May 18, 2018

The restless warm-up phase of pop music's 15-year energy cycle

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").


  1. You've correlated these music cycles with energy levels. Would this mean, perhaps, that physical activity literally also increases with the manic phase, and decreases with the mellow phase?

    Furthermore, if the manic phase is more corporeal, than maybe the mellow phase is more abstract-oriented and intellectual?

  2. It's not that the mellow phase is non-corporeal -- it's still a corporeal state, only one that is exhausted, all done, drained, etc. Like those songs I wrote about recently -- "All Cried Out," "Endless Sleep," "Numb," etc.

  3. Sexual references also mark the warm-up phase, rather than the manic phase as you might think.

    But these on-the-nose references are there to provoke, wake you up, and normalize sexual themes, after you're ending the vulnerable refractory phase.

    Since the excitation level hasn't spiked yet, there's a mismatch between the salacious themes and the pretty subdued energy levels. It sounds forced, also part of the climate of "going through the motions" and "routine exercises" rather than the real deal.

    It also makes it sound decadent, something I picked up on earlier in trying to characterize this phase. Highly sexually charged themes, but with not a lot of energy behind it, bodies just going through the motions -- at first it seems like the nihilistic endpoint of a trend, when they have nothing left but that kind of cargo-cult sex appeal cult.

    But it's really the other way around -- people are still just waking up from their deep sleep, and this is just the routine, color-by-numbers warm-up for a truly sexually charged atmosphere that will come during the next manic phase.

    I'll do a survey of these songs in another post, but you get the basic idea. During the last restless warm-up phase of the late 2000s, there was "Promiscuous," "Smack That," "Sexual Eruption," and many others. Strip club aesthetic, sometimes in the lyrics too.

    There were hardly any like that in the early 2000s, few during the manic phase of the early 2010s, and now none again.

  4. The two British invasions both happened early in the manic phase, is there a reason for that, either English music trending towards manic or the Brits being slightly ahead of us? was there an uptick in British acts in the last two manic phases?

  5. In your estimation are these phases organic, or driven by a kind of organized media apparatus a la Dave Mcgowan. As a not infrequent reader I assume you would say organic, but still, I am curious.

  6. Kiss's Disco-fied I Was Made For Loving You ('79) was a decent hit, and just about all of their late 70's hits were about partying or sex, although it all seems very theatrical, as noted above artists in these periods are trying to basically tell themselves and their audience that we really are wild and crazy, whereas when people really are emotionally and physically unglued (like in the early 80's) the sincerity level is higher and there's not as much creepy affectation, shallowness, or nihilism.

    There's definitely something off-putting about say, the late 70's or most of the early-mid 90's. There's a real sense of garish theatricality and nihilism to a lot of the culture, and for the housewives and kids "entertainment" becomes very bland and disposable. Whereas in most of the 80's and in the late 90's the vibe is less pretentious and there's more of an emphasis on having an upbeat and pro-social attitude.

  7. There wasn't a huge British invasion during the late '90s, since rock was starting to die off as a genre. But on the US charts there were the Spice Girls, Chumbawumba, Everything but the Girl, Oasis, and the Verve. Around '95-'96, we had lots of Britpop bands getting airplay and MTV -- just not broad enough to dominate the charts. Oasis, Blur, Elastica, etc.

    We actually had more Canadians here during the late '90s: Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Barenaked Ladies, and Sarah McLachlan.

    Token Aussies: Savage Garden.

  8. Same pattern of popular foreign groups/singers in the early 80s. For instance: the Police, Olivia Newton John, Queen, the Eurthymics, Men at Work, Bonnie Tyler, the Human League, Dexy's Midnight Runner, John Lennon and Paul Mccartney(as solo artists) all had top 10 hits during that period.

    The Police(Scottish Band) in 1983("Every Breath you Take", most popular song that year)

    Men at Work in 1983("Land Down Under", #4 song)

    The Eurythmics in 1983("Sweet Dreams")

    Bonnie Tyler(Welsh) in '83("Total Eclipse of the Heart", #6 ranked song)

    Dexys Midnight Runners in '83("Come on Eileen", #13 ranked song)

    Olivia Newton John in '82("Physical", #1 ranked song)

    The Human League in 1982(British group, "Don't you want me Baby", ranked #6)

    Soft Cell in 1982(English, "Tainted Love", ranked #11)

    Foreigner in 1981("I've been waiting(for a girl like you")

    John Lennon in '81(

    Pink Flloyd in 1980("Another Brick in the Wall", the #1 song that year)

    Queen in 1980("Crazy Little Thing Called Love, #ranked song)

    Olivia Newton John in 1980 ("Magic", #2 song)

    Paul McCartney in 1980 ("Coming up", #7 ranked song)

    Rupert Holmes in 1980("Escape(The Pina Colada song)", #11 ranked)

    Gary Numan(British) in 1980("Cars", #12 ranked song)

  9. John Lennon's song was "Coming Up", the #4 song that year, so he had a pretty big revival.

    As far as the late 90s, Elton John also had a huge revival with "Candle in the Wind" in commemoration of Diana's death; the song was the #1 single for 1997 I believe.

    Seal was popular in '95 with "Kiss from a Rose".

    Could be a pattern there, or it could be that British music has always been popular in America, and there will be a bunch of popular Brits/Irish on the charts irregardless of the zeitgeist. Still, I don't remember a lot of foreign music being popular in the early 2000s, which was mostly just American-bred hip-hop and emo rock.

  10. Brit invasion from early 2010s: Ellie Goulding, Adele, One Direction, the Wanted, Jessie J, Calvin Harris, Coldplay (who showed up first in '08), Charli XCX, Mumford and Sons, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Bastille, Passenger, Jay Sean. Almost all from the peak of '12-'14.

    Canadians: Justin Bieber, Drake

    Aussies / Kiwis: Gotye & Kimbra, Sia, Lorde, Iggy Azalea, 5 Seconds of Summer.

    Perhaps the manic phase gets everybody into such a party mood that they want a dance club as big as the whole world.

    Again, we'd have to check how prominent the Anglos and other foreigners were during the vulnerable and warm-up phases, but I don't think they were during the 2000s, early or late.

  11. This post also continues to develop the idea of the warm-up and manic phases being ones of activity, whereas the downer phases are more of rest and self-reflection. You would think at first this has more to do outgoing vs. cocooning, but that's more reclusive vs. social; for instance, the online player "World of Warcraft" was hugely popular from the mid-2000s to early 2010s. Dropped in popularity when the culture became more mellow and less active.

  12. originally I often used the term "angry/angsty" to describe the mellow phase. But this was inaccurate - because it has less to do with happy vs. sad, more to do with energetic vs. low-key.(or is this a misreading?)

    The mellow phase can produce happier music, but in a more low-key way, whereas the manic phase can produce angry music(though usually not "Sad" in the traditional sense, which is more mellow).

  13. Something else: people's choice of drug or substance varies between the mellow and manic periods. Depressants, such as alcohol and marijuana, and opiates such as heroin and oxycontin, are favored during mellow periods. Stimulants - cocain, and recently adderall - and hallucinogens such as LSD - are more popular during the manic phase.

    This seems counter intuitive, because if people are more tired, then wouldn't they want more energy? But during the decelerating mellow phase, people *want* to become more tired- or less active, more restful.

    Of course, the explosion in crack cocaine happened during the '80s, which were mostly mellow - but that could be explained more by accelerating crime rate in general.

    Anecdotally, there was a big stoner culture centered on marijuana in the early 2000s, and hallucinogens are portrayed in the popular culture as becoming popular in the 60s.

  14. Thanks for your latest post on this. Another trend of the warmup era are breakup songs which tend to be breezy and contemptuous, rather than sad and agonizing.

    For instance, Maroon 5's 2007 song "Makes me Wonder"(compare to their 2002 sad song "She Will be Loved")

    Beyonce's 2007 song "Irreplaceable"

    Also 2007, Justin Timberlake's "Cry me a River"

    Robert Plant's "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)"(2007)

  15. This trend, towards contemptuous breakup/rejection songs, actually intensifies during the manic period - moving from being breezy and dismissive to more focused anger. For instance,

    "No Scrubs" by TLC, released at the end of 1998:

    "We are Never Ever Getting Back Together", Taylor Swift, released in 2012:

  16. Would you say something like "Hey Ya" is more vulnerable/mellow, or more warmup? The song has a very slow tempo, which might point to being vulnerable/refractory, and was also released at the end of 2003.

  17. If the excitation cycle is linked to tempo/beats per minute, then the vulnerable/defractory period began as early as 1998-1999, with hits like "My Heart will go on"(Celine Dion), "It's a hard knock life"(Jayzee),"Baby, one more time"(Britney Spears), and "No Scrubs"(TLC). All those songs have bpm below 100(considered to be slow tempo), and are from the top-selling albums of the time(according to Billboard), so they are indicative of the kind of music that was the most popular.

    According to the tempo theory, the warmup era began in 2004 with Usher's big hit "Yeah!" in summer of that year, peaking in 2009 with the music of Lady Gaga; most of her hits have tempo between 100-120, which is considered to be medium in speed.

    If some song has tempo that is close to the medium range, like say 99 bpm as opposed to being between 100-120, there must be some other measure to determine what side of the scale it really rests on.

  18. Even the Backstreet Boys' biggest hit of 1998, "I want it that way", had a slower bpm - at 99. But this is just conjecture about what technical measures the excitation cycle might be connected to.

  19. I don't think it's tempo per se that makes it manic -- it's more the feeling of invincibility, high energy, and especially building up to a cathartic climax (rather than an even level of energy). Fast tempo may just mean it's spastic.

    Off the top of my head, big early '80s hits were medium-tempo -- "The Warrior" is 124, "Karma Chameleon" you'd think is fast but is only 92, and even a "fast-paced" one like "Rio" is 140.

    That's why I keyed in on the phrase "bouncy" in my original post on the manic phase, rather than fast or up-tempo. "Karma Chamelon" moves along at an andante tempo, but it's a really bouncy danceable walking pace.

  20. Yeah, I agree with you. I was just throwing that out there. "Hey Ya!" comes across as being much more warmup, coming out of one's shell, and danceable.

    A more accurate way to determine a song's energy would be to watch for fashion trends in the music video. If you see a bunch of hipsters wearing baggy clothing, its probably a vulnerable/refractory song. On the other hand, exhibitionism points to warmup phase or the manic phase.

    Here's an example of what I think is a warmup song - "The REmedy", by Jason Mraz:


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