disco, del rey and the donk of doom

Although this blog is mainly dedicated to things what you can watch, I occasionally think about the signals picked up by my ears. I lost my faith in new music surprisingly early for a young twentysomething, seeing most mainstream music as a poor rehash of everything that has come before, and slowly becoming that guy on the porch banging on about ‘the good old days’.

My genre du choix is disco, the first genre to really blur the lines between dancefloor, club culture and the singles charts. If a track was a hit at Studio 54, chances are it would be a platinum-selling record. Just ask Nile Rodgers. Curiously, my main gripe with the music of the 2010s is how much of an influence dancing has had on what sells. The Blackout Crew once told us to ‘put a donk on it‘ (defined by the Urban Dictionary as ‘adding a repeating clunk sound’) , and by doing so showed a Confucian ability to predict the future of modern music.

Some would argue that Rodgers and the Chic Organisation were churning out derivative hits with a winning formula. In his book, Le Freak, Rodgers suggests that every one of his songs (for Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Madonna, Bowie…) had to have a DHM: a Deep Hidden Meaning. Depsite being a massive Nile Rodgers fan, I am not sure this DHM is as crucial to his songwriting as he would have us believe, but he seems wary to concede that he and Bernard Edwards simply wrote impossibly catchy pop tunes.

chic78The difference in what Rodgers was doing and what is happening currently concerns instruments. Rodgers always saw Chic as a kind of session band, made up of the finest bassists, brass players and vocalists (this shows in their live shows). But now music seems less intricate, too simple, too ‘add donk for best results’.

This is best shown by the fairly recent genre crossover of R&B and Dance. Back in 2007, a song as unashamedly mid-tempo as ‘Umbrella’ could be number one for weeks, and the following year Madonna (‘4 Minutes’) and Ne-yo (‘Closer’) topped the charts with instrument-lead songs. The former’s success was largely down to Timbland’s work in the mid-noughties, particularly with Justin Timberlake, with whom he favoured Prince-like funk and soul production.

In 2009, the crossover came like an invasion, in part thanks to the arrival of Lady Gaga, but mainly due to the latest afro-parting scheme from William Adams, known to his mates as will.i.am. The Black Eyed Peas had already had great success, but ‘Boom Boom Pow’ and ‘I Gotta Feeling’ cemented them as the forerunners in the R&B/Dance merger. Critics were quick to ridicule the Peas, but they were merely doing what Rodgers had done thirty years previously: make sure the people can dance and sell it.

After ‘Boom Boom Pow’ the rest followed. Dizzee Rascal realised that grime doesn’t pay and released ‘Bonkers’, while David Guetta got his name on records with Akon and Kelly Rowland to continue the association of popular black artists with a genre that had, up to this point, been almost faceless.

The list of stars who created club-happy music between 2010 and the present is startling: Plan B, Alexandra Burke, Example, JLS, Jason Derulo, Usher, Sean Kingston, Flo Rida, Pharrell, Taio Cruz, Cheryl Cole, Florence, Rihanna, even the boys from McFly. There are dozens more artists who conformed to this model, particularly when they enlisted the help of a certain Calvin Harris, who can surely take Nile Rodgers’ crown as The Hitmaker.

Calvin HarrisIt is, of course, nothing new for artists (or rather, their labels) to smell what sells and flog it shamelessly. In a sense, the success of Disco in the late seventies spawned hundreds of wannabe acts, but in this case the skill and the instrumental talent was still present (it was good enough for Bowie). It may be that I am being too nostalgic, but in current music the decision to add a dance beat or breakdown seems to be an afterthought that is not inkeeping with the message of the song. It is hardly surprising that young YouTubers often cover big dance tracks, changing the tempo or style and thus giving them a new life. The lyrics to Rihanna’s ‘Only Girl In The World’, for example, are drowned out by the donk, and thus the song could be about anything at all.

And yet, the day is darkest just before the dawn, and 2013 has so far shown that the Dance revolution is nearing its end. Listening to the radio, it is difficult to tell whether the concerned disc jockey is playing Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, David Guetta or Calvin Harris. They all have a slow bit with some nice singing, and then a bit where you are meant to jump around and then a bit where you stop and then a bit where you jump around again.

While will.i.am continues to have success with Dance-infused R&B, mainly down to his own ludicrousness and mad scientist persona, there have been a string of hits this year which point to the return of funk, soul and disco. Unsurprisingly, Nile Rodgers has been at the helm of the biggest song of year, Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, creating a track where (until the robots speak) you can hear instruments at a sane, mid-tempo.

Robin Thicke has also followed the way of Disco to create his tract ‘In Praise of Rape’ ‘Blurred Lines’, while the success of out-and-out pop from One Direction, John Newman, Icona Pop and the long-awaited return of Justin Timberlake has tied Dance music’s pounding feet up for now (JT’s latest ‘Take Back The Night’ is a complete rehash of ‘Steppin’ Out’ by Kool and the Gang.

daft-punk-nileThe clear success of singles without a donk has therefore given me some confusion at the new Lana Del Rey release, a remix of ‘Summertime Sadness’ by Cedric Gervais, who must be as much of a comedian as his namesake. The original song is classic Del Rey: haunting tones, lyrics about trashy clothes and hair, bold expressions of love/death, despairing Americana. It is clear that some music industry bigwig has decided that Del Rey’s original work is not dancefloor friendly enough to get into the top ten, particularly during holiday season, where it can blare out in the streets of Malia to bemused, squinting youths.

The decision to alter ‘Summertime Sadness’ is at once puzzling and appropriately conclusive. Just look at the title. Big summer club anthems usually have names like ‘Holiday’, ‘The Club is Alive’, ‘Chasing The Sun’, and do not tend to have themes of lost love, death and melancholy. But then, the mad decision to remix Lana for the party islands and a quick single release is surely the final death knell for lyricism in mainstream pop music, and therefore seems a fitting end to the Dance revolution.

It could be that the armies of drunken experience-searchers in the Greek islands recognise their unfulfillment, their ennui, and in fact ‘Summertime Sadness’ is something of an anthem for the average unloved, disillusioned youth. But do they realise if they cannot hear the words? We should get so lucky.

lana del rey

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