Putting the “Disco” Back into “Discontent”:
Between Róisín Murphy and Dua Lipa

hey @xenogothic do you plan writing something about the disco revival in 2020 (dua lipa, jessie ware and róisín murphy)? róisín herself said recently in this interview she wrote kingdom of ends after reading the k-punk book

Originally tweeted by alline (@smrknggrl) on November 24, 2020.

Honestly, I wasn’t planning to. But now you’ve got me thinking about it…

I love disco. I love its optimism and its feverish quest for some new form of desire — a quest that began with Donna Summer feeling love, and which has come back again and again in an elliptical orbit, pushing out that bit further out beyond “love” (whatever that is) every time.

The elliptical nature of this orbit needs affirming. It is this orbit that means disco oscillates between periods of critical acclaim and critical disavowal. But this is also part of my attraction to disco and its various motifs. It’s frequent proximity to trash is what keeps it in limbo, between cultural acceptance and transgression, as it lingers on the verge of good taste.

When I was a kid, I loved disco unashamedly. My Mum used to get these compilation CDs that came free with the Mail on Sunday that she kept in her car, and it was through those that I discovered Curtis Mayfield, the Jackson 5, Bill Withers, Donna Summer, Kool and the Gang, et al. A whole cross-section of funk, soul and the breaks that would birth disco and hip-hop. (The irony of developing an awareness of Black musical history through the Daily Mail is not lost on me, but this no doubt further emphasises disco’s strange cultural promiscuity.)

Later, in my teens, Throbbing Gristle embodied a new kind of disco transgression for me, with Cosey Fanni Tutti charging hot on the heels of love, channelling the latent anxiety of Giorgio Moroder’s ‘The Chase’, released the previous year, and using it to put the disco back into discontent, affirming that there was still a hard edge to be found in dance halls worldwide.

Interestingly enough, the first time I heard ‘The Chase’ was on a compilation of iconic sci-fi and horror movie themes, alongside ‘The X-Files Theme’ and the theme from Psycho… I’m still quite surprised how easily that iconic slab of disco synth slotted in there… But it was still Throbbing Gristle who connected the xenogothic dots of weird joy and defiance between my disco obsession and my taste for Northern post-punk.

What is important to emphasise here is that what conjoins disco and post-punk is not so much a shared aesthetic palette but a libidinal sensibility, an interrogation of contemporary desires and their affects, which must always find its contemporaneous mode of expression underneath disco’s reputation as the most innocuous of dance musics.

This has been harder to retain in more recent decades, not least because critics have arguably failed to keep up with the shifting nature of our collective desires. Older generations, for instance, crystallised in their eternal coolness, can probably hark back to audio-visual experiences with a certain self-assuredness. “Oh yes, well, I saw Marc Bolan and David Bowie on TV.” They find comfort in past radicalities, but what about those experiences that speak to young generations? Heretical, perhaps, to them, but resonant to us? After all, Daily Mail compilations and Hull’s industrial history are hardly the favourites of someone living in the present. But such is the problem of growing up at the end of history.

This is not to challenge the mutant subjectivity of glam and disco that carries a powerful punch to this day and remains appreciated, but what of those expressions of xeno-libido that have graced our television or laptop screens since?

Cher was my radical. I have the most vivid memory of watching her, aged six, on Top of the Pops, all Auto-Tune and long-legged swagger, asking a pre-millennial audience if they believed in a world beyond Donna Summer’s critical appraisal; in a life after love.

I was not so in control of my critical faculties back in 1998, but it had a meteoric impact on me all the same — one which has continued to resonate down the years. It captures something of the zeigeist that I was only barely attuned to — a time of great tension and uncertainty. Cher’s expression of being discarded and heartbroken, her iconic voice mutated by Auto-Tune — unheard on a pop track at that time — updated the otherwise saccharine pop of the Nineties with a 21st century anxiety-to-come. She embodied a sublime discontent.

It is a song that exists in close proximity to that other classic, existing somewhere between old disco tropes and new anxious stylings: GALA’s ‘Freed From Desire’ (first released a year before Cher’s smash hit in 1997).

Unlike Cher’s ever-presence as a life-long earworm, I’d never thought about GALA’s song until relatively recently, when it was all the rage amongst my London friends in 2018, who would request it on the jukebox at the Marquis of Granby in New Cross at lease once every pub session.

I wrote about ‘Freed From Desire’ a few months ago and heralded it as an anthem for acid communism. However, so as not to repeat myself, it may be better to discuss a different song, heard innumerable times during the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to my friends’ enthusiasm for it: X-Press’s ‘Lazy’.

Although the song came out in 2012, it’s sentiment captures something very much contemporary — the joy of laziness in the midst of a pandemic, at a time when no-one is doing much of anything.

There’s a humour to the track that is made even more explicit in its accompanying music video. It seems to capture an inter-generational tension. This isn’t just the teenage slackerism of Gen X passed down — although its resonance with us no doubt had something to do with that — but also a middle-aged acquiescence that finds a world of novelty otherwise hostile to the lazy future they were once promised.

In the video, we see a man living out an almost automated existence, like a real-life Wallis & Grommet — endearingly poor inventions made to save time but just as likely to kill. The man lives in a world where he is almost capable of living entirely from his couch, but the scene is drab and, frankly, looks pungent. It seems like he is caught between unfulfilled promises — utopian promises of a world without work (of any kind whatsoever) and the dystopian reality of a world without the means to be truly lazy. It is a world very much like our own — not fully-automated but still populated with sad robots in a piss-leak infrastructure.

The irony, of course, is that whenever that song comes on, my friends and I are anything but static. There is a beautiful irony to an utter expenditure of energy triggered by a song celebrating laziness.

It’s this tension that I see in a lot of Mark Fisher’s writings on disco, particularly towards the end of his life. It’s a paradox that sets the energies of music and dancing firmly outside the performance principles that border a modern-day “work ethic”.

On his mix ‘No More Miserable Monday Mornings‘, this is dramatised perfectly, as Mark slips from Sleaford Mods to Chic…

Peaceful and angry, pure disco and rhythmic post-punk…

No matter the mode of expression the intention is momentary release from the drudgery of the every-day, in the hope that that release might one day become eternal.

No more miserable Monday mornings… No more living for the weekend… No enslavement to desires… Desires for those things we are told are coming but which we can never have — not whilst capitalism makes the rules…

Capitalism hasn’t gone away, unfortunately, but neither has disco.

It is with all of this in mind, I don’t really understand the notion of a “disco revival”. Disco has never gone anywhere. If anything, it has begun to decay, but the shards that float down the bloodstream still have the potential to block our insatiable desires in their tracks, halting — even if just for a moment — our present-day drudgery.

Disco’s affects, however, have become convoluted. But this is only true of the genre-markers that have been scattered diffusely around pop culture. True disco, as far as I am concerned, retains that sentiment, that desire (or undesire) for a libidio beyond capitalist capture.

How does Róisín Murphy fit into all this? Somewhat awkwardly, it must be said — but that is where her power lies.

Writing about her music back in 2004, Mark Fisher noted this after seeing her old outfit Moloko perform at “the otherwise desultory Common Ground festival in Clapham”. Later, he affixes Murphy to a longer glampunk lineage carved out by pioneers such as Roxy Music. He notes, for instance, how a song like ‘Mother of Pearl’ infuses disco’s libidinal expression with a new melancholy, as if Bryan Ferry is to disco as Burial is to UKG — composer of a mournful soundtrack for when the party is inevitably over; “as Penman observed”, Mark writes, ‘Mother of Pearl’ “is the whole of Lacan in seven minutes, more or less” and “the closest Ferry comes to writing a manifesto for his meta-melancholia, a meta-love song about the impossibility — and undesirability — of attaining the Ideal object.”

Murphy’s recent ‘Kingdom of Ends’ updates this same manifesto a step further. The track was inspired by Mark Fisher explicitly, as she explains to The Quietus in the interview shared by @smrknggrl. (Her album title too, Róisín-Machine, is taken from his blogpost “k-punk, or the glampunk art pop discontinuum”.) It eschews the joy of Chic and co. for a more tragic glampunk mode — one which feels utterly and abjectly of our time.

This is to say that Murphy’s melancholy is weaved into the drudgery of the present far more explicitly than her prior disco excursions. The synth and vocal repetitions of ‘Kingdom of Ends’ are notable because they do not give way to any sort of release, although its structure leaves you salivating for some sort of “drop”, trolling the Pavlovian dogs that we all are. In fact, it is a song I find difficult to enjoy, precisely because it is anxiety-inducing. “There’s only one desire left”, she says — a desire to just keep on keeping on? It’s a sort of Sisyphean disco that unearths the dark side of dance music’s repetitions. Murphy chants:

Keep going in, keep going on
Keep going down, can’t turn around no no no no
Keep waking up every morning
Thinking “What the hell am I doing?”
Keep going on, keep going onwards
Ever in, ever downwards, yeah yeah yeah
Keep going in, keep going off
Keep going down, can’t turn around no no no no
Keep waking up at 6 AM
Getting up, doing it all again

Murphy’s album is a disco for now, but it is nonetheless a disco desiccated. That is less a critique than an acknowledge that it is the disco we deserve.

Again and again and again, when writing about dance music, I come back to that line from Terre Thaemlitz’ Midtown 120 Blues: “Let’s keep sight of the things you’re trying to momentarily escape from.” Murphy’s house-infused industrial-disco hybridity will be damned if it lets us forget that for even a second. But again, this is not a critique. In fact, perhaps just as Mark did, I admire her honesty — an honesty that creeps in, pokes through and suffocates an otherwise unashamed flirtation with pop artifice.

Dua Lipa does not fit into this same camp. Her album Future Nostalgia takes a very different approach. Plenty of people have noted how Fisherian the title is — albeit superficially. How exactly this phrase functions at the level of desire is worth emphasising.

The “future nostalgia” Lipa is celebrating on the album’s title track sounds like a sort of romanticised addiction, dealing desire. She’s declaring she is here to blow your mind and get you hooked. Once she enters your life, you’re not going to want to let her go. But she’s a free spirit who isn’t going to be pinned down by some man.

It’s a hauntological romance in an utterly negative sense — she’s the kind of girl to draw you in and then ghost you. As soon as you meet her, you know what it is going to be like to miss her. It is an encounter based around the sexual tension of a “future nostalgia”, best translated as an “anticipated lack”.

Though Fisher’s argument hasn’t exactly aged well, it is this prefigured lack that he criticises in his glampunk post when he contrasts Kylie Minogue and Róisín Murphy. Whereas Kylie betrays a “simpering subordination to the Lad’s Gaze”, Fisher writes that

Murphy, by contrast, gives the impression of enjoying herself, of doing what she would do any way (and just happening to have an audience). It’s clear that she enjoys attention (male or otherwise) but like all great performers, her jouissance seems to be fundamentally auto-erotic. The audience function not as passive-consumer onanist spectators, but as a feedback component in the Roisin-machine.

And so, when Murphy sings “there’s only one desire left” on ‘Kingdom of Ends’, is it the apparent success of this disco-lack that she means? How has disco come to mean an insatiable desire that is dependent on — as Fisher puts it — “grim determination, never enjoyment”?

This is clear for Dua Lipa. For her, there is still a thrill to the chase, but what sort of chase is it, really? It is of little surprise that her songs and their anaemic club edits are tailor-made for Spotify exercise playlists. “Future nostalgia” is only hauntological in the sense that it is a soundtrack for the treadmill of modern cultural stasis — her anticipated lack doesn’t arrive. Nostalgia for her presence is jettisoned into the future.

For Murphy, there is perhaps a rousing horror and anxiety to be found on this chase — a chase that has gone on for decades, but which is starting to become another kind of drudgery.

The same is true of Jessie Ware. On her recent single ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’, freedom from desire is postponed in favour of pleasure itself becoming a specific question to be fulfilled imminently. “What form does your pleasure take?” she asks. But conditioning pleasure is capital’s gambit so that it can sell our pleasure back to us.

We are a long way from Donna Summer’s amorphous, formless love without horizon.

I’m with Murphy on this one. “Our love is stuck on replay”…

…”I want something more.”

More than love, more than desire, more than some impotent lack for gym rats.

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