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Book Review: ‘Stars of ’90s Dance Pop’ by James Arena

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Former music marketing executive James Arena has established a distinctive, sophisticated alcove of retro-music-culture volumes over the past four years. Examining the sounds that defined dance and pop styles of specific decades by way of individual interviews with the artists and producers behind the songs, his books—including First Ladies of Disco and Stars of 80s Dance Pop—impressively shed light on the personal and cultural influences and contributions of the players of each respective era, while also providing tangible insight into the forces through which the records endure. His newest offering, Stars of ‘90s Dance Pop, is comprised of conversations with 29 contributors to the wide-ranging club-driven music of the 1990s which greatly impacted the American pop charts of the day.

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As the book conveys through its subjects’ testimonies this was the same music which also profoundly paved the way for the large-scale success of current (if, arguably, often inferior) electronic dance music. Whether it be Haddaway’s 1993 universal techno-pop anthem, “What Is Love”; soulful house diva CeCe Peniston’s surprise across-the-board debut smash, “Finally” (1991); rap-vocal duo La Bouche’s melodic jams “Sweet Dreams” and “Be My Lover”; or male trio No Mercy’s fusion of acoustically tinged, Latin-spiced floor filler “Where Do You Go”—to name a few—the decade was one of inspired innovation in the field that yielded fruitful commercial returns.

The stories shared in Stars of ‘90s Dance Pop are often awe-inspiring and serve to solidify the meaning that the singers and their material hold for longtime fans. Kristine W.’s candid discussion touches on the passing of her father during her early childhood, as well as her utterly destabilizing (but ultimately victorious) bout with leukemia shortly after she became a mother. Furthermore, her shrewd observations about the financial realities of being a profitable artist are well-founded, as she has consistently delivered #1 dance singles in the 20 years since her initial hit streak with “One More Try,” “Feel What You Want,” and “Land of the Living” in the mid-‘90s. That she has accomplished this both as an independent and major-label act speaks to the motivational qualities for which her tunes are renowned.

Rozalla, meanwhile, colorfully describes the glory and stresses that came with not only scoring her own mega-hit (1992’s hi-NRG anthem, “Everybody’s Free (to Feel Good)”), but also of touring as the opening act for Michael Jackson. Largely unknown to much of the King of Pop’s audience at the time of his European Dangerous tour, the Zimbabwe-born singer endured threats and harassment from some over-zealous MJ fans who took to heart a tabloid story claiming that she had made some uncomplimentary remarks about him. Although not on quite so big stages, La Bouche made waves several years later with the unusual practice of utilizing a full live band in performances of their dance-pop hits. Rapper Lane McCray reveals that he and vocalist Melanie Thornton (who died in a plane crash shortly after starting a solo career) met as part of a military cover band, and also explains how personal and creative concerns prompted her departure from the group.

On the technical side, interviews with several prominent producers and remixers add depth to the landscape. Stonebridge, who helmed the massive breakout version of “Show Me Love” by Robin S. (also featured in the book), talks frankly about the shift from long ‘90s 12” mixes to contemporary “extended” cuts that would have been considered radio edits back then. He also delves into how the lack of physical record stores has changed the way that club DJ’s assimilate playlists, and gives a canny perspective on the diminishing sales scenario of the modern music industry. Veteran remixer/producer/artist Tony Moran (another subject in Stars who entertainingly recounts working with Michael Jackson) weighs in, too, on shifting promotional standards for artists and profiting from digital sales.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Stars of ‘90s Dance Pop is the undercurrent of global perspective shared by the artists. Many, including those based in the U.S., have experienced long-running success in Europe, Asia, and other territories outside of North America well beyond their initial popular streaks. From early adulthood, Trinidad-born, Washington, D.C.-raised Haddaway felt a calling to Germany based on his eclectic musical upbringing and the lack of strict color lines permeating varying genres of music there. Though a five-year stint in the military and studies in political science preceded his beginnings as a professional musician, he had a firm stylistic vision to guide him when he first entered the recording studio as a budding remixer and producer. The “What Is Love” singer and co-writer shares engaging anecdotes on the birth of his signature smash, as well as sometimes disappointing celebrity encounters during his first big run.

Not too far from D.C., an aspiring doctor immersed in medical studies and prep-school began venturing out to nightclubs in Baltimore. Prior to achieving global success almost a decade later with cutting-edge dance anthems such as “Free,” “Found a Cure,” and a remake of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” for the 54 soundtrack (along with vocalists Amber and Jocelyn Enriquez), a then-unknown Ultra Naté started coming up with tunes in the basement of a local contact’s home studio. The story of how the understated “It’s Over Now” subsequently became a major hit on the UK garage scene is revealed in Naté’s interview, as are her perceptive remarks on the shift from artist-driven records to a DJ-geared culture and her objective reflections on balancing the interests of creative artistry with corporate interests while on a major-label roster.

Presented in a straightforward Q&A format, Stars of ‘90s Dance Pop makes for not only enjoyable leisure reading; but also for an easily browsable, primary reference book for a time and style of music rarely given thorough examination. With a well-conceived variety of questions that are thematically consistent yet tailored to each subject’s career, Arena has assembled an ideal representation of key figures from the field who provide well-balanced views and analyses of the period spotlighted and the relevant effects and movements that have taken place since. The focus is on the creative value of the performers and their music; the stories surrounding the songs and stardom paint a well-textured picture of a genre rich in substance and cultural importance.


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About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.