Not far from where songwriter Emily Warren lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, there’s a dive bar with a weekly disco night.
“It’s kind of a shit show,” she says. She had been attending regularly and invited collaborators Ian Kirkpatrick and Caroline Ailin to join her. It was early 2019, and the pair had just gotten to town to start writing some songs for Dua Lipa’s sophomore album.
“The next morning, we woke up, and were like, ‘We have to make a disco song. It’s the most fun to dance to.’”
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The trio had been behind Lipa’s first major hit “New Rules” and as pop goes, it’s all about finding the next something that will take off. Lipa herself had been on an Eighties Madonna kick just before writing the album, so they were already in a nostalgic state-of-mind.
“We were looking for a theme, which is not something that happens in albums these days,” Kirkpatrick says. “I’m glad it took some time to settle the disco thing and the European house bass lines.”
The day after the disco party, the trio dove into what would become “Don’t Start Now,” the lead single off Lipa’s Future Nostalgia — which eventually hit Number Three on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Songs chart.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Kirkpatrick adds. “The disco vibe was always kind of hanging around the album. There were a few songs written in that vibe, but we were kind of battling between the Eighties and the Seventies.”
Even with a throwback tip in mind, disco felt like a risk. Pop radio had veered more “urban,” as Kirkpatrick details. He “de-discoed” the drums and added a Nineties bass to the pre-chorus so that the track would hopefully not feel too anachronistic.
“I was just so scared,” he says. “You just don’t know what’s gonna catch and what’s not gonna catch.”
When “Don’t Start Now” was released last fall, Kirkpatrick’s fears became irrelevant. The very Seventies nods on the song are what caught most listeners’ ears. What has ensued since is another massive hit for Lipa and a slight wave of more disco-tinged hits dominating radio. Another Top 100 hit is Doja Cat’s “Say So,” which pulls from similar Seventies funk and disco elements. Meanwhile, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” finds itself caught in the same Seventies-Eighties dance pop crossfire as Lipa’s album. Part of all three of these songs’ current domination is due to TikTok, where they have spawned popular dance challenges.
Like disco’s very origins, these pop hits and albums were built to make people dance. Since listeners can’t do that in clubs or dive bars currently due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, dance challenges are proving to be a salve.
“The wave of music that came right before this was really self-indulgent, slow ballad, heavy lyrics,” Warren says. While she doesn’t personally try to write music specifically for use on TikTok, she does feel like the platform has opened the doors for what can be discovered and successful. “I think that got tired really quickly because especially in a time like now people are turning to music to feel better.”
The way we look at disco now has of course changed since the genre originated as an east coast musical subculture for black, Latinx and LGBTQ communities. In the Seventies, it became a scene of liberation, spawning several popular dance trends, a whole fashion scene and big-voiced stars like Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer. The sound of disco would eventually become the blueprint for hip-hop, with early emcees rapping on isolated disco beats.
For the last four decades, all popular music has existed under the shadow of disco and brief revivals have popped up in the last 20 years, spurred previously by the likes of Madonna and Daft Punk specifically.
DJ, artist, and disco connoisseur Rod Thomas, known professionally as Bright Light Bright Light, appreciates the way Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” was able to “prune that disco-catalog sound” but is wary of calling this musical moment a full revival. “Disco is one of those sounds that has always been buoyant and pops back into fashion,” he says. “There’s something so euphoric about the language of disco. For me, it’s the idea of dancing through pain and struggle. The subject matter is turmoil and defiance.”
The success of “Don’t Start Now” and “Say So” may have open the floodgates for more disco success stories: Lady Gaga’s Chromatica pulls heavily from Nineties house culture, the spiritual child of peak- and post-disco. Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? is the genre in its purest form, a tribute to Donna Summer, Fern Kinney, and Sylvester’s dance floor heartache, lust, and ecstasy.
For writers Kirkpatrick and Warren, those themes of overcoming immense difficulty is why disco could be the sound of pop’s immediate future. Warren specifically has been gravitating to the lushness and euphoria of the genre in her own songwriting while quarantining in her Wyoming home.
“I read an article that was talking about how people are listening to nostalgic music and reaching back to what comforts them,” she says. Disco has been a comfort her, and given the success of these songs many other pop listeners might be feeling the same way. “That could solidify the future of disco right now.”