From ‘Believe’ to ‘Break My Soul’: Why the Dancefloor Offers Veteran Pop Divas a New Path to the Top of the Charts

·11 min read

In addition to its fifteen joyous new songs, Beyoncé’s Renaissance era has unleashed a Pandora’s box of discourse upon the world. From dance music history lessons to debates about samples, interpolations, and writing credits, conversations around Beyoncé’s latest album have spanned generations and disciplines. In the midst of all of these discussions, one point that hasn’t been properly underscored is how rare it is for an album by a female pop artist in her 40s to be dominating so much of the cultural conversation in the first place.

“Break My Soul,” the lead single from Renaissance, commenced the music icon’s latest reinvention. A raucously blissful ode to building a “new foundation,” “Break My Soul,” situated Beyoncé in a rather intriguing pop music lineage. From Aretha Franklin and Eartha Kitt to Madonna – and now, Beyoncé – once female pop stars hit 40, they seem to always deliver an undeniable anthem rooted in dance music. These songs simultaneously innovate each artist’s core sounds and use the queer history of dance music and the genre’s unique avenues of consumption to catalyze commercial success – in the face of ageism in the music industry and pop culture, at large.

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Ageism in pop music is hardly a new phenomenon. A look at Billboard’s 2021 Year-End Radio Songs chart, which ranks the 75 most played songs on radio for that year, reveals a stark age cutoff for female artists vying to get a record in regular radio rotation. Just one song, Taylor Swift’s “Willow” (No. 45), sung by a woman over 30 landed on the 2021 chart. As for the 2021 Year-End Pop Airplay chart, just one woman over 30 appears on the 50-spot ranking: SZA, as a featured artist on Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More” (No. 4). Nevertheless, plenty of male artists and acts over 30 – including Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, Charlie Puth, Masked Wolf, Maroon 5, Machine Gun Kelly, Blackbear, Chris Brown, and Ed Sheeran – all had songs make the Year-End list.

In 2015, perennial pop titan Madonna, who recently blessed “Break My Soul” with her appearance on the song’s “Queens Remix,” took on BBC Radio 1 after a programmer refused to play her Rebel Heart lead single “Living for Love” in an effort to lower the age of the station’s demographic. “My manager said to me, ‘If you’re not in your twenties, it’s hard. You might get your record played in your thirties. There’s a handful of people who do – Pharrell got lucky. But if you’re in your fifties, you can forget it,’” Madonna said. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. Shouldn’t it have to do with whether you wrote a good, catchy pop song?’”

In a 2017 New York Times interview, P!nk expressed similar sentiments. The “Just Give Me A Reason” singer said that she was told, “Just be prepared, they don’t play girls over 35 on top 40 radio. There are exceptions, but they’re songs, not artists — unless you’re Beyoncé.” But even that last exception wasn’t necessarily warranted: “Break My Soul,” which as of press time, has peaked at No. 4 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart, is the first song from a Beyoncé album to hit the chart’s top 10 since her self-titled set’s “Drunk In Love” rose to No. 6 in 2014. “Soul” is also Beyoncé’s first solo song to hit the top 10 on the Pop Airplay listing since “Sweet Dreams” in 2009.

The beauty of dance music, in terms of general consumption, is that while the genre has had its mainstream periods – particularly in the ‘90s diva house era “Soul” calls back to – it is not inherently reliant on the politics of radio. Dance music pulses and percolates in nightclubs, raves, and balls that stretch into the twinkling wee hours of the morning. From the underground queer subcultures that informed the disco movement to house music’s foundation of chosen families, dance music has always thrived outside of the mainstream. (Dance also had an undeniable top 40 moment at the beginning of the 2010s, with the commercial dominance of dubstep and progressive house, but it was a phenomenon that largely sanitized the history of dance music and prioritized straight white male artists and voices over the genre’s queer Black roots.)

The left-of-mainstream legacy has evolved in the digital age, with queer pop music fans often finding community in the fan bases of their favorite artists. These are often the most devoted and dedicated fans these artists have, so forays into a genre that is inextricably tied to queerness is an understandable move – as these artists’ commercial success becomes increasingly dictated by their core audience as opposed to the fleeting adoration of the general public. 

DJ and music scholar Lynée Denise writes of the late 1980s club scene in cities like Chicago and Detroit, “DJs and house music producers, some queer and some straight, were calling on witnesses of the AIDS crisis to grieve and groove.” These were records that didn’t have to rely on massive radio conglomerates and callout scores to determine success. Instead, these records relied on their ability to bring people to the dancefloor and enrapture a crowd. In the same way, when pop divas turn to dance for late-career musical shifts, the songs are now reliant on both club play and radio. Sometimes, their dominance in the club scene can transcend any tepid reaction from traditional radio. (Many of the biggest stars also regularly rely on dance remixes of their hits from popular DJs to continue to get even their non-floor-ready hits club play, a practice established in the ‘90s by the likes of Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Madonna.)

The most extreme example of this phenomenon is Eartha Kitt’s “Where Is My Man.” Originally appearing on her 1984 I Love Men album, “Where Is My Man” was initially a France-only release that saw massive success. The dance track used U.S. nightclubs and dance markets to buoy its success in the face of Kitt’s European exile after she was ostracized for her criticism of the Vietnam War at a White House dinner in 1968. “Where Is My Man” went on to earn Kitt her best-selling single in over 30 years, her first U.K. chart hit in 28 years, her first Gold-certified record, and her first appearance on any Billboard chart in 29 years. Similarly, “A Deeper Love,” Aretha Franklin’s house-inflected cover of the Clivillés & Cole original, became her first single in seven years to enter the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 63 in 1994. “A Deeper Love” also hit the summit of Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart, her first chart-topper since she scored a pair of leaders in 1985. 

Most memorably of these 20th-century examples, Cher’s “Believe” (1999) soared all the way to No. 2 on Radio Songs, a highly rewarding payoff for what was arguably the starkest musical shift in the then-52-year-old’s career. The beloved song functioned as Cher’s first true journey to the dancefloor with its warbling Auto-Tune and anthemic chorus. “Believe” became arguably the biggest song of her then-nearly-four-decade hitmaking run, and gifted the icon her first Grammy Award (for best dance recording). A little over a decade later, a then-42-year-old Jennifer Lopez rode the EDM wave to No. 5 on Radio Songs with the Pitbull-assisted “On the Floor” in 2011, her first record as a lead artist to enter the chart’s top 10 since 2003’s “All I Have” (with LL Cool J) hit No. 3. The success of these records spilled over to the Hot 100: “Believe” granted Cher first chart-topper since 1974’s “Dark Lady” — the longest gap between No. 1 hits in Hot 100 history — while “On The Floor” earned Lopez her highest peak since “All I Have” (No. 1). Finally, Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” – which reigns atop the Hot 100 for the first time this week — is her first leader since “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” reached the summit in 2008. 

So, as these artists enter new phases of their career and near middle age, what’s the draw of dance music? For one, the genre’s relentless optimism and infectious rhythms are hard not to be overcome by, regardless of age. On the other hand, dance music is arguably the most natural convergence of the analog and the electronic; the genre feels at once modern and retro. While Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” resides in the ‘90s house built by Robin S.’s “Show Me Love,” the song ropes in elements of bounce music (by way of a sample of Big Freedia’s “Explode”) and rap (Jay-Z appears in the writing credits) which help it feel fresh and uniquely Beyoncé. Dance music provides these artists with fertile ground to explore different combinations of the classic and the modern without any feelings of awkwardness or desperation for relevance.

Madonna’s “Hung Up,” with its sample of ABBA’s seminal “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” accomplished something similar back in 2005. Although Madonna has been largely synonymous with dance music since her early ‘80s debut, the track’s disco bent helped evoke a sense of familiarity after 2003’s more left-field American Life, while Stuart Price’s production blessed “Hung Up” with a contemporary feel that helped prevent the song from feeling too retro. Meanwhile, though “On The Floor” marked a stark musical shift from the hip-hop-inflected pop&B of Jennifer Lopez’s biggest hits, the song’s commands to “dance the night away” fit perfectly in both a dance-driven period in top 40 and within the oeuvre of an entertainer for whom dance has always been a central tenet. And most notably, Cher’s “Believe” helped actively push popular music forward with its pioneering use of Auto-Tune, while simultaneously paying tribute to the disco era that informed the track’s production. There may be some melancholy coursing through the lyrics of some of these songs, but, ultimately, these dance anthems are records that inspire warmth, catharsis, and perseverance — themes that are as universal as they are undeniable.

No analysis of pop music or pop stardom is complete without appreciating the art of reinvention. Forays into dance music allow older pop stars to try something fresh and new. Beyoncé has dabbled in dance music before, most notably on DJ remixes, 2011’s “Run the World (Girls),” and 2013’s “Blow,” but “Break My Soul” finds the Houston singer going full ‘90s house diva — a complete 180 from the introspective and, at times, overtly political mood of 2016’s Lemonade. The closest sibling to J. Lo’s “On The Floor” would be her 1999 chart-topper “Waiting for Tonight,” but, even then, the 2011 track reached for harsher EDM beats and a faster tempo after she spent a decade collaborating within the R&B and hip-hop worlds. Cher’s “Believe” was, at the time, a complete departure from her pop-rock sound – which she continued successfully with follow-up hits like “Strong Enough” and “Song For the Lonely.”

Although Lemonade transformed Beyoncé into one of the key sociopolitical artists of the past decade, “Break My Soul,” and Renaissance as a whole, find the artist doing her part to help reclaim the Black and queer origins of dance music. From releasing “Break My Soul” during Pride Month to sampling a queer bounce music icon in Big Freedia, Beyoncé has been highly intentional in anchoring her foray into dance music with the goal of honoring the genre’s history. This is a move that separates “Break My Soul” from tracks like “On the Floor,” which had minimal ties to the origins of dance, instead banking on the EDM genre already being popular in the mainstream at the time.

Whether or not Beyoncé continues to dabble in dance from here, the success of “Break My Soul” proves that this diva comeback template isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The song is simply the latest example of a blueprint that has helped redefine what career longevity looks like for women in pop music. There is still much work to be done regarding ageism on Top 40 radio, but this cheat code is one way that older pop stars can stabilize their footing in an industry that’s moving faster than ever before. Although the career trajectories of pop divas vary widely, they’ve each added their spin on a blueprint that will surely become a “new foundation” for future pop stars to follow.

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