By Crystal Leww
Looking at the charts in 2016, it is clear that dance music is thriving in the U.S. Huge acts like The Chainsmokers, Major Lazer, Calvin Harris, and DJ Snake continue to churn out Top 40 hits with no end in sight — and while what rises to the top can feel formulaic at times, there’s also room for more unique, innovative dance acts to gain some of that larger recognition. One of the most intriguing such acts at the moment is AlunaGeorge, the U.K. duo whose 2013 track “You Know You Like It” became a runaway hit last year after DJ Snake remixed it. AlunaGeorge make emotional, vocal-forward dance music, drawing more direct influence from the warm, human voices of pop, blues, and soul than from the icy pings of techno, but that’s not the only reason they stand out from the crowd. Since their debut, primary producer George Reid has kept to a much less public role, allowing vocalist and primary songwriter Aluna Francis to become the face of the group. Like pop music at large, dance music is dominated by a conventional narrative where male producers and songwriters mastermind the hits to which women, especially young and oftentimes black women, contribute a pretty vocal and nothing else. By presenting a woman as their driving force, then, with a male sidekick who remains largely anonymous, AlunaGeorge are quietly revolutionizing the charts.
In a Beats 1 interview to promote I Remember, their second album and first since their DJ Snake–assisted chart invasion, Francis got in-depth about her writing process. Her remarks showed a deep understanding of the technical elements of production, discussing how her uniquely nasal and thin voice can be used in conjunction with a deep bass line as a textural element of the music. But the interview also suggested that she views the less tangible element of emotion as the core of her work. “You have to be in a room with me and you have to tell me where this came from,” she said, explaining her aversion to remote collaboration. “What is the emotion behind this? Because even if you’re a producer and not a songwriter, there’s a story behind it.” Feeling is the driving force behind each track on I Remember: post-fight exhaustion on “Not Above Love,” sexy outrage on “Mean What I Mean,” cool dismissal on “Jealous,” soothing reassurance on “Mediator.”
The production on this album is so deeply tied to that sense of story, the emotional backbone that runs through AlunaGeorge’s music. “Hold Your Head High” is about prideful defiance in the face of adversity; when she sings the title phrase, pitch-shifted down, it rings out clearly and in stark contrast even above the thunderous drums in the drop. In “Heartbreak Horizon,” Francis describes a frantic, desperate approach to getting over someone post-breakup. The production — overstuffed with synths, cymbals, acoustic guitar, and horns — sounds much closer to, say, Phoenix’s “Entertainment” than to a typical dance beat. There’s an emotional resonance there: The same “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” vibe in the production feels like it could also describe the approach Francis’s narrator is using to get over her ex. The title track, meanwhile, wistfully sighs through a series of memories of an ex-lover while the production warps, stutters, and repeats some of her vocal loops, much like a mental highlight reel. This gives a foundation for Francis to pull off the difficult feat of sounding sad about a breakup, fond of the other party, and understanding of why the relationship is over all at the same time.
The songwriting and lyricism throughout I Remember can appear simple on the surface, but Francis subtly places her words within a greater societal context, telling a story about who she has become as a woman. The narrator in “Full Swing” is throwing herself into her dreams while her man stands behind her. “Mean What I Mean” is about a woman asserting her right to consent. Elsewhere on the album, this lyrical simplicity allows Francis to connect with the listener on a level of universal emotion. The aforementioned “I Remember” doesn’t necessarily tread new ground lyrically — Francis runs through images of tears described as rain, long fights, the scent of a lover while lying on their chest, that smile, the first night of meeting — but she provides just enough information to invite the listener to attach their own memories to the scenes described. The end result is one that feels both relatable and devastatingly specific.
Dance music was built on the work of women, even as they went uncredited and under-compensated for their work, especially as vocalists. Today, Francis’s creative control and public recognition in AlunaGeorge remain an anomaly in some ways, but her work already feels influential. Expectations for the way a female dance vocalist can sound have evolved over time, from house diva to fembot to energetic rapper to EDM pop star. There’s a new wave of women whose voices sound strikingly similar to Francis’s, including Kučka and Nao: Their voices are also thinner, somewhat nasal, feel icy, and could be viewed as less powerful, but they convey a world of emotion. The fact that collaborators like Flume and Disclosure have sought those singers out is no coincidence — Disclosure hit No. 2 on the U.K. charts with AlunaGeorge on 2013’s “White Noise,” and Flume worked with Francis this year on “Innocence,” a song written about famous emoter Amy Winehouse.
Francis, acting as the face of her duo, must embody a certain level of confidence, and yet her songs inhabit a world of vulnerability and intimacy. That duality is the core of what makes AlunaGeorge great. I Remember, like Francis herself, feels complex and intensely human, with double meanings hidden behind every simple phrase, stated memory, and production trick. The dance music that makes it to the pop charts sometimes sounds like a male imitation of femininity, written by men to be sung by women — a too neatly packaged version of a female perspective, created with the knowledge that big emotion sells in the age of EDM pop. AlunaGeorge feel like a nuanced counterpoint, and sound like the real deal.