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Giorgio Moroder

IT WAS JULY 4TH WEEKEND IN 1977, just five months before the release of Saturday Night Fever, and disco was my sound track, as it was for so many Americans. During most of the holiday, however, I wasn’t in a club but stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway in the middle of Michigan. For any disco head, it was a radio dead zone. As the car crept along, a station finally came in, just barely. At first all I could make out was that whatever was playing was extraordinarily long, even by the standards of disco. It took a while before I realized that the DJ was playing the same record over and over again.

The record was Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and although she and Pete Bellotte hold cowriting credit, Giorgio Moroder was its sonic creator. The track proved so hypnotic that, if memory serves, I listened for as long as the DJ played it. I remember it going on for hours, perhaps because, if true, the story captures so well the relentless “moreness” of disco. The genre was never satisfied with mere success. Disco could never take over enough radio stations, rock clubs, or Holiday Inn lounges. And so it was that afternoon on I-94.

Moroder has just come out with Déjà Vu, his first solo record in thirty years, but it’s “I Feel Love” that stays in the head. If ever a disco record deserved to have been put on repeat, it was Moroder’s radically unfamiliar track. Disco had grown out of soul music, Philly soul and Motown in particular, but “I Feel Love” maintained only the most attenuated relationship to those styles. Moreover, it was not made like other disco music. Despite widespread condemnations of disco as “plastic,” to date, the genre had achieved its symphonic heft with actual instruments and quite often a live orchestra. By contrast, Moroder created “I Feel Love” entirely on a synthesizer. Stevie Wonder had used synths before Moroder—the Clavinet and, providing the legendary bass line for “Higher Ground,” the Moog—but to a funky, even organic, effect. Kraftwerk had pioneered the Minimoog, but in a more emotionless register. Moroder’s track didn’t sound anything like Wonder’s “Superstition” or Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express.” “I Feel Love” wasn’t just a refusal of rock and soul’s naturalism; it rejected the last vestiges of naturalism altogether.

“I Feel Love” was meant to sound like the future (Brian Eno actually said it did), but Summer thought it sounded like a novelty song. She called it Moroder’s “popcorn track,” probably because it reminded her of Moog musician Gershon Kingsley’s 1969 song “Popcorn,” which some say was the first electronic dance hit to go global. “Popcorn,” however, sounded like a theme song for a kids’ morning cartoon show. “I Feel Love,” punctuated by those ominous whip-cracks and performed by Summer with a self-conscious roboticness, has a vaguely sinister quality that makes listening to it feel “like stepping into a tangle of high-voltage wires,” as critic Vince Aletti brilliantly described it. Then there was the speed of the song—the result of a serendipitous engineering error. At 130 beats per minute, “I Feel Love” was faster than many disco hits of that year, including First Choice’s “Doctor Love” and Chic’s “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah).” It left you feeling jangled, not entirely comfortable.

No one could have guessed just how far-reaching this track’s influence would be. Moroder is sometimes mistakenly credited with creating disco music; others did that. But he created the sonic template for all the synth-saturated pop that followed: Euro-disco, house, trance, techno, and the many permutations of EDM today. All the while, Moroder, particularly in his work with Summer, always kept his ear to the mainstream. And it is to the mainstream that he has returned with Déjà Vu. Those who know him only through Daft Punk’s 2013 tribute, “Giorgio by Moroder,” may come to this record expecting something innovative, but in Déjà Vu he goes back to his disco roots. “An intro, a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus” is his prescription for where EDM should be headed—the two genres converging in a set of relentlessly generic conventions, conventions minted in the market-driven meter and tempo of disco. If we owe Moroder the sea change in pop music, we also owe him the endlessness, the ever-ascending and routinized repetition, that seems to power a crowd best. That’s what he delivers once again, now.

Alice Echols is the author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (Norton, 2010) and a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California.