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How Dance Music Defined a Year When We Couldn’t Dance

Despite clubs being closed for much of the year, disco-influenced music ruled 2020. The artists and producers of some of the year’s biggest dance records talk about what the music meant to them.

Ringer illustration

In 2020, the dance floor was the last place anyone was. As the pandemic fractured any semblance of normalcy that society once clung to, music fans endured a year without concerts. No sweaty, packed venues with beer showers exploding or partying under a cascade of flashing lights: The closest thing to the club experience was watching a livestream of one of your favorite artists, probably alone, on your couch—maybe with a beer. No matter who was performing, it didn’t replicate the aura of a live, in-person show. You probably listened to banger after banger, yearning for human contact and an ocean of sweat.

The irony is that the music of 2020 was designed for the dance floor, specifically with disco-tinged pop. While we were relegated to leggings and snuggies, the pop icons, well, they never stopped popping. As the pandemic largely took away live music, police brutality sparked protests nationwide, and we were haunted by the possibility of another Trump presidency, the resurgence of disco-pop became a balm, a source of joy, and a way for people to connect during a time of upheaval.

“Joy, which starts from within, is an act of resistance against every system that oppresses us,” says singer Shungudzo, a cowriter on Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, an album that leaned heavily into disco and stands as one of the year’s bests. “During a pandemic or not, any artist who uses their platform to make people feel good in their own company—comfortable in their own skin—is part of a movement that resists oppression and embraces freedom.”

In 2019, there was an undercurrent of anxiety that became a through line in pop songs. Shimmery choruses and bubblegum pop melodies cloaked lyrics about being overwhelmed and depressed, while down-tempo pop—care of Billie Eilish and Post Malone—took over the Top 40. Kim Petras’s Auto-Tune trap ballad “Broken’’ put a campy twist on the post-breakup depression, while Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran penned a fidgety musing on social anxiety with “I Don’t Care,’’ which hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Julia Michaels and Selena Gomez also collaborated on an angsty jaunt aptly titled “Anxiety” that reflected on the catch-22 of anxiety and depression. Pop was fixated on mental health—artists ruminated on it.

Before the year ended, though, the dynamic was beginning to shift—people were ready for an endorphin kick to dance the pain away. In November 2019, The Weeknd emerged with his lighter, ’80s new wave hit “Blinding Lights’’ ahead of his album After Hours, which was released in March. But it was Dua Lipa who signaled she would lead the 2020 pop brigade with the release of “Don’t Start Now,” a sassy, empowering breakup anthem that served as a liberating gut punch to any ex who decided to crawl back like a cockroach. It earned Lipa the top spot on Billboard’s pop chart. Little did we know then that Lipa would provide a Studio 54–like refuge for us in the dumpster fire that was to come. Emily Warren, who cowrote “Don’t Start Now” believes that disco “was a really good way to tackle an up-tempo with enough room to still put emotional melodies and more depth in the manufacturing of that genre.”

The disco resurgence of 2020 pays homage to the genre’s history. While it’s often assumed that disco originated in the 1970s, the subculture really began in the 1960s when marginalized groups like the Black, queer, and Latinx communities found refuge in nightlife. Labor strikes and mass shootings followed the civil rights movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. By the 1970s America was facing an economic downturn—the result of a recession that caused mass job loss and a stock market crash. And until 1971, men weren’t legally allowed to dance together in New York City, so disco and the idea of congregating in crowds on the dance floor emerged. Following the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, spots like The Sanctuary became underground havens that welcomed gay men and forged high-energy dance communities. Many of the most renowned players in the disco scene were Black women: Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, and Grace Jones connected with marginalized communities through their lyrics about hardship and emotional resilience. Empowering, feel-good anthems like Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” and Abba’s “Dancing Queen” were filled with synth-heavy, four-on-the-floor beats and pulsating bass lines.

At its peak, disco was in a way a form of resistance against predominantly white culture and rock music. Mirrorballs, illuminated dance floors, and sequins are generally associated with the era, but clubs and discotheques were really community havens for those who wanted to be and feel like themselves. “At its core, disco has always been a genre that embodies freedom of expression,” says Shungudzo. “It’s also been known to approach tough times, and tough subjects, with optimism and togetherness, which is why I think people are relating to it so much right now.”

Eventually, the genre would fall out of favor, and as the ’70s came to a close, it was the subject of an event at Chicago’s Comiskey Park dubbed “Disco Demolition Night,” where a group of fans literally detonated a stack of disco records in the middle of a baseball game. (The radio personality who hosted the event, Steve Dahl, would later write in his book Disco Demolition that the event “was not racist” and “not anti-gay,” even though a largely white male group was destroying records made by Black and queer artists.) Disco may have seemed to disappear overnight, but it didn’t. Rather, it went underground again.

From then on, disco was stripped back to its parts. It became a stepping stone for other subgenres, like new wave and underground club music. Techno, for instance, emerged in the 1980s in Detroit within Black communities. By the ’90s, hints of disco became more prevalent in mainstream pop music. Artists like U2, Blur, and Jamiroquai incorporated elements of the sound in their songs. Disco became an added layer to pop music, but not exactly a genre on its own as it once was.

2020 isn’t the first time we’ve seen artists toy with disco-pop in recent years. “Hung Up,” Madonna’s throbbing, house-inspired single from her 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor, was a cultural reset for the icon who found herself fully consumed with club music. With assists from Pharrell and Nile Rodgers, Daft Punk took over top 40 radio in 2013 with “Get Lucky” when they put a Saturday Night Fever twist on electropop. A regular retro-fetishist, Bruno Mars crafted a blend of funk-pop, disco, and slick R&B with his 2016 hit “24K Magic,” which was further explored on his titular album. And then there was The Weeknd’s 2018 radio hit “Can’t Feel My Face”: a depressing but funky nu-disco jaunt that paid homage to drug addiction. Still, disco’s presence in pop wasn’t a consistent trend.

In the early months of 2020, we saw hints of what would become an overarching theme. And in came the syncopated bass lines, funky beats, and influence of Rodgers’s rhythm guitar from “Get Lucky” within the recent disco surge. The ethos of mainstream pop was centered on having a good time and fostering connection. If we couldn’t be on a dance floor together, we could at least pretend, or try to congregate digitally.

Doja Cat’s “Say So” ushered the year’s musical theme in when it landed on American radio in January; the steamy, psychedelic nu-disco hit—which got the remix treatment from Nicki Minaj—eventually hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. That was just the beginning. Following suit was Lady Gaga’s nu-disco smash “Stupid Love,” in which the Chromatica singer belted, “Gotta quit this cryin’, nobody’s gonna / Heal me if I don’t open the door.” The same week, Justin Timberlake and SZA released the groovy, blissed-out lead single from the Trolls World Tour soundtrack, “The Other Side.”

By then, music fans were primed for the release of Lipa’s tour-de-force Future Nostalgia in late March. With the record, Lipa was dubbed a pop visionary for its urgent, retro-futuristic bops that paid homage to Prince and Gloria Gaynor and touched on everything from sex to toxic romance. Future Nostalgia, which is more of a campy concept record than an album of standout singles, became an immersive experience for those in quarantine. It was painful to think that sporting a leotard and dousing yourself with glitter on the dance floor was just not going to happen this year. But Lipa knows her fandom, and she didn’t stop there—she ensured that 2020 would be the year of Future Nostalgia.

Throughout the pandemic, Lipa witnessed how much joy her album was providing listeners and kept building on it—it had become the thrilling escapism everyone needed. In August, she released a full remix album bursting with house, soul, pop, and, of course, disco. Enlisting Madonna, Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani, Blackpink, and others, Lipa kept the “party” going, so to speak, after realizing fans had been fueling their Zoom parties (and sanity) with Future Nostalgia.

Lipa could have ended things with two albums, of course, but with the majority of shows canceled for the foreseeable future, she leaned toward innovation. With that, she gave the music community a much-needed adrenaline rush with Studio 2054, a digital and immersive live experience. Bursting with glitter, neon, and glitz, Lipa transported listeners to a webcast wonderland where they could feel a sense of post-Thanksgiving ecstasy. The show featured guest performers like Miley Cyrus, Kylie Minogue, FKA twigs, and Elton John—it was also the closest livestream to resemble a live concert, with its nostalgic club backdrop, costume changes, roller-skating, and hula-hooping. Combined with the music of Future Nostalgia, Studio 2054 felt like a form of protest—as listeners gathered around the world to safely dance and feel like a part of a community again. The rebelliousness of being constantly fed dance music and being able to partake in a global dance party felt like the ultimate act of defiance when human connection has been so limited.

“[This year] is a reclamation of the true history of disco, which was music made in urban queer communities of color as a kind of collective liberation and a collective safe space and space of expression through dance and movement and then culture, clothing,” says Nate Sloan, a musicologist and host of the podcast Switched on Pop. In 2020, to some degree, we saw that happen in real time, too. During a Black Lives Matter protest in Detroit, Ravers 4 Racial Justice! paid tribute to the city’s techno roots while fighting against police brutality.

Despite all of the grief, constraints, and disappointment this year, Future Nostalgia and Lipa’s disco-produced pop gave fans the power to celebrate life and find joy. “I think we all want to be coming from an emotional place because of how much is going on, and it feels irresponsible to just not go there,” says Warren. “But to have emotion over something that’s not just straight-sad, disco for some reason creates the perfect bed for that.”

Lipa wasn’t the only artist who delved into disco-produced pop this year. Jessie Ware, whose last record, 2017’s Glasshouse, was rooted in soulful ballads and crystalline, Whitney Houston–like belting, returned to her dance roots with her fourth studio album, What’s Your Pleasure? “This album was all about escapism,” Ware told The Ringer. “I wanted to create a world of fantasy, and I wanted to be able to dance with my fans, so disco was a no-brainer for me.” Ware had “always wanted to make a disco record” and the timing this year seemed to be kismet. “People are looking for ways to escape and find enjoyment,” she added. Ware didn’t make What’s Your Pleasure? with the intention of it joining a trend—it was a happy accident—but she believes it was needed: “It’s been a real celebration and a wonderful distraction in a very weird time.”

Following the release of What’s Your Pleasure?, Miley Cyrus burst in with her ’80s dark disco track “Midnight Sky,” inspired by Debbie Harry and Joan Jett, which was quickly followed by a cover of Blondie’s 1978 radio hit “Heart of Glass.” Sampling Stevie Nicks’s 1981 hit “Edge of Seventeen” helped solidify Cyrus’s edgy rock phase. The song, which recalled her tumultuous last year following her split from ex-husband Liam Hemsworth, was also an outlet for her to liberate herself from the narrative: “I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone, oh no / I don’t need to be loved by you.” The singer crafted a song to empower not only herself but everyone else who needed to hear it.

For singer Kylie Minogue, disco has been a through line of her 40-year career. So it wasn’t a surprise that she soared full throttle into disco-tinged pop with her latest album simply titled Disco, recalling her shimmering masterpieces Light Years (2000) and Fever (2001). While she began making the album before the pandemic, the need for human connection erupted through the record. On “Say Something,” Minogue combats isolation with the need for community: “We’re a million miles apart, in a thousand ways / Baby, you could light up the dark, like a solarscape.” When we felt the loneliness seep in, Minogue reminded us that the power of the dance floor is unbeatable.

We may have been collectively crying and mourning, but in 2020, we were dancing, too, resisting the urge to give up hope in a world of economic despair and trauma. While many artists could have held on to their work until the pandemic ended, where they could perform to sweaty, happy people, they decided to give us music to help us survive on our own. “People are not only rediscovering the sound of disco, but that history of inclusion and of the dance floor as this place of radical acceptance and coming together,” says Sloan. It’s perhaps more powerful when you can’t physically be with other people. “You can still tap into that shared history of resilience, resistance, and liberation through dance, even if you’re by yourself in your living room,” he adds. For now, we need to embrace dancing alone—leaning into the past to remember a time when the dance floor let us believe anything was possible.

Ilana Kaplan is a music and culture writer/editor who lives in Brooklyn. She has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, and more.

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