It all started a little more than a year ago with Slide. I mean, hyped hip hop outfit Migos and the almighty Frank Ocean on one track? How did a person like Calvin Harris even organized that? Especially considering the fact that Ocean appears to be really picky when it comes to collaborations. I was expecting the worst and in the end Slide became one of my favourite pop songs of 2017 – a smooth grooving piece of old-fashioned summer funk. It’s a tune that suited everybody – except for Harris who by then became the world’s biggest DJ/producer who literally earns Millions of dollars by simply showing up, it appears. And he earned them with the shittiest possible music. What went wrong?
Flashback to 2007. Adam Richard Wiles (which is his real name, just in case you didn’t know that) and his joyful debut I Created Disco filled the hearts of indie kids all over the world. The charming lo-fi disco funk record gave us catchy hits like The Girls and the inevitable Acceptable in the 80s. It was a feel-good album that happened at the perfect time when the successful 00s indie wave moved towards more electronic territory. Harris recorded the album on a shitty home computer in his apartment, giving it that delicate underground vibe we’ve all came to love. The producer himself and his ‘pop star against all odds’ attitude also supported that overall picture. 2009’s follow-up Ready For The Weekend saw a shift in production skills and sound for Calvin Harris who started to experiment with cheesy 90s trance synthesizers and house music patterns which was quite a brave move back then. It sill had that debut album charm, only a bit slicker. It was the time when the age of EDM started in Europe first (with the crucial moment being Black Eyed Peas teaming up with David Guetta) and quite quickly spawn all over the globe.
Calvin Harris was a pioneer here; at the right time and the right place. When he realized an increasing demand for cheesy, neo-Eurotrash floorfillers he started giving the people what they desired. His 2011 collaboration with Kelis – Bounce – was a starting point, followed by the global megaseller We Found Love with Rihanna. That simple yet horribly catchy piece of EMD pop might have been another crucial moment for the entire EDM conquest of the US market. If a global R&B star like Rihanna was open for the electronic rave, everybody was. So, the golden EMD era for Calvin Harris began – countless collaborations with artists like Ne-Yo, Ellie Goulding, Florence + The Machine, Haim and others followed, one cheesier after the other one. Slowly but steady Harris climbed up the ladder of the ‘World’s biggest DJ’ list, he got in shape, in a relationship with Taylor Swift and even modelled in his underpants for Emporio Armani. Harris became the leading figure of the whole EDM movement – in every aspect. Every single became a global smasher, every video was a high gloss glimpse into his jet set lifestyle. From a musical perspective the two albums that happened in that period – 2012’s 18 Months and 2014’s Motion – were horrible. What once started like a guilty but catchy pleasure with We Found Love has turned into its own parody. Eventually, even the scene’s biggest hero realized that.
Flash Forward to the summer of 2018. Calvin Harris still only collaborates with pop’s biggest players. One Kiss, his housy feature with Dua Lipa, is another hit while the follow-up Promises sees him teaming up with Sam Smith. But something’s changed. The sound is less ‘in your face’, follows reduced traditional genre patterns (Promises feels like a forgotten house pop gem from 1993).
You are waiting for a big build-up and ‘hands up’ moments only to realize that Harris specifically avoids them.
Last year’s record Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 proved that. Instead of aiming for big mass-pleasing rave anthems the Scottish producer teamed up with some of urban music’s biggest players, resulting in a record that followed the notion of Slide. The funky summer pop album with its relaxed, organic-sounding retro charm became more than a pleasant surprise – it was Harris‘ best output since I Created Disco. A return to musicality and that tender lo-fi charm I once fell in love with. The aesthetics changed as well ever since that record – more retro, psychedelic and less posh and glamour. The singles leading up to a potential Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 ever since continue that attitude (his retro dancehall track Nuh Ready Nuh Ready with PARTYNEXTDOOR is almost progressive) – less is more, quality over quantity, musicality instead of mass-pleasing.
However, I’m not naive. Calvin Harris is still the richest and best-selling DJ of the world in 2018 and the decision to move away from the whole EDM movement might have just been an economical one since the decline of the scene is inevitable. He still got is Las Vegas residency running till 2020 and god only knows what he earns with that circus. He jumped on board of the EDM hype at the right time and is now simply leaving the ship before it sinks entirely. Calvin Harris isn’t returning to ‘indie’ anytime soon but unlike many other figures from that movement he’s ready to make that drastic change. To me, this has been one of pop music’s most surprising twists of the past twelve months. It’s still too early to absolve him from all those musical sins but now at least I found a bit hope in a once hopeless place.