While the nu-disco genre had enjoyed a moment in the sun in the early to mid-2000s thanks in part to Kylie Minogue‘s Fever or Madonna‘s Confessions on a Dancefloor, the trend was short-lived as it was soon dethroned by the arrivals of Rihanna, Katy Perry, or Kesha, all of whom pioneered the progression of mainstream pop into the early 2010s.
While some critics argue that the joys of nu-disco can be heard between the lines of Lady Gaga‘s Artpop or Taylor Swift‘s 1989 in the mid-2010s, disco nostalgia was largely deceased until the beginning of the following decade. Marked by the social and political unrest brought about the arrival of one of human history’s deadliest viruses, 2020 saw a resurgence of nu-disco in the forms of Dua Lipa‘s Future Nostalgia, Kylie Minogue’s Disco, and Jessie Ware‘s What’s Your Pleasure?.
Where the former two records are still modern pop LPs that merely draw inspiration from disco’s past, Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? possessed a nostalgic quality in that it sounded like Donna Summer could have recorded it in another life. Where Ware’s North American peers had spent decades infusing their present-day pop with tinges of the past, the singer hunkered down and delivered something eerily akin to the club culture of the 1970s.
Ware has continued her disco success with her latest studio album, That! Feels Good!, which is somehow even more potent than its predecessor. But this should hardly come as a surprise. Given that pop albums released in 2020 would have been in various development stages before the onset of COVID-19, disco released three years on is more intentional and deliberate. In an era of increased anxiety over public health, climate change, and female bodily autonomy, pop artists like Ware recognize that the pleasure of the dancefloor is both a protest and a right.
After all, the initial disco of the 1970s developed out of its own period of political and social strife. It was an underground movement appropriated by mainstream culture, one that had been pioneered by Black and queer performers who often dealt with the everyday oppression that accompanied rampant poverty and social ostracism. Fifty years later, in an era marked by the rise of Black Lives Matter protests and threats over women’s bodies and the human rights of queer and transgender people in the United States, the return of nu-disco to the pop music landscape is long overdue.
Ware sets the tone for That! Feels Good! on its title track, where she boldly declares, “Freedom is a sound, and pleasure is a right. Do it again.” The LP’s runtime is noticeably shorter than the deluxe and Target bonus track editions of other pop singers’ work, but this is in keeping with the record’s theme of nostalgic escapism. In an era littered with pop singles barely two minutes long to ensure viral culpability on TikTok, Ware reminds us why disco songs need a minimum of four minutes: two minutes to adjust to the vibe and another two minutes to get our freak on.
Indeed, the singer is impassioned and erotic throughout That! Feels Good! “It’s not that I gave up / I just stopped trying,” she sings. “I had my mind made up on no more crying.” Elsewhere, she asserts, “I’m a lover, a freak and a mother / Walking on the line, it’s my human nature / I crave a little danger.” Where “Beautiful People” or “Begin Again” might sound like queer pride anthems, she reaches her apex on the aptly titled “Shake the Bottle”, best described as the polar opposite of kink-shaming. Recalling the post-disco work of Madonna in the early 1980s, Ware unabashedly describes her hookups and conquests the way any man might. “Count them, five, four, three, two, one / Leave them faster than they come / What is life if not for fun? / Do you want a little fun?”
The rise of social media marketing among target audiences like Generation Z has also raised concerns about the future of pop music during a period where bedroom pop has flourished. One type of vocalist is found in any number of young-adult musicians. But it’s albums like That! Feels Good! that younger generations and trendsetters should be paying more attention to, as incorporating the still-relevant past into new work is not only what can make some of the best art but some of the bravest art. Especially when we underdogs have had to fight for it, what is life if not for fun?