According to the Billboard Hot 100, Rihanna’s “We Found Love” currently holds the number one spot and has held it, uncontested, for nine weeks. It’s Rihanna’s 11th number one single, the first from another number one album (she’s put out six in the last six years) and another swipe at keeping us from forgetting her name (oh na na) for more than a couple weeks — a very necessary tenet for a modern pop star.
I’m not sure it’s anywhere near her best singles (“Umbrella,” “Rude Boy”) or somewhere far above them. Produced by Calvin Harris (of whose “I Created Disco” I admire for cockiness and nothing else), it’s simple, stupid and huge in all the right ways. Deploying Rihanna’s vocals like an afterthought, the song’s two-note melody progresses like a seven-year-old’s annoyance tactic — turning a volume knob down for a bit (verse) and then blasting it all the way up (chorus).
This style of big-dumb-club music now dominating top-40 pop thumps like the attention-deficit descendant of disco — at its best and worst.
And at its best, disco was an alternative reality. In its origin, disco was a liberation for the disenfranchised — the intoxicated soundtrack to queerdom’s incessant struggle becoming public. The best disco music is revelatory — worshiping rhythm, occasionally achieving ecstatic release and being relentlessly, deliberately danceable above all else. It is moving music.
Once white culture washed out everything funky about disco, America was left with choreographed dances (for the inhibited and rhythmless), artifice and cheese; leaving disco to be subsumed by its innumerable children — house, techno, IDM, jungle … the list goes ever on.
But the courageous abstraction of disco is, to me, very alive in songs like “We Found Love,” however shorn of contour, color and funk.
In the midst of the ’70s economic depression, disco was, for many, more than an escape from the harsh realities of global economy, politics and social hatred — it was a vision of a more accepting society, positing a whole new truth. And now, in an even worse economic period, our pop stars like partying, escaping and being fucked free of responsibility (or at least being blunt about it) more than ever.
But “We Found Love,” with its mantric chorus, practically surrendered by Rihanna, is beautifully, surrealistically vague. The refrain, “We found love in a hopeless place,” makes nothing clear. Is this reminiscence or a new discovery? Are we allowed to sing along?
And in its gorgeously stupid indefinity, “We Found Love” defies codification. A-sensibly, it creates its own reverie logic, with a few very real signifiers. We can live in a hopeless place. We can create a hopeless place for ourselves. We can be trapped by a hopeless situation beyond our control, beyond us. We found love, big fat capital-L love. The idealistic dream-stuff. We may not have money or a future, but for just a moment, we can create our own reality in which all the big dumb dreams come true. No amount of drinking, drugs and sex can bring us closer to it. This hope, God-free, is its damned, tragic pop religion. It is faith. And that is very disco.
However obscured, the heartbeat tempo of 4/4 — and my left foot’s inability to remain still upon feeling it — lives on. I hear it in Ke$ha’s “Shots On The Hood Of My Car” in which she imagines the “whole world about to end,” inviting her friends over for a bottle of “the finest scotch there ever was” and watching it “blow into oblivion.” I hear it in Britney’s “Til The World Ends,” where dancing hurtles us straight into apocalypse. I hear it all over pop these days. And my heart, head and feet are going to keep tapping to it, no matter how hopeless things get.