The Constant, Unfiltered Queer Joy of Nu Disco
Nu disco carries on the tradition of dance music being energetic and deceptively political.
Illustration by John Garrison
The feeling is all too familiar: sweaty bodies on the dance floor in some club late at night. It's a feeling that you don't want to call euphoric—that is far too cheesy and embarrassing. It's more triumphant; bodies moving sensually as the beat goes on. It brings together people across race, gender identity, and sexuality. It has a sound that is unmistakably hedonistic and decadent, made up of over the top lines of synth and grooving bass, 4/4 drumbeats, and the occasional string section. I have been on that dance floor in the club when nu disco is playing, losing myself in that realm of sweating, kissing, and dancing.
There is something really cool about the way nu disco brings people together in a club, regardless of where you are. What makes something as trendy as reviving disco actually very radical is the kind of community it draws upon. Nu Disco is sexual as fuck; it's a genre that centers on being wine drunk while covered in glitter. It's not something you can passively witness, you have to be involved at all times. Nu disco, like the disco that dominated the '70s and the '80s, gets a bad wrap. It's so easy to write it off as over the top and saying that isn't exactly wrong, but it's important to dig deeper.
Reinventing disco is a queer art. Disco has always been queer. Asking for dance music that negates passivity brings together queer people. Nu disco might be bad to some, it might be aggressively sexual, but there's a reason for that. Dance music, especially disco, has implications for queer people, trans people, and people of colour. The dance floor is not just a place to sweat and kiss; it often functions as a place of healing. Nu disco is pop music at its edges, both conceptually and sonically. Its themes are rife with that kind of blatant bacchanalianism and display of sexuality, often dealing with ideas of true love, getting naked and losing yourself.
Nu disco carries on a tradition of dance music that is energetic and deceptively political. It calls back to days of big name pop artists like Donna Summer and Diana Ross, as well as that of early experimental pop artists like Cortex, Captain Beefheart, and the Rah Band. That's what is special about this kind of music: it's innovative and nostalgic at the same time. It's both an extension of alt rock and a reinvention of dance music. It's a genre full of songs that feel like they last forever.
Contemporary disco and dance music doesn't necessarily come off as overtly political. Instead, people tend to like it because it's goofy and easy to dance to. There's Kero Kero Bonito, a three-piece, bilingual synth pop act fronted by Sarah Midori Perry. The band's first full-length record, Bonito Generation, is a sugary sweet nostalgia trip, pulled straight out of the 80s. It frequently includes clap drumbeats, horn samples, and energetic synths. KKB's feel good universe meshes well with nu disco's feel good manifesto. Midori Perry sings about how much better life would be if we jumped on trampolines all day on "Trampoline" and it's easy for one to lose themselves in the song's repetition.
Great disco songs feel endless, like mimicking a night out that sees you coming home as the sun comes up. It a is track that is layered and it's almost a challenge to discern the song's parts. In one of the songs bigger hooks, Midori Perry repeats over and over: "Jump/Jump Trampoline/Fly to where you want to be." This hook is a statement: life can and will be so much easier if you give yourself the freedom to breathe and get lost the in bouncy rhythm of a trampoline. KKB is asking us to do the big thing we've been longing to do. They're asking us, albeit in a way that is adorable and fun, which doesn't negate the messaging, to believe and see the world through a new set of eyes. To "fly to where you want to be" is a very tongue and cheek but political act. Kero Kero Bonito's alt rock crossover into disco is indirectly woven into a political narrative. Their music is full of these little mantras that repeat a simple idea over and over until you breathe it into existence. "Trampoline" seems simple but in reality it is high concept pop music. The themes in "Trampoline," and on every song on the rest of this album seem basic but they're almost liberating. When Midori Perry sings " it's so easy," you really want to believe it.
There is no consistent sound when it comes to nu disco. The similarities tend to be mostly thematic and structural. No band highlights this difference better than Tredici Bacci . This group of classically trained New England Conservatory of Music jazz musicians live for the pulp and kitsch of the mid-century, Ennio Morricone-inspired, French and Italian dance music. Tredici Bacci is a fifteen-piece band arranged by Simon Hanes and made up of a string and horn sections and multiple vocalists. In the band's most recent album Amore Per Tutti, we're whisked away to the European discotheques of yore. Tredici Bacci songs are familiar and that's totally the point. It's that sensation of feeling like you've been listening to a song for your whole life. It's such over the top nostalgia that it's totally genius, whether that nostalgia is actually part of your memory or something you've longed to experience. It becomes the soundtrack to a moment.
The genre isn't US-centric and it isn't only accessible for Anglophone audiences. Nu disco not only emerged from disco itself but is heavily rooted in European house and experimental pop/electronic music. Melody Prochet of Melody's Echo Chamber does a great job of building upon that work done by experimental "French Disko" acts like Stereolab. Prochet is a multi-instrumentalist who first entered the musical landscape when Kevin Parker produced her debut album. Prochet has since parted ways with Parker and has tinkered and transformed, finally releasing a seven-minute monster of a track that blends together some gorgeous sonic elements of disco. In "Cross My Heart," the textures are ample. Prochet plays with multiple lines of guitar, synth, strings, horns, a programmed drumbeat, and classic rock drumming and vocals in both French and English. The track transports, speeding up just as rapidly as it seems to slow down. She creates tightly wound arpeggios that are just as quickly deconstructed. Her composition is magical, irregular, and terrifyingly weird. There is nothing effortless about Prochet's music. It's complicated and a dense listen. The music is not exactly dancefloor ready but that is not to say it can't have the same effect. When listening to Melody's Echo Chamber, you can imagine yourself in that same sexually charged glow.
Being able to experience, unfiltered joy is constantly the operative in nu disco. There are J-Pop groups like Wednesday Campanella who make gooey dance music set to elaborate music videos that revolve around dancing alone in a bowling alley. There are artists such Jens Lekman who bridge the gap between alt-rock and disco-inspired pop music. Lekman's newest album Life Will See You Now is blissful and awkward, full of cryptic lyrics about the history of the universe and the feeling of falling in love. Japanese Breakfast, the project of Michelle Zauner, is also taking a new and exciting direction. In the band's most recent single, "Machinist," we are swept away with a tune that is nothing short of space disco. Zauner's lyricism is political: she talks about falling in love with a machine. It's cyborg feminism to the tune of dreamy synth work you can groove out to.
Nu disco is versatile and fucking awesome. All of it gets at ideas of sensuality, partying and liberation—just slightly differently because the time we're living in now allows for more experiences, on a broader spectrum, to be more emphasized. Nu disco doesn't get covered a lot because it's vast and also it can be kind of hard to handle. It's a genre of music that is queer, even when it doesn't try to be. I have memories dancing to Jepsen's "Boy Problems" in a queer club. People have danced and lived for Daft Punk's mega hit disco track "Get Lucky" in queer clubs all over the world. You can say it's cheesy and earnest, and that's fine, but the context of where these songs are heard is essential. Queerness, dancing, beautiful bridges of sound that last forever: all of these things are interrelated and when combined, become something almost inherently political. Booze, club drugs, sex, and glitter are all tied up in liberation somehow or another. There is magic on the dance floor when disco plays.
Sophie Kemp is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Twitter.