Defining Disco Up

Junior Senior prove there’s no such thing as dumb dance music.

I once auditioned for a VJ slot on MTV2, a hapless 30 minutes that went south the minute the interviewing producer led with, “So what are your guilty pleasures?” Screw guilty pleasures, I said, or should have. There are no guilty pleasures. There are only people who think some forms of culture ought to know their place. And those who believe them.

Junior Senior are a Danish duo with a disco song, “Move Your Feet,” that’s currently being played on MTV and MTV2 all the time. It’s this moment’s guilty pleasure, or dumb fun, or great fluff. One ingenious critic cited a sociologist, Herbert Hendin, who argues that the Danes have viciously high suicide rates because parents there use guilt trips as a primary means of discipline. The critic commended Junior Senior for casting guilt aside. That was pretty good.

Last year, I curated a museum exhibit on disco and learned enough to forevermore stop thinking about dance beats as dumb. The night of the opening party, a lame DJ played tracks at random until the parents went home. Then Nicky Siano, a 1970s legend, came onstage and everything shifted: the contours of the sound mix, the timing of tracks, the way one kind of high—a diva’s wail, a breakdown—glanced off another. He was a human amplifier.

Junior, the instrumentalist and DJ in the duo, is that kind of musician. His sense of transition, of how to shift gears inside a track or rev up the next one, is impeccable. Listen to the starts of the first five cuts on their new album, D-D-Don’t Don’t Stop the Beat. See how every one sounds like it ought to be leading off the album? In club terms, the thing never quits aiming for the bang-kapow that drags everyone out onto the dance floor; on their hit song, it’s literally a bell ringing.

Click here to see the video for “Move Your Feet” But each track gets that effect a different way, stuttering and interrupting the beat without ever demolishing it. You can see the same principle at work visually in the video for “Move Your Feet,” included with the CD, a cartoon that keeps erupting with non sequiturs like the best South Park episodes, chirpy and boyishly violent all at once.

So who are Junior Senior, and what are they intending? Well, this is European dance music: They could say anything, and it’d be years, if ever, before we’d know differently. But as the story goes, Junior (in his mid-20s) is straight and, for that matter, thin. Senior (in his late 20s) is gay, large, and party-wise definitely in charge. The sexual tension adds to the disco tension. “Chicks and Dicks” is an old-fashioned go-go rocker, modeled on Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, let’s say, only here the banter goes: “Hey gay, get out of my way”/ Hey straight, you’re always too late.” Queer highs for the straight guys?

I prefer to think that, like all the best discolettes, Junior Senior’s tastes and passions range a lot further than boogie beats. It’s funny to hear the group’s defenders reach for comparisons to the Euro-trash likes of Black Grape, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, or Whale’s “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe.” This is guilty-pleasure syndrome in reverse: the insistence that great music can only be dumb at heart.

Meanwhile, Junior is posting rapturous descriptions on the group’s Web site of how much he loves your standard rock-critic fare like Gram Parsons and old Neil Young. Not that he’s going to be writing “Mr. Soul”anytime soon: His take on American music comes from thousands of miles away, filtered through a foreign language. The second video included with the CD is a home movie from the studio recording. It’s priceless to see the duo and friends switch from conversational Danish into dead-perfect pop Americanese.

But Dylan is affectionately referenced in the folk-rock “Shake Me Baby,” and those are Beatle-esque harmonies building into a rave in “C’mon.” Besides “Chicks and Dicks,” “White Trash” is the closest Junior Senior come to a manifesto: “We want to be like Nancy and Lee/ We want to sing like Kim and Marvin/ We want to wear the same as Sonny and Cher/ And show we got balls like the New York Dolls.” That’s Kim Weston he’s referring to, by the way, a less familiar Marvin Gaye duet partner than Tammi Terrell. At core, Junior Senior are discothèque party rock for a cohort who grew up on rave, reveling with precision, incredible knowledge, and no inhibitions through at least four decades of what the Konami arcade game calls Dance Dance Revolution.

And still, there are reviews like All Music Guide’s: “[T]his stuff isn’t likely to make you any smarter, but then you don’t need smarts to ‘shake your coconuts.’ ” Oh, right. Dumb fun. Guilty pleasures. Almost forgot.

Fortunately, the upside of slipping under conventional taste meters is that Junior Senior can be non-threateningly mainstream, featured on Live With Regis and Kelly, The Late, Late Show With Craig Kilborn, and Access Hollywood. Meanwhile, they’re gearing up for a tour with indie rockers Electric Six, part of a new underground cohort who’ve embraced the legacy of disco again. At earlier Junior Senior live appearances, Fred Schneider of the B-52s and Chic’s Nile Rodgers showed up to pay their respects. Welcome to the club, I hope they told Junior Senior. Nothing to be ashamed of.