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What we mean when we say Beyoncé is “saving” house music

Disco and house music are as American as hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll. But Americans have never fully embraced that idea.

Beyoncé sitting astride a horse that appears to be made of light.
The album art for Beyoncé’s Renaissance.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

One of the most successful scams ever perpetrated on Americans is the idea that dance music sucks. We have been convinced that it has neither merit nor substance, and that it cannot be serious. The conspiracy has gone so far that people somehow believe dance music isn’t American. In the odd case that dance music is so good that one can’t help but love it, it can be easily brushed off as ironic appreciation.

I get why this fraud has been so successful.

Americans are, at a very young age, taught to be suspicious of joy. Anything that makes you happy has to have a drawback. If that’s the case, then music that’s designed to be joyful and make you dance can’t be good, right?

Enter: Beyoncé, arguably the biggest superstar and greatest performer in music today.

Beyoncé is on the verge of releasing Renaissance, an album that’s dance-centric and reportedly will borrow heavily from disco and house. She released the first single, “Break My Soul” in June, which used a sample of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” and incorporated house music elements.

It’s a moment, according to the press coverage surrounding its release, that may change the industry and shift the way we think about dance music, house music specifically. Her album comes on the heels of Drake’s dance-heavy album Honestly Nevermind, another signal that dance music is ready for its moment.

As a fan of Beyoncé and dancing (I make no claim to do it well), this is fantastic news.

But the narrative that dance music needs changing or revitalization goes back to that pesky, ever-prevailing idea that dance music is not good to begin with. But dance music is as American as rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop, country, or R&B and is just as serious and important a genre.

“Everyone knows about Bruce Springsteen, and everyone knows that jazz started in the United States,” Shawn Reynaldo, a music journalist specializing in house and dance music, told me. “So why isn’t it common knowledge that disco, house music, techno and electro, and all these other genres also came from Black American communities?”

Reynaldo writes First Floor, a newsletter laser-focused on dance music, and argues the fact that most Americans don’t know or aren’t proud that the United States is the birthplace of house is a failure.

Given his expertise, I thought Reynaldo would be the perfect person to explain most Americans’ tenuous if not superficial relationship to dance music, why that exists, and what Beyoncé’s new album does and doesn’t mean for a genre that Americans seem so enthusiastically ready to declare is on life support. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

One of the things you wrote that fascinated me is that there seems to be an overarching and faulty narrative that Beyoncé and Drake are saving or revitalizing house music.

If you look at the media that’s covering Bey’s album, there are a lot of articles framing this as a resurrection. But you point out that this take is a little uninformed.

I think that a lot of this is a very specifically American problem. I shouldn’t say “problem” — it stems from a specifically American perspective. And it’s ironic because house music was literally created in the United States, in predominantly Black and brown queer communities. It just didn’t catch on in America in the same way that it did in Europe, particularly in the UK, and the rest of the world.

In the US, we didn’t invest in dance music. We never said, “This is ours.” Nor do we talk about dance music in the way we do hip-hop or rock ’n’ roll. Hip-hop is something that’s always felt very American in origin. The American music industry has put a lot of time and effort into it and has a lot of pride in it.

Dance music, for whatever reason, was sort of seen as “silly” music that was sort of the antithesis of “serious” music. I would argue it’s kind of a hangover from disco, where disco was perceived as this music for people of color and queer people and rock ’n’ roll was the predominant music at the time.

I’ve been rediscovering disco. I think one of the things that struck me is, looking back, a lot of the backlash disco faced was actually a reaction to the people who enjoyed disco — you mentioned Black and brown people of color and LGBTQ people. That backlash stuck around for so long, maybe even to this day. And it’s kind of funny now because there’s a lot of music out there that might not formally be called “disco” but certainly has influences from it.

House music, in a lot of ways, was a continuation of disco. Of course, it’s not that simple or linear. But certainly the thought of people dancing in clubs and the music being presented by DJs. And then the music just kind of evolved.

The first really big industry push of dance music in the US was “electronica,” which was during the late ’90s. There were groups like The Prodigy, and the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and Daft Punk. These were big groups and that stuff got into pop music and hit the charts to some degree. But by that time, it was sold to American audiences as this foreign product, like, “Hey, this is music from Europe — these artists are from France, they’re from England. And this is this European sound.”

What’s really ironic is that all those artists were taking cues from pioneering American house and techno artists who are from cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York.

I remember that, and being obsessed with “British” music, which I would procure at the Virgin Megastore (RIP).

It created the idea that house music or dance music in general was this foreign entity, and that idea kind of just lodged itself into the American psyche. It continued with EDM. If you think about when EDM happened, it was just sold and seen as, “Here’s this huge music from Europe with these big festivals and we’re bringing it to America.”

Yes, people will point out that Skrillex is American. People know who Skrillex is. People know who Daft Punk is. They’re big artists.

But at the same time, no one (relatively) knows who Larry Heard is. He’s one of the original Chicago house guys who’s still around today and making music. There’s a whole slew of originators that just never really got the credit they deserved.

As someone from the US who loves to dance and loves dance and disco music, that’s frustrating. I kinda feel like I was lied to.

It’s kind of a failing on the part of the American music industry to not have educated audiences properly. This has been going on, you know, now for almost 40 years? Longer if you count disco.

One thing I found, just as someone who interviews a lot of artists, is when I’ve spoken to younger Black American artists — let’s say under 30 — a lot of them tell me:

“When I was a kid, I had no idea where this music came from. I thought this was white people music. I heard electronic music for the first time when I watched The Matrix or I heard it when I was watching Adult Swim on Cartoon Network, and I would hear the weird beats.”

But then once they dug into it and figured out that there were a bunch of Black artists and this was a part of a Black cultural heritage that they never knew about, a lot of them are really upset about it, because they’re like, “Why wasn’t I taught this?”

I want to ask you, personally, what is it about dance music that makes us so reluctant to claim it? Why doesn’t it feel American to Americans the way other music genres do? Why don’t we embrace it?

Some of it is the disco hangover. You can still find so many people that say “disco sucks,” and it’s been 50 years. There’s also a hesitancy about dancing and anything that involves dancing. You know, a lot of cis straight men, especially, are very uptight about the idea of being in a club and dancing.

Dance music, in general, is also more experiential in terms of appreciating it.

I think I understand what you mean, but could you spell it out for me?

You can put on a house track at home, but they’re not really designed to be pop songs. It varies, but a lot of house tracks will be like seven minutes long. And they start with a minute and a half of really minimal drums at the beginning and really minimal drums at the end, because they’re designed with function in mind.

That function is so DJs can blend one track into the next. So these tracks aren’t necessarily the kind of thing that lends itself to being played on the radio or being on a Spotify playlist. A lot of house music is specifically designed to be played in a club, on a loud sound system, on a packed dance floor where you’re surrounded by other people that are also dancing to this music.

The track art for Beyoncé’s single “Break My Soul.”

When house and techno first started, the DJ wouldn’t even be the focal point of the party. No one was looking at them. Even if you were going because you knew your favorite DJ was playing, the idea wasn’t to go and see them, it was to go hear them. That just doesn’t sync with how Americans consume pop music or rock music or hip hop or R&B or any of the kinds of music that have been dominant in the pop sphere over the last several decades.

Recently I was at Pride here in New York City, and Galantis was playing and SG Lewis had a DJ set right after. And yeah, there was this pocket of time where you just had to take in the moment and experience. But also there was a funny point where someone leaned over and asked why SG Lewis wasn’t playing his music.

A lot of people don’t understand that DJs aren’t playing music that they made, they’re playing music that other people made. There’s an art to curating a DJ set and picking which records go in what place.

The records themselves are made by producers, who might not even be DJs at all and they might not be performers. On the other side of that, there’s a lot of artists that do both. And because of the economics in the music industry, a lot of producers now have to DJ because, oddly enough, there’s a lot more money in DJing than there is in making the music.

In America, dance music is still basically a foreign language for the vast majority of people. To be fair, it doesn’t help that a lot of “hardcore” or dedicated electronic music fans, like any subculture (the same thing happened with punk rock), are protective of their community.

I get that. It’s the reality of pop culture that, thanks to the internet, anything can go from niche to overexposed seemingly overnight.

It’s like, “Hey, we’ve been doing this for decades, and mainstream and pop music hasn’t paid any attention to us. And now they want to show up. And Beyoncé wants to do a house record.”

Have you noticed that protectiveness happening? I talked to a friend who, in passing, told me that Beyoncé’s record was actually bad house music. I am not revealing who this friend is because those are incendiary comments and the Beyhive is powerful. But I was like, “Are you actually mad that it’s actually bad house music or are you mad that it’s Beyoncé?”

I will say that neither the Beyoncé single or the Drake album are house music in the traditional sense. They are not what the average house music DJ would consider a house record. These are pop records that have elements of house music. And maybe that’s making a very fine distinction. But in dance music, where there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different subgenres within it, people are very particular about which styles they like.

You know, there is sort of a protectiveness about what constitutes house music and what doesn’t. This is changing a bit, and genres are constantly becoming more fluid. But I would say most dedicated house music fans wouldn’t say that the Beyoncé record or the Drake album are really house music. And whether they’re good or not, it’s very much in the eye of the beholder.

That’s very diplomatic of you!

I’m personally not a big fan of Drake or Beyoncé, but I’m also just one person. I’m also not really a big pop music guy and never have been, so it would be really presumptuous of me to be like, “Oh, this is bad.” I’m a lot more like, “It’s not for me,” as opposed to, “It’s bad.”

What I do think is bad is the fact that music journalists are running with this narrative that Drake and Beyoncé are revitalizing house music, because the subtext of that is that house music was dead or dormant and had disappeared.

Right. The implication and framing of Beyoncé and Drake as saviors implies that house music needed to be saved. I suppose that means from dying? Maybe saved from being bad?

It’s just factually wrong. And it shows a real sort of laziness. It also just reflects how out of touch even professional American music journalists are with electronic music and dance music because, you would think a professional, someone who literally writes about music for a living, would at least have a passing knowledge of the genre and its history if not, would research it.

It’s always easier to pitch something as a paradigm shift, as opposed to telling a nuanced story online.

Do you think that instead of using words like “revitalization” or “resurgence” or “resurrection” — and correct me if I’m wrong — this may be Beyoncé partaking in a trend? If we think of house music as a worldwide phenomenon and dance- and disco-inspired music as a growing feature in pop music, it could sort of make sense that Beyoncé is capitalizing on our growing appreciation for dance music?

I mean, I’m reluctant to ascribe motive to anyone’s creative choices. I would like to think that they’re not that cynical.

I will say this: Both Drake and Beyoncé have experimented with a lot of different genres of music in a way that they still sound like themselves.

Drake has done previous stuff with Afrobeats, which is something that came out of Nigeria and Ghana. It’s also big in the UK, where there’s a big diaspora population. So I think these artists and their teams — the producers they work with — are just open to experimenting with new sounds.

The Drake album, for instance, experiments with this genre called amapiano. It’s sort of a house music variant that’s gotten really popular in South Africa in the last two to three years. It’s arguably like the biggest thing in South Africa right now and it’s crossed over into the pop charts.

These artists are surrounded by smart people who are plugged into what’s going on. And it makes sense, especially when they’re both on their — they’re probably both on at least album number six or more. They’re going to try new things. If you think about someone like Diplo — Diplo has made a career out of doing this.

Did you happen to see the terrible [now-deleted] tweet that claimed that Beyoncé ripped off Diplo? Twitter is a hellscape.

That’s ridiculous, but Diplo has been pulling from different genres forever. He’s taken stuff from dancehall, he’s taken stuff from baile funk, which is this Brazilian dance style. He’s taken stuff from different kinds of hip-hop, house, techno, electro, and you know, he just kind of melds it all into this sort of mutant form of pop music.

I think in his mind, he thinks, “If it’s fresh and the beat bumps, why wouldn’t I use it?” That’s my guess about what’s happening there.

If this album is a hit, will Americans finally have to get over our aversion to dance music? Will we claim it? Do you see that happening?

I do think it’s already happening.

When young people think about new music, I think they imagine electronic music. Maybe they don’t imagine a nine-minute deep house song. But if it has a house speed, a good pop hook, and it fits into their streaming playlist, or it backs their TikTok video in a fun way, I think they’re very open to it.

So yeah, I do think it’s happening. In terms of whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know because it’s like once something enters that pop realm, it kind of ceases to be what it was before. And that’s not good or bad.

That doesn’t mean house music can’t grow and change. But when it gets sort of crammed into this neat pop music box where it needs to be three minutes, it needs to have someone singing on it, and it needs to have a catchy hook or it needs to have a guest rapper delivering a special verse, then it ceases to be house music — at least house music as I’ve known.

That’s just how culture works.

But also, I kinda feel like we’re jumping the gun. We don’t even know what Bey’s album is going to sound like, aside from “Break My Soul.” It’s a little presumptuous not only to say she’s gonna save or revitalize dance and house music when we haven’t heard the entire thing.

It’s funny that “Break My Soul” generated so much talk about house music because it sampled “Show Me Love” — a song that people’s grandmas know. That song is a crossover big hit that’s been ubiquitous for decades. It’s not like she was digging deep into house music to find it.

I think Charlie XCX sampled “Show Me Love” in “Used to Know Me.”

Yeah, it’s one of the most sampled and referenced songs of the past 30 years. And the funny part too is that the other sample on the track is Big Freedia, who is this New Orleans bounce artist — bounce is sort of like a hip-hop variant out of New Orleans, and Big Freedia is also a queer artist. When “Break My Soul” came out, all of the press was like,“Beyoncé is revitalizing house music,” but bounce music is arguably just as big a part of that song and I didn’t see anything about how Beyoncé was changing bounce music.

It’s too soon to tell if this is going to be like some huge shift. But things have been trending in this direction as music gets more electronic. It’s still so early it’s hard to know if this house music conversation is gonna last one more week, or three months or a year.

But I also think as queer and female artists continue to have a larger voice and set the pop culture agenda, they’re more amenable to making dance music. It doesn’t mean that dance music isn’t serious or that these artists aren’t serious. But “serious” doesn’t have to mean what it did 20 years ago. Serious doesn’t have to mean an angry guy with a guitar anymore.

Joy and importance don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I think attitudes about that have really shifted a lot in the last 10 to 15 years. So if that means that there’ll be more people dancing, that’s possible, but at the same time, is it going to shift how people consume music? People are still going to be listening to Spotify and playlists, and they’re going to want the songs to be over in three and a half minutes, and they’re gonna want hummable hooks that stick in their head.

That dynamic is not changing, but what constitutes pop music, and what constitutes “important” music — that is what seems to be changing.

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