10 Tracks That Prove the '90s Were the Golden Age of Nerdy Dance Jams
Do you remember the dream-trance version of The X-Files theme? Then you were probably a nerd in the '90s.
Dance music is for nerds.
Sure, the party people will try to fool you by posing with bottles of booze as they pout for Instagram. The truth, however, is that dance music is made by gear-obsessed people who pore over John Carpenter scores, idolize Kraftwerk and clamor for a chance to get into the annual music trade show NAMM.
Those nerd themes run deep in the music, too. Dig through the crates and you'll find tracks bursting with movie samples and songs about computers, robots and bizarre futures. You'll find the nerd dance jams.
The precursor for all modern nerd dance jams is "Doctorin' the Tardis," a 1988 single from The Timelords that topped the U.K. charts. As the song title and band name indicate, the sample-heavy track makes ample use of the theme song from long-running science-fiction series Dr. Who. The members of The Timelords — who became even better known as The KLF — literally wrote the book on how to craft a chart-topping pop song. It's called The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) and offers wisdom like "Every Number One song ever written is only made up from bits of other songs."
After sifting through the dance songs that emerged in the following decade, it's hard not to wonder if every emerging producer of the era read that book. Many of them also seem to have taken inspiration from familiar movie and TV show references, as well as early examples of "viral media" on the internet. Here is a countdown of the 10 nerdiest dance jams of the 1990s.
10. Baz Lurhmann, "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" (1999)
"Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" is more of a last call jam, slow and cheesy, with the ability to elicit sentimental feelings from groups of drunk people trying to figure out life after college. It's a graduation-type speech set to a mellow, late-'90s groove, an ode to the people who might actually miss sitting in class, helmed by a director who updated Romeo and Juliet with a soundtrack that included Garbage and The Cardigans. But that isn't even the nerdy part.
The story behind the song is one of viral popularity and misinformation. The whole thing is explained in a 2013 Open Culture article, but to summarize, an essay was mis-credited as a speech Kurt Vonnegut gave at MIT, spread via email and landed in Lurhmann's inbox. In 2016, that sounds like just another day on Facebook, but back in the '90s, building art out of online detritus that would later wind up on Snopes.com was still very much entering into nerd turf.
9. Smart E's, "Sesame's Treet" (1992)
If you want to understand the '90s, watch the video for "Sesame's Treet," a dance hit for British trio Smart E's. It is the most accurate portrayal of '90s youth culture you'll see, juxtaposing footage of little kids with young adults who look like kids as they bounce around in their baggy clothes and messy hair to an updated version of the Sesame Street theme. If you want to write this off as hipster irony, you're mistaken. We're talking about an era where high school and college students walked around with metal lunch boxes and wore ringer T-shirts with iron-on Star Wars images. Embracing your inner geek and clinging to nostalgic bits of pop culture were as much a Gen X thing as they are a millennial thing — maybe even more so.
8. The Prodigy, "Charly" (1991)
A few years before The Prodigy hit it big with the album The Fat of the Land, the British dance group made its debut with "Charly," a manic dance track that took its ear-catching sample from a U.K. children's safety film series called Charley Says. It made the charts in the U.K. "Charly" is a bit like "Sesame's Treet" in that the song relies on childhood pop culture. The difference, though, is that it's a reference that's specific to the U.K. So, if you heard the song in the U.S. — and if you were a dance music fan in the early '90s, you probably did — that reference would be a bit lost on you. Instead, it becomes like a lot of the memes we know today, where you maybe aren't familiar with the original reference, but you can still appreciate as something that's been cut-up and remixed in a humorous way.
7. Moby, "Go" (1990)
Moby's breakthrough hit, "Go," is subtle in its nerdiness. It's not a movie quote or a universally popular opening theme song that he samples. Instead, he goes for the strings from "Laura Palmer's Theme" by composer Angelo Badalamenti from David Lynch's Twin Peaks. At the time of the song's release, Twin Peaks was still in the midst of its fairly short television run and was more of a cult hit than a mainstream one. In that sense, the song is the equivalent to wearing a Firefly beanie or Sailor Moon anything. The sample becomes a signifier telling those who get the reference, "If you like this same weird thing I do, we should be friends." At least, that's how I felt as teenage Twin Peaks-watcher upon hearing "Go." And, yeah, I still have a soft spot for the famed DJ/producer/fellow Twin Peaks fan.
6. S.P.O.C.K. — the whole catalog
If you've heard of Swedish band S.P.O.C.K., it's probably for two reasons: 1) You're really into synthpop that was made in an era when synthpop was not cool and 2) You're into science fiction and are possibly a Trekkie. S.P.O.C.K. has been around since the late '80s and continues today, but a good chunk of their memorably nerdy songs came out in the '90s. As their name indicates, these musicians play with a Star Trek bent. In their catalog, you'll find songs like "Never Trust a Klingon" and "Dr. McCoy." But, they aren't merely a band of Trekkies. Check out 1997 single "E.T. Phone Home" for a melancholy synthpop tune that will make you move your feet.
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