Electric Love Songs

“Electric Slide,” officially referred to as “Electric Boogie,” is a song performed by Jamaican artist Marcia Griffiths. Its remix entered the Billboard Hot 100 Chart at number 90 the week of December 9, 1989; peaked at 51 the week of January 20, and; exited at 85 the week of February 17, 1990. Thus, it stayed in the chart for 11 weeks. When I made a splashy arrival to Central New York in August 1990, the music

of “Electric Slide” was still reverberating as background soundtrack at many of the events where I happened to be.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until September 1993 that I first became an eyewitness to the performance of the 18-step variation of the line dance the Electric Slide, linked to Griffiths’ tune. That month, as a representative of a Latino association in Syracuse, I attended a conference organized by the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), which took place at the State University of New York at Binghamton, commonly shortened to just Binghamton University. NYPIRG is one of the biggest groups of its kind in the U.S. Its creation in 1973 was inspired by famed consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

It has chapters in Buffalo, Syracuse, Cortland, Binghamton, New Paltz, Purchase, Garden City and all five boroughs of New York City. A blowout was the most appropriate way to celebrate the end of the two-day 1993 NYPIRG conference at Binghamton. It was a party that Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would have liked to have attended because it represented the ultimate catharsis. In Freudian sense, a cathartic experience is an outburst releasing the previously bottled-up forces that have been repressed for an extended period of time. And that was exactly what happened that fateful night in Binghamton, specially among the female element, who tossed their inhibitions by the wayside.

Obviously, the most impressive view that night was watching people, who had come from 17 different locations within New YorkState, dance the Electric Slide. Most of the dancers didn’t know each other. Nevertheless, they did all the steps with mathematical precise synchronicity. That’s the power of mass media. In this case, it was television given that it was still a pre-YouTube era. Other high-wattage segments of the celebration were the dancing to the rhythm of the 1970 Grateful Dead’s song “Truckin’,” a national treasure, according to the Library of Congress, and; to the rhythm of the 1984 Dead or Alive band’s song “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).” Participating in all this made it worthwhile for me to have had slept the night before on a couch in the Student Union building.

At the time, I wasn’t even aware of the existence of the field of cultural studies, which, in its broadest interpretation, encompasses highbrow culture (e.g., the music of Mozart or Beethoven), middlebrow culture and lowbrow culture (e.g., “Electric Slide”). Many years later, I became familiar with the work of a compatriot of Marcia Griffiths’: Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall, a founding member of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies in England. Also, very useful is the work of English sociomusicologist Simon Frith. In his book “Taking Popular Music Seriously: Selected Essays” (2007), Frith describes four functions that account for popular music’s societal value.

One of these functions ties in with Freud. I’ll let Frith speak for himself: “Music’s second social function is to give us a way of managing the relationship between our public and private emotional lives. It is often noted but rarely discussed that the bulk of popular songs are love songs … This is more than an interesting statistic; it is a centrally important aspect of how pop music is used. Why are love songs so important? Because people need them to give shape and voice to emotions that otherwise cannot be expressed without embarrassment or incoherence. Love songs are a way of giving emotional intensity to the sorts of intimate things we say to each other (and to ourselves) in words that are, in themselves, quite flat … These songs do not replace our conversations – pop singers do not do our courting for us – but they make our feelings seem richer and more convincing that what we can make them appear in our own words, even to ourselves …

This use of pop illuminates one quality of the star/fan relationship: people do not idolize singers because they wish to be them but because these singers seem able, somehow, to make available their own feelings – it is as if we get to know ourselves via the music.”

About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).

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