Everybody on the Floor: What's With All the Alt-Rock Bands Going Disco?
The Killers, Arcade Fire & more alternative acts have found refuge in 4/4, and suddenly it's 1979 all over again.
There might not be a more logical career choice for a band like The Killers to make in the year 2017 than to go disco.
When new single "The Man" strutted onto the Internet on a Wednesday afternoon like '77 John Travolta, with a growling synth hook, a thumping drum pulse, and a peacocking Brandon Flowers chorus (in semi-falsetto, natch), it sounded like such an obvious evolution that the only thing really surprising about it was that it took so long.
Partly this is because The Killers have always been at least somewhat disco from the very beginning. As far back as breakout hit "Somebody Told Me," the band's best hits were always seasoned with monster synths, propulsive drums and no shortage of Copacabana glitz, sold by a well-groomed and oft-suited frontman who looks like he's never been held back by a velvet rope in his life. But this is also because these days, rock bands leaning into their disco instincts isn't nearly the shock it once was -- hell, half The Killers' veteran alt-rock peers have done it already this year.
Austin indie stalwarts Spoon got friskier than ever on March's Hot Thoughts, their formerly piercing guitar attack now chopped up like Nile Rodgers, with once-esoteric singer Britt Daniel now vocally sidling up to fans like a culturally sensitive Robert Plant. French lithe-rock groovesters Phoenix cranked up their arpeggiators for Ti Amo wrote the year's most glitterball-refracted concept album about gelato indulgence. Even Arcade Fire, once the flag-waving successors to U2 and Springsteen at their most self-serious, sound on new single "Everything Now" like they just had a life-changing experience dancing in the aisles at Mamma Mia! The list goes on, and it's getting conspicuously crowded.
None of these transformations are shocking in their own right. Spoon first flirted with disco a decade ago with the ghostly funk of "I Turn My Camera On," one of their bigger underground hits. Phoenix's European roots and heavy synth reliance have left them never too far from the electronic world. Arcade Fire's Reflektor album (and title-track single) dabbled in the darker side of disco, with assists from earlier revivalist James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and Studio 54 OG David Bowie. But none have ever gone quite this full-throttle into the leisure-suit era before -- there's a difference between Brandon Flowers flashing some disco DNA and him actively trying to invoke Barry Gibb; between Spoon putting some hips into their skeletal rock and them basically remaking Kiss' "I Was Made for Loving You." And the timing of all these dancefloor evolutions coming in such quick succession, it's hard to write it off as coincidence.
Of course, it's not unprecedented for indie to go disco en masse: A decade and a half ago, bands like The Rapture, Radio 4 and the aforementioned LCD Soundsystem briefly turned "discopunk" into the sound of the New York underground -- but that was a burgeoning scene, not a bunch of festival-headlining legacy acts making a collective conscious left turn. Really, what this feels more like is the first time rock and disco commingled -- back in the late '70s, when established classic rockers as far-ranging as Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and Blondie not only latched onto dance's 4/4 thump, but had Billboard Hot 100-topping hits doing so. Back then, disco was growing into the dominant force in popular music, and rock acts (and/or their labels) felt pressured to get onboard or be dusted as dinosaurs -- though many of the rock artists who attempted such a crossover were ultimately reviled for doing so, with fans most memorably expressing their distaste by assembling in the tens of thousands at Chicago's Comiskey Park to symbolically demolish the genre by literally blowing up a whole bunch of its records.
Rock may have won the battle, but four decades later, disco appears to have won the war: The '10s have seen most major rock acts being squeezed out of the mainstream's center by (among other things) the EDM boom, leaving bands used to mass-level success and attention searching for new directions in which they can take their music while remaining part of the contemporary conversation. Despite being perceived as Serious Music Fan anathema in the '70s, in 2017, disco represents something of a safe haven for these bands -- rockism has largely been expunged from the critical conversation, the "Disco Sucks" movement has been exposed as the implicitly racist and homophobic sentiment it always was, and bands declaring their love for ABBA or Giorgio Moroder feels about as innocuous now as citing Led Zeppelin or The Clash as an influence. It's an easy way for bands to elbow their way into the larger pop world without sacrificing their stadium largesse or live-band-rooted sound, and without potentially looking as ridiculous as they might if they embraced a more explicitly modern genre like trap or dubstep.
In fact, even embracing disco at this point might end up leaving some of these bands marooned somewhat as relics. Despite EDM's dominance over the sound of '10s popular music, the stomping progressive house that largely defined the decade's first half has since given way on the charts to dancehall-inflected syncopation and lite tropical grooves. You can barely hear any such 4/4 rigidity on the radio these days; even The Chainsmokers and David Guetta are too mellow for that at this point. There may still be a home for these songs under the always-expanding umbrella of alternative radio -- the most recent Arcade Fire and Phoenix ("J-Boy") singles both had strong debuts on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart, though the latter has been slow to build from there -- but on top 40, they're already as out of place as if they were grunge throwbacks.
However, none of this is to say that these bands' disco experiments are failures or misguided grabs at trend-hopping -- they're all actually a lot of fun. The Killers sound more revitalized than they have in ages, while Arcade Fire have certainly done well to shed the conceptual baggage and overly precious songwriting of the Reflektor era for something much less heavy-handed and more immediate. But then again, those disco one-offs from the '70s have aged surprisingly well too: Blondie's "Heart of Glass" is rightly one of the most beloved dance songs of its era, "Miss You" was an obvious late-period highlight for The Rolling Stones, even Rod Stewart's much-maligned "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" still holds up for its towering synth hook.
It's a compelling argument that the genres shouldn't primarily be forced to coexist out of necessity via rock flight, in moments when the genre is historically at its weakest. Rather than hiding in disco like a bomb shelter (as most of the '70s bands did the first time around) and waiting out the uninhabitable landscape until they can go back to being straightforward rock bands -- a period which may not come for a while still, if ever -- it could be to the benefit of all for these groups to continue to tinker with the alchemy in blending the two genres. The next time several good-to-great singles like these are released around the same time, maybe it doesn't even have to feel like a conspicuous throwback trend -- maybe it can just feel like pop music.