What are the limits of catharsis? For years, disco, house, and the other seedlings of what’s come to be known as EDM functioned as sluices for the stress endured by oppressed people. The genre of house is named after a gay club frequented by queer men of color, while critically maligned disco served as the soundtrack to gay culture’s breach into the mainstream in the 1970s. Forty years later, the four-on-the-floor beats and glittering synthesizers that once foretold a bright, free future now ring out blankly over the loudspeakers at your local CVS.
Giorgio Moroder pioneered synth music production. He is the force responsible for the instrumentation of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, still one of the most transcendent records that can be spun. Last summer, Moroder played “I Feel Love” for a crowd of thousands at Pitchfork Music Festival some time after he sampled Charli XCX’s chorus from “Fancy”. He stood behind a MacBook and nodded along to his own music, smiling as the late Summer’s vocals rose like a ghost from the speakers. Aside from his grey hair and signature mustache, he was indistinguishable from any other electronic producer who triggers hits from behind a screen.
Déjà Vu marks Moroder’s first solo studio album in 30 years. Many young music fans learned his name from Daft Punk, who featured his spoken word monologue in Random Access Memories’ “Giorgio by Moroder”. Daft Punk owe much of their career to the path Moroder paved decades earlier, and it’s not surprising that he became a fan of the French duo’s “One More Time”. More surprising is the sheer bluntness of the music the legendary producer has now issued under his own name.
Studded with big-name collaborators, Déjà Vu is pop music at its brashest, shiniest, and most obvious. It comes pre-loaded with the same muted strumming that powered Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance” two years ago. Boots ‘n’ cats drum machine beats riddle the LP from start to finish. Fake strings ring out bright and tropical; analog synthesizers blare like neon signs along a deserted highway. Déjà Vu sounds like the radio or the first Spotify playlist that pops up on your home screen at 9 p.m. on a Saturday.
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Moroder calls upon artists who individually have contributed discrete styles to mainstream pop. Kelis, Sia, Mikky Ekko, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, and Charli XCX all appear on the album’s all-star roster to sing songs whose individual parts could be swapped out without much fuss. There is a build, a chorus, a crash — rinse, repeat. Sia and Charli both sing distinctively enough to lend character to their respective tracks, but most of their personality gets ironed out in production. Despite her urgent delivery on the chorus, Charli’s “Diamonds” plays like Benny Benassi rehash, robot voice and all. Sia’s “Déjà Vu” comes closest to capturing the stakes of first-wave disco, but it ultimately feels choked by its own glut of melodramatic strings and chirpy guitar chords.
Originally an a cappella folk song repurposed into a smoky electronic hit by DNA, “Tom’s Diner”, written by Suzanne Vega, gets a maximalist rework courtesy of Moroder and Britney Spears. It’s a baffling move; the song’s subtle core melody buckles underneath the EDM production, and Moroder himself even contributes a strange extra verse through a mesh of vocoder effects. There is no reason for this song to appear, and yet there it is, stripped of its enigma and repurposed for the club, blindingly unspecific.
Full of internal references to diamonds, fires, love, music, and seizing the moment whenever possible, Deja Vu’s lyrics play like pop music Mad Libs. When they’re not bland, some verge on violently tone-deaf. “We don’t have to read the signs to see/ The blood on the leaves is our own,” Mikky Ekko sings on the chintzy ballad “Don’t Let Go”, and it’s impossible to tell whether he’s nodding to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Kanye West, or all or none of the above. The words come packed with historical resonance, but inside a whirlwind of vanilla pop, they stick out as a stray stab at depth, divorced from all their racial and political contexts. Every other line in the song points to a vague optimism inside a vaguely universal struggle. Coming from Ekko, they land like captions on motivational posters.
Enough chlorine courses through Déjà Vu to sanitize an Olympic swimming pool. It is bright and safe and fun, and it nestles perfectly alongside contemporary pop behemoths like Avicii and Diplo. Here is the dulled edge of Moroder’s legacy. The future he once envisioned has spread into music’s most mundane corners, as ordinary and bubblegum as four major chords on a single-coil guitar.
Essential Tracks: “Déjà Vu”