There’s a terrible, long-standing tendency in dance music to act like songs aren’t important. And sure, there are unique joys to be found in bumping along to deep house dubs, or spending hours lost down a techno rabbit-hole. These are all parts of club culture’s rich tapestry. But so is involuntarily shooting your hands skywards as the first note of a diva vocal shoots up your spine, and hollering along to every word. Yet since time immemorial, there’ve always been those blokey and/or nerdy guardians of seriousness who look down on the sing-along, and on the thrill of a gut-busting vocal performance. Vocal tunes are “sugary” or “too pop” or “something for the girls” or, most tragically of all, “too gay”. The recent trend for melancholy white dude indie voices in club tracks (mantrance!) – like the post-Burial use of distant, digitally mangled voices – seems like a grudging acceptance of the human voice onto the dancefloor: like it’s OK to have singing as long as it takes itself very, very seriously and doesn’t have anything in the way of flamboyance going on.
We shouldn’t need to point out that if you sideline proper vocal belters, you’re betraying the very roots of club music in black and Latino gay culture. Disco was built around a healthily diverse melange of influences, but at the core of all that was soul and gospel: powerful songs powerfully delivered that helped bring together marginalised people in tough times. And not only did disco beget house with all its heart-rending glories, but the dons of Detroit techno – particularly Kevin Saunderson, Underground Resistance and Carl Craig – were all super-adept at rolling out the full-tilt diva spine-tinglers. And of course, rave wouldn’t have been rave without the Loleatta Holloway samples and real vocalists singing their lungs out alongside all the hoover noises, breaks, bass and other assorted madness.
“If you sideline proper vocal belters you’re betraying the very roots of club music”
Now, it’s not like proper vocals have ever gone away. We’ve got our Katy Bs and Jessie Wares and every so often there’ll be a great collaboration like Disclosure with Mary J Blige in 2014. And there are plenty of parties where those base-level club values have never gone away: as Giles Smith of secretsundaze says, “vocals have always been played if you go to the right parties!” Big names – Harvey, Kerri Chandler, Robert Hood, The Black Madonna – will certainly bring out the scream-ups at the slightest excuse (ever the piss-taker, Harvey calls it “shallow house”). But it has been under threat. Bona fide anthems are also fewer and further between these days; as DJ History don Bill Brewster points out, “in the 80s and 90s there was a lot more money in house music, so it was easier to attract top-rate singers and songwriters.” And the constant draw of techno, tech-house, dub-disco, bass music and various excuses for ‘deep house’ conspire to push vocals to the side.
Which is why it’s always good to see people pushing back. Berlin’s Power House club proudly pits itself against “shoegazing house” and, says club mastermind Finn Johannson, “uses our knowledge of the past to bring back some fun.” UK don Luke Solomon created his Powerdance project as an express reaction against the tedium of heads-down tech-house – the Powerdance album title ‘The Lost Art of Getting Down’ says it all about the ethos of their song-based disco house. Róisín Murphy’s new collab with Maurice Fulton sees her back at her disco diva best. The Black Madonna is currently working on a major project with Chicago vocal legend Jamie Principle and a full orchestra. There are some enormous diva-sampling tunes doing the rounds like Patrick Topping’s ‘Be Sharp Say Nowt’, Finn’s ‘Sometimes the Going Gets a Little Tough’ and Mella Dee’s glorious use of a Sister Sledge sample on ‘Techno Disco Tool’. Will Bankhead, Trilogy Tapes mastermind and reliable barometer of London cool, recently – quite correctly – tweeted “A lot of you experimental music dudes need some gospel house shoved up your arse”.
It’s clear that the appetite for a true hands-in-the-air singalong remains strong – and now that the world is very definitely going through hard times once again, maybe its time, in the words of Mass Order’s 1992 gospel-house dancefloor destroyer, to “Lift every voice and sing it from your heart.”
Joe Muggs is a freelance music journalist and regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow him on Twitter