Music by VICE

What the Hell Happened to Pop House?

Disclosure announced they're "taking some time out," so what's left of the genre they were pegged to pioneer?

by Angus Harrison
Feb 27 2017, 3:15pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK. 

Do you remember four years ago when pop music was going to change forever? How, thanks to two blonde teenagers from Surrey—one called Guy, the other literally called Howard—dance music and pop music were going to coalesce in ways hitherto unimagined? It was time, so we were told, for a dizzying new blend of UK garage, deep house, and R&B that was set to revolutionize the mainstream. Not since the days of bloghouse had electronic music's grip on the popular imagination seemed so certain.

First came "Latch," an early top ten single for the duo, followed by Settle, their ultimately Grammy- and Brit-nominated number one debut album. Next was sure to be world domination. "When a Fire Starts to Burn," soundtracking hundreds of thousands of teenage girls applying pre-festival bindis in unison. Lads from Coventry to Carlisle splurging their savings on Huaraches, while the crystalline groove of "White Noise" slinked to-and-fro in the background. "Disclosuremania is clearly about to sweep the nation," concluded Eve Barlow in the NME. "Not since the big beat explosion of the late 90s, when Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers became household names, has British dance boomed quite so loudly," said The Guardian.

These two mild-mannered lads were about to become Reigate's answer to Daft Punk.

Yet here we are some four years later, and it's difficult to see what—if anything—actually happened. "Disclosuremania," and the rebirth of deep house as pop music never really became more than a few more electronic drumkits on the Reading lineup, and a sharp increase in bikini-obsessed Youtube channels. Now, with Disclosure announcing a hiatus to enjoy some "much-needed rest," it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask: was that it?

None of this is to say that Disclosure haven't been successful, but for an act that were tipped to revolutionise pop music, it's striking that after just two albums they are already—albeit temporarily—calling it a day. Arriving in a whirlwind of hyperbole, they were treated as a legacy act from the offset. Their debut LP was critiqued with a now jarring sincerity, enjoying reviews that alluded to a game-changing piece of work. "Dance music's long had a fickle relationship with the album format," wrote Pitchfork in their 9.1 assessment, "but Settle's impeccable sequencing leads to a record that begs to be heard in its entirety."

In the same year Rudimental, Gorgon City, and Duke Dumont all released albums, and Clean Bandit's "Rather Be" was only a matter of months away. If you liked your dance music powder-fresh and digestible, these were the glory days. The third summer of love, sponsored by ASOS.

Yet a movement is only a movement if it continues moving. The limp response Disclosure's second record, Caracal, received says much of how quickly the world fell out of love with the brothers and their much-championed significance. While the record went in at number one, it left the charts far quicker than their debut, and despite not shifting hugely from the template of their first record, critical reception was far less warm this time around. Pitchfork's once-glowing praise was by then downgraded to "vaguely pleasant background music". The idea of pop house as something important, worthy of Mercury prize nominations, had faded into dry ice as soon as it had appeared.

The most cursory of glances at a recent UK top ten will illustrate that pop house has far from gone away—but rather than making pop music more interesting, the influence of 2013's pop house explosion has gone the other way. All that really remains now are bargain bin facsimiles of the bass-led, neo-soul model the Lawrence brothers pioneered. From Jax Jones' "You Don't Know Me," to Starley's "Call On Me," a new roster of artists are still out there, intent on making pop house so forgettable they make Route 94 look like Objekt.

It's unfair of any of us to lay the blame with Disclosure. Cursing the skies in confusion that two lads from Surrey weren't able to revolutionize pop music possibly suggests that the fault was more with our unreasonable expectations than it was their own inadequacies. The Lawrence brothers' flash-in-the-pan success is reflective of the very nature of chart-friendly dance music. For all it seemed like 2013 was bringing unheard delights, it's fair to say that between Eric Prydz, Baby D, and Modjo, "pop house" has been a staple of the UK top 100 since the turn of the century—and it's never been afforded legacy or long-term cultural influence when divorced from house's roots in an actual club.

Chart-ready house is intrinsically disposable music. It always has been. There is something throwaway written into its DNA. After all, if you attempt to commodify something as diverse and storied as club culture into a radio edit, you're only ever going to end up with something that feels fleeting, or shallow.

Chart dance music is a temporary pleasure. It sounds like fast food, dripping in trans fat and smelling of cheap cologne. It belongs in the footwell of a car, rattling around with crisp packets, de-icer and an empty Lilt can. That doesn't mean it has to suck. In fact, now they've had time to settle into popular memory, tracks like Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You" have taken on an almost mythical status in provincial nightlife folklore. It's worth noting, though, that they were never taken too seriously at the time. Nobody heard "Groovejet" and assumed Spiller was going to recalibrate the intersection between underground and mainstream cultures.

This dissolvable, forgettable quality has proven the fate of Disclosure, and will prove the fate of their contemporaries. The Chainsmokers are already learning that in the chart dance world, you're only as good as your last car-radio-ready screamer. Despite having three top ten singles and being the proud owners of an actual Grammy, their 2016 EP only charted at number 49 in the UK—we'll have to see how their album performs in April. And it's no mistake that the pop house acts that litter Britain's top 100 are largely names you'll read once in the top 10 and then never see again. As it goes, putting 4/4 kick drums underneath Sade acolytes isn't the path to eternal greatness.

Nevertheless, as they enter early retirement, the Lawrence brothers can take some solace in the knowledge that one day, in 2033, skin now sinking, hair a dead-end grey, they will hear "Latch," and remember the promise of what might have been. The only regret that lingers? That an over-excited music press hyped them out of existence, and legions of fans expected more than a few Nissan Micra heaters—and that they never had a chance to settle.

You can find Angus on Twitter.

(Image provided by PR)