Beyoncé and Drake just want to dance to forget. Who can blame them?
In the wake of the pandemic, our love for all things nostalgia continues – and with it comes an uplifting revival of 1990s House music
Sunday 26 June 2022 By Justin Quirk
As you may have noticed lately, our Houses – like pretty much every communal social space – are looking noticeably busier. While not wanting to tempt fate, there’s a definite feeling of the post-COVID-19 (or at least post-lockdown) era being firmly upon us, normality resuming for the first summer since 2019, and people seizing the moment to get together, blow off some steam, and generally memory-hole that curious interregnum of Zoom calls, sweat pants and solo socialising.
And wherever you’re reconvening this summer, it’s likely that an ever-present soundtrack is going to be the two new releases by Beyoncé (‘Break My Soul’) and Drake (‘Falling Back’). Both artists have returned this month with straight-ahead, dance floor-filling bangers – in Beyoncé’s case particularly, a marked shift from her previous releases such as the politicised, electronic ‘Black Parade’. So why this sound, and why now?
There are a few different things going on here. On a very obvious level, these tracks are part of an ongoing revival of a classic early 1990s House music sound that has shaped everything in recent years from Disclosure’s ‘Latch’ to Riton x Nightcrawlers’ deathless ‘Friday’. The same chugging 115 BPM rhythms, fat piano chords and Korg M1 bass synth that underpin Robin S’s 1990 classic ‘Show Me Love’ loom extremely large over ‘Break My Soul’.
‘The background context is generation EDM growing up and getting deeper into dance culture, gravitating to the smaller dance tents at Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival and all those that have always featured HOUSE house,’ says Joe Muggs, music journalist and author of Bass, Mids, Tops, an exhaustive history of sound system culture. ‘That, plus “club” music from Baltimore, Jersey, Philly, etc, and ballroom from NYC – which are rooted in House – having a moment in the sun and EDM guys jumping on that bandwagon.’ Particularly in America, where House has for the past decade been interchangeable for many people with a white, bro-heavy, EDM sound, this reconnection with the genre’s true roots in gay, marginalised and African-American culture is long overdue.
In Drake’s case, he’s plugging more obviously into the other dominant trend in dance music right now – the global success of amapiano, the South African variant of deep House that grew exponentially during the pandemic. ‘Amapiano became a lot of people’s lockdown escapist soundtrack, and from a standing start in 2019, it crossed over a thousand different ways,’ says Muggs.
‘It was reaching international Afro diasporic audiences via Nigerian and Ghanaian DJs, a lot of whom switched wholesale from afrobeats to amapiano overnight – which then crossed over into club nights in a big way in London and other world cities upon reopening… Now, amapiano is its own sound, but it’s rooted in South Africa’s unique relationship with House where it is way more mainstream and wired into the culture than in any other country on earth, even the UK.’ Notably, South African artist Black Coffee is listed as an executive producer on Drake’s new album, Honestly, Nevermind, having previously worked with him on 2017’s More Life.
More broadly, right now there is a strong strain of 1980s/ 1990s revivalism across culture: whether it’s labels like Stüssy and Stone Island’s dominance, or a comeback for hedonism, skateboarding, Air Jordans and Kate Bush, the aesthetic around Gen Z feels very Gen X at the moment. This is partly just the natural churn of nostalgia and partly a case of similar social circumstances – hostile governments, culture wars, poor economic prospects, big existential fears (back then, AIDS and nuclear war; now, COVID-19, climate change and, erm, nuclear war) – producing similar responses in the subculture. It’s telling that in Beyoncé’s track, for all its unbridled joy, it nods throughout its lyrics to the Great Resignation and the defiant desire to reclaim one’s life from fear, stress and responsibility.
Ultimately, this is probably what explains the return of this sound more than anything: a need right now for escapism and release, and a primal, hard-wired desire among people for big collective music to soundtrack big collective moments as we come together again. In his brilliant study of the rise and fall of disco, Turn The Beat Around: The Secret History Of Disco, Peter Shapiro elegantly shows how the most joyous, unifying music emerged from a time and place that was anything but.
‘The discotheque and discontent go together like glitterballs and rhinestones’, Shapiro writes. ‘(The music) could only have emerged from the dark underground of a society teetering on the brink of collapse… a sense of partying hell for leather tonight because you’re not going to know where you stand tomorrow.’
Once again, now as then, as a lot of people find themselves in difficult situations and in need of a lift, music provides the answer – if only for a few important minutes. Enjoy the summer.
Justin Quirk is a writer and author whose recent book, Nothin’ But A Good Time was listed as one of The Times’ 10 best music books of the year.