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Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ Has Brought Back the Recession Banger

Dance music often gets very good, or at least prolific, when there’s an economic downturn—and Beyoncé has released a dance album that’s on everyone’s mind right now. Having the most famous woman in the world, and one of the few pop stars that can really reset and determine culture, release this album is maybe as much a sign of the recession as any economic marker. 

There’s a long history of there being a disproportionate amount of bangers during a recession, perhaps starting with the exuberant rave culture of Madchester, which erupted during the Thatcher era, which also saw some of the best and most danceable ska music. Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” was not only a product of Thatcher’s England, but also about the desolation her policies had brought, specifically referencing the 1981 Brixton riot. These are recession bangers, songs that respond to and describe how it feels to live in desperate times, and also offer a solution: dance until none of that matters anymore.

What marks a recession banger is a combination of its lyrical content and an embracing of existent dance music trends. During 2008’s Great Recession, pop music was bigger, louder, and eventually, we got bangers that embraced EDM and dubstep. Lyrically, recession bangers not only embrace partying and alcohol—perennial pop music lyric fodder—but also a sense of looming dread or instability. We’re all living for the moment, maybe nihilistic, or expressing a kind of joie de vivre that comes with desperately needing a cathartic release. 

If you’re not sure what that sounds like, think about Kesha’s early career while she was under contract with Dr. Luke in the beginning of the 2010s. Although her party girl image wasn’t her choice, lyrics like “ain’t got a care in the world, but got plenty of beer/ain’t got no money in my pocket, but I’m already here” certainly resonated. Lady Gaga also released her first album after the housing crisis, and her lead single “Just Dance” implored listeners to “just dance/it’s gonna be okay.” In 2009, LMFAO precipitated this trend with deeply unhinged “Shots,” whose chorus consists of a command to do shots. Thankfully, they rap, “with the party rock crew, all drinks are free.” 

The beats to these songs are all driving, loud enough to drown out everything else; Kesha and LMFAO don’t so much sing as shout over the thudding beat. These are songs that aren’t meant to be heard as much as they are meant to be screamed along to, danced to, used as a soundtrack to a chaotic night out. To be a recession banger means to offer your listeners a place of escape within your music, turning every party into an extravagant, maximalist club experience even if you’re broke.

The era of the pandemic and quarantine has created pop songs that reflect our times, like Charli XCX’s pandemic album How I’m Feeling Now. But unlike recession songs they aren’t meant for partying to but moping to. The biggest pop stars have retreated from banger-dom during the pandemic: Taylor Swift put out two folk inspired albums, Justin Bieber’s latest release is gospel inspired, and Harry Styles’s music, while generally lively, is not really meant for the club. To have a star as big as Beyoncé release an album of exclusively dance music right now feels like a breath of fresh air.

With no ballads and a thudding, insistent beat, Renaissance is an album of recession bangers. Dancing is a means of escape, though Beyoncé’s examination of dance music is also about how it weaves in and out of black culture. As noted in Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s review for Pitchfork, Beyoncé reaches back into the past to eras where people needed to dance. On “Summer Renaissance” she samples Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” released in 1977 during a Carter administration-era recession. As Escobedo Shepherd writes, the album is also a history lesson in queer black music—and queer black people have always had to create spaces to celebrate themselves in the absence of a society that respects and values them.

Renaissance leans on reference points from black dance music, and especially music from the queer community, that came from leaner times. When Studio 54 was the place to be in the late 70s and they spun records from black disco artists, the country was in a recession. House and techno music both come from black artists in Chicago and Detroit, two cities that have faced economic hardships since industrial manufacturing started to be outsourced to other countries. Black people in these cities were hit especially hard. Part of why these dance trends crop up in places where people are going through hard times is material—if you can rent a warehouse cheaply, it’s just easier to put on a warehouse party, as was the case when I was partying in warehouses in Williamsburg in 2009. But also, when you’re working yourself thin and can’t see the end to that, being among people and celebrating with them feels all the sweeter, and can be a balm that makes that hard work a tiny bit more tolerable.

Beyoncé’s lyrics on Renaissance are at times emphatically sung nonsense phrases that are destined to become iconic Instagram captions. They’re often less emotionally forthcoming than Lemonade, and a little messier. This is the most sexual Beyoncé has been on a record, where she sings explicitly about wanting to get dicked down and makes multiple references to her “kitty.” The sex she describes is passionate, emphatic, usually under the influence of drugs and alcohol, a far cry from the polished perfectness that is Beyoncé’s usual hallmark. When the lyrics do get slightly more personal, well, they don’t necessarily describe a frictionless existence. On Church Girl, in Beyoncé’s impossibly perfect voice, she intones “Felt like I move mountains/Got friends that cried fountains.” On the single for this album, “Break My Soul,” she samples Big Freedia’s track “Explode,” where the bounce musician raps “Release your job, release the time … Release the love, forget the rest.”

Even Beyoncé really needs to dance right now.

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