Dance Music Saves Us From The Exhausting Business Of 21st-Century Living

Photographed by Amanda Picotte.
Like finding a tenner outside the supermarket or your Uber Eats driver arriving moments before your favourite singer’s Glastonbury set airs, Beyoncé’s thumping musical return couldn’t have come at a better – nor more economically chaotic – time if it tried.
Straight in at number one on the Love Island Top 40, "Break My Soul" has been expertly crafted to relieve civilisation of the mounting burdens of a not-so-post-COVID world. Intent on spreading good vibes and good vibes only, Bey's latest era begins by sampling Robin S' evergreen dance classic "Show Me Love", peppering deep house rhythms with the frenetic and infectious growl of New Orleans Bounce pioneer Big Freedia. Her lyrics are silly and playful; not prayers but commands and rallying cries. "Release your mind!" "Release your job!" "Release your time!" Consider it done.
But what if the Queen’s return is indicative of something more sinister (no, not the Illuminati stuff), a glaring reflection of political failure and crisis on the horizon? Hours after the first offering from RENAISSANCE hit our Spotify playlists, beckoning us to sticky club floors stained with overpriced spirits, Twitter user @REDSEASHAWTY mused over such a thought. "House/dance music is always popular when the recession is BIG and NASTY," she tweeted, following up with a warning that should the Black Eyed Peas return to prominence, we may all be destined for the workplace chopping block.
Is there any truth to this? Well, kind of. There’s a litany of reasons that could explain Beyoncé’s decision to ride her comeback on an irresistible house beat – a pledge of solidarity to the rail workers bravely striking in the UK being one of the nicest and most nonsensical (she asked us to leave our jobs, not use them for collective bargaining) – but it is true that economic/societal collapse has been bound to escapist genres for aeons, especially in the past century.

Music provides a similar reprieve from, if I can be frank here, the exhausting business of 21st-century living.

In the same way that fashion designers have used clothing to rally against prevailing societal issues – Christian Dior’s New Look celebrating indulgence after inter-war rationing, Mary Quant’s miniskirts giving the finger to conservatism in the 1960s – music provides a similar reprieve from, if I can be frank here, the exhausting business of 21st-century living. "It’s a way for people, especially young people, to voice their personal loves, hopes, dreams and fears," offers Ashley of Trash Theory, whose self-made documentaries offer a deep dive into the experimental and subversive forces behind the most influential moments in music history. "As [is] creating music that is a reflection of their present."
Think of The Great Depression towards the end of the 1920s: undoubtedly a bit of a drag for all involved but out of the Dust Bowl came the swing movement, along with the charleston, from which jazz soon followed. The UK’s Winter of Discontent (1979) was another time of societal chaos, predated ever so slightly by punk, which just so happened to coincide with the peak of a major dance movement thanks to the disco splendour of Abba’s "Voulez-Vous" and Donna Summer's "Bad Girls". Even as recently as 2008, The Great Recession ushered in pop music’s affair with heavy dance styles as the likes of Lady Gaga’s The Fame, Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded and Black Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D. used potent EDM soundtracks as an effective distraction from the precariousness of the future. Sure, financial ruin might be upon us but if we just dance, surely it’ll be okay (da-da, mm, do-do).
Why exactly is dance music our saviour? Music psychologist and former Chicane frontwoman Natasha Hendry explains that EDMC (electronic dance music culture) offers "an escapism and preferred 'political' choice/environment to the undesirable reality of a society in unrest," highlighting author Sarah Riley’s 2010 investigation into clubbing as a form of alternative political participation. The scrupulous engineering behind each wub and drum beat that allows your body to transcend this mortal coil is a major part of the equation, too. From the dopamine rewards that follow heavy bass drops to the ability of speedy riddims (anywhere between 90 and 150 beats per minute) to boost your serotonin levels to stratospheric heights – although in fairness, that could also be the drugs – music literally provides its own chemical buzz, bringing you closer to heaven with every syncopated 'oontz oontz' darting through your cranium.
Still, Beyoncé’s solid entry in the deep house canon could be nothing more than a coincidence. Adhering to the cyclical genre trends appreciated in recent months by both Drake and Charli XCX (whose latest chart-topper "Used To Know Me" jacks the same Robin S sample as Bey), would it be so terrible if she wanted to dance without discourse or simply pay homage to a floor-filler of her youth? After all, it’s hardly a new phenomenon for artists to hark back to beloved eras of dance music – think of the explosive euphoria of Lorde’s "Green Light" in 2017, the elaborate grooves of Jessie Ware’s 12-track disco epic, What’s Your Pleasure, in 2020, or even Azealia Banks’ career-long affinity with the rawest of warehouse rave classics (visit her 1991 EP and thank me later).

After years of breezy ballads and downbeat trap guiding our emotional outlook on life, the jury is still out on up-trending BPMs being the sole harbinger of total economic collapse.

"From the most cynical point of view, it's a case of mainstream music being unable to keep mining the 1980s," says Ash of pop music’s return to clubland. "It makes sense that the sounds of the '90s are the next nostalgic source, even if the artists weren’t alive at the time." And while this is already happening elsewhere with the likes of Doja Cat, Beabadoobee and Olivia Rodrigo, Ash believes the distracting ecstasy of '90s house says more about the need for comfort in the comedown years that follow the "before times" than it does about the reckless abandon that once inspired it.
After years of breezy ballads and downbeat trap guiding our emotional outlook on life, the jury is still out on up-trending BPMs being the sole harbinger of total economic collapse, even if Twitter and Reddit believe it to be gospel. But I will say that if our mononymous fave's next single is remotely as catchy as her first, it might be wise to keep your dancing shoes on standby and take a swift perusal of the latest vacancies on Indeed, just in case…

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