Is Kiesza trolling us?

The Calgary-born artist is working to save dance music from the clutches of brooding, glum DJs

MMVA 2014 awards

When I was a kid, my extended family gathered at my grandparents’ house in north Toronto every Friday night to observe Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Practising but hardly Orthodox, my grandparents had only one rule at dinner: if we sang our prayers with everyone else, we could escape the adult ruminations of the table for the TV room upstairs—until the main course arrived. In other words, I had 15 minutes to watch Electric Circus before the brisket came out. And watch it I did, dutifully, until one of my older siblings or cousins stole the remote control and announced for the millionth time that techno music was lame.

If you had better things to do in Canada on a Friday night in the 1990s—or if you were observing the Sabbath by the book, i.e. not in front of a TV set—you may be unfamiliar with Electric Circus, the American Bandstand- style dance-music TV show that aired at the beginning of every weekend on MuchMusic and Citytv from 1988 to 2003. Like its American counterpart Club MTV, Electric Circus, or EC as it was also known, was a show built around a televised dance party. Once a week, MuchMusic’s ground-floor Toronto studio transformed into a veritable nightclub, a kind of rave lite, where local dancers and often internationally known DJs and singers (Vengaboys, Alice DeeJay, Stars on 54) performed live on camera. The show’s host would walk casually around the set like a curious partygoer, interviewing revellers in the crowd and fans dancing on Queen Street in brightly coloured Modrobes pants, trying to get a glimpse of the action through the studio window.

To say that I thought this was cool was an understatement; I was completely enamored with the Friday night spectacle and the music. It was years before I realized that my favourite film, A Night at the Roxbury, based on a Saturday Night Live skit, was in fact satire.

As I grew older, however, something unsettling began to happen in the world of dance music. Things got increasingly moody. The bubbly Eurodance and house music of the Electric Circus variety—defined by strong female vocals, soul samples, and a lot of faux leopard print—lost their mainstream lustre around the same time the underground rave scene did, in the early 2000s. Over time, in their place at the helm of popular culture, emerged other, more cerebral dance music genres like EDM—the umbrella term for big, stadium electronic dance music—and American dubstep, characterized by a darker, schizophrenic sound and eternally preoccupied with the infamous, ominous bass drop, noted specialties of American Grammy nominee Skrillex, English DJ Rusko, and the Israeli DJ Borgore.

American dubstep is also sometimes referred to as brostep. Once a pejorative term used by dubstep critics to describe one of the genre’s key fan groups—think frat guy in neon Wayfarer sunglasses—it has since been embraced by fans and DJs alike. Music writer Nicky Smith described dubstep in 2011 as “empty music for empty kids,” a sad departure from the melody-rich dance music of yore. He predicted that in three years it would be dying out. He was wrong. Its menacing, bass- heavy influence still permeates pop culture, and shows up in mainstream hits from the likes of Britney Spears and Taylor Swift.

The dark is not yet on its way out. But something else is on its way back in.

This year, 25-year-old, Calgary-born house music singer Kiesza (Kiesa Rae Ellestad), achieved viral success with her ’90s Euro­dance-inspired song Hideaway, with its awesomely cheesy, low-budget music video—which has, to date, more than 50 million YouTube views. The video is an ode to the dance music of her youth; in it we see a one-shot take of a crop-top-clad, suspenders-wearing Kiesza dancing through the streets of Brooklyn with multiple partners, in a street jazz style not unlike something you’d see on the set of Electric Circus in 1996. Hideaway reached No. 1 on the U.K. pop charts in April, and is steadily climbing the charts in North America. The former Miss Universe Canada contestant and Royal Canadian Navy cadet performed the song on David Letterman’s show this month, and recently recorded a halting, acoustic version of Haddaway’s 1993 techno hit, What is Love.

Kiesza’s popularity, and the fairly recent explosion in mainstream media of other house-inspired dance groups like Disclosure and, to a lesser extent, Gorgon City, may indicate that dance music fans miss the flamboyant sound and style of times past. But what makes these acts unique for their time— and also nostalgia-inducing—is something less obvious: their sunny, generically Pollyanna lyrics. “You’re just a hideaway / you’re just a meaning / you let my heart escape / beyond all meaning,” goes the chorus of Kiesza’s breakout single. On the Gorgon City track Ready for Your Love, British vocalist MNEK sings: “I’m ready for the rain to pour down on me / I’m ready for a change to come and set me free / I’m ready for my loss to become victory / But most of all, most of all / I’m ready for your love, ready for your love.”

It’s blissfully evocative of an earlier, happier era.The DJs of EDM and dubstep are often glum and remote, clad in black or hiding behind helmets. It’s painfully cool, but it’s not much fun. And it’s certainly not uplifting. In contrast, many songs in the prevailing Eurodance genre of the ’90s, even those that referenced heartbreak and drug use, were characterized by an almost cartoonish optimism. The lyrics were like a good horoscope, or an awkwardly translated English aphorism on a Japanese T-shirt: vague, yet surprisingly uplifting. In the words of the Dutch-born, German Eurodance diva Amber, in 1994: “Love, life and laughter / is all I believe.”

Toronto’s own Love Inc., one of the most popular Canadian dance outfits of the late ’90s, released their hit Superstar (“Reach for the sky / and hold your head up high / for tonight and every night / you’re a superstar”) in 1998 to not only enormous commercial success, but timeless gratitude. “I still meet people all the time, wherever I go, who say ‘that song changed my life,’ ” says Simone Denny, the group’s lead singer, who lives in Toronto and now records mainly soul music. She recalls meeting a man in a wheelchair at a Love Inc. show in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 2000. He had recently had a “drastic accident,” his girlfriend told her, and Superstar motivated him to begin his rehabilitation. Later that night Denny sang the song to him personally on stage. “I was near tears,” she says.

At the height of EDM’s popularity, Simon Reynolds wrote in the Guardian in 2012 that it has “provoked a backlash from those who feel dance culture is swapping underground intimacy in favour of soulless bombast.” Case in point: The Twitter biography of Borgore reads, “Following me is bad for your sister, I take pictures of her on my Instagram.” (Not exactly “You’re a superstar.”) Denny, a lover of all dance music, light and dark, doesn’t think dance music has lost its soul, only that it’s in a state of constant flux. “You’ve just got to go with the flow,” she says, wishing that Electric Circus could make its way back on TV.

Kiesza, for all we know, may be trolling us with her constant stylistic throwbacks to the ’90s, but if anyone can make Denny’s dream a reality, it may be her: “I’m very naturally happy, quirky and positive,” Kiesza told a U.K. website recently. “I love positive, feel-good records.” Amber couldn’t have said it any better.




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