May 30, 2011


Generations of Party Rock

One thing's for sure about the L.A. duo LMFAO: they know what their brand is. Having previously recorded a 2008 EP (called Party Rock) and a 2009 album (also called Party Rock), they've finally broken through with "Party Rock Anthem," a song from their forthcoming album Sorry for Party Rocking.

It's a streamlined, high-functioning dance track, as dedicated to its purpose as any Black Eyed Peas cut. (That line about "please fill up my cup," in fact, owes its existence to "fill up my cup, mazel tov.") It's also so generic that its title could be printed in black sans-serif type on a white label — "Ingredients: anthemic party rock, water." And it's a gigantic hit, already #1 in the U.K., Australia and a few European countries.

So what goes into a global success that big from a relatively unknown act? Lots of things that have already worked for other people, including name recognition; LMFAO were wise to pick a name that shows up in millions of texts a day. "Party Rock Anthem" follows plenty of hits' lead in including references to booze, to money, to team affiliation ("that's the crew that I'm reppin'") and to an opposing force ("stop—hatin' is bad").

The synth tone that sounds like it's blasting from inside a faraway arena has been a dance-club standard since it first turned up a quarter-century ago in Black Riot's "A Day in the Life." Songs that ask their listeners to do a specific dance are often pretty effective, and in the case of "Party Rock Anthem," it's shuffling. The "every day I'm shufflin' " routine is, of course, a riff on Rick Ross's 2006 single "Hustlin' "; alluding to hits outside of a song's own genre is a useful bridge to a potential crossover audience.

The "no Led in our Zeppelin" line is almost palpably itching for Girl Talk or somebody along those lines to mix it into, say, Led Zep's "Heartbreaker." And the 28 Days Later conceit of LMFAO's video seems relatively novel at first--until you realize that there has already been a very famous video that conflates zombies with well-choreographed group dance moves.

But recombining already-successful elements isn't enough on its own; it also doesn't hurt to know people. As it turns out, LMFAO are particularly well-connected: their members Redfoo and SkyBlu are respectively the son and grandson of Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. And if you hear "Party Rock Anthem" as a Motown record that's not actually on Motown and doesn't sound anything like what made Motown famous, it suddenly makes more sense.

The ideology of Motown early on was to be "the sound of Young America"—"half black, half white, domino," as LMFAO puts it. Gordy and his associates were obsessed with quality control, fine-tuning songs and arrangements and mixes in an attempt to make gigantic hits that could speak to every teenager in America. The results were sometimes generic, too—but they worked, far beyond the 1963-1972 era that's usually considered Motown's prime.

Lurking in the background of "Party Rock Anthem," there's the ghost of an enormous Motown hit from 1983: Lionel Richie's "All Night Long (All Night)."

Its lyrics are very similar in places ("Everybody just have a good time/And we gon' make you lose your mind" is fairly close to "Everybody sing, everybody dance/Lose yourself in wild romance"), its sentiment is basically identical to LMFAO's, and its rhythmic hook is pretty close to the one in "Party Rock Anthem," to boot.

The roots of LMFAO's crowdpleasing collage of received lyrics and sounds go back even deeper in their family's history. Berry Gordy co-wrote a lot of the early Motown records. One of them—also co-written by a family member, his sister Gwen Gordy—was the company's third single (on the proto-Motown label Tamla): a party rock anthem by Barrett Strong, called "Let's Rock." It's absolutely generic but very lively jukebox filler, with a raucous saxophone solo in the middle (the 1959 equivalent of LMFAO's synth tone).

"Let's Rock" wasn't a hit, but they were on to something. A few months later, Gordy co-wrote the song that brought Strong to a much bigger audience: "Money (That's What I Want)." ("We gettin' money, don't be mad," LMFAO's Redfoo declares.) Its B-side was a slower doo-wop number, "Oh I Apologize"—sorry for party rocking, essentially. But it was "Money" that really rocked the party, a dance about a desire (for financial success) that had rarely been quite so naked in pop music before. Now it goes without saying.