While thinkers continue to explore the current trend of indie musicians applying R&B conventions to their sounds, vice versa and what it all means (More murmuring! Less melisma! Haze!), there’s a quieter genre-smashing going on somewhere to the left. Indie musicians, or at least singers whose voices are cool and steady enough to suggest the very antithesis of “diva,” are singing along to banging techno and house in droves. And even more surprisingly, it doesn’t suck.
On a larger scale, dance music is more popular now than it has been since the days of disco, so it pervading any genre isn’t exactly a shock. But then again, so is gay-acceptance, and that the two forces are concurrent surely cannot be a coincidence. If the disco-punk/dance-rock that came to prominence in the past decade signaled a sort of musical metrosexuality, indie dudes singing to banging techno is a full-on embrace.
This embrace has been a long time coming, not just because rock and roll served as dance music at its inception, but because disco (from which house and techno are directly descended) had a reach so far that everybody had their hand at it (Rod Stewart, Kiss, etc.). The Bee Gees were little more than Beatles knock-offs (they even sent their early demos to Beatles manager Brian Epstein) before Saturday Night Fever rerouted their career. Even more recently, new wave found plenty of white dudes singing over what was essentially electronic disco (think Human League and New Order), and techno had its share as well (Underworld is an example that leaps out). Even the White Stripes have toyed with the four-on-the-floor beat structure that’s essential to house and techno (see: “Seven Nation Army”).
But that track, as well as plenty of the dance-rock revival of the past decade, has been tempered with elements that have it fall decidedly on the rock side of things: Disapproving bass lines, towering guitars that make pummeling beats sound like ping pong balls in comparison, live-sounding drums lest you think that there’s a drum machine at work. If one had to select a single dance-rock track to represent the bunch, most would probably select the Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers,” whose hi-hats hiss at the very notion of electronic realness. Its ballsy guitar riff and nagging bass serve to naysay further.
But that was in 2002, and 2011 finds the Rapture musically less defensive. The recently released first single from the band’s upcoming In the Grace of Your Love album, “How Deep is Your Love,” isn’t a Bee Gees cover but it does exhibit a comfortableness within a dance framework that might as well be inspired by the Brothers Gibb. Over a driving, old-school ravey piano riff and a disco stomp, vocalist Luke Jenner delivers a pleading vocal (“When I cry you hear my pain / Help me come to you”) that sounds suitably naked. Live-sounding drums crash in and things snap into more predictably Rapture territory, but those basic elements (4/4 and piano) remain unrelenting. They are the single’s heart.
There are no such rock qualifiers that come stampeding in to Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ recent single “Trouble.” In what could be the most twee techno track of all time, TEED’s sole member, Orlando Higginbottom, mumbles a warning to his new object of desire and himself: “Oooh, you make me happy / I’m in trouble now.” He sounds so introverted that leaving the house seems out of the question, let alone stepping into a club, and that is what makes the track work so beautifully. There’s a brilliant balance struck between preciousness and the banging, squelching techno backing him. It’s tense and exciting way beyond anything Erlend Øye, the most logical comparison to Higginbottom, ever turned in.
And the list goes on and on: Holy Ghost! released a stellar self-titled album earlier this year, on which disco was determined to be disco, no matter if by guitar or synth. The Icelandic troupe GusGus’s recent Arabian Horse is similarly great and full of songs that sound like they would work just a fine if a synthesizer never entered the picture (the stunning title track, for example, sounds like the realization of all that U2 were going for on Zooropa). It joins last year’s One Life Stand by Hot Chip, and The Future Will Come by the Juan Maclean from one year earlier, in this newly liberated fusion.
It really does feel like liberation if you take into account the gay stigma that is often attached to straightforward dance music (this is reasonable given dance music’s for-gays-by-gays history). This is not to imply anything about these acts’ sexuality, but to applaud their fearlessness over whatever their sound may suggest.
Rich Juzwiak is a writer and video editor whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Jezebel, and on This American Life. He runs the pop culture blog Four Four.