Better Off Alone: Mining The Depths Of Eurodance Nostalgia

On Gigi D’Agostino, Alice DeeJay, Salem, and loving what you love

Every so often, I come across a YouTube comment so piercing in its emotional precision it makes me genuinely reconsider my entire writerly profession. That elusive “thing” music critics chase over paragraphs of stilted metaphors and try-hard flourishes as it flutters just out of reach — YouTube commenters nail it in a single, unpunctuated sentence. In the last few years, I’ve developed an immense reverence for haiku poetry, mostly out of pure jealousy; I could only hope to one day present such a complete scene with such a simple gesture, to transfer a real-life experience with as little interference as humanly possible. The best YouTube comments give me that feeling, too — reminding me that my nose might be a little too close to the proverbial page to see things clearly. This week, I found myself scrolling through the comments on DJ Sammy’s 2001 single “Heaven,” a song that so deeply ingrained itself into my teenage brain 15 years ago that hearing the original Bryan Adams version feels like a personal attack. I was struggling to organize my thoughts as to why I’ve been obsessively listening to late-’90s/early-’00s Eurodance lately, until I came upon a comment written by “phi h” only a month ago. Six words: “Man it hurt to be young.” It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

As is often the risk when the thing you love becomes your job, writing about music professionally can really suck the joy out of things that should be joyful, if you let it. I suspect a lot of that has to do with the presently degraded sphere of online media, wherein careful or idiosyncratic work is mostly drowned out by a 24/7 log of every move of a rotating cast of 8 or 10 superstars, and having a biweekly take on the New Person You Have To Know About Now feels mandatory. At the risk of sounding like a gigantic, whiny baby, it sends me into a dull panic more often than I’d like to admit. Harmless content, like a slew of “50 Best Albums from the First Half of 2016” lists earlier this year, takes the form of a teacher waiting for my overdue book report: Did I even listen to 50 albums in 6 months? Do I even have the emotional capacity to feel that strongly about that many things in that short of time? Am I supposed to? Who does?

I used to spend enraptured hours trawling YouTube and weird Blogspots for low-bit rap gems and crazy remixes from SoundCloud producers with a couple hundred followers. Finding those uncharted little corners of the internet was a special feeling then, but I struggle to recapture it exactly in the drastically altered topography of the internet in 2016. It’s more satisfying to me now — perhaps out of some minor thrill of not doing what I’m supposed to (providing #fresh #content #daily), even in such a non-transgressive way — to rediscover glimmers of the past that haven’t aged enough to warrant nostalgic anniversary content, or aren’t deemed “classic” enough to be particularly relevant. I still haven’t listened to the new Weeknd and Daft Punk track from last week, or the Vince Staples EP from last month, but I have listened to “L’Amour Toujours,” the 1999 single by Italian DJ Gigi D’Agostino, approximately 4,000 times.

If you don’t recognize “L’Amour Toujours” by name (understandably, considering it is not once uttered in the entirely English-language song), you almost certainly know it anyway if you’re of a certain age. Ignore the deeply offensive cover version by Toronto EDM duo Dzeko & Torres, and the Tiësto remix that popularized it last year, whose results appear first in a Google search for the title because the world is bullshit. Proceed directly to the video for the original radio edit, in which D’Agostino reveals himself to be the raver version of Jackson Galaxy. “L’Amour Toujours,” and D’Agostino’s double-disc album of the same name, debuted in 1999, and by 2001 it had crossed over to the Billboard charts, peaking at 78 on the Hot 100. I was in eighth grade that year, smack in the middle of that vulnerable phase where you’ve watched enough teen movies to deduce that kissing seems cool but haven’t lived enough life to know how much it will hurt when nobody wants to kiss you back.

I remember hearing “L’Amour Toujours” at the handful of dances I attended companionless, sandwiched between K-Ci & JoJo’s “Crazy” and Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” before I realized that being miserable alone in my room was wildly superior to being miserable in a gym reeking of BO and Victoria’s Secret Love Spell. That’s where I mostly remember listening to “L’Amour Toujours”: alone in my bedroom, after my parents were asleep, pressed against my clock radio to hear what B96 would surprise me with next. Sometimes the song would bring me to inexplicable tears. There is a way to read “L’Amour Toujours” as a romantic, hopeful song — a pledge of unconditional, unkillable love over trance melodies and rave horns — but once you hear it, you know that’s not really it. Just beneath the lyrics’ idealism is total desperation: “I just don’t care what you’ve done in your life,” plead the hyperprocessed vocals. “Don’t leave me waiting too long, please come by.” There’s not really a hook, or maybe the whole thing’s the hook, but the song climaxes in imagined ecstasy: “You’ll be my baby, and we’ll fly away / I’ll fly with you.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s where the pain hits, when you realize that all that manic devotion is completely hypothetical, and the protagonist is probably just alone in her room, too.

“L’Amour Toujours” existed in an era when it was perfectly acceptable, at least as a 14-year-old, to actively enjoy insanely cheesy dance anthems in a way that felt far less self-conscious than it does in the EDM era. Not that this stuff was in any way critically acclaimed at the time; the cult status of songs like Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone,” released in 1998, is mostly retroactive. Still, I remember DJ Sammy’s “Heaven,” ATC’s “Around the World (La La La La La),” and Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” holding their own on the local radio “Top 9 at 9” countdowns I tuned in to nightly, up there in the top three next to “Big Pimpin’” or “Country Grammar.” The aforementioned anthems stand out in my mind separately from aesthetically comparable Eurodance crossovers of the same time, like the myriad bangers from Aqua’s ’97 album Aquarium or Vengaboys’ The Party Album! from ’99 (both of which I greatly appreciated and owned on CD). “L’Amour Toujours,” “Better Off Alone,” and “Heaven” were similarly campy, but unlike the pure release of “Barbie Girl” or “We Like to Party!”, they left you with an aching sensation, as if something had been left unsaid. The undercurrent of melancholy seemed more akin to mid-’90s tracks like La Bouche’s “Where Do You Go” or Haddaway’s “What Is Love,” dance tracks built around unanswerable questions. Real McCoy’s “Another Night” sounded perky enough at a glance, but its romance exists only in its protagonist’s dreams: “A vision of love that seems to be true.” In retrospect, the thing that tied these songs together — and that made them resonate so deeply in my lonesome preteen heart — wasn’t really their gratuitous rave stabs or penchant for mortifying rap verses. All of them were desperately preoccupied with something just out of reach, and presented with an irrational optimism that twisted the knife even deeper.

I had mostly forgotten about the existence of “L’Amour Toujours” until a few months back, during a complete drought of inspiration. I had stumbled onto the SoundCloud of a Rotterdam-based bedroom composer called Analogue Dear, and among the small offering of tracks were delicate reconstructions of both “L’Amour Toujours” and “Better Off Alone.” The edits brought the implicit sadness of the originals to the foreground, and I became obsessed with them, in part because my immediate impulse was not to explain them or turn them into shareable content, but to hoard them to myself in the privacy of my room, like I did 15 years prior with the originals.

Hopefully by this point I’ve lost any stragglers who would use this information against me, but fuck it: I’ve been getting back into Salem lately, too. I’m aware that this is deeply uncool; the endless font of millennial nostalgia can forgive a 2016 Eurodance revival, but a 2016 witch house phase is just fucking embarrassing. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been holding off on the new Danny Brown album to give King Night — the 2010 debut album from the Traverse City, Michigan, godfathers of screwed-down, fucked-up, problematic goth — a few spins. (It’s both better and worse than critics said it was at the time, which is quite possibly true of every piece of music ever recorded, I guess.) Mostly I’ve been revisiting the trio’s best-known mix, Raver Stay Wif Me, recorded in 2010 for DIS Magazine, the mere thought of which makes me feel old. I don’t know why I felt the need to go back to the mix, other than the stubborn whims of depression; it hits that one note that “good” witch house hits, and that’s pretty much all you can reasonably expect. Then I was jarred into clarity 48 seconds in, as the trio’s mournful, dragged-out cover of “Better Off Alone” stuttered through my speakers. Salem’s interactions with rap music were boring at best, but I was always way more drawn to their manipulations of poignant rave ballads like this one: Like the best DJ Screw manipulations, the act of being screwed transformed songs about love into songs about pain. My memory began to catch up to the songs folded into the mix: Darude’s “Sandstorm,” Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” And then, at 20 minutes and 49 seconds, the almost maddeningly slowed-down synth stabs of “L’Amour Toujours,” echoing as if in a cathedral or a morgue: “Babyyyyyy, I’ll alwayyyyys be here by your siiiiiiide.” To be honest, it was the most moved I have been by a musical experience in months, as if I had suddenly found myself exactly where I needed to be.