Music by VICE

Why Italo Disco Is Due For a Comeback

The time is ripe for Italo to make a return to dancefloors.

by Jonny Chadwick
Jan 12 2015, 9:04pm

Imagine a parallel universe where Disclosure haven't gone platinum. Where they aren't played on BBC Radio 1, 2 and 6Music, and DJ EZ doesn't like them. Where Daft Punk split up after Discovery, Martin Garrix never left the lowlands and Skrillex has about as much appeal as Adam Lazzara – anonymous to everyone over the age of 16. Instead of worshipping the drop, we pray at the altar of Ken Laszlo, while bouncy, euphoric European synths are the fall-back for in-house producers. Steve Aoki is not given a European work visa and Heartbreak are still relevant in 2015. This is a world where, instead of middle-of-the-road garage house and EDM excess, people blast Italo-disco from their Ford Fiesta stereos. Johnny Jewel is bigger than Calvin Harris and Chase & Status never set up their free school. Rihanna just won the internet with a studio selfie featuring The-Dream, Valerie Dore and Den Harrow.

It all sounds quite far fetched, considering that even in its mid-80s prime Italo never produced any truly enduring stars on these isles, let alone a strong enough legacy to have mainstream influence today. Aside from some small cult followings in Pitchfork-approved circles in Canada and Scandinavia, Italo-disco pioneers are rarely on 'key influences' lists amongst English speaking artists. It's still got an audience in Europe, but if anything that makes it less likely to ever succeed over here, instead dismissed as 'Euro trash' and unworthy of critical or commercial attention.

However, if you look at the cold hard facts, unsullied by prejudice against our continental neighbours and warped views about 'taste', it's actually pretty hard to put your finger on why Italo isn't huge. Of course, popularity is almost entirely manufactured, so the sound or aesthetic of a musical movement is effectively irrelevant if Universal hasn't given it their seal of approval. But even if we apply this logic, it seems like marketing teams are simply missing a trick, as Italo has massive potential for the kind of ubiquity currently enjoyed by macho trap and dull house made by the upper middle classes. There have been hints of a re-emergence, with Lady Gaga dipping her toe in the glistening water of Italo with "Do What U Want" in 2013, although considering it only got to ninth place in the UK charts, it was a relative failure for an artist with seven no. 1 singles. But while the monsters might not have enjoyed Gaga's foray into the realm of ominous bass synths, that doesn't mean we should give up. In fact, looking out over the musical and general pop culture horizon of 2015, there has never seemed a more apt time for it to rise again and save us all.

Italo is a cocktail for musical catharsis, packed with the fulfilling elements people have searched for in other pop music in vain for so long, combining them into four minutes of hedonistic tearjerkers designed for you to dance your pain away. For instance, lyrics like those of Savage's "Don't Cry Tonight" are as histrionic as the best that pop punk has to offer, packed full of convoluted metaphors and hyperbolic phrasing, providing the same emotional release but without the horrible breathy vocals. This is helped too by the confusion of the broken English ('When you need to get another chance today, for a thunder is the past, a path, we are human being'), which only adds to the existential angst- he doesn't understand the pain, and neither do we. And it's not just in the lyrics that Italo trumps everything that's tried to fill its rightful place at the top of the charts. It's quite easy to see what people are looking for in Skrillex and Swedish House Mafia, much easier in fact than it is to find it. That search for a hands-in-the-air festival moment, the kind so expertly depicted by Vodafone adverts and Fearne Cotton, is actually an understandable one. 

However, people have been getting it horribly wrong, waiting three minutes for David Guetta to pack on the snares and underwhelm with a big drop when they could have just put on Kano's "Another Life" [no, no that Kano], which is much more efficient, taking a mere 37 seconds to get hands in the air and keeping them there for its seven minute duration. 

It's not just the charts and sports science students that have been crying out for Italo though. In our collective obsession with PC Music we've forgotten that the saccharine aesthetic laid out by the collective is actually a hallmark of Italo-disco. The "divisiveness" of the label's music was oft-mentioned in end-of-year reviews, framed as a positive quality in a world of drab consensus and uniform radio playlists. However, an Italo revival would bring the world together, not break it apart. It would make us one, not in unified resignation to "Uptown Funk", but with the same energy and excitement as we put into squabbling over SOPHIE last year. Instead of 3000-word essays on Danny L Harle's "Broken Flowers", music journalists could fulfill their polished pop needs with Thai Break's "Flowers in the Rain". It would be a fairly comfortable transition as, Italo is as every bit as corny and has the same maximal thrill, with the advantage of sounding completely liberated, as if it was all played with eyes closed, rather than constructed under a microscope by knowing art school students. So while Italo is often over the top, there is a comfort to its sincerity and unbridled joy, something that you can't really say for PC Music, as you are constantly wary of being the butt of some elaborate joke.  

Italo legend Valerie Dore

As well as simply sounding better than everything else, Italo makes sense as the soundtrack to the age of narcissistic blogs and bathroom selfies. The fact that non-descript, safe electronic music is essentially the soundtrack to the social media age seems at odds with the kind of things that have made sites like Tumblr so popular. Every day teen bloggers take to their smartphones to post an inspirational quote, pine after their secret crush and weepily tweet "JUST… THIS" with a link to a video of a great white shark nose nuzzling a koala bear. It is a culture defined by insecurity, so why does pop music sound so safe and smug? 

People spend large parts of their day on the internet, and a lot of this activity is seeking validation and catharsis in melodramatic viral videos and 'You know you're a teen when…' listicles. It may appear in a different form now, but this constant search for all things relatable stems from the timeless teenage desire to find solidarity in your angst, to know that you're not the only one feeling morose because Chantelle doesn't fancy you. Now listen to "The Night" by Valerie Dore and tell me it's not the anthem to every one of these sad teen Tumblr posts. In 1984, a track about an unrequited love featuring the lines "I'm trying to discover you [and] all my friends are talking to me" may not have had much significance beyond being a really great, really sad pop song. But in 2015, those words take on a new meaning, and are the perfect soundtrack to a lonely young person sat at their computer with four FB chat windows open, dreaming of an impossible romance. It's tough guys, but don't worry, Valerie's here to soundtrack your wallowing now. 

Given that, in general, human beings aren't very good at being nice to each other, we probably have the pop music we deserve. Our intolerance, short attention spans and endless acceptance of cheap thrills have left us with a homogenised, middle-of-the-road mainstream and an underground that is at times exciting and fun, but too often exclusive and contrived. But then we live in an imperfect world, perhaps Italo will be the soundtrack to some distant utopian future. 

thump blog
jonny chadwick
valerie dore