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Get Into the Groove: Why Pussy Riot Should Start Doing Disco Songs

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Straight blokes don't dance*. Or at least not much, or not without consuming copious amounts of alcohol, and often very reluctantly and stiff-limbed-ly when they do.

I can relate. Over the years I've fought shy of the physical business of dancing. Even though I've long since dropped my indie-rock-kid resistance to dance music and actually like the idea of shimmying about, the reality is ... er, not for me. Anyway, a quick anecdote. Back in the summer of '85 I was a super-shy, super-self-conscious 21-year-old on a holiday with two friends in Greece. A classic "lads' holiday". But - shock horror - the bars of Corfu were basically one giant outdoor disco and our usual habit of skulking around looking moody was hopelessly out of place. There was only one thing for it: plunge in! That's right, we took to the dance-floor, but - ahem - ironically, camping it up to Madonna's Holiday and Into The Groove, her two back-to-back monster hits of that long-ago summer.

Blimey! What a ridiculous spectacle we must have made. Nevertheless, that throw-yourself-out-on-the-dance-floor-come-what-may attitude - though dressed up with some "face-saving" irony (deliberately exaggerated stomping about etc) - was surprisingly liberating. The truth is that we enjoyed it far more than we probably let on at the time. Up-tight post-punk types that we were, it was a sort of dance-moves "coming out" moment: we came out on to the lager-splashed dance floor.

Yeah, well, so what? OK, it's obviously not the world's most important reminiscence but I still think it's a tiny bit revealing of how typical (straight) male identity and music have tended to interact in the last few decades. Even now when I go to gigs I hardly ever see men dancing (admittedly most of my gigs are of the various shades of "rock" variety, never the most dance-friendly genre.) But women, yes, they do try. Men generally stand back because ... well, it's just not "manly" is it?

Meanwhile, Luis Manuel-Garcia's detailed account of post-70s club culture gives us a compelling mini-history of how dance-floor music like disco and its various offshoots have frequently involved social activism and the forging of new sexual identity politics. From the gay-friendly - and Warhol-patronised - discos of New York's golden age (Studio 54, Paradise Garage etc), to the Chicago House, Detroit techno, acid house and rave scenes, Manuel-Garcia shows how traditionally "marginalised groups" - gay men, lesbian women, drag queens, transgender people, sex workers, Latinos and other people of colour - have often been the prime-movers in these cultural scenes, though often also getting pushed aside by the corporates and the largely white, heterosexual, middle-class mainstream punters as these scenes went overground. (It was ever thus).

Admittedly, dance doesn't generally sound like "protest music" (it's not exactly punk or Pete Seeger), but its emergence has often been in the context of social contestation and Manuel-Garcia makes the interesting point that "much of dance music's utopianism comes from a place of struggle, injustice and desperation". That makes sense to me. The rush, glamour, and blissed-out nature of much of this music is a sort of hope-against-hope rejection of grim social realities. You've forgotten about the bills, about racism, about the hassles and humiliations of the workplace, because you're ... lost in music.

But back to Madonna. Holiday and Into The Groove worked precisely because they were pop tunes that absorbed some of the elements of late disco (electronic handclaps, synthesised strings, squelchy beats, overdubbed vocals) and made them extremely accessible. Their sound (courtesy of producers Jellybean Benitez and Steve Bray/Shep Pettibone) is very mid-80s but still fairly fresh even now. "You can dance for inspiration", says Madonna at the start of Into The Groove, but of course my 21-year-old self wasn't ready for this message. I thought I was smart to prefer the Sonic Youth make-over - Ciccone Youth's Into The Groovey (actually I still think this is a decent musical deconstruction and I confess I have a bit of a penchant for these oddball anti-dance efforts).

Anyway, back in the mid-80s I didn't get into the groove and I didn't get the inspirational, liberating side of dance music either. From the carnivalesque revelry of rural protests in medieval Britain to the anti-government raves of the late 80s and 90s, I've latterly come to appreciate that the politics of dancing and musical uproar actually has an amazingly long history. Now, all these years later, I rather like the fact that Blondie has been added to the bill for this week's Amnesty human rights concert in New York. Firstly, because Heart Of Glass was the first disco record I ever bought (my unwitting 14-year-old self mistaking it for a sort of "new wave" pop song). And secondly, because Blondie and Madonna will appear on the same stage as the two Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova's campaigning in Russia has always involved a recognition of the need to properly respect women's and LGBTI people's rights and with the Sochi Winter Olympics and its extremely gay-unfriendly backdrop just days away, I hope that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova can be enticed to knock out a few disco tunes. That's it! They should drop that shouty punkoid stuff and get into the groove ...

(I'm obviously not saying that gay men are necessarily willing dancers or especially impressive ones - as if good music/body coordination is automatically conferred on people because of their sexuality! Just that, well, hopefully you get the point. Certainly, machismo and dance moves don't normally go together, at least not in the modern Western pub-club context I'm talking about here. Anyway, enough already).

Around the Web

Pussy Riot Heads for Brooklyn : The New Yorker

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Pussy Riot to appear on The Colbert Report | Consequence of Sound

Pussy Riot Heads for Brooklyn

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