On top: Divas dominate 2008 dance charts

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 28, 2008

The year 2008 started with club goers bopping to the sounds of re-mixed Billie Holliday-and it's been a roster of divas from the decades the dance floor ever since.

In addition to the highly-hyped releases from Britney, Janet, Mariah and Madonna in recent months, it has been a banner year for past, present and up-and-coming gay icons on the dance charts: Donna Summer, Taylor Dayne, Kylie Minogue, Paula Abdul, Kristine W, Erin Hamilton, Mary J. Blige-and even Dame Shirley Bassey, whose remake of Pink's "Let's Get This Party Started" was a top five club hit this spring. Add Rihanna, Kimberley Locke, and Leona Lewis to the mix, and you have unprecedented energetic, estrogenic expressiveness.

What's up with all this?

"Music always cycles," DJ Quentin Harris, who is currently working on Jennifer Hudson's new release as well as his own "No Politics" compilation, noted. "People want to have a good time and forget about all the crap that's going on."

Indeed, it's perhaps no coincidence that previous difficult times ushered in strong female vocalists to help their legions of fans feel better. In 1979, during the so-called "Carter malaise" of inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis, Donna Summer was hot stuff, Anita Ward was ringing her bell, Barbra was going disco, Blondie was busting out, and Gloria Gaynor became a household name as a one-hit wonder with her song that became the anthem of a generation, "I Will Survive."

The early '90s brought the Bush, Sr., recession. But a slew of hits from Paula, Madonna, Taylor, Whitney, Jody Watley, En Vogue, and the birth of divas Mariah and Celine helped make the economic downturn just a little easier.

The difference is that, in those days, mainstream radio was playing the dance music. Today, this is not the case other than big, major-label artists.

"Mainstream success depends on whatever kind of machine they have behind them," Harris said. "Paula Abdul, although in the public eye with 'American Idol,' has not been at the forefront of the music industry for many years. And many of today's listeners don't even know who Taylor Dayne is."

"Major labels in the [United States] build their artists on not just their music but also their image," DJ Brenda Black added. "Historically, dance music isn't based on how good-looking the artist is but how good the vocal track is. Thus, the labels don't know how to promote dance artists, and a sad by-product of that is lack of radio airplay."

Both Harris and Black pointed out that things are quite different overseas.

"Go to Europe and dance music is all over the airwaves," Black said. "European listeners seem to care more about if they like the actual song, no matter what the artist looks like."

"The first thing I do when I go to Europe is turn on the TV, because I see artists I won't see anywhere else," Harris noted. "I saw Duffy for the first time on German TV."

Harris said he was recently speaking to Kristine W in Las Vegas and she conveyed to him how happy she was that her album was charting well in the United Kingdom.

"They get it," she told him.

But why female artists?

"People want to have a good time and forget about all the crap that's going on."

Both Harris and Black agreed female artists have always dominated the dance market.

"I wish there were more male vocalists, but for some reason it's more acceptable for female vocalists to do dance music," Harris said.

Black went a step further.

"Gay men aren't at all intimidated by a strong, outspoken woman, but rather celebrate her power, as opposed to some straight men and even some straight women who need to get over the 'Does this loud bitch think she's better than me?' factor before they can warm up to a true diva," she said.

Despite all the excitement around the new releases, neither necessarily sees an uptick in club activity.

"It's not like the '90s where you had to go to a club to hear the new Mariah or Madonna song before it was officially released," Black said. "New music from such artists is so accessible via the internet that it's lost its impact in club land."

"And there isn't that kind of loyalty to the artist anymore," Harris added as she pointed out the recent hype for Janet's "Feedback," which dwindled down to nothing after about two weeks.

As for the impact on sales, Jeff Tardiff of Perfect Beat, a national retailer that deals exclusively in dance music sales, expressed cautious optimism for 2008.

"I'm optimistic every year that it's going to be a banner year for dance music, but I'm usually let down," he said.

He went on to explain the beats per minute on a lot of the pop and R&B tracks was picking up (in the 110 to 120 range as opposed to 80 to 90), which he found encouraging.

"This takes me back to the early '90s years with artists like En Vogue and Soul To Soul," Tardiff said. "That vibe caught on and soon after, the beats picked up and dance music was reborn. It almost feels like that time is coming around again."

He also believes that recent smashes by Justin Timberlake and Rihanna point the way to more mainstream dance music success.

"Who would have thought a girl from Barbados may have revived dance music on the radio?" Tardiff asked. "When songs like 'Don't Stop the Music' do really well, you get a lot of copycats, which could ignite a frenzy."

Tardiff told EDGE Perfect Beat was recently given exclusives on Donna Summer's "Stamp Your Feet" and "I'm a Fire" that sold very well. That experience, he said, proved to Sony/BMG there was still interest in physical CDs and dance music. And Tardiff said he is hoping this success will lead to more big name releases with remixes that would otherwise never see the light of day.

In any case, it looks like the gay boys and girls have plenty of divas to dance to as the summer of 2008 unfolds, including new music from Cyndi Lauper and Crystal Waters.

"I think upcoming female artists should always spend some time entertaining the gay community," Tardiff said. "Not only are we loyal, but we get their message-and lord knows we talk."

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).