The level of excitation produced by pop music, and felt by the audience, changes over a 15-year cycle, with three distinct phases. An earlier post looked at the manic phase, when excitation levels are spiking. Another post looked at the vulnerable phase, when the levels crash into a refractory period, where no spike is even possible.
This post will look at the final phase, which comes after the refractory period is over, and people can start to get excited again. Whether they do or do not, it's at least possible now. And those who are getting excited are not in a full-blown manic phase -- it's more of a warm-up to shift you out of your ordinary state, before you take on truly high-energy activity.
Dividing decades into an earlier and later half, the restless warm-up
phase belongs to the early '60s, the late '70s, the early '90s, and the
late 2000s. The survey here, as in the earlier posts, draws from the
Billboard Year-end Hot 100 charts, to make sure they're representative
of what was popular, and not cherry-picking.
If the manic phase is like a hard night of partying, and the vulnerable phase is crashing in bed until 2pm the next afternoon, this warm-up phase is after you've been shaken awake by someone else, or are starting to stir awake yourself, and you're still kind of groggy, but force yourself to go through the motions to make your body accept that it's no longer deep-sleep time, and is time to get ready for another high-energy night out later on.
The most distinctive feature of this phase is, not surprisingly, dance crazes. I don't mean music that is highly danceable -- but music with accompanying dances that are so simple, repetitive, and color-by-numbers, that even someone who's barely emerging from a refractory period can get into them. Even those who are just getting out of their emo mindset from the vulnerable phase can get social enough to do these dances.
These dances are so rule-defined that they have their own names, and a list of them shows that they do in fact occur mostly during the third phase of the cycle.
The early '60s had the Mashed Potato, the Twist, the Watusi, and scores of others -- in fact, there was a meta-song about this dance craze called "Land of a Thousand Dances," which first charted in '63 (although a more memorable cover charted in '66). The late '70s was the disco era, with the Bump, the Hustle, and the nameless yet still identifiable moves from Saturday Night Fever (from-the-hip, toward-the-sky pointing). The early '90s had the Running Man, the Cabbage Patch, the Tootsee Roll, and Jump Around. There were country line dance crazes like the Achy Breaky and Boot Scootin' Boogie. The Electric Slide went from fringe to mainstream. Although hitting the US a few years later, the Macarena was first released in '93. And the late 2000s had the Stanky Legg, Walk It Out, and perhaps the most elaborate pop dance routine ever, Crank That.
Some of these are all-purpose dances, while others are unique to the songs that created them -- the Loco-Motion of the early '60s, the YMCA of the late '70s, the Vogue ("strike a pose") from the early '90s, and the Cupid Shuffle of the late 2000s.
How do these novelty dances fit into the rest of the cycle? Well, when you're in a manic state, you can go on autopilot and just cut loose. When you're in a crashed state, you can't force yourself to dance even if you wanted to. In between, you've got to do warm-ups -- just like in gym class, these are highly simplified routines with a small discrete number of steps or motions, repeated over and over, to prepare you for some real coordination later on (an actual sport like football, tennis, or whatever). They serve to shift the body out of its languid state, to prepare for full-body spontaneous coordination later on when it really matters -- when everyone is all excited and feels like really letting loose.
Apart from waking up the individual's body, these routine-style dances get people out of their social awkwardness and sullen mood from the previous vulnerable refractory phase. If they're so simple, then everyone can do them. And if the steps are ritualistic, then everyone is going through the same motions, rather than doing their own thing, standing out from the group, and potentially being embarrassed. Only when folks are in a manic mindset can they "dance like nobody's watching" -- when you're just waking up from an emo period, you can't dance like that right away. You need to blend in with the crowd and keep the motions simple.
Beyond dance crazes, this restless warm-up period features lots of songs about dancing -- again, serving to wake people up and get them thinking about dancing, get them familiar and comfortable with it, and let them know it's OK, it's what everybody's doing now. When you're in the fully excited phase, you don't need a meta-song about dancing to direct your attention to that activity -- you're naturally going to go there.
Just to name a few examples, although most of those from the early '60s were named after specific dances, there was "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Let the Little Girl Dance," and "Dancing in the Street". From the late '70s, there was "You Should Be Dancing," "Dancing Queen," "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," "Shadow Dancing," "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)," etc etc etc. From the early '90s, "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," "Pump Up the Jam," "Groove Is in the Heart," "Whoomp! (There It Is)," "Rhythm Is a Dancer," and the ironic counter-hit "I Can't Dance". From the late 2000s, most refer to specific moves, but there was also "Disco Inferno," "Dance, Dance," and "Just Dance".
These periods are also when songs refer to specific body parts involved in dancing -- partly to provoke the audience into a more excited state, but also to normalize a corporeal mindset (as it were), so that the recently-sullen don't feel so awkward when they go out to shake their booty.
Before the laissez-faire era of "if it feels good, do it" that began in the 1970s, the dance craze period of the early '60s didn't have salacious body part references, but there was "Finger Poppin' Time," "Snap Your Fingers," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (not specifically about dancing, but that's the most likely context). By late '70s, there were more direct references: "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty," "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," and "Shake Your Groove Thing". From the early '90s, "Baby Got Back" and "Rump Shaker". And from the late 2000s, "My Humps," "Hips Don't Lie," and "Ms. New Booty". (Fashion sidenote: that was the same period that girls wore sweatpants with words written across the butt.)
Contrary to this main trend of leading a series of warm-up exercises, this third phase also has a distinct trend of tortured and angsty rock music. It's not like the sullen, languishing, numb rock from the refractory period just before -- it's stirring awake, but not wanting to get up yet, and acting all cranky because everyone else is trying to drag you out of bed. Unlike the vulnerable phase where everyone's energy levels are drained, now these people actually could get more active and take part in warm-up exercises for the next manic spike, but they are inveterate downers and are choosing not to. They're consciously trying to hold onto the previous emo period. This gives their tortured downer-ness a deliberate, affected quality.
That would be the more self-conscious and angsty kind of rock from the late 2000s like Fall Out Boy's album Infinity on High, or My Chemical Romance's album The Black Parade. During the early '90s, that would be most grunge and alternative. From the late '70s, "Ballroom Blitz," "Barracuda," "Hotel California," "Because the Night" (covered and charted again in the next restless phase, 1993, by 10,000 Maniacs), and "Bohemian Rhapsody" (re-released to chart again in the next restless phase, 1992). Punk didn't chart in the US, but also from that period. From the early '60s, "Runaround Sue" (covered and charted in the next restless phase, 1978), "In Dreams," "Ring of Fire," "The House of the Rising Sun," and "Needles and Pins".
On a related note, this phase also has the highest concentration of sappy music coming from the singer-songwriter types. They're no longer in the woe-is-me mindset of the previous vulnerable refractory phase, but they're also not yet in a manic phase. Forcing themselves to get out of bed, and "going through the motions," for them means writing self-consciously positive songs. Warm-up exercises for singer-songwriters are going to be a little too on-the-nose in their sentimentality, and sound forced.
From the late 2000s, this includes Taylor Swift's early country crossover songs, "Hey There Delilah," "How to Save a Life," "Bubbly," and the insufferably twee "I'm Yours". From the early '90s, "Save the Best for Last," "To Be With You," "Again," "A Whole New World," "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)," and "Fields of Gold". From the schmaltzy late '70s, anything other than disco or rock -- "Dream Weaver," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "Nobody Does It Better," "Three Times a Lady," etc. Lots of early '60s sappiness, too -- "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Johnny Angel," "Duke of Earl," "Hey Paula," "It's My Party," and others.
This phase is the hardest to simply characterize because the excitable system is in a neutral state, meaning it could stay relatively unexcited, it could get a little excited but then quickly return to the baseline, or it could get so excited that it takes off into a manic spike. Several different outcomes are possible, and they all show up in the outcomes, giving the period an all-over-the-map feeling.
Once the manic spike begins, there's no room for sullen music; likewise when it's in a refractory period, upbeat cheerful music is not possible. Those two phases are more constrained in what they allow, and are easier to characterize.
Ultimately, though, what stands out the most is the trend toward waking up, warming up, and beginning the routine exercises, to prepare for the next spike.
To end with, here are a few examples of how varied the sounds during this phase can get, and how central dance music is. There's disco-punk from the late '70s, alterna-disco from the early '90s, and disco-(post-)grunge from the late 2000s (relevant lyrics from the chorus: "I want to make you move, because you're standing still").