There might not be a more logical career choice for a band like The Killers to make in 2017 than hitting the clubs.
When new single “The Man” strutted the internet on a Wednesday afternoon like ’77 John Travolta, with a growling synth hook, pounding drum beat, and peacocking Brandon Flowers chorus (in half-falsetto, natch), it felt like such an obvious move that the only really surprising thing about it was that it took so long.
That’s partly because The Killers have always been at least a bit disco from the very beginning. As far as escape has hit “Someone told me,” the band’s best hits were always seasoned with monster synths, propelling drums and Copacabana glitter, sold by a neat and often suited leader who seems never to have been held back by a velvet cord in his life. But it’s also because these days, rock bands leaning into their disco instincts aren’t as shocking as they once were – damn it, half of The Killers’ alt-rock veterans have already done it. This year.
Austin indie stalwarts Spoon got more dashing than ever in March burning thoughts, their once piercing guitar attack is now chopped like Nile Rodgers, with once esoteric vocalist Britt Daniel now vocally presenting himself to fans as a culture-sensitive Robert Plant. French nimble, rock groovesters Phoenix have cranked up their arpeggiators to Ti Amo penned the most scintillating concept album of the year on ice cream indulgence. Even Arcade Fire, once the successors waving the flag of U2 and Springsteen in their most serious sound on new single “Everything Now” as if they had just had a life-changing experience dancing in the aisles of Mama Mia! The list is long and it becomes visibly crowded.
None of these transformations is shocking in itself. Spoon first flirted with disco a decade ago with the ghostly funk of “I Turn My Camera On”, one of their biggest underground hits. Phoenix’s European roots and strong reliance on the synthesizer never kept them away from the electronic world. Arcade Fire’s Reflector The album (and title track single) leaned into the darker side of disco, with help from former LCD Soundsystem revivalist James Murphy and Studio 54 OG David Bowie. But no one has gone this far in the era of leisure suits before – there’s a difference between Brandon Flowers flashing disco DNA and him actively trying to summon Barry Gibb; between Spoon putting hips in their skeletal rock and them basically redo To kiss’ “I was made to love you.” And the timing of all these dancefloor evolutions following each other so quickly, it’s hard to write it off as coincidence.
Of course, it’s not unprecedented for indie to go disco en masse: a decade and a half ago, bands like The Rapture, Radio 4 and the aforementioned LCD Soundsystem briefly turned “discopunk” into New York underground sound – but it was a bud scene, not a bunch of legacy acts from the headlining festival making a collective conscious left turn. Really, what it sounds more like is the first time rock and disco mixed together – in the late ’70s, when established classic rockers as varied as Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and Blondie are not only hooked on the 4/4 hit dance, but had Billboard Hot 100 hits in the lead. At the time, disco was becoming the dominant force in popular music, and rock bands (and/or their labels) felt compelled to jump on board or be dusted like dinosaurs – although many rock artists who attempted such a crossover were ultimately reviled for doing so, with fans memorably expressing their disgust as they gathered in their tens of thousands at Chicago’s Comiskey Park to symbolically demolish gender by literally blowing up a whole bunch of his records.
Rock may have won the battle, but four decades later disco seems to have won the war: the 10s saw most of the big rock bands ousted from the center of the mainstream by (amongst other things) the boom of EDM, leaving bands accustomed to mass hits and attention to find new directions in which they can take their music while remaining part of the contemporary conversation. Although seen as anathema to serious music fans in the 70s, in 2017 disco represents something of a haven for these bands – rockism has been largely eliminated from critical conversation, the “Disco Sucks” has been exposed as the implicitly racist movement. and homophobic sentiment has always been, and bands declaring their love for ABBA or Giorgio Moroder now feel as harmless as citing Led Zeppelin or The Clash as an influence. It’s an easy way for bands to forge their way into the larger pop world without sacrificing their stadium largesse or their grounded live sound, and without looking as ridiculous as they might if they adopted a more explicitly modern genre like trap or dubstep.
In fact, even embracing disco at this point might end up leaving some of these bands a bit abandoned like relics. Despite EDM’s dominance over the sound of ’10s popular music, the stomping progressive house that largely defined the first half of the decade has since given way on the charts to dancehall-inspired syncopation and grooves. light tropical. You can hardly hear such 4/4 stiffness on the radio these days; same chain smokers and David Guetta are too soft for that at this point. There may still be a home for these songs under the ever-growing umbrella of alternative radio – the most recent singles from Arcade Fire and Phoenix (“J-Boy”) have both made strong debuts on Billboard‘s Alternative Songs chart, although the latter took a while to build from there – but in the top 40 they’re already as out of place as if they were grunge throwbacks.
However, none of this is to say that these bands’ disco experiments are failures or misguided attempts to jump the trend – they’re all actually a lot of fun. The Killers sound more revitalized than they have in ages, while Arcade Fire has certainly done well to shed the conceptual baggage and overly valuable songwriting of the Reflector era for something much lighter and more immediate. But then again, these 70s disco one-offs have also aged surprisingly well: Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” is rightfully one of the most beloved dance songs of its time, “Miss You” was a highlight. evident from the late period for The Rolling Stones, even Rod Stewart’s much-maligned “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” still hold up for their towering synth hook.
It’s a compelling argument that genres shouldn’t be forced to coexist primarily out of necessity via rock flight, in times when the genre is historically at its weakest. Rather than hide out in a nightclub like a bomb shelter (like most 70s bands did the first time around) and wait out the uninhabitable landscape until they can go back to being just bands rock – a period that may not come for a while yet, if ever – it could be in everyone’s best interest that these bands continue to tinker with chemistry by mixing the two genres. The next time several good to great singles like these come out around the same time, maybe it won’t even have to look like a throwback trend – maybe it can just look like pop music.