Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chrissy Murderbot's "Year of Mixtapes" -- Week 21, "90's Dance Pop"

Fifteen years ago, the idea of me writing a post like this would have been unthinkable. Ten years ago, even.

The 90's were a weird decade for music. Plenty of people were saying this years ago, I only came to accept it fairly recently.

For me, the 90's were the decade of rave/techno, Britpop, shoegaze, and postrock, roughly in that order. When they were happening, the 90's seemed great. On the side, the industry was undergoing a major overhaul as "alternative became mainstream", spearheaded by grunge artists selling tens of millions of records. I wasn't a huge fan, but for the most part I respect and even liked some of the music. In any case, an environment where Nine Inch Nails was suddenly a big seller had to be a change for the better.

Arguably the biggest stinkbomb left behind by the 90's was the artificially inflated CD album sales. The single was led into a dark alley and shot (therefore forcing consumers to buy the entire album whether they wanted to or not) and the baby boomers hadn't finished re-buying all their favourite albums on yet another format. Luddites and run-of-the-mill industry apologists haven't stopped complaining since, because of those inflated numbers from the 90's we had to tolerate a million dumb arguments in the 00's about how file sharing was the worst thing to ever happen to music, even after most of the holdouts had begrudgingly accepted the idea of legal downloads in the latter half of the decade. In the past couple of years, Lady Gaga and BEP have been inescapable despite struggling to sell a few million albums. In the 90's horrible bands like Smashmouth would barely scrape the top 20 with turgid songs like "Walking on the Sun" and ride that one minor hit to multiplatinum album sales. And in a sequence of transparent attempts to create easily pre-packaged and auto-marketable musical trends, tankloads of ink and A&R money were spilled in trying to force feed new breakthrough genres to a listening public who couldn't have cared less ("electronica", swing, ska).

With the exception of the peak of grunge sometime in 1992, everything that was (and still is) defined as "serious" or "canonical" music by the North American music press was massively out of step with what was actually popular. This was inescapably true for singles, whereas for albums the situation was a bit different, but not so much). Look over the lists of songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100 and you won't see Pearl Jam and Radiohead and late 90's electronica (Prodigy, Chemical Brothers), hell, you won't even see U2 and REM or virtually any major hip hop artist (with the exception of Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G. in 1997-8 in the wake of Biggie's murder. Remember, Jay-Z and Snoop didn't hit #1 in the 90's, but Kris Kross, Snow, and Sir Mix-A-Lot did). Instead, you'll see a bazillion R&B slow jams, plenty of limp power ballads sung by white guys (Michael Bolton, Bryan Adams, Mr. Big), and approximately 645 Mariah Carey songs. You won't catch any of these hit songs near anyone's "Best of the 1990's" list, not the original list, not in the Nostalgia List 2004, or the Redux List 2010, nowhere.

In 2009, Chicago DJ Chrissy Murderbot started a blog called "My Year of Mixtapes", and countless fans, writers and DJ's groaned "damn it, I wish I'd thought of that". Every week for one year, he uploaded a mix of songs based around a specific theme, usually a marginalized, underappreciated, or somewhat exotic genre. His Week 27 entry, "Quebecois Disco", hasn't left my iPod in months. Montreal was a disco hub in the early 80's? I had no idea.

Week 21 was entitled 90's Dance Pop, which is a bit misleading. You'd be hard-pressed to claim that all of these songs fit into a single recognized genre (although CM never claims that they do) except that they all fit some loose description of "dance" or club music as it was defined at various points during the decade. But most of these songs are more commonly known as Eurodance. And during the 90's, I fucking hated Eurodance. It was an affront to the "real" techno music that I valued. Other people talked dismissively about how "dumb" techno music was -- that's exactly what I was hearing when I heard Eurodance. I flipped the channel to avoid seeing these videos on TV, I tried my hardest to avoid being stuck anywhere near student pubs that played these songs. Both of these things were impossible if you wanted to watch much TV or go out anywhere.

And yet somehow, I came around and started to really like the stuff. The turning of the tide started when I admitted to myself that Haddaway's "What is Love" is one of the best songs ever (and this was before "A Night At the Roxbury" turned it into a punchline), and it basically progressed from there, albeit slowly. It wasn't until many years later, for instance, that I bought this compilation.

There's virtually no filler on this mix, nearly every song was a huge hit -- even in the US. "Gonna Make You Sweat" and "Vogue" were #1 hits. Countless Eurodance songs went to #1 in Europe, and although none of them managed to do so in the US, there were a number of huge, inescapable hits -- "Rhythm is a Dancer" was #5, "Barbie Girl" was #7, "Run Away" was #3, "It Feels So Good" was #8. Ace of Base's "The Sign" was #1 (and the album went nine times platinum in the US), but isn't featured on the mix -- "Beautiful Life" only made it to #15. "What Is Love" has to be one of the most recognizable #11 hits of all time.

This music was huge in the US, even huger in Europe, and had incredible longevity when measured against virtually any other musical trend. Eurodance was big at the start of the 90's and was still big at the end of the 90's. One reason why the genre gets no respect is because, paradoxically, careers tended to be short (or rather, a brief period of meteoric fame followed by an indefinite period on the club/revival circuit) but the genre itself was somehow indestructible. The musical canon is not only album-oriented, but tends to shut out artists who didn't have longevity. Still, the sales numbers of many Eurodance groups are mind-boggling. Aqua, for instance, are still the biggest selling group ever to come from Denmark, with over 30 million sales worldwide.

And yet, more than ten years later, not a single song on this mix comes within sniffing distance of the music establishment's 90's musical canon. Even Madonna's "Vogue" is considered an outlier within her catalogue. People wasted their time talking about the apparent novelty (and irony) of groups like the Prodigy and Chemical Brothers taking techno from Americans and then selling it back to them as something foreign and exotic. Eurodance artists from Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands had been doing that for years, and continued doing it long after everyone forgot about the electronica fad. Not to mention that Todd Terry (an American) and Everything But the Girl (from the UK) had a massive breakthrough pop hit the year before the electronic craze hit ("Missing" went to #2 in the US).

The influence of 90's dance pop, and Eurodance in particular, is all over 21st century pop music. It's in Katy Perry's bubblegum hedonism, in Timbaland's productions, in Usher's "Yeah!" (see also: rave). Simon Reynolds wrote about the 80's revival in the Guardian earlier this year, and inexplicably claimed that "everything about Gaga came from electroclash, except the music, which wasn't particularly 1980s, just ruthlessly catchy noughties pop glazed with Auto-Tune and undergirded with R&B-ish beats." Say what?? I'm hard pressed to think of a sadder critical trend that giving undue credit to Electroclash. So many damn critics are desperate to assign some long-term meaning and significance to Electroclash for reasons that I'll never entirely understand. Basically, we're supposed to believe that Lady Gaga, who was all of fifteen years old during the three or so months that Electroclash was mildly popular, was so profoundly influenced by the style and fashion surrounding the music that she filed it away in her memory and insisted on dragging it into the mainstream eight years later. Why make up such silly stories instead of going with the bleeding obvious? It makes a lot more sense that a self-described club kid freak like Lady Gaga would be influenced by the music that was actually popular in the 80's and 90's. And what exactly is "noughties pop with R&B-ish beats", is it an attempt to link her to the critically acceptable Timbaland instead of the critically unacceptable Ace of Base? Don't take my word for it, listen to what Lady Gaga herself has said in interviews. Of course she was influenced by industrial (yet another critically maligned genre) and Ace of Base! Just spend five seconds listening to the beats on "Bad Romance" and "Alejandro", respectively.

Anyway, be sure to check out this mix, leave the bad memories behind and just enjoy the music.

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