EDM Goes Back to the Future. Gaga and Today's Dance Divas Are the Future

Unlike much of what came to be lumped under E.D.M. -- frequently playing to feelings like anger and alienation -- dance-pop was, like disco itself, meant to evoke happy, fun, cathartic feelings.
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It may be a short taxi ride from Boston's Machine to Moonshine, but the dance clubs were like different worlds the Friday night in October that my friend J.D. and I checked them out.

At "welcoming to all" Machine, on Boylston Street just around the corner from Fenway Park, bodies, walls, and cocktail glasses vibrated from the pounding bass. Not a recognizable word was heard among the throbbing computerized sounds of Electronic Dance Music (E.D.M.) pulsing from the massive speakers. Dancers were pretty much twenty-somethings, serious, tight-lipped.

Meanwhile, at Back Bay's Moonshine, the gay club crowd leaned middle-age-ward, though the happy younger faces in the crowd suggested that everyone was there because they love the vocal-driven sound of dance-pop. Think Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Madonna (of course). Smiles abounded.

EDM has long had a hard time breaking out beyond the club and dance party scene. As Carrie Battan recently put it in the New Yorker , "Instrumental dance tracks virtually never ascend the charts; producers need singers for lubrication."

EDM's top d.j's -- Skrillex, DeadMau5, David Guetta among them -- have toyed for years with vocals in their music. Most of them are now collaborating with top vocalists to produce hybrids that combine the best of both worlds.

You might say they were going back to the future. It so happens this year marks the 40th anniversary of some hugely important events that gave rise to both EDM and dance-pop.

In 1975, music recorded specifically for dance clubs -- then un-ironically called discos -- was born when an unknown former cosmetician from Newark, N.J., named Gloria Gaynor, released the first extended-play song. Her hit "Never Can Say Goodbye," a souped-up remake of the Jackson Five's own big hit, made clear a new form of beat-out-front offshoot of Rhythm-and-Blues was being born.

Across the Atlantic, another force was building -- in Germany -- that would soon unite with American R&B and take dance music to new heights. "Euro-disco" not only put the song's bass line in front, it also added electronic sounds unknown before in American music. Newsweek described Euro-disco as "an impressionistic, almost symphonic mix of electronic rhythms and spacey synthesized sound concocted by producer Giorgio Moroder."

"The disco songs we had before 1975 had drums," said Moroder. "Just normal drums, like a rock group. Then in 1975 we started to put in the bass drum. We called it 'four on the floor.' One, two, three, four! We kind of exaggerated." He added, "You watched people dancing and as soon as the song came out with that kind of heavy bass, people liked it."

The sound's first lady was Moroder's personal discovery, Boston-native Donna Summer. Her hit that year, "Love to Love You Baby," drove dancers to frenzied peaks of pleasure with Summer's famous multiple simulated orgasms. The album of the same name was the first of Summer's numerous gold albums.

In the 1980s, after the disco era ended, dance music splintered into four basic sub-genres. The lines between them frequently blurred. Starting in Detroit, House music kept the vocals, adding an even faster rhythm. American R&B moved toward the smoothness of urban soul, the verbal rhythm of rap, and the ghetto culture of Hip-Hop that borrowed whole melodies from disco. Techno and its numerous offshoots spun off the mechanized, vocal-free sound pioneered decades earlier by Giorgio Moroder.

Bubbling right alongside the mechanical minimalism and shameless sampling, was dance-pop--disco's truest heir.

Unlike much of what came to be lumped under E.D.M. -- frequently playing to feelings like anger and alienation -- dance-pop was, like disco itself, meant to evoke happy, fun, cathartic feelings.

Music historian Ed Ward told me in an interview in Berlin for my book Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco/Dance Music that the vocal-heavy sound has been especially popular in the gay dance scene in particular because "gay taste in dance music has been 'diva-centric.' "

Gay men have always loved our bigger-than-life female singers and actresses (think Judy Garland and Betty Davis). More than diva worship alone, though, is the simple fact of lyrics.

Maryalice Kallaghan is the house d.j. at The Boatslip, in Provincetown, Mass. For more than three decades, the beach club's daily tea dance has been the place to be on a hot summer weekend afternoon. From her longtime perch where she has both played to and helped to shape thousands of gay men's musical taste, Maryalice -- as she is known -- says loving the lyrics isn't a gay-straight thing. "I think straight people like the vocals as much," she told me. "But the older anyone gets, the more they want the song."

A few numbers make it clear which style of dance music truly dominates the world's dance halls and radio stations today.

Consider Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," for example. As of November 8, the "Bad Romance" music video on YouTube had been viewed 642,284,937 times. While still impressive, leading E.D.M. d.j. Skrillex's "Kill Everybody" had "only" 83,015.023 million views, about one-eighth the number.

Gaga's rapid ascent to the stratosphere of fame and popularity owes to talent and timing, as it always does. The multi-talented Lady -- now referring to herself as The Countess for her role in American Horror Story: Hotel -- smartly rode the wave of dance-pop music's massive global popularity. Her nearly 62 million Facebook 'friends' and 52 million Twitter followers attest to her correct judgment.

Gaga's rise -- and remember, she is only one of the brightly burning luminaria of the dance-diva pantheon -- paralleled the world's need for escape from the Great Recessionary blues.

Forty years ago, Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer-and so many other disco divas -- gave us the music that helped us get through the gas lines, Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation of the seventies.

The sheer durability of vocal-driven dance music alone suggests that whatever it may have to do with sexual orientation, age, the right timing, or just an appreciation for great dance music, the human need for the human touch remains strong.

I would also suggest that while the mostly male EDM d.j's sort out how to include human elements in their work, the dance-pop divas figured out long ago that their work is all about being human.

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