun’s photons land on this locality. Which means the walls of your dentist’s office would look much different if the post-Impressionists had operated out of Detroit. The quality of the air, the angle of the sun — this art belongs to a very particular piece of planetary geography.

Since then, I’ve been wondering if music might work the same way. Regional folk-music traditions are obviously formed by cultural migrations and collisions of social customs, but I’m talking about something environmental, biological or maybe even metaphysical. The way our circadian rhythms are synced by the sunrise and sunset. The way the seasons change the speed of our steps. The way the temperature seems to tighten and loosen our speech. The way our communal experience of the weather can feel like low-key group telepathy. Our physical environment unquestionably shapes our soundworld and how we experience it — which must shape our “local” music, right? The idea feels unprovable and undeniable.

This weekend, Washington will host a starry music festival called Something in the Water, and everyone’s coming from all over the place: Lil Uzi Vert, Justin Timberlake, J Balvin, SZA, Jon Batiste, Lil Baby, Tierra Whack, Usher, 21 Savage, Dave Matthews Band and heaps more. Founded in 2019 in Virginia Beach by Pharrell Williams, the festival’s name is a wink-nod to his hometown’s wildly disproportionate influence on 21st-century pop. Twenty summers ago, back when Williams and his co-producer Chad Hugo ruled the airwaves as the Neptunes, the only hitmakers who could rival their stylish futurism were fellow Virginia Beach area natives Missy Elliott and Timbaland. But maybe instead of the water, there was something in the air. Maybe all of these global megahits sprang from this precise geolocation because it’s both hot and cold, North and South, an either/or latitude that makes people more attentive to fluctuations in the rhythms of life.

Six acts you shouldn't miss at Something in the Water

Williams seems to have grown up hyper-attentive to every sound within earshot. He obviously loved the rap songs that were pumping out of radios coast-to-coast back in the ’80s, but when he talks about the influence of old-school go-go music trickling down the tidewater, he speaks as if D.C.'s indigenous funkstyle arrived from another world altogether. Chatting with Mark Ronson for the Fader magazine, Williams once described Trouble Funk’s signature go-go anthem “Drop the Bomb” as “the most alien, space, African, really from another f---ing planet genius.” Try to re-listen to “Drop the Bomb” through Williams’s ears today and it becomes hard to miss go-go’s rhythmic influence on the Neptunes’ airlocked syncopation — which, of course, means that monumental hits from Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, Nelly, No Doubt and more each contain a tiny go-go spore.

Was go-go in the D.C. water supply? We know the music’s creation myth — about how Chuck Brown added percussionists to his band back in the ’70s, using those surplus drums to stitch his funk sets together like a DJ so that the party-people wouldn’t leave the dance floor between songs. And we know how go-go quickly became the sound of public life in Black Washington, binding the community with its synchronizing rumble. But why this sound and not another?

I’ve always wondered if go-go is a subconscious, communal transposition of D.C.'s summer humidity into rhythm — a music that feels sticky and slow, enveloping and enlivening. And if it is, does that also explain why so much doom metal originates nearby? Pentagram, the Obsessed, Iron Man and other doom bands each specialized in sluggish, smothering riffs that, in their respective heydays, felt as endless and extreme as Washington at its muggiest.

If there’s a distinctive slowness to D.C’s music, there’s also a countervailing speed. Bad Brains, Minor Threat and subsequent generations of D.C. hardcore punk outfits have made music at mind-spinning tempos with a ferociousness that felt reactionary to the political and cultural malaise of their respective eras. Maybe these bands were trying to challenge the speed of everyday life here, too — fast music as a tacit revolt against psychic inertia, Beltway traffic, the month of August and more.

Dave Grohl knows more about making music in the riptide between D.C. slowness and D.C. speed than most. He grew up in the District’s hardcore scene, playing in the Northern Virginia band Scream before helping to change the entire feel of rock-and-roll as the drummer of Nirvana. In a recent conversation between Grohl and Williams, filmed for the television series “From Cradle to Stage,” Grohl explains how he nicked the volcanic drum fill that opens “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from the Gap Band, a funk group that he couldn’t have missed on Black radio growing up so close to the District. During the chat, Grohl approximates that momentous flam fill, palms on thighs, and Williams looks like he just opened the greatest birthday present of his life. And so one Virginia kid who changed music forever better understands another.

Here’s the sobering thing about this musical power spot we’re living on: We do exports, not imports. Nobody moves to the DMV to shake the tower of song. We are not New York, or Los Angeles, or Nashville or Atlanta, or any music industry town to which people like Williams and Grohl take their latent physical knowledge of the environment in hopes of blasting it out to the rest of the planet. That makes it difficult to hear this region’s massive influence on pop writ large, but I think it’s still happening all the time — the rhythms of our lives distilled and dispersed into something in everybody else’s water.


An earlier version of this critic's notebook incorrectly referred to plants as fauna. They are flora. The piece has been corrected.