Disco Is Dead, Long Live Disco

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter:

2020 seemed like the crest of a long 70s/80s disco nostalgia wave that’s been hitting music since the middle of last decade. I would mark the start of the nu-disco trend with the iconic, and now final (RIP) Daft Punk album Random Access Memories. The trend was carried forward by Jungle, Chromeo, my forever favs Little Dragon, and this year by Dula Peep, Kylie Minogue, and our Irish disco queen Róisín Murphy.

But unfortunately it seems that disco is dead AGAIN folks. The harbinger for me was the uninspired Disco-mentary challenge on this season of Ru-Paul’s Drag Race. Though we are contractually obliged to love Drag Race it really is the place where culture, and drag, go to die. However the strongest signal of the trend shift seems to be the synchronous release of two powerful period albums, An Evening with Silk Sonic by Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars, and Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent. Both albums are funk-rooted 70s nostalgia projects and both feature some wide ass 70s collars.

I’m excited to see what these albums bring. Silk Sonic’s lead single Leave The Door Open is just so sparkly and cool, and Pay Your Way in Pain from Daddy’s Home sounds like the Prince/Bowie collab we never got. But I’m concerned that this new throwback era we seem to be entering is trading in creativity for authenticity. These lead singles really look and sound like something that could have popped on your TV in the mid 70s – making heavy use of period-authentic animations, audio equipment, facial hair, and star filters. But spending so much time and energy on defly recreating a bygone era can divert attention from actual creative exploration.

Yes I’m talking about you Wandavision. The care with which the Marvel TV series recreated sitcom sets with authentic camerawork, special effects, sexism (not racism tho), and costuming from the 50s forward was an absolute blast to watch. However, once the show progressed to recent decades and magical sitcom world of the show-within-a-show began to unravel, Wandavision became just another expensive and unsatisfying superhero movie. Seriously – it’s not worth it to explain the whole backstory but the big reveal of why Wanda Maximoff created this sitcom fantasy world was (wait for it) because she loved watching Dick Van Dyke reruns as a child growing up in a fictionalized Soviet state. Womp womp. That’s my worry with these two albums, that the retro mics and synths that get all the gear-heads excited are just window dressing on a bland piece of music.

Just to be clear, I do want sunken living rooms and glass bricks to make a comeback

What the nu-disco era got right is to not take its source material too seriously – because disco never took itself too seriously. My favorite track from Random Access Memories, Giorgio by Moroder, starts as an interview with euro disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder where he describes wanting to create “an album with the sounds of the fifties, the sounds of the sixties, of the seventies, and… a sound of the future” and then launches into a sprawling groovy orchestral odyssey that peters out into Girogio’s simple innovation, a click track. Random Access Memories is disco but at the same time it’s still looking for that sound of the future. Similarly, Róisín Murphy’s lockdown videos for her new album combine stomping disco beats and campy fashion with contemporary mundane tech like drone video and zoom backgrounds.

Art that looks backward is important, and I appreciate Silk Sonic and St. Vincent’s impulse to bring 70’s funk and rock back into the contemporary consciousness. And I hope that in looking back, these albums don’t discount art’s responsibility to also look forward, and most importantly to look inward. Catch my drift?

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