April 27, 2019

"Sweet but Psycho" marks end of vulnerable phase of excitement cycle, next wave of disco during early 2020s (plus earlier historical examples of phase changes)

An interesting topic in studying the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, consisting of three five-year phases, is how some element of the final year of one phase prefigures the overall tone of the following phase. It's ahead of its time by a little bit, and stands out against the norm of its phase, but you can feel it heralding a new direction, which becomes even clearer in retrospect.

A recent post looked at the changes to dance music during the vulnerable phase of the cultural excitement cycle, where the upbeat and bouncy tunes of the previous manic phase give way to a more dissonant and spastic type.

Somehow that must transition into the following phase, the restless, warm-up phase, which is characterized by conscious dance crazes that are meant to get people's bodies back into the groove after slumbering for so long during the refractory state of the vulnerable phase.

There's always one song from the final year of the vulnerable phase that departs from the dissonant, spastic norm and points the way forward to a renewed atmosphere of restlessness, wanting the body to do warm-ups rather than sleep in bed any longer.

And since the refractory period is starting to wear off, dance music no longer has to go into rhythmic overdrive to over-compensate for the drained energy levels of the audience. Once their energy levels are back to baseline, during the warm-up phase, they don't need the over-the-top spastic rhythms to pick them up -- a simple, even minimal, catchy beat will suffice. With normal energy levels restored, they can dance more effortlessly, rather than having to force themselves into it rhythmically.

Still, these harbinger songs are not entirely free from their zeitgeist, and do tend to have passages of near silence, especially during the bridge, when the rhythm nearly grinds to a halt. That allows the audience to feel comfortably familiar with them, as most dance songs of the vulnerable phase have this off-and-on rhythm. But in these new songs, there's only one instance of this halted rhythm, rather than punctuating the entire song.

And there is somewhat of a downer or melancholy tinge to the emotional delivery, making it familiar to emo-accustomed audiences. But overall, the tone is brighter than the norm of its time. These new-direction songs all use the major key tonality, whereas the dissonant norm is to use the minor key.

On a side note, these musical changes are also happening at the same time as broader changes in the cultural zeitgeist, as the end of the vulnerable phase spells the end of sex-negative feminism, female victimhood, and related feelings of "all social contact is too painful to bear". See this post on how the phases of feminism track the phases of the excitement cycle. For now, the point is that the new-direction dance songs herald the end of an emo phase of feminism, as Me Too bottoms out on bottoming out.

To contrast the following examples of new-direction dance songs against their background, go through the post on dissonant dance songs, which has many examples from each vulnerable phase going back to the late '80s. These songs ascend the Billboard charts during the first half of the final year -- they are not borderline cases from the end of the final year, but are truly just-ahead of their time. They were all #1 Dance Club hits, for as long as that chart has existed, or were major hits (especially in dance clubs) before that chart began in 1975.

In the current vulnerable phase of the second half of the 2010s, the backdrop is the soft emo mainstream, and dance music in the mold of Clean Bandit. All of a sudden comes a dance hit that uses the major key and a simple beat that gets only a little more complex to build some tension before the chorus. The only halting moment is the bridge. The assertive and clingy lyrics are the opposite of the victimized and avoidant Me Too feeling.

Everyone compares it to early Lady Gaga, but those songs were way higher in energy and danceability. They were from the final year of the last restless warm-up phase, 2009, and were the pinnacle of the decadent disco climate of the late 2000s. They shade into the following manic phase (but that's the topic for another post about final years of the other two phases). This one is just getting the ball rolling again, and we won't hear another string of early Gaga-type dance hits until 2024. But this is clearly where dance music will be heading over the next five years (neo-neo-neo-disco).

"Sweet but Psycho" by Ava Max (2019):

During the last vulnerable phase of the early 2000s, the backdrop was the soft emo mainstream, and dance music in the mold of electroclash. Even Top 40 dance songs with a simpler rhythm, like "Toxic," had a severely dissonant minor key (especially the strings), and in retrospect they don't sound like what was to come in the late 2000s. The new-direction song here has a more subdued vocal than the others, but is otherwise similar: major key, stripped-down beat, lyrics about connecting with rather than mistrusting the opposite sex, and paving the way for the next five years (neo-neo-disco of the late 2000s).

"Slow" by Kylie Minogue (2004):

During the vulnerable phase of the late '80s, the backdrop was soft rock, emo power ballads, and dance music of the Hi-NRG and freestyle type. The next song broke with the minor key trend, kept the rhythm simple, used a minimal-yet-catchy hook during the chorus, and paved the way for the rap-inflected neo-disco of the early '90s warm-up phase (Technotronic, C&C Music Factory, Deee-Lite, etc.).

"Buffalo Stance" by Neneh Cherry (1989):

During the vulnerable phase of the early '70s, the backdrop was plaintive singer-songwriter ballads, and no real dance music to speak of. "Electronic rhythmic music" was prog rock. From out of nowhere, the first disco hit emerges with a major key, simple rhythm (the opposite of prog), cheerful lyrics about a couple sticking together, and paving the way for original disco. This is the only example without a moment of halted rhythm during the whole song.

"Rock the Boat" by the Hues Corporation (1974):

Finally, during the vulnerable phase of the late '50s, the backdrop was moody doo-wop and lovelorn teenager pop. Use the major key, keep the rhythm simple yet engaging, pepper it with some sexual vocalizations to signal you're no longer in a refractory state -- and you've got the birth of proto-disco, or soul music, which would really take off during the following dance-crazy warm-up phase of the early '60s.

"What'd I Say" by Ray Charles (1959):

1 comment:

  1. One pattern I may have noticed - weddings are portrayed positively during defractory periods, and portrayed more negatively during manic periods.

    First, weddings tend to be trashed or mocked during the manic phases. For instance, Billy Idol's song, "white wedding"(1982), with the lyric "there is nothing pure in this world". According to Idol, the song was a response to his sister getting married - he was angry about it.


    The movie "the Wedding Singer", with Jennifer Lopez, was released in 1998 - never seen it, but I can assume part of its schtick is making fun of wedding stereotypes.

    The movie "Wedding Crashers" was released in 2005, and seemed to take a middle ground - weddings are fun get-togethers, but the movie seemed to make a mockery of marital fidelity - afterall, its about a couple of guys who go to weddings in order to get laid.

    Conversely, defractory periods often have ornate, famous weddings which cause media frenzies - these especially involve the royal family. For instance, Prince William and Meghan Markle in 2018; Prince Charles and Diana in the late 80s; Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier in 1956.

    Why are weddings more popular in defractory eras? People become weenier and need more commitment before they have sex(they don't want to get hurt). Over-sensitivity demands a greater commitment.


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