Ed Sheeran’s Not The Bee Gees, & My Problem With Dance Music’s Future
“Shape of You” is 110% not “Night Fever,” and that’s a problem…
It’s entirely likely that Ed Sheeran’s tropical, house-tinged single “Shape of You” will spend an entire calendar year in the top 50 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts, three months of which were at number one. Comparatively, in 1977, the similarly pop-to-dance crossover hit-making Bee Gees’ single “Night Fever” — the disco predecessor to “Shape of You’s” dominance — spent 25% less time at number one, and likely 60% fewer consecutive weeks on the top 100 charts overall. In both songs being considered “dance” hits, but one actually being the most anti-dance dance song ever written, well, it says everything about the de-evolving place of “dance music” in mainstream pop, and maybe as a motivating factor for tastes of pop music fans in general.
In 1977, the lyrics of The Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” presented the premise that nightlife was this mystical alternative universe where ethereal women floated like angels on gossamer-like disco beats, through a nightclub’s heavenly air. The act of dancing, not so much a physical one, moreso a religious homage that led to sex as another religious action.
In 2017, the lyrics of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” present the premise that disco-esque nightlife is not conducive to finding love, but that drinking and awkwardly grinding to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” at a bar in a drunken tangle is ideal. The sex that follows? Well, it likely wasn’t heaven sent, but it was definitely in a bed. And the bedsheets smell the next morning…maybe not even of perfume…moreso likely of Jameson…because that’s the whiskey Ed took shots of for liquid courage.
Intriguingly, disco died as a mainstream commercial and pop cultural moment via the “Disco Sucks” movement, which was primarily led by a group of hard drinking and bar loving white dudes. Their hatred of the genre was linked not to the idea that, as Ed Sheeran croons, the “club isn’t the best place to find a lover, so the bar [was the best place to] go.” Rather, it was the kind of love — namely of the black, Latino, and homosexual variety — that was happening at the club that was problematic, the music being a cue to its occurrence.
Moreover, in the era of the late 1970s, the idea of going to a bar instead of a club for dancing and social interaction was intriguingly something attached to the gay liberation movement which the anti-”dance music” movement was strictly against. In 1969, New York City’s Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-owned and operated bar in Greenwich Village that catered to the most marginalized people in the gay community of that era including lesbians, drag queens, transgender people, male prostitutes, and homeless kids. During that era, it was against the law for two men to dance together in public, lest the police believe that there was the presumption of the two potentially beginning a social engagement that could lead to illicit homosexual love-making. On June 28, 1969, there was an infamous riot against New York City police attempting to shut down the Stonewall Inn that ultimately led to riots that in many ways spearheaded not just gay liberation, but the explosion of disco as a genre and discotheques as a portal for a uniquely commingled cultural experience.
Fast forward 40 years and we’re at a place wherein gay people can get married in America, and as of 2015, the top 10 nightclubs in America had earned $550 million in total a year prior. As well, just last year, four of the top ten Billboard singles during a week of August 2016 were “electronic dance music” in classification. Furthermore, the sound of squelching Dutch house synths, heavy drops, and trap music break-beats is certainly abrasive to some. Therefore, if you’re trying to reach the ethereal and religious experience that the Bee Gees sing about so fondly on “Night Fever,” the club — once a place that emerged from angst and enmity as a place where dancing was a spiritual homage to a love that seemed incredibly pure — maybe isn’t the place to go.
As a junior at Providence College in the spring of 1999, I discovered the fun of “dancing” in bars, and the joy of experiences similar to Ed Sheeran drinking shots of Jameson in order to perform the act of slow grinding with a girl to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” The lessons I learned in my alcohol soaked past are intrinsically important to understanding the future of dance music.
As compared to dancing on a dance floor in a nightclub, dancing on a dance floor in a bar is an entirely different gambit. Foremost, in a club setting, the music’s typical four-on-the-floor, or evenly-measured tempo lends itself to rhythmic movement. Furthermore, the fact that, while in a club, you’re constantly moving while drinking does less to affect the level of sharpness of the motor skills you’re using to follow the beat of a song. In a bar, you’re typically sitting, as Sheeran is in “Shape of You,” and there’s this thing about sitting and drinking then standing and dancing that pretty much removes all motor skills and in some case mobile functionality from your legs. Thus, as compared to the smooth disco groove of a “Night Fever,” the jaunty calypso rock” with sing-a-long “ya ya yah” vocal of Morrison lends itself far better to kind of not dancing, but rather body bumping and rather annoyingly yelling about “making love in the green grass” at a potential mate-for-the-night.
Ironically, “Shape of You’s” massive success shows us all that we’re ready to make the next 180 degree turn around the sun with dance music’s relationship with popular culture. In 40 years, we’ve seen pop-as-dance evolve from ethereal disco dance anthems to torch songs honoring cheese ball Saturday night bar grope-grinding. Dance music once held a space in American culture of being emblematic of a kind of mainstream acceptance of sociopolitical freedoms for marginalized people that inspired the most epic feelings of sensual love. Now, dance music is representative of a ubiquitous to the point of annoyance sound that permeates all levels of culture, and inspires a level of disdain that drives people to drink while listening to classic rock on a jukebox.
I, like many others, love dance music. But, maybe we’ve reached the point where we’ve gone too far with the genre. At present, there’s an inherently dance-able song that will likely spend 52 consecutive weeks being one of the most beloved songs in America that, in its lyrical composition, actually insinuates that everything that we once loved about the genre and the culture it inspired is passe. When the thing that inspired “Night Fever” now inspires “Night Fever-sweats” in an unmarried 26 year old man, something’s changed. Though I’m not entirely sure as to next steps regarding the future relevance of dance music and culture in pop music and culture, I’m certain that I’m unequivocally not in love with the shape of things as they stand.