LISTENING TO BRITNEY SPEARS’s recent single “Hold It Against Me”which launched this past January at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chartone can’t help but think that aspects of its production and structural composition betray the year of its release. The song is essentially one long crescendo, overlaid on a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The chorus builds in each iteration until finally it re-appears, accompanied by a beat, with only about thirty seconds left in a song a little shy of four minutes. The entire song is constructed around this moment, and the effect of the rhythm entering is exacerbated by the production techniquessynth washes, digital piano, and thirty-second-note drum rolls familiar from the legendary Roland TR-909 drum machinethat have been used to tease us repeatedly about the climax’s impending entrance by continually building to nonevents. Although it’s frustrating and maddening, this withholding of gratification, which the song presents over and over, is what ultimately keeps us listening. And these elaborate, endurance-taxing crescendos, as well as the technical means used to amplify their tension, are all in fact taken from a single vernacular, one that is hardly contemporary: 1990s Euro-trance. Along with several other artistsincluding Kelly Rowland, Taio Cruz, Flo Rida, and Lady GagaSpears is appropriating this specific musical style. The former Mouseketeer and early tabloid flameout is, moreover, bringing its hallmarks to the US charts. Why? More important, why now?
Euro-trance is a US term for a style of house music that originated in the early ’90s in Europe. Like a lot of dance music, the genre is split into infinite slightly ill-fitting subcategories such as vocal trance and progressive trance. The music shares with house a bass drum on every beat, aka “four to the floor,” but it’s farther from disco and soul than house is. Instead, the music is infused with a kind of sped-up new age sensibility: Like new age music, it embraces the more enthusiastic end of electronic music production. In other words, it is a bit overblown, dramatic, and tackyand I mean this in a positive sense. Crucially, what we hear in many recent US singles is not an exact copy of Euro-trance but rather a distorted or Photoshopped 2011 version of what we remember Euro-trance to have been. History is not really advancing: It’s the act of upgrading to an iPhone 4 that gives us pleasure, not our having arrived anywhere useful. When we hear Britney making Euro-trance we are hearing the illusion of progress.
In 2002, Eminem rapped, “Nobody listens to techno,” yet it was in fact hip-hop where Euro-trance influences first started to appear in US pop. The “crunk” that typifies Lil Jon’s production style is bathed in elements of Euro-trance, a style he says he grew familiar with in Atlanta strip clubs. The 2004 Usher song “Yeah!,” for exampleproduced by Lil Jon (and featuring him and Ludacris)is anchored by three notes played through a buzz-saw synth keyboard patch: a sound that had not yet been heard in hip-hop but which was all too common in Euro-trance. Hip-hop is still a place for such sounds. During the summer of 2010 in New York, it was hard to not hear the single “Salute,” by Harlem-based group the Diplomats, blaring out of car windows. Similar to “Yeah!,” it features a short trance-style keyboard sample laid over a more traditional hip-hop beat.
The cultural phenomenon that is Lady Gaga is easily decoded when explained by her emergence in tandem with the US market’s embrace of Euro-trancewhich, to my mind, has come about for several reasons. Such music had little presence in the US mainstream for some twenty years (with the brief exception of Cher’s 1998 single “Believe”) and so sounds new to a large audience. High-octane producersin Gaga’s case RedOne, who started working in Sweden in the 1990shave begun to collaborate with homegrown artists and to make use of classic songwriting forms. What’s more, the genre is returning with all the wrong turns and embarrassing offshoots of the past twenty years (hip house!) edited out; and it is being married with contemporary production techniquesincluding Auto-Tune, heavily “side-chained” compression, and new waveform-editing software enabling thicker percussion soundsthat give the music a fresh feeling. Gaga’s success is partly due to her appearing at the right time to take advantage of these factors. After all, she was the first US artist to drop several massive Euro-trance-style dance hits, seemingly all at once, and all deadly catchy.
The most frequent criticism of Gaga is that her music sounds like everything elseoften extraordinarily or eerily so. I would argue that this is exactly the point. We live in an age of quotation, appropriation, recycling, and repetition. Gaga’s music does sound like Ace of Base, Alice Deejay (whose “Better Off Alone” is in my opinion the high point of classic Euro-trance), Madonna, and countless others. After all, there is no reason pop music needs four beats to a measure, a verse and chorus, or any of the structures we associate with it: Taste is all thathowever directionlesslyguides the eternal development of such structures, so each slight variation or recontextualization has the potential to be met with mass acclaim. If only everything could be, as Britney puts it in her newest single, “Till the World Ends,” “sicker than the remix.”
Cory Arcangel is a New York–based artist.