2011: The Year of Europop

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 12.21.11 in Spotlights

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Nicki Minaj

During the last two decades, much of what wasn’t rock – and even plenty of rock itself – had something to do with hip-hop. Pop tempos drifted to the middle, lyrics got more aggressive, melody narrowed and simplified, and gender lines stopped blurring. In Europe and much of the world, dance music radicalized pop with the synth sounds of the future, but upbeat club sounds rarely reached US radio beyond Madonna and Janet Jackson. We were still terrified of disco.

With Lady Gaga, everything changed, particularly the divisions between American R&B and the Eurodance sound she revitalized. This year, America’s most successful digital track – the Black Eyed Peas’ 2009 collaboration with Parisian house DJ David Guetta, “I Gotta Feeling” – crossed the 7 million mark. Rihanna collaborated with Scottish electro-house producer Calvin Harris on “We Found Love” and topped the pop chart with a record that wouldn’t have gotten further than the gay club ghetto five years ago. Guetta’s current Usher-sung smash “Without You” dresses up a traditional power ballad in Eurodance duds. Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera celebrate a paramour that “Moves Like Jagger” while their club-friendly arrangement moves more like Jamiroquoi backed by La Bouche. Britney Spears remains the quintessential all-American icon, yet Femme Fatale – her first disc to generate three Top 10 singles – offers nonstop Euro beats and ESL lyrics courtesy of Stockholm’s Max Martin and his intercontinental collaborators. The Love Parade and its umpa-umpa marching drums live on through Gaga’s decidedly Germanic Born This Way.

With its emphasis on speedy tempos, childlike sing-along melodies and minor keys that suggest a shiver of sadness on a crowded dancefloor, Eurodance’s heat complements the street-bred cool of mainstream R&B. Whether it originates in America, Europe, or a transatlantic middle ground, the Eurodance/R&B alliance makes for a stadium-sized sound that reaches far beyond indie rock’s smaller-is-better worldview. Ten years ago, when fans had to buy entire albums to get the hits, outsized American record companies could afford to ignore worldwide trends like techno and trance. Nowadays, pop lives and dies on its singles, and in order to sell enough of them to pull a major-label-sized profit, most pop acts on both sides of the Atlantic accommodate the demands of an international market that doesn’t necessarily speak English, one that must be addressed through the universality of emotion, not thought.

Europop’s lyrical signature is the wordless or onomatopoeic chants that helped sell ’80s Italo disco beyond its national borders. Remember the “oh-ah-oh”s in Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” and Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy”? They’re reborn in the “boom badoom boom” of Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass.” Cobra Starship’s ingeniously dippy “You Make Me Feel…” completes the ellipsis of its title with “that la la la la” or, alternately, “so la la la la.” R&B crooner Jason Derülo gets historical with the goo-goo-gaga: His “Don’t Wanna Go Home” samples Robin S.’s paradigmatic house smash “Show Me Love” while quoting Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Even the diehard rockers of Nickleback got in on the act: Their atypically socially conscious and bouncy “When We Stand Together” emphasizes the internationalism of its message with a language-barrier-slicing “Hey yay yay, hey yeah.”

The American record industry would be loathe to admit it, but the multiracial multiculturalism of all this goes back to disco. Dance music triumphs when the economy tanks, and while niche genres like dubstep satisfy cognoscenti tastes, the R&B/Europop fusion fills the mainstream demand for an unqualified uplifting groove. At a time when much of the world is fracturing along economic and political lines, transatlantic Europop has created a worldwide musical aesthetic that hasn’t existed since Michael Jackson truly became its King. It’s men and women coming together, embracing technology, and participating in a duty-free exchange of styles that diminishes the usual American cultural imperialism. As multinational corporate products go, this one is relatively benign.