I didn’t know what witch house was until very recently. I don’t like House, and the term “Witch House,” seemed to tell me everything: House music but spooky. However, the term kept coming up whenever I googled electronic bands, so I decided to look into it. It turns out that Witch House had very little to do with traditional House. I say “had,” because the genre was short-lived, existing briefly from 2009-2011, and actively tried to prevent any public interest in the genre. There was a mystery afoot, and I had to know more.
Unfortunately, the mystery was entirely artificial. Witch House bands use a series of naming gimmicks and tricks to make finding them by accident next to impossible, ostensibly to keep the style somewhat underground. The most obvious is making their band names next to impossible to google, with names like “///▲▲▲\\\” “ʄ≜uxmuℭica” “†∆†” and the legendary “❖.” I actually have no idea if those symbols will display properly, so look at the Rate Your Music page on the genre for examples if your computer can’t render Unicode characters. This is (in my opinion) very stupid, and once the term Witch House was created by the band Salem in a Pitchfork interview, effectively driving interest into the scene by making it possible to research, most major players denounced the style and moved on to other styles. It’s the kind of frustrating scene antics that make you want to just listen to Top 40 for the rest of your life.
However, buried under all of this, there’s an actually interesting set of musicians with some cool ideas. Witch House is, despite the name, a genre of instrumental hip-hop born from the Chopped and Screwed style of DJ Screw. Goth electronic musicians pulling from hip-hop was novel at the time, and the auditory aesthetic would go on to influence our current wave of…um…there isn’t a term for whatever the heck Special Interest and Boy Harsher are yet, but give them a listen and you’ll know what I mean.
So, to answer the title question, is Witch House a gimmick or a genre? Well, if we’re being generous, we might say it was a genre with a gimmick attached. The active refusal to enter the mainstream and the lengths some bands went to avoid publicity were an effective marketing strategy, as it drew in far more listeners than would ordinarily care. However, there was music at the core, so I’ll give you the copout answer: Porque no los dos?