I’d been listening to this album on repeat for over a week, all the while being under the impression it was titled Tropical Dancer. While that label goes some way to evoking the funky fruity rhythms and party atmosphere of Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul’s first full-length collaboration, it also didn’t strike me as the most apt description of the slickly European synths and pumping house beats. But when the penny finally dropped, the title made much more sense. Topical Dancer is a record for our politically charged times, when questions of race, identity, gender and equality never seem to be far from the surface.
The vocalist/producer duo came together via fellow Belgians, the brothers Soulwax (aka David and Stephen Dewaele), releasing a series of EPs on the Soulwax label. Their productions retain all the hallmarks of the kind of dance music, at once funky and sophisticated – urbane yet hedonistic – that the region is known for.
Not that Topical Dancer limits itself to a purely European perspective. The first full track on the album is named Esperanto, after the ‘universal language’ created by a Polish doctor in the 1800s. In a playful singsong voice, Adigéry poses a series of dilemmas, Are you polite or political? Are you correct or cynical? Which sound more like riddles than genuine choices, and are a clear indicator that we shouldn’t take anything on the record completely seriously on face value alone. (Something it would be helpful for people to remember on social media once in a while).
In a segment that sounds lifted from a diversity training course, Adigéry espouses helpful tips on what to say in certain situations, “Don’t say ‘But where are you really from?’ Say, ‘I don’t see colour’”. And perhaps to remind us she may have her tongue in her cheek, she also pokes fun at the stance of well-meaning liberals, “Are you as open-minded behind closed doors? Are you as offended when nobody’s watching?”
While there is a serious message behind all this and much of the rest of the album – It Hit Me, for example recounts in the 1st person, the experience of a teenage girl being ogled by a group of men, while an unhinged techno beat builds claustrophobic tension – I find most of Topical Dancer is best enjoyed in the spirit of playfulness. Plus there’s nothing like the feeling one’s being lectured to, to cancel out the enjoyment of something.
Detractors of electronic music in general might claim it tends to be devoid of any serious message, and that rather than saying anything meaningful about the diverse and evolving political attitudes of the times, it’s all about hedonism. There’s much to debate here, and at the very least I’d counter there are several notable exceptions to this. For example, the Underground Resistance label and DJ collective established in Detroit in the late 80s launched the careers of some techno’s most seminal and influential artists. And in a form of dance music largely shorn of lyricism, where the egos of the performers were very much secondary to the music, the collective was defined much more by its anti-corporate ethos and empowerment of working-class Black identity, than by banging beats.
But on the other hand, you’d be hard pressed to glean much political philosophy from the ubiquitous 120bpm disco-house that pumps out of nightclubs and radio stations, and which Adigéry sends up on ‘Ceci n’est pas un cliché’. The combo of beat and bassline is undeniably funky and the urge to get up and boogie is hard to resist, but as Adigéry cheekily croons, “the song does sound real familiar”.
The chief criticism one could level at Topical Dancer is that sometimes the ‘message’ gets in the way of the music. Listeners wanting a slice of pure dancefloor hedonism might be turned off by the layered social commentary woven through most of the tracks. How fatigued you are by the so-called ‘culture wars’, or whether you self-identify as ‘woke’, might also determine how much you enjoy Topical Dancer or not.
But at its best, the record is a much-needed yanking up to date of the ideals which birthed ‘dance music’ and rave culture – equality, freedom of expression, harmony, unity. Ideals which soon became hackneyed cliches, in the hands of producers looking to cash in by sticking a diva sample singing about “universal love” or some such, over a generic beat and calling it a banger. At a time when a new generation is confronting questions of identity and equality, and redefining gender and sexuality on their own terms, these ideals have never felt more in need of reassessing and protecting.