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A Bittersweet Love Letter to Holiday Anthems

It's not cool to like Euro club bangers, but they're fucking amazing.
April 1, 2014, 5:00am

(Photo by Nathalie Olah)

British weather might be stuck in its uncertain "spin the bottle" phase right now, but most of us are dreaming of something better. A better time, a better place, a better us – a better, if temporary, life. A world where doing the food shop in swimming trunks isn't going to get you arrested, a world where drinking Stella at lunchtime isn't going to get you a divorce. A world where the sea is barbicide blue and reps getting paid in a mattress and drinks have more authority than the local police. A world where 12-year-olds ride Vespas and barmen wear Neymar shirts. A dream world that's easily accessible from all major UK airports.

Unless you're one of those people who only ever goes on holiday to "NYC" to hang out with the same shade of entitled metropolitan cunt with a different accent, you'll understand the uniquely romantic place that sunny weeks abroad hold in our culture. As Martin Amis said in his BBC4 documentary about England the other weekend, we live in a "masochist's climate". It's only natural for us to romanticise the sun, the sand and the see-through-sea.

Personally, I love the Brits abroad experience; it's how I imagine Britain would have been if we'd lost to the Armada and never broken away from the Catholic Church. Yes, I understand that exploring different cultures in further flung parts of the world is a far more fulfilling and exciting thing to do, but when it comes to pure relaxation and pure fun, you can't beat the Costa Del Dream. The baking hot pool tiles, the Maxibons, the sickly sweet Sangria, the fact that everyone you meet looks like leather.

(Photo by Javier Izquierdo)

The great thing about these holidays is that they're all basically the same; fruity drinks, good weather, familial breakdowns. So much so, in fact, that us and the Europeans have managed to create a one-size-fits-all holiday "sound" that's now exported all round the world, from Benidorm to Bali, Sharm El Sheikh to San Antonio and just about everywhere else where you're allowed to wear skirts above the knee and drink rum out of a pineapple.

The "holiday sound" is an amorphous, engulfing beast that takes in many influences and comes in many different forms. But there are always constants: the pianos, the sexy voices that could come from any part of the continent, the references to the sun, the steel drums, the accompanying dances and the massive hooks that'll unite generations in rapturous, naff unison. It's music that is precision designed to explode on impact when combined with San Miguel and temperatures above 25 degrees.

It is, of course, massively derided by the musical intelligentsia, but it's also fucking amazing when you think about it.

This year's holiday mega-anthem will most likely be Duke Dumont's Whitney-sampling "I Got U", which is currently sitting at the top of the charts. The video is shot somewhere luxurious in Southeast Asia, but will more likely be the soundtrack to a hundred thousand sun-stroked first kisses at beachfront Irish bars in the kind of vastly more affordable European destinations where young men vomit off balconies and people watch the X Factor final outdoors. I mean, the song should, by all rights, be awful. At its essence, it's cynical, derivative, mass-marketable and entirely disposable.

Yet I (and I think a lot of others) just can't help but totally fall for it.

Listening to it and watching the bits of the video that don't feature elephants, it acts as a reminder that there is a better world out there – a place we're all counting the days to return to. A lot of great music has the power to remind us of times and places from our past, or perhaps to tempt us with interpretations of worlds we'd one day like to visit. And for me, there's little else out there in the current musical climate that possesses the sheer evocative qualities that these holiday anthems do. In fact, there's not much out there in man's entire cultural output that can rival these Balearic bangers' ability to evoke.

But how does a song that was only released a few weeks ago have the power to generate such strong feelings? Because it's part of a tradition. A tradition that dates back to the dawn of the package holiday, when – in a pre-Spotify age – songs would come back from the continent as souvenirs and tokens of a new world. British holidayers bringing back Europop records is the same thing as Francis Drake bringing back potatoes. In 400 years, little has changed other than our ability to treat the associated venereal diseases.

The first holiday songs were quasi-credible disco tunes from the likes of ABBA, Ottawan and The Gap Band, whose PG-rated Studio 54 sound was reinterpreted in the Balearics and the Balkans. Invariably, they came accompanied by low-impact dance routines that require such a small amount of physicality, sexuality and coordination that they can be done by nans and babies.

Before that British bastardisation, however, holiday tunes were more self-consciously "exotic" – they utilised traditional instruments, like Incantation's terrible-but-infectious pan-pipe classic "Cacharpaya", or had words in a language that you didn't recognise, like "La Bamba" and that Turkish tune that Holly Valance ended up sampling. The performers themselves were a motley crew; sometimes they appeared to have been taken straight from the holiday camps themselves – sequined, moustachioed men torn from rejected Peter Kay sitcoms. Or smiling, attractive but ultimately sexless women who wouldn't let a lack of linguistic understanding get in the way of their enthusiasm.

These are, of course, the clichés – the Benidorm take on the genre. But in my mind, the sound really came into its own in the post-Ibiza era. In a time when all the pills had crumbled to dust, the DJs went home and we were left with a kind of popularised, positive take on Balearic excess. It's a hard aesthetic to describe, but basically the modern holiday sound is the meeting of WOMAD and Pacha. It's essentially the sound of Europe reintegrating with its colonial past, and it involves a lot of bongos.

(Photo by Jamie Taete)

Think "Mr President", "Las Ketchup" or "Mr Saxobeat". Think that J-Lo and Pitbull song that became the soundtrack to every club experience in Majorca for about three years. Think Sak Noel, Guru Josh, Shakira and Dario G.

It's a sound that's evocative of an "other" world where anything goes. Where Australian bar staff working in Hawaiian-themed bars hand over bribes to Spanish police who spend their days strong-arming Senegalese guys selling Chinese sunglasses to British tourists. It's the sound, the aesthetic, the repackaged feeling of these modern Casablanca scenes that have popped up all over this sinking continent – the coastal towns where drinking and fucking are primary industries; places where the police are mostly there to make sure everyone is turning a blind eye.

Considering this evocative, romantic music has become synonymous with sun-baked, crime-ridden border towns on the edges of Europe, the "holiday anthem" bears perhaps more resemblance to country music than any other. It's music from a different world, without being "world music". There's a simmering, almost evil undercurrent beneath those synth breaks and participatory choruses, and I find it much more alluring than it's maybe supposed to be.

For me, Guetta is a key proponent of a strange, almost spiritual phenomenon that occurs in holiday anthems and a few other genres. His music goes from complete dross to transcendental, evocative brilliance when placed in the right scenario. Hear a Guetta track in the Putney B@1 on a wet Wednesday in March and it just sounds inappropriate, shoddily done and resoundingly unexciting. Hear a Guetta track under the sticky southern Spanish night and it sounds like Beethoven and Sash! all in one.

(Photo by Javier Izquierdo)

For my money, good music is as much about time and place as any traditional notions of quality or authenticity. At the right time and in the right place, this massively derided strand of popular music just falls into place. It starts to make perfect sense, in the same regrettable way "Chelsea Dagger" does when you're belly-to-belly in a post-football piss-up.

But perhaps we're holding our true selves back when we cringe at some Greek radio station playing "Sunchyme". Maybe all those holidays to New York or Primavera or Cambodia, where we read Conrad and watch British DJs play the same set they'd play at the local converted warehouse, are just stifling what we really want to do with our 20 days of paid holiday.

The people behind these tunes are no doubt scholars of the environment their music will be played in. They understand that to create a holiday anthem they must produce something that transcends language and culture. They must create something that just sounds like our collective understanding of what happens when we go on holiday. They need to understand what the sun sounds like, what kind of piano break will get an Austrian patriarch off his chair and what bassline the perpetually-pissed, sunburnt mums from Warrington will still be humming when they touch down at John Lennon airport.

It's easy to accuse this kind of music of being cynical and formulaic, which is probably because, a lot of the time, it's both of those things. But isn't all music you're supposed to dance to inherently cynical? Maybe I have bad taste, or maybe I've just been on too many traditional British getaways, but I fucking love holiday anthems.