Electro pop is a broad ranging term that can refer to music that originated in the 1980s but is now used to describe any form of pop music that relies on a deliberate choice of retro sounding electronic synthesiser tones and sounds with a dance sensibility. This genre started in the early 1980s after the popularity of disco started to decline and this music was a response that catered to people who wanted to listen to music that has:
- a clearly defined song structure,
- ‘pop’ production values
- traditional pop song arrangements (verse / chorus / bridge)
- a strong beat that people can dance to.
The sonic textures of 1980s electro pop rely on ‘synthetic textures’ but also incorporate a dance sensibility.
This music has been, primarily driven by producers and incorporates a featured singer who is usually a female diva. Electronic music production plays a key role in the development of this sound and some artists can either be influenced by electro pop or produce individual songs that have an electro pop sound. A good example of this is Taylor Swift who, would not be easily classified as an electro pop artist, but has produced songs that have an electro pop sound. An example of this has been provided below.
Music journalist Simon Reynolds, writing for The Guardian newspaper, suggests that the term ‘electro pop’ now has a very broad usage than when the term was originally created in the early 1980s. For example
” in the actual 1980s and for whom “electro” meant something specific: that Roland 808 bass-bumping sound purveyed by Afrika Bambaataa and Man Parrish, music for bodypopping and the electric boogaloo … [during the 1990s] ‘electro’ came to refer to something much more vague: basically, any form of danceable electronic pop that sounded deliberately dated, that avoided the infinite sound-morphing capacities of digital technology (ie the programs and platforms that underpinned most post-rave dance) and opted instead for a restricted palette of thin synth tones and inflexible drum machine beats. “Electro” meant yesterday’s futurism today.” (Robinson, 2017)
The website AOTY compiled a contemporary list of the 10 best electro pop albums of all time which can be accessed below:
Electro pop doesn’t always equate with blatant commercial appeal and can draw upon the more experimental or ‘indie’ aspects of this genre. One such group that produces an edgier version this music but still taps into a very retro 80s sound is Ladytron. Their song Destroy Everything You Touch is included below.
One of electro pop’s biggest stars who does produce a more commercial version of the genre, is Lady Gaga. One of her most successful recordings: Bad Romance, has been referred to as one of the most important music tracks of ‘the digital download age’ and consequently, one of the most important recordings within the electro pop genre. Peter Robinson, writing a history of pop for The Guardian, refers to Bad Romance and suggests:
“Lady Gaga’s fourth top 10 single [Bad Romance], marked the coronation of the download era’s first pop superstar. It was also the song whose irresistible energy and success elevated Gaga to a level where Madonna comparisons became commonplace. Written by the then 23-year-old Gaga on her tour bus in Norway and produced by long-term collaborator, Morocco-born, Sweden-raised RedOne, Bad Romance is a song about being in love with your best friend, as well as being perpetually drawn to the wrong people in general.” (Robinson, 2017)
The connection between the two artists, Lady Gaga and Madonna is an important to understand how one has influenced the other. Consequently it’s worthwhile investigating the sound that has been developed by both artists and how they represent the dance / pop genre.
Madonna first album: Madonna, by her boyfriend at the time, DJ and producer, John “Jellybean” Benitez, who helped her finish the album’s production in 1983. Benitez remixed most of the tracks including the singles: “Everybody“, “Borderline“, and “Lucky Star.” He also produced “Holiday.” which was her third single and her first international top-ten hit. The overall sound of Madonna relied on electronics and the result was less involved with and in the form of upbeat synthetic disco, using some of the new technology of the time, like the Linn drum machine, Moog bass and the OB-X synthesizer. (Taraborrelli, 2002).
The production team behind Madonna’s second album: Like A Virgin, was Nile Rogers and Chic. Nile Rogers was the guitarist and producer for Chic who were one of the most highly successful dance acts that were associated with the disco scene of the mid to late 1970s. The dance culture of the disco era and the influence that Nile Rogers obviously has as a producer has no doubt influenced the sound of electro pop. Some of their Chic’s highly successful tracks include: Freak out, Everybody Dance & Good Times. Nile Rogers also produced girl group during the same era: Sister Sledge. Rogers composed and produced the highly successful track: We Are Family for Sister Sledge
For an overview of the Nile Rogers sound as described by Madonna, I’ve included a short video below:
The album that Nile Rogers produced with Madonna was: Like A Virgin. This was one of the most successful albums of the early 1980s. This sound produced by Rogers and performed by important artists like Madonna, were critical in establishing the sound of electro pop. The ‘synthetic textures’ of: Like A Virgin, are definitely present in musical elements such as the bass lines on the record which, were recorded in parallel with Bernard Edwards virtuoso bass playing. Rather than an electronic drum kit used in the production of the album, Chic’s drummer Tony Thompson plays an acoustic drum kit. The brilliance behind the production by Nile Rogers is that the album features the band Chic, but it has such a strong electronic sound that is very clearly dance and electro pop. The album was produced in 1984 remains as relevant today as it did ‘back in the day.’
We fast forward to 2017 to a short clip from a forthcoming documentary about Lady Gaga, a current icon within electro pop music and the admiration that she has for Madonna.
The connection of 1980s electro pop and the current wave of artists currently mining that vein, is very clear. Simon Reynolds, once again identifies one of the principal aesthetics of electro pop when referring to Daft Punk’s 80s sound as epitomised by their classic 2001 release – Discovery:
“What makes Discovery seem “1980s” is the way Daft Punk tapped into that decade’s association with “plastic pop”… [however], they shed its negative associations (synthetic, fake, disposable, inauthentic) and recovered its original utopian aura (the idea of plastic as the material of the future).” (Reynolds, 2017)
The suggestion that the ‘plastic’ elements of this genre were originally used to deride it have now changed to be a point of departure for contemporary artists in today’s contemporary music scene. The relevance of electro pop as genre in today’s music industry could not be clearer. Early stars like Madonna are still touring and releasing albums and artists like Lady Gaga have seen the benefit of re-creating the sound of the 80s and are enjoying huge commercial success because of it. It may even be a case that these contemporary electro pop artists, are actually just re-creating the music that they grew up with while they were listening to the radio or enjoying MTV for the very first time. These artists are now bringing those sounds and aesthetics into today’s music scene for everybody to enjoy once again and point towards a future of pop music that makes you want to dance.
David Toop (March 1996), “A-Z Of Electro”, The Wire (145), retrieved 14 December 2017, from https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/a-z-of-electro
Reynolds, S. (2017). The 1980s revival that lasted an entire decade. the Guardian. Retrieved 14 December 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2010/jan/22/eighties-revival-decade
Robinson, P. (2017). Lady Gaga writes Bad Romance on the bus. the Guardian. Retrieved 14 December 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/jun/11/lady-gaga-bad-romance
Taraborrelli, J. Randy (2002). Madonna: An Intimate Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster