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COVID! At The Disco: Is dance music during quarantine a paradox, or a necessity?

Amid COVID isolation, some musicians are releasing the most danceable songs of their entire careers

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Musician Stuart Maxfield plays a keyboard in his home studio in Springville on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Maxfield released his disco-inspired solo album “Shun the Yuck” the same day Utah Governor Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency because of COVID-19.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The release concert for Stuart Maxfield’s latest solo album, “Shun the Yuck,” was on March 6 — the same day Utah announced its first coronavirus case and Governor Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency.

“Attendance was down in general I think because everyone was spooked,” said Maxfield, who lives 50 miles south of Salt Lake City in Springville. “I’m not sure if anyone even knows I released the record.”

Shun the Yuck,” released under Maxfield’s solo moniker S2_Cool, is fun. Undeniably danceable. In some ways, S2_Cool has been a musical counterpoint to another of Maxfield’s projects, the Utah band Fictionist. Maxfield said he wrote the songs on “Shun the Yuck” to cheer himself up, pre-COVID-19. And in the six months since the album’s release, the world has had ample need for cheering up.

While a pandemic, police violence, social upheaval and government corruption have made 2020 one of the most troubling, isolating years in recent memory, much of this year’s music has provided a stark contrast. Pre-2020, pop music had been increasingly eschewing its fun-loving side for more seemingly honest explorations of mental health (see: Billie Eilish, Lorde, Frank Ocean). That languid, at times dour introspection is still part of pop music’s current landscape — perhaps to the point of fetishization — but fun, joyous, dance-oriented music has been reasserting itself in this, the most unlikely of years.

Many musicians, be it local, national or international, are releasing the most danceable songs of their entire careers, even as society’s basic infrastructures are being pushed to their limit. The year 2020 is sort of terrifying. Its music is telling a different story — or perhaps it’s telling the other side of the same story.

An escape, and a reminder

It only took a few weeks for Dua Lipa to earn the moniker “Quarantine Queen.” In March, as the Western world began realizing the implications of COVID-19, Lipa’s new album “Future Nostalgia” became the COVID era’s first major pop release. That this particular album would have that distinction is interesting: Every song on “Future Nostalgia” is up-tempo — no ballads, no woe-is-me laments, only toe-tapping empowerment. The Independent dubbed the album “pure sonic spandex.” Its glossy pop sheen is more reminiscent of the dance floor than the living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms in which most people have been relegated.

“My biggest hope for putting this album out at a time like this was that during moments of uncertainty, it would give people the best kitchen dance parties ever,” Lipa told W magazine in August.

Lipa, who’s based in England, quickly became the most-streamed female artist on Spotify following the album’s release. She didn’t expect “Future Nostalgia” to soundtrack a pandemic. But for many music listeners, the album set the tone. Lipa-centric memes, where lyrics from her new songs mimicked COVID-19 protocols, began popping up. (“Don’t show up, don’t come out … Walk away, you know how,” she sings on the hit single “Don’t Start Now.”)

A handful of major pop stars, such as Lady Gaga and Sam Smith, also had album releases scheduled for early spring. Most of them pushed those dates back, worried that overt dance-pop might seem uncaring toward the seriousness of the moment. But Lipa pushed forward — perhaps because portions of “Future Nostalgia” got leaked online before its scheduled release — and her decision paid off.

“Lipa made a smart bet,” The Atlantic noted in April. “Sweaty, sexy, silly dance songs have, in some ways, become crucial to the emerging aesthetic of isolation. … Art such as hers, social isolation is making clear, has never just been for going out. It’s been for thriving in solitude.”

And now, almost six months after Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” was released, dance-oriented music continues to dictate the discussion (excusing Taylor Swift’s chart-topping “Folklore”; Swift makes her own rules). There was Lady Gaga’s recent headlining Video Music Awards performance, where she, Ariana Grande and a horde of masked dancers showed us what COVID-era club music looks like. Yes, we are still in the midst of deadly pandemic (and we certainly still have new music to reflect this moment’s inherent sadness), but we continue to dance — bodies still moving, faces still covered.

A recent New York Times profile of British R&B singer Jessie Ware, whose new album “What’s Your Pleasure?” is her most dance-centric release so far, described the album as “a sparkling highlight in a year that has found pop artists … reimagining disco for the 21st century.” 

Ware said “What’s Your Pleasure?” was conceived as a means of escape: “I wanted the sophistication that disco offers, and the melodrama,” she told the Times. “It just felt like a bit of a fantasia, and a step away from my real life.”

For Maxfield, disco holds a special place in his heart, too. Most of Maxfield’s solo work pays homage to that once-bygone, now-revived genre. Sometimes he jokes that disco will save the world.

“Since music exists in the imaginary space, it can be whatever we want it to,” he said. “And the space I want to visit these days is fun and carefree rather than being weighed down by everything out there.”

This year’s influx of disco-tinged pop has been an escape from current horrors, sure. But it’s also been an undeniable reminder of them. In a Los Angeles Times piece about Lady Gaga’s new album “Chromatica,” pop music critic Mikael Wood wrote, “It’s hard to hear these would-be dance-floor bangers without mourning all the dance floors we’ve lost.”

The mystical and the metaphysical

Wood noted the lyric on Lady Gaga’s new song “Free Woman,” in which she sings, “This is my dance floor I fought for.” With a huge pulsating back beat, the song (and much of the album) vibrates and then erupts with palpable dance club catharsis.

Indeed, music as an expression of triumph and personal healing, captured in dance beats and catchy hooks, seems to have really resonated in 2020. Bly Wallentine, a Provo-based recording artist, embraces that ethos on “The Purpose of Dancing,” their album that was released in early July. (Wallentine is gender nonbinary and prefers to be identified by the gender-neutral pronouns “they,” “them” and “their.”) It’s not dance music per se, but “The Purpose of Dancing” is certainly Wallentine’s grooviest, most joyous release to date; the aching chamber-folk sounds that typified Wallentine’s old work are swapped out here for rhythmic, exultant vaporwave vibes.

The album, Wallentine said, was a result of ongoing spiritual and emotional recovery. As Wallentine learned to accept themself, the more fun-loving side of their personality made its way out in the music.

Of course, most of the dance-oriented music being released in 2020 was recorded earlier — before COVID-19 wreaked havoc. Wallentine thinks there might be something prophetic about that — like how animals often sense natural disasters before they happen.

“I wonder if that sort of thing was occurring,” Wallentine said. “This feels like maybe some sort of preparation for this.”

There’s a case to be made for the mystical, metaphysical side of our current musical atmosphere — who hasn’t turned to music for healing/respite/release when times get hard? Wallentine noted how humans have long used music to slow down one’s racing thoughts. Bangers like Lady Gaga’s “Rain On Me” or Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” might seem modern, but they wield a a power that is, ultimately, ancient.

“A lot of these four-on-the-floor kick drum pulses, it seems like that has played a really big role in music in all different cultures — you know, these communal drum circles, people would gather, sounding this constant pulse,” Wallentine explained. “It’s trying to serve this human need to slow down thoughts, and just focus on that pulse.”

Successes, failures and ‘a hint of delirium’

On the macro level, dance music has also proven itself a major force for good during COVID-19. In April, famed dance music producer David Guetta hosted United At Home, in which he DJ’d a full festival set atop a Miami building for those living in nearby skyscrapers. 

“There was pyro, there were thousands of people joining along via Zoom and there was Guetta on the mic requesting viewers to his website to donate money,” Billboard noted. The event raised $750,000 for Feeding America and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Response Fund, and Guetta matched every dollar. In late May, he hosted the event again in New York City.

Not that it always goes smoothly. The Rave Family Block Fest, which had planned to unite nearly 1,000 musicians across 85 virtual stages entirely within the game Minecraft in early July, “quickly came crashing down,” Variety noted, amid numerous technological roadblocks. The festival has been postponed indefinitely — some have called it the “Fyre Festival of Minecraft.”

The failure of Fave Family Block Fest, it seems, reveals the inherent limitations of “separate but together.” People dancing collectively, despite being separated physically, still feels like a consolation prize — like there’s an incompatibility that we can’t quite transcend. Consequence of Sound’s Laura Dzubay wrote, “Like so many of the joys people have managed to find in quarantine, kitchen-floor dance parties and celebrations shared via Zoom and FaceTime — while necessary reliefs and real, genuine joys — can also sometimes feel tinged with a hint of delirium.” 

So for now, we continue to face the delirium, hopefully abiding Dua Lipa’s command (“Don’t show up, don’t come out … Walk away, you know how”) until it’s safe to gather again.

Music inevitably evokes the time, place and circumstances in which it was first heard. So for international pop stars like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga, and more local artists like Maxfield and Wallentine, their danceable 2020 albums might always be reminders of 2020’s isolation, and social upheaval, and political strife. Hopefully, though, that same music will one day, in hindsight, remind us of our deliverance from this surreal moment. Dance music’s constant beat continues, pulling us inexorably forward, even if feels like time itself has stopped right now.

Wallentine mentioned Ecclesiastes 3, from the Old Testament. In verse 4 it says there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” 

The year 2020, it seems, is a time for all of the above.