Just as they can for a person, nightclubs hold the power to transform a song forever. DJs speak of the process in mystical tones: of timeworn tracks that suddenly grew auras, accrued or shed gravitas, went down in bright red flames and arose in an emerald dress. The magic happens in the hands of the selector but relies on the secret codes, fashions, and frisson of clubland, as well as the community of believers bound up in its conspiracy. In 2020, club songs were robbed of these reckonings, and stuck, to their makers’ displeasure, in a musical purgatory.
It’s a shame, too, since clubs are an enduring refuge in times of upheaval. “People have always lost themselves in dancing when the economy’s been bad,” the soundman Bob Casey told New York Sunday News in 1975, as disco swept a city in recession after the Vietnam War. “Everyone’s out to spend their unemployment check, their welfare: to lose themselves.”
To lose oneself now sounds like the height of decadence; during lockdowns, our selves are all we have. It was a year of inaccessible dancefloors and inescapable context. Grief hung in the air, demanding caveats to even the smallest expressions of joy. New sensibilities affected how records were produced, understood, even titled. It posed an existential challenge to the genre tasked, for decades, with providing hedonistic communion as a means of survival.
Is it a blessing or a curse that club producers continued to tinker away, lighting fireworks to fizzle in half-empty parks, ad hoc home gyms, perhaps a lounge soirée? For sweat-spangled clubbers, the body and the beat make a natural pairing. By contrast, the neglected green spaces of east London, which I wandered in headphones most afternoons, arouse no state of ecstatic surrender. Sometime in the first wave it became customary, at the mere sight of another human, to stiffen up and plot a performatively wide berth, bursting any bubble of transcendence. At what point were we meant to let loose to the piano-house tidings of Jayda G’s “Both of Us” or “Turbo Olé” maestro JASSS’s laser-gun hooks?
As their music adapted to the new normal, the artists behind these and other would-be bangers—like India Jordan’s supercharged soul flip “For You” or Roísín Murphy’s sultry bacchanal “Murphy’s Law”—took solace from online reactions. Although musical catharsis eluded many, it turned out levity could strike as suddenly as despair. Future carnival bangers burst from box-room speakers. Tracks of the summer, destined for big-tent festivals, instead found ravers unravelling in emotional and physical coops, ready to riot at the shimmer of a steel drum. The unruliest dance songs aspire toward salvation. This year, they just gave us a little space.
In late 2019, the Spanish producer Silvia Jiménez Alvarez began work on a club track that would bypass stuffy techno and prise open a Pandora’s Box of menace and breakbeats. Even without dancefloors, “Turbo Olé” has assumed an air of perennial serendipity: No matter when it is played, its ideal conditions retroactively materialize. When you return from a club’s smoking area and solemnly line up at the bar, only to glance around and see a friend winningly brandish a spare can—that’s the moment something like “Turbo Olé” invariably tumbles from the speakers.
When she conceived the track, Alvarez, who operates as JASSS, was channeling the dancefloors she visualized as a teenager, long before setting foot in a club. In this spirit, she was unafraid to use trancey sounds that might scan as kitsch. “It’s like the audio version of ecstasy,” she says from her home in Berlin. “A fall-in-love-on-the-dancefloor situation.”
The release was set in motion before pandemic anxiety went mainstream. Though eager to impose a delay, Alvarez watched helplessly as it dropped in March, “right in the transition from pseudo-normality,” she says. For a low-key release on cult label AD 93, it won an impressive following—but without dancefloor feedback, she senses the song “hasn’t been completed. I felt some grief when it came out.”
Like Alvarez, the Canadian-born producer Jayda G grew up far from the city, and has internalized a version of nightlife she naively dreamed up then. Though this “imagination place” began as a stage for shredding guitar solos like her teenage idol Jimi Hendrix, over the years it morphed into a dance club. “I find solace and comfort in it, almost more so than the real place,” she says. During lockdown, she began to “reach back into those brain pathways: going deep into my imagination and trying to have that be the part that causes endorphins.”
She started work on a new calling-card anthem, “Both of Us,” last September, envisaging scenes of mass euphoria. “For the super slow breakdown, when I was playing it over and over in my headphones, I kept imagining everyone clapping,” she remembers. When she road-tested it at shows early this year, the response was encouraging but lacked the euphoria that typically greets a signature track. By the time the track picked up a dark-horse nomination for the Best Dance Recording Grammy in November, it had lived another life altogether. “People have been like, ‘I’ve had the worst lockdown ever but this song gets me out of bed in the morning,” she says, laughing. “You’re stuck inside, so a lot of people have been breaking up. They’re like, ‘I broke up with my girlfriend but this song got me through it.’”
Unlike their club contemporaries, emerging London producer India Jordan never imagined breakout opus “For You” reverberating beyond their own head. The sugary filter-house track embodies a conceptual yin and yang for Jordan: one side dedicated to themself, to celebrate untangling their own identity; the other communal, channeling the sort of tune that, timed right, unifies a dancefloor in a single flash point.
Releasing the EP of the same name in May, Jordan says, initially “felt like taking up space at a time when I wasn’t allowed to. Me all happy on the timeline, when everyone’s trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.” To their delight, homebound listeners latched onto the personal side of “For You,” which blossomed without the rush and heat of the club. In the process, its bacchanalian spirit receded. “I’m trying not to get too upset about it,” Jordan says, sigh-laughing into the phone. “I’m struggling to even listen to proper club music, because I just get sad.”
Glam-pop maverick Roísín Murphy also sounds less than devastated by the pandemic fate of her “Murphy’s Law.” It did, after all, spearhead a beloved album, Roísín Machine, helped along by its freakily prescient lyrics: “I won’t be a prisoner/Locked up in this house/I feel my story’s still untold/But I’ll make my own happy ending.” The song represents just one room in the larger club simulation that is the album. “I suppose ‘Murphy’s Law’ is in the glamorous, Studio 54 room,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of shimmying around in boob tubes.”
Murphy does, however, lament that world domination slipped away. The album “would have been in all the fucking clubs, in all the hairdressers, shops, cafés,” she says. “Not being funny, but [pre-release single] ‘Incapable’ was absolutely everywhere.”
Her workaround was a parade of self-directed home performances, in which she learned to “climb through the camera” to the audience, she says. Through psychedelic filters, she pranced around her lounge and changed costumes mid-song, exclaiming ad-libs like: “We’ll get over this one, lads!” The idea was to make it “slick like a pop video, but still as live as possible.” With Murphy’s glammy flair, the live streams help clarify the form’s limitations. Her presence is pure brilliance—but in a club, it is not only the DJ who plays for the crowd: The clubbers also perform for themselves and each other. The live stream format captures one cornerstone of live performance (that is, the artist’s vulnerability to some disastrous error) yet cannot subject attendees to the same risk—the anxiety, and thrill, of being seen.
Like more traditional club producers, Lorenzo Senni was disheartened that his new record, the impishly melodic Scacco Matto, would miss its chance for a dancefloor metamorphosis. But in a spiritual sense, the arthouse Italian producer is the forefather of dance music’s present impasse. For years, he has specialized in trance build-ups that never drop, gutting his tracks—and fans—of the anticipated euphoria. Once a straight-edge hardcore drummer, Senni riffs on “a sober idea of the club,” he says, in which the listener operates not as a participant but as a “rave voyeur.”
In “Dance Tonight Revolution Tomorrow,” Senni composed a centerpiece for Scacco Matto that spliced his heady concepts with a more dancefloor-oriented structure. Released into the pandemic world, the track found unexpected habitats: first at the Fendi Awards show, then as the theme to a general-interest TV series in Italy. “It got the attention of people who don’t even care about clubs, who never thought for a second about dancing to it,” he says.
In present conditions, where blissful drops invoke a catharsis just beyond our grasp, club music at large has lapsed into Senni’s aesthetics of the not-quite. Because his music sounds so unorthodox in clubs, he is closely attuned to their power to tweak a song’s wiring, not least when DJs try to assimilate his tracks. Flourishes as simple as adding a kick drum can light sparks that had lain dormant in the originals. He thought his track “One Life, One Chance” was finished until he heard Aphex Twin play it and add a “brutal square-wave” synth.
Senni recalls two concerts where, even without manipulation, his music transformed before his eyes. In 2013, alongside the cream of underground techno, he played a risky Berghain set of buildups he had composed for a gallery exhibit. In the original setting, the art crowd nodded in appreciation. But rather than losing steam, the Berghain throngs “started dancing, going crazy to it,” Senni remembers, chuckling. Likewise, at a marquee Paris festival last year, he was surprised to find the beatless “Discipline of Enthusiasm,” from then-unreleased Scacco Matto, “working almost as functional dance music.” Once a track has known the perfect (or perfectly imperfect) dancefloor, its DNA is reconfigured for good.
In a year without clubs, mass protest provided another arena for songs to mutate and raise hell. Like the disco dancefloors of ’70s New York, protests turn dissent into a roar of unity, creating a noisy bubble where allyship trumps hate. When the Brooklyn DJ iMarkkeyz made “Lose Yo Job” with fellow trickster DJ Suede the Remix God, he expected to make some people laugh on the internet. Instead, their makeshift anthem crossed over to the resistance.
While primed to induce dancefloor delirium, “Lose Yo Job” is the inverse of 2020 club songs robbed of a habitat. Built on a sample of Johnniqua Charles, who rapped the mantra at a security guard who’d detained her outside a South Carolina club, the track went viral and flew into the lingua franca of social agitation, notably efforts to help unseat Trump. When iMarkkeyz trekked to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to protest the killing of George Floyd, folks blasted it before cops kettled them on the Manhattan Bridge.
“That energy is gonna be there,” whether at a club or protest, iMarkkeyz says. “When you’re around a crowd with shared goals, like getting cops indicted, music brings that positive energy in.” Even when composing for Instagram, the producer is trying to rally the downtrodden behind a common goal: “It gives people an alternate reality. ‘This guy doing his remixes, he don’t give a damn!’ That’s what I want everybody to see. Not to live in fear.”
For Jayda G, a return to mass connectivity feels tantalizingly close. “We all know that first show back will be epic,” she says, laughing at her excitement. “I’m thinking outdoors, sunset. I see myself coming out from the decks, enjoying it as much as the crowd is.” Until then, “Both of Us” remains trapped in that imaginary dancefloor of hers. “When you perform, the song leaves you,” she says. “It becomes everyone else’s song. And you forget it was ever yours to begin with.”
India Jordan found a substitute outlet when some friends guested on Do!! You!!!, an NTS radio show. They “were all in a chatroom posting funny dancing gifs, shouting ‘wheel it!’ when they played a banger,” Jordan says. “The liveness of those radio shows feels like the closest we’re gonna get to a community.”
“We literally saw the unthinkable happen,” considers JASSS, who is warier of resuming business as usual. “But I’m pretty sure that, when the moment comes, I’ll get pretty wasted. I’ll play really loud for a lot of people. I will celebrate. And afterwards, with a hangover, I’ll be very introspective: ‘How long is all this gonna last?’”
Roísín Murphy got a head start on the cultural resurrection when, just before a September lockdown, she visited the stalwart Ibiza bar Sa Trinxa. She suspects the DJ spotted her from the booth, because, as the sun set over Cala Pluma’s sands, she felt her spine tingle to the pulse of “Murphy’s Law.” “I couldn’t help myself,” she admits. “I had to get up and dance on the beach.”
It was merriment enough to refill her cup, and she is now convinced that, come her next tour, worries will dissolve at the door like hers did on that beach. “It felt like Sa Trinxa 25 years ago—a very Balearic moment,” Murphy reflects, turning wistful. “Then you get told off, and you remember. The simulation ends.”
Still, she says: For the length of a song, “it was really magic again.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork