The Unexpected Resurgence Of Club Music In A Year Without Dancefloors
Dance and disco are dominating the charts in 2020 - but why?
It’s been more than six months since clubs in most parts of the world closed and yet, if you were to look at the charts, you wouldn’t know it. In a year without clubs, dance and electronic music is having a moment.
The music never truly stops, of course, but the absence of clubs has left a hole for many music fans. Those who would spend the early hours of their weekends discovering new music in DJ sets have been resigned to Bluetooth speakers and headphones. The communal clubbing experience — with all its euphoria and chaos — has gone into hibernation.
But while the clubs are silent, the music that once filled the dancefloors is having an unlikely resurgence in pop music. BPMs are rising across the airwaves and the charts, the bass is rattling again and escapism is all over the radio.
Pop Goes Back To The Non-Existent Club
For the better part of the last decade, the tempo of pop music has been on a downward trajectory. As the influence of EDM dwindled, trap beats trickled from hip-hop into the pop world influencing megastars from Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift. The beat, however, is now on the rise.
According to the BBC, based on the top 20 best-sellers of the year, pop has hit its highest average BPM of the last 10 years at 122BPM. It’s a dramatic increase even from 2019’s 114BPM average and we can thank those popstars who persisted with the dancefloor revival through a pandemic.
When Dua Lipa released ‘Don’t Start Now’ at the tail-end of last year it was an anomaly as one of the only dance-pop tracks on the airwaves. The subsequent album Future Nostalgia arrived in a very different climate as one of a handful of pop records to drop early in the pandemic. It’s unlikely when she conceived it she saw it being played without a dancefloor but she was left with no option.
As pop superstars pressed pause on album rollouts, Lipa was forced to release her album a week early after it leaked in full. She adapted quickly, offering Zoom listening parties and DIY-filmed television performances.
“Yes, it was made to be listened out in the clubs and at festivals — but at the same time, I wanted to give people some happiness during this time, where they don’t have to think about what’s going on and just shut off and dance,” Lipa told the BBC after the release of the album.
Lipa’s next move — a full remix album Club Future Nostalgia — confirmed that she was right. People still wanted to dance and so she gave them more. The album, mixed by The Blessed Madonna, saw underground producers including Moodymann, Jayda G and Horse Meat Disco share the tracklist with megastars like Madonna, Missy Elliott, and Gwen Stefani.
It was a bold move given that remix albums have been almost completely vacant from the pop sphere since the early ‘00s when Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez both dabbled in them.
In contrast to Lipa, Lady Gaga made the decision to delay the release of Chromatica. At the time, she said it didn’t “feel right” to drop it during a “global pandemic”. In June, however, she backflipped and set it free. She told Beats 1’s Zane Lowe that she hoped the album was a source of “inspiration for people that are in need of healing through happiness, through dance.” The album and single ‘Rain On Me’ with Grande, debuted at number one in the US.
Chromatica barely dips below the 120BPM mark, heralding a return to her dance-pop roots she hasn’t visited since 2013’s ARTPOP. She’s not alone in that sonic space either. Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, Ava Max’s Heaven & Hell, Kylie’s Disco and Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now are among a plethora of records taking pop back to the clubs.
“Oh Fuck, A Dance Record Is Working?”
Right now in Australia, the top two most played songs on radio are both club tracks. British DJ and producer Joel Corry is sitting at number one with his global hit ‘Hand & Heart’ featuring MNEK while Germany’s Topic is trailing just behind with his A7S-featuring track ‘Breaking Me’. They are joined by Felix Jaehn, Brando, Kygo, Sigala, Regard and Stace Cadet who are all seeing heavy rotation with dance/electronic tracks.
Speaking to Music Junkee from lockdown in Melbourne, Australian producer Stace Cadet AKA Stasi Kotaras revealed he’s never played his breakthrough track ‘Energy’, with KLP, in a club. Despite the risk of releasing the song without clubs to tour it, the risk has paid off. The song was held the ‘Most Played’ song title on triple j for a week and has just been nominated for an ARIA for ‘Best Dance Release’.
“I think we kind of gave people the confidence to not hold off so long,” he says, continuing, “‘Oh fuck, a dance record is working?’”
While he admits he misses seeing, “how something works in a room with human bodies,” he’s taken solace in knowing he and KLP, “…have made something that’s making people feel a little bit happier.”
Kotaras has been a staple of Australian clubs for years but he’s recently noticed the growing crossover between pop and club music. He’s been “trying to integrate a more commercial tone into dance songs,” inspired in part by Lipa’s ‘Don’t Start Now’. He calls it, “a massive turning point for commercial pop,” a sentiment that Lipa’s manager Ben Mawson echoed when he told The New York Times he believed the song “could change the radio.”
Nina Agzarian, who goes by the moniker Nina Las Vegas and is a producer and label boss of NLV Records, cites ‘Energy’ when explaining the growing ubiquity of club music.
“Club music is everywhere,” she says. “It’s like what hip-hop was like five years ago. [Major labels are] like, ‘Oh my God, these are viral hits. We’ve got to sign club songs and keep pushing the career producer’s music out!’”
Agzarian is currently working on a collaborative record between Australian producer Ninajirachi and artist Kota Banks. The True North EP, set to arrive November 6, bridges experimental club sounds and pure pop. You can imagine hearing it in the early hours at a club just as easily as you can on radio.
Spotify’s dance-heavy ‘Beast Mode’ playlist has over 7 million followers and features Lipa, Stace Cadet & KLP, Corry and more.
She believes that lockdown has brought with it an openness for “anything” from both an artist and listener standpoint. “There are no rules and there are no examples,” she says.
Agzarian navigated unknown territory with Ninajirachi when it came to the release of her recent EP Blumiere. The electronic record would soundtrack late night and festivals in normal times and there was initial hesitation about whether it was the right time to release. Eventually, she told Ninajirachi, “I listen to your music when I’m running.”
Without its normal environment of the club, dance and electronic music has been spread further thanks to the rise of workout apps and playlists. According to the World Economic Forum, downloads of fitness apps rose by almost 50 percent in the first half of 2020. This in turn calls for a playlist which most streaming platforms provide. Spotify’s dance-heavy ‘Beast Mode’ playlist has over 7 million followers and features Lipa, Stace Cadet & KLP, Corry and more.
In April this year, PureGym analysed the most popular home workout songs finding that Dua Lipa’s ‘Don’t Start Now’ was go-to choice. Gaga, MEDUZA, Imanbek, Kygo and Doja Cat also featured in the list.
Escapism, Nostalgia And Togetherness
It’s unlikely that club music is having a resurgence in the mainstream solely because everyone is hitting the workout apps. The genre has been recycled throughout history, returning each time in a slightly different shape. In 2020, one of music’s most healing genres is providing escapism and comfort.
Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? was completed prior to the pandemic but it documented her fantastical escape from reality. She’s a mother of two now and rarely frequents dancefloors but this record saw her dip into memories of her clubbing days. By doing that, she accidentally made a record for those in lockdown who also couldn’t go out.
“It’s a time where people should be able to listen to music that can help them fantasize and move away from reality. And that’s the record I made,” she told The New York Times.
It’s not always a detachment from reality as much as it is remembering a reality we preferred. A New York Times article analysed why we reach for nostalgia in times of crisis and found that we use music, among other things, as a “transitional object”.
“It increases your ability to self-soothe during a stressful time,” clinical psychologist Valentina Stoycheva said. In other words, music that recalls better times helps us navigate an unsettled period.
Kotaras says in lockdown he’s, “reverted back to the stuff [he’s] loved most over all the years,” and he’s not alone.
Romy of the xx released her debut solo single ‘Lifetime’ last month. Written in lockdown, it’s an upbeat cut that draws heavily on nostalgia for club classics and Ibiza dance music. “The fast-paced energy of the track is a contrast to the state I was in when it was made,” she told Dazed. “It came from the desire to have that euphoria and release that I wasn’t getting.”
As an audience, we’re searching for music that reminds us of times when there was a sense of physical togetherness. Lockdown measures have loosened slowly across the world with many able to connect with loved ones in parks and restaurants, but the clubs remain largely empty. The music that soundtracked those moments with the communities we feel safest in is our only connection to that space.
As club music’s presence in the mainstream continues to gather momentum, we’re building an ever-evolving playlist for the moment we can finally dance together again.
Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter.