The Redemption of Disco

I'm having trouble with the redemption of disco.

The long-awaited new Daft Punk album, RANDOM ACCESS MEMORY, certainly has a lot to do with it, but from where I'm standing the ball started rolling last year with Hot Chip's IN OUR HEADS. This is, of course, a purely personal evaluation; you may find enough disco element's in Royksopp's JUNIOR, or perhaps your definition of disco can encompass the sounds of LCD Soundsystem's 45:33. But for me, it wasn't until that Hot Chip album that I began to evaluate where I stood with disco, and it took a hell of a Daft Punk album to finally make me commit to a decision.

For us loathsome millenials, disco has long been the communal punching bag. We all developed different tastes and hates, but it was universal that disco was bad. It was awful high collar white suits, images of John Travolta pointing to the opposite corners of the room, "Disco Inferno" and our parents in awkward pictures. We could come around on all our other biases, but disco was the village idiot, never to be redeemed, a scar on music history reinforced by jokes on The Simpsons.

At the same time, I was a bassist, and disco was the last genre that let us feel important. Rock & roll had great bassists, but they were great because they used their talent to force themselves into notoriety. With disco, a good bass groove was necessity, not a luxury reserved for the cream of the crop. I thought of the genre as uncool, but even then I still had to learn "Play That Funky Music" and "Stayin' Alive." It was fun to do, but still, ultimately, the peak of uncoolness.

This became especially true to me after the generally bad 2010 David Byrne/Fatboy Slim collaboration, HERE LIES LOVE. While it was inspired by the drama of Imelda Marcos, the Philippine patron saint of excess, much of its sound was derived from disco, the popular music of the time. The worst parts of the album were lifeless sub-elevator music beats, reinforcing my pre-conceived notion of disco as dead, dumb music.

Last year, I had trouble putting into words how IN OUR HEADS was different. Hot Chip has always been danceable and electronic, but never fit under the white hot label of EDM. They didn't have the muscle to be labeled "Dance Punk" the way it was invented for LCD Soundsystem, or the sweetness of "Electropop" the way Postal Service did. We settled for the simple, broad, vaguery of "electronic music," but if IN OUR HEADS was a departure from MADE IN THE DARK, how would I articulate this newness? It was more playful, but adhered to some traditional structure, built for dancing, but not for losing your mind ... could this be disco?

It was as if someone had translated the inscription on an ancient (occult) artifact and suddenly I knew what I was holding. If this was disco, it mixed and tailored for my modern tastes. I could deal with that, and told myself it was still a contemporary album. Disco may be in its DNA, but it had the good sense to rip out all the dumb stuff. Today's sounds, bigger ideas - it was okay to like. Cognitive dissonance avoided.

Then Daft Punk happens and it's all disco all the time, unabashed and aggressive. And I like it, a lot. It's full of top tier musicianship, especially on the drums and bass, and evokes a wholesome sincerity that is often missing in pop music. It's not ironic. It's an excited labor of unfiltered love. This was the bravest move they could make while still making sense, but god damn it, disco. How am I going to make sense of that?

I used to hate country music. My entire life, I grew up in an urban industrial sub urb of LA county, no one liked anyting but hip hop, alternative, punk & ska. Country was the devil. But then in High School I found Conor Oberst, and in 2003 he took a swerve from emo to rootsy americana on I'M WIDE AWAKE IT'S MORNING. It was a primer, or country music on training wheels - it led me to Emmylou Harris, who led me to Townes Van Zandt, who led me to Gram Parsons. Now I am all about the lap steel, the sad crooning, the references to dusty boots.

Part of me wonders if this has become my next turning point. In the same way that Oberst overlapped emo with country, Daft Punk may have done the same with R&B, pop music, dance music and the dreaded disco. Am I going to start accepting it into my heart? Will I have to delve into an entire decade of lost music? IS SISTER SLEDGE IN MY AMAZON SHOPPING CART RIGHT NOW?

These questions will answer themselves in time, but the fact that they could go any way is terrifying. It's the mark of a good album that it's begun the u-turn on an entire field that I had written off, but that just means everything I know and love is on fragile stilts. Hug your record collection. You may think your choices have solidified once you exited your teens, because you're an adult and you're smart and know everything, but all it takes is for an artist you like to do something you should hate. Once they pull the rug of context out from under you, there's no telling where you'll fall.