From Miley Cyrus to Arcade Fire, how the disco beats of Berlin conquered the world.
- By Jon Natchez<p> Once labeled "Indie Rock's Most Valuable Sideman" by NPR, Jon Natchez has recorded and/or performed with dozens of groups, including Beirut, Spoon, Passion Pit, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. He spent much of the last year on tour with David Byrne & St. Vincent. Follow him at @jonnatchez. </p>
There’s something perplexing about the new Arcade Fire record. After a career defined by punky energy, end-of-sleepaway-camp-esque sing-a-longs, and obscure acoustic instruments, Reflektor sounds awfully reminiscent of Euro disco, or at least its unshaven New York City offspring headquartered at DFA Records. That endless, pounding bass drum rhythm has completely taken over every other part of pop music, from glossy pop acts like The Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry to cool-kid groups like Daft Punk, Passion Pit, and Hot Chip. Does the new Arcade Fire record represent the beat’s ultimate conquest? Has EuroDance taken over the world completely?
About that beat: known as "four-on-the-floor," it’s the bass-drum-on-every-quarter-note pulse that undergirds pretty much every disco hit you’ve ever heard. It’s the "boots" in the "boots-n-cats" of house music. It’s been around in popular music since at least 1966, when Eddie Floyd released "Knock on Wood," and then it began to take over the world in 1973, when Stevie Wonder’s "Superstition," the O’Jays "Love Train," and the Ohio Players "Funky Worm," among others, hit the charts. Soon it was the sound of almost every disco hit of the decade, including (among literally hundreds of others) "I Will Survive," "Good Times," and "Stayin’ Alive."
Disco’s reign at the top of the pop charts ended, but four-on-the-floor didn’t disappear. Mad European geniuses like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder got their hands on it and fused it with more predominantly electronic sounds; in the early 1980s, early house pioneers in Chicago, such as Jesse Saunders, Larry Heard, and Jamie Principle, took this idea and ran with it. Soon, an array of sub-genres emerged, the diversity of which would overwhelm even the most dedicated record store employee: house, electro, electro house, acid house, deep house, techno, EBM, EDM, IDM, electronica …we could be here all day. This universe of electronic music became the sound of dance clubs, and then raves as well, around the world. And with some notable interruptions along the way (drum and bass, jungle), the steady, quarter-note bass drum has proved remarkably resilient, tying together 30+ years of underground dance music.
Of course, the underground inevitably burbles up into the mainstream. The best pop music balances between two opposing poles: on the one hand, it distills the zeitgeist, capturing the sound and feel of right now. On the other hand, a great song has to sound new, fresh, tickling one’s ears in a way they’ve never been tickled before. From Elvis through Madonna to the present day, there’s always been a proud tradition of negotiating that tension by co-opting the novel sounds that are swirling around the fringes of culture and bringing them into the center. The list of massive four-on-the-floor hits from between 2007 and 2012 is expansive: Katy Perry’s "Hot N Cold" and "California Gurls," Lady Gaga’s "Poker Face," Kesha’s "Tik Tok," absolutely everything by LMFAO — to name some of the biggest examples. Even Adele’s "Rolling in the Deep," which distinguished itself as an acoustic, organic antidote to ubiquitous club-based electronic pop music, is underpinned by a four-on-the-floor thump. For that matter, the Civil-War-chic movement of Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers et al., while ostensibly a folky, live-instruments-only reaction to electropop, trades almost exclusively on a straight quarter-note bass drum rhythm. And let’s not forget the EDM mania of the last two years, a period that saw Skrillex become a multimillionaire, Diplo conquer the world, Calvin Harris seize Guinness records from Michael Jackson, and Vegas dance clubs earn more for their casinos than slot machines.
At the same time, pop always draws energy from shitting on the past. A great song feels so precisely right now because it sounds deliberately and emphatically unlike what happened yesterday. In 2007, after years of deliciously crooked and broken funk from Timbaland and Mark Ronson, four-on-the-floor felt exhilarating and propulsive. Its run, though, as the sound of moment, is over. A wonderful trio of songs sits at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 right now: Lorde’s "Royals," Katy Perry’s "Roar," Miley Cyrus’s "Wrecking Ball," songs whose rhythms all are defiantly syncopated and/or slinky, decidedly lacking any kind of regular bass drum thump. (It’s worth noting that both "Roar" and "Wrecking Ball" were spearheaded, co-written, and co-produced by the prolifically talented Dr. Luke, who has been responsible for many of the four-on-the-floor hits of the previous era, and who seems intent on proving his versatility.) Robin Thicke’s "Blurred Lines" has become such a massive hit because — video filled with naked ladies and cute animals aside — its sexy, bubbly groove and playful sound stands out in such stark contrast to the black-leather-pants, duck-face-scowl affect of so much recent pop music.
Which is why Britney Spears’s latest single, "Work Bitch" (or "Work B**ch" or "Work Work," depending on the delicacy of your constitution) just feels kind of sad. There are many problems with this song. For one thing, it sounds more like the intro to a great song than an actual song. But more to the point, it cranks up the regular, house-y bass drum, both in pitch and volume, so that it becomes the central focus of the song. The song celebrates that beat like an elderly banker flaunting his trophy wife at a party, oblivious to the fact that precisely what he thinks makes him look young and virile just highlights his frailty and pitifulness. During Britney’s run as queen of pop, she had a great talent for picking/crafting (depending how responsible you imagine she was for her material) songs that seemed fresh and exciting. "…Baby One More Time" (along with Cher’s "Believe") was an early importer of club house into the Top 40 (thanks to hitmaker, prolific Euro-house plunderer, and Dr. Luke mentor Max Martin — it’s all connected); "Toxic" is perhaps the only enduring song from that time when producers were convinced that bhangra was going to take over the world. No one could ever claim that Britney Spears was a maverick striving to push music into unexplored territory, but for many years she had a wonderful talent for making music that lived at that exciting junction of the now and the new.
Arcade Fire, on the other hand, is something different. They sell a bunch of records, and are tremendously popular, but they’re not pop stars per se. Pop stars, of the breed discussed above, are more crassly commercial; we imagine them, their producers, and their executives conspiring to craft million-selling songs by chasing trends and imagining ways to maximize a tune’s commercial potential. On the other hand, we imagine Arcade Fire operating from a more artistically pure place. They certainly see themselves that way; more than any other contemporary act, they take themselves seriously. Perhaps you find that tendency refreshing in a musical landscape otherwise dominated by self-aware, aw-shucks nonchalant posturing. Or perhaps it drives you crazy. Either way, between the ambitious interactive videos, mysterious global promotional campaigns, and emotive pantomimes inside mirrored boxes on national television, Arcade Fire proudly & loudly proclaim that they are explorers blazing a trail for others to follow. And their adventurousness is precisely the source of their popularity. Dr. Luke has our culture’s permission to re-invent his music as tastes change; Arcade Fire is the type of group we expect to change those tastes.
Which is why the first samples of the new Arcade Fire record were perplexing. There had already been reports that they were working with James Murphy (the once-and-future king of indie dance music, founder of DFA, mastermind of LCD Soundsystem) on the new music. The songs they premiered on SNL seemed entirely in the thrall of Murphy’s hyper-cool, disaffected disco sound. Which was disappointing in two ways: 1) The glacial cool of Murphy’s sound seemed to anesthetize the band, removing the most distinctive and appealing aspects of their sound, — namely the urgency and passion of Butler’s delivery and ferocious instrumental builds; 2) the whole idea of reimagining the band as italo-disco hipsters seemed like something wanna-bes did in 2011 after listening to a lot of LCD Soundsystem. Imagining what the whole album would sound like, one could easily envision a worst-case scenario of house-inflected bangers, a collection of songs written by aging musicians desperately clinging to relevance. Moreover, such a record would represent a complete Borg-like swallowing of popular music by the incessant and unyielding four-on-the-floor. If the vanguard had been co-opted, then truly the takeover would be complete.
Happily, however, that’s not the case. The album as a whole pulls off the neat trick — often aspired to, rarely realized — of taking the group down a new path (even if that path is well-tread or, in this case, well-glowsticked) while maintaining the group’s sound and originality. For one thing, it’s a diverse record; there are bouncy jams and anthemic straight-up rockers that comport with previous ideas of what the band can and should be doing. And even when it comes to the dance-ier tracks, it’s not like the band simply programmed a quarter-note bass drum track under their songs. Some ingenious production details make even the four-on-the-floor tracks feel remarkably personal and non-generic. In particular, Murphy and Markus Dravs, Arcade Fire’s other producer and long-time collaborator, perform some magic with the drum production, making the rhythm tracks sound simultaneously organic, groovy, and Arcade Fire-y. And the band’s penchant for rich, original, and complex timbres — perhaps their sonic hallmark — remains as strong as ever. "Work Bitch" feels sycophantic primarily because the timbres involved seem imported directly from a bad dubstep sample pack; Reflektor sounds original because it operates in its own sonic universe.
More important than any other musical detail, though, is that Win Butler knows, better than any other songwriter working today, how to write a melody and lyric that suit his voice and delivery. Critics looking to score contrarian points love to isolate Butler’s words and point out how facile they can seem laid bare on the page; "Is anything as strange as a normal person? Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?" or "Can we just work it out? Scream and shout till we work it out?" But those words weren’t written to be read as prose; combined with his melody and delivery, in the context of the song, they form part of a remarkable whole. Arcade Fire backlash is driven primarily by the sense that the superficial spectacle of the band — their grandiosity and propensity for elaborate gesture — is what has positioned them as the sine qua non serious band of this era. And while their love of baroque costumery, mysterious gestures, and literary allusions have no doubt shaped public perception of the group, none of it would matter if Butler and the band couldn’t write and perform songs that feel immediately classic.
But the question remains: why would Arcade Fire decide to explore in this direction? Why invite the accusations of shallow trend-following? Pop music can be great because it seems like the perfect summation of the present tense; it can also be great because it sounds like the future. But it can also simply be great because it’s good. Any cultural artifact can get swept up as part of a fad, and then it’s impossible to engage with that piece of culture without thinking about all the baggage that has become associated with it. All of a sudden, everything is bacon-flavored — and then ordering bacon becomes some kind of referendum on your relationship with the foodie-hipster complex. But beyond the cultural trends, the original artifact still possesses its essential appeal. Strip away all the fad-iness, all the hipness, and four-on-the-floor is still intrinsically compelling. It’s why, for more than three decades, it has underpinned music around the globe. Done right, it’s just good.