From R. Kelly to ‘Reflektor’: The Rise and Fall of the Disco Revival

I remember February of 2012 very well, thanks to two seemingly unrelated songs. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these songs were signs of big things to come. Big, groovy things to come. Or, to be more specific, come back.

The first song was “Share My Love”, by R. Kelly. The song, melodically, lyrically, and sonically, could have easily been mistaken for a 1974 Barry White song if it weren’t for Kellz’s distinctive tenor. It’s disco through-and-through. But after 2010’s Love Letter, an album dedicated to recreating Motown and early soul music, this dip into ’70s disco from R. Kelly wasn’t too surprising. The album which followed, Write Me Back, continued the disco of “Share My Love” and also included ’70s soul and rock ‘n’ roll elements, but surely this was a novelty. It was R. Kelly making a ’70s record, mostly because he could. It wasn’t a call to arms for every pop, R&B, and indie artist to start making disco, was it?

The other reason I remember February of 2012 so well was “Call Me Maybe”. At the time I was introduced to the song, Justin Bieber and co. had just recently posted their lip-dub video, so it was not yet the ubiquitous phenomenon it was destined to become. But right from the first listen, I knew it was special. And it’s definitely not the same level of disco as “Share My Love”, but with its stabbing strings, slinky guitar chorus, and pedestrian lyrics, the influence was undeniable. And as the song unexpectedly spread, so did the disco.

Each new disco track I heard, I wrote off as a fluke. It was a coincidence, not a movement. When Bruno Mars‘ sophomore album, Unorthodox Jukebox came out, the standout track for me wasn’t the Police-grabbing lead single “Locked Out of Heaven”, it was the pure disco album cut “Treasure”. But that’s all I thought it was, an album cut. Another disco novelty. But, of course, we now know that the song later become a top 10 hit single. In retrospect, we should have seen this coming as early as Maroon 5‘s “Moves Like Jagger”, which although was more of a funk groove, can be seen as the beginning of changing tides.

But by the time we got to February of 2013, just a year after the faded genre appeared on my radar, it was undeniable. Justin Timberlake‘s triumphant return to music was filed with disco strings, brass, and ’70s soul chord progressions. Daft Punk‘s Random Access Memories featured collaborations with disco legends Nile Rodgers and Georgio Moroder. The offspring of the guy from Growing Pains released the biggest single of the year and it was a disco song. There was no use fighting it, 2013 was the year for disco. (And trap, but that’s kind of a different story, isn’t it?)

When debating what this year’s Song of the summer would be (because after last year’s “Call Me Maybe”, I guess this is something we need to have defined), our options were Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” or Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. Disco or disco. And it spread quickly through the pop world. Jessie J put out a disco song, Katy Perry’s Prism contains a disco track, and even Jesse McCartney put out a disco song (which is actually quite good). But it wasn’t just the pop world that was overtaken either.

This new disco, or nu-disco, as it’s sometimes nauseatingly referred to, had been growing in the indie dance music scene for years. In fact, Bruno Mars admitted that “Treasure” is actually a rip-off of French producer Breakbot’s “Baby I’m Yours”. Saint Pepsi made a name for himself by stretching out of the vaporwave scene and developing his distinctive, disco-influenced style. And it even began to spread to indie rock. The 1975 included disco grooves in its emo songs dressed in ’80s-rock reverb. And, because all good things need to come to an end sometime, Arcade Fire infused the disco style into its newest album, Reflektor.

Surely the trend will continue for a few more months as some artists continue to arrive late to the party. Maybe we’ll get a Bieber disco track, or Taylor Swift will come up to bat. Hell, it’s been a while since we’ve heard anything from Clay Aiken! Maybe he’s got a disco track up his sleeve. But, essentially, the fad is over. I’m a bit sad to see it go, but we should wonder why it was here to begin with? What possessed Maroon 5 (and Benny Blanco, Ammar Malik, and Shellback) to produce “Moves Like Jagger” with disco/funk guitar? More importantly, why did it spread? Maybe artists and producers needed a new variation on the four-on-the-floor dance formula. Maybe we, the listeners, needed that too. Maybe the particularly post-modern (post-post-modern?) cultural climate we’re in made it inevitable. We need to recycle it all anyway, and it was simply disco’s time to come back. Maybe it’s actually just that disco is awesome. Whatever the reason, it was here, and now it’s leaving.

And who really knows what will be next? Nineties house, perhaps, taking the cue from Katy Perry‘s “Walking on Air”? Or maybe something more surprising like Gypsy music or bossa nova. Maybe in two years I’ll be writing about how Usher changed the game with his 2014 polka-dance single. Pop music is weird like that.