Why Don't Pop Stars Do Big Dance Numbers Anymore?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 22 2012 10:00 AM

Bye Bye Bye: The Decline of Choreographed Pop

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They won't dance: the UK's latest musical import, One Direction.

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

After sending the U.S. a wave of R&B/pop-crooning leading ladies in recent years—Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Estelle, Adele—the U.K. is now bringing back the boy band. Former X-Factor contestants One Direction have become the first British group to have their debut album land at number one on the Billboard charts in its first week. The fresh-faced lads are more Monkees than New Kids on the Block, more 98 Degrees than the Backstreet Boys; each of their videos emits a British “bro” scent plucked straight out of an Abercrombie ad, as they gallivant on the beach, ride atop London’s iconic double-decker bus, and strut perfectly in slow-motion linear unison.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

Noticeably absent: High School Musical-inspired choreography—it’s just five boys singing fluffy tunes about the girls they love into the camera. As this article in the National Post makes clear, they seek to separate themselves from the rest of the pack by consciously not dancing. This is troubling. When even boy bands think dancing together is cheesy, it clearly spells trouble for the state of synchronized choreography.

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Back in the late ’ 90s, in the heyday of TRL and Derrin’s Dance Grooves, a tween could go to parties and wow guests with moves borrowed from the videos of Britney, ‘N SYNC, and Aaliyah. (Or so I continue to tell myself.) And this was not a solo endeavor: many impromptu dance performances livened up recess or an afternoon in a friend’s backyard. Pop music of the time appealed to one’s inner dance geek.

That inner geek lives in many of us, regardless of age: Just check out YouTube, where millions found fame, infamy, or just a sense of accomplishment from homemade videos of themselves mimicking the choreography emulating in their favorite music videos. So why has such theatrical movement practically disappeared from today’s current pop scene?

Odd as it may sound, you can probably blame the dance club—at least in part. Much of today’s current pop music is an amalgamation of electronica and Europop, the kind of pulsating, monotonous beats that lend themselves more to fist pumping with glowsticks than to choreography.  Blogger Panama Jackson recently lamented the decline of “pure” R&B and the rise of what he calls “fistpump soul”; even Usher and Chris Brown—two R&B performers valued more for their dancing perhaps, than any other skill—have shamelessly migrated into a more hyperkinetic and supremely autotuned style. And this shift is by no means restricted to the genre.

Consider last summer’s big hit, “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO, with its “Thriller”-meets-28 Days Later video. While that Michael Jackson mega-hit came with a variety of zombie-performed dance moves, “Party Rock Anthem” has one:  shuffling. In her bid to stay hip, J. Lo has adopted this mode as well in her video for “On the Floor,” which takes place, of course, in a dance club, and forsakes her sharp dance moves from the past for cavorting only Snooki could appreciate.

In addition to the club-music craze, the last few years has seen the rise of “park and bark” singers, for whom dancing just isn’t part of the repertoire. They stand, command the stage with their voice, and that’s all that we, the audience, need. (Consider, for instance, all those British singers mentioned in the first sentence of this post—most notably, Adele.)

But our biggest pop stars have almost always been dancers as well as—or even, perhaps, more than—singers. Take, for example,  Beyoncé, the performer who has resisted this trend toward solo desultory shuffling most effectively. From the Fosse-inspired “Single Ladies” to the post-apocalyptic and dance intensive “Run the World (Girls)” to the colorful pastiche of wonderment that is “Countdown,” Beyoncé has stayed true to her strengths, churning out choreographed gems. After another prolific year that ended with the birth of the world’s most famous baby, however, she will unlikely have new dance moves to show us anytime soon. Will anyone fill her shoes?

Lady Gaga is keeping choreographers employed; dancing is prominent in many of her videos. But it is always secondary to sheer spectacle. The former Princess of Bubblegum Pop, Britney Spears, is back—but she has abandoned her past group-dancing ways: the video for “Til The World Ends” gives us a bunch of lackluster, post-apocalyptic grinding, while in the video for “I Wanna Go,” she does not bust a single dance move. She has ditched the dance props of her past—from snake to chair—for, ironically, a hand-held microphone. The moves that were once essential to her star power have vanished.

I have faith that group choreography will reappear in full force eventually; pop music is cyclical, and the public will eventually tire of fistpumping jams just as they did the bubblegum pop and rock-rap genres of a decade ago. Madonna’s latest video, featuring synchronized dance moves alongside spandex-clad beautiful men, looks like something from her “Vogue”/ “Justify My Love” prime, and provides a glimmer of hope. But Madge’s artistic influence has unquestionably waned; she will always be a pop legend, but now she tends to latch on to musical trends, not create them. So we may have to ride out this wave of club-music beats and pop stars who don’t dance for a while longer. I’ll be waiting.

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