k.d. lang "gave voice and groove to the moment," writes Larry Flick, Billboard dance music editor from 1990 to 1998, in this Nonesuch Journal essay. Ahead of the release of makeover, the new collection of classic remixes of some of lang's best-loved songs, he reflects on her role in the time and place in which the tracks were first released, from 1992 to 2000. You can read what he had to say here.
k.d. lang’s makeover, due May 28 on Nonesuch Records, is a new collection of classic remixes of some of her best-loved songs, available to pre-order here. The album brings these remixes, made between 1992 and 2000, together for the first time, and includes “Sexuality,” “Miss Chatelaine,” “Theme from The Valley of the Dolls,” “Summerfling,” and the #1 dance chart hits “Lifted By Love” and “If I Were You.” Here, Larry Flick, Billboard dance music editor from 1990 to 1998, reflects on the time and place in which those remixes were released, and how lang "gave voice and groove to the moment."
The moment that we’d all been waiting for had finally arrived.
It came during a sweltering predawn hour at the Sound Factory. It was a Sunday during the summer of 1995. At roughly 4am, much of New York was asleep, but this warehouse-turned-nightclub was booming at peak energy, packed with sweaty bodies thriving and grinding under the rhythmic spell of turntable maestro Junior Vasquez. Word had been circulating all week prior that this was the night. It was finally going to happen. But how exactly would it unfold? The lack of social media and sophisticated phone technology during the ’90s left punters to gossip in record shops, bars, and anywhere else musicologists gathered to share news. The anticipation in the Factory was building to a palpable level … and Junior was relishing every second.
Suddenly, every light in the room went black. The music stopped for what seemed like an eternity. A stunned silence gave way to the sound of one voice. It was familiar, but oddly new at the same time. And it offered a simple, yet powerful declaration ...
In an instant the crowd erupted into cheers, and a tribal house beat began to pound. It washed over the bodies that had begun, once again, to jump and writhe. This time, the energy was different. It was joyful, but cathartic, with an undercurrent of prideful defiance. There were even a few tears shed. Who triggered this emotional explosion?
k.d. lang. The exaltation of “queeeeen” was a portion of the lyric “if I were the queen of popularity” from the song “If I Were You.”
For generations, the queer population has pledged allegiance to the enduring power of the diva; the larger-than-life woman who is tough in the face of cheating lovers and a world that could be far too demanding. That same diva is unashamedly sexual and often flamboyant. She is a vision of perfection, but with a big heart. Our affinity with these women has always been strong. But there has always been an undeniable chasm between her and us. In order for the relationship to work, we must pretend to be her; and not merely in the superficial, glamorous sense. We must also pretend to be straight. We must convince ourselves that she really “gets” us. And we must find forgiveness for them—and for ourselves—when the diva reveals a personal truth that vastly differs with ours. Perhaps most notable is the revelation that the world of disco is littered with the broken hearts of fans who have discovered that a booming-voiced church lady has held her nose and belted over a beat for a few bucks.
All of this made that hot summer night in 1995 a transcendent moment in time. In k.d. lang, we had a woman who was larger than life, with a big, luscious voice, wailing with passion over a beat… and she was one of US. She sang with the knowing tone of unique experience. She got it. And we relished her vulnerability, her sensuality, and her conviction because there was a relatability and a communal connection that we had not felt before.
With “If I Were You,” lang did more than enhance the promotability of her work to the dance market. She made good on the promise of her previous club-focused remixes. In 1993, she flirted with listeners wildly via versions of “Lifted by Love” that showed the versatility of the original composition from the soundtrack to the film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. In her studio partnership with producer Ben Grosse, lang revealed an understanding of streetwise rhythm that she’d never shown before. It’s a vibrant version of a romantic song that unfolds with the subtle seduction of a first date, hinting at what was to come yet leaving you the tension of the unknown.
Her collaboration with Vasquez on “If I Were You” laid her emotional cards on the table. No more mystery. No more hiding in shadows of innuendo. lang had evolved from delightfully confounding country music star to proudly queer pop icon. “If I Were You” was the opening salvo of the album All You Can Eat, a meditation on the connective point between romantic love and primal sex. Gone were the layers of orchestration that swirled around her Grammy-lauded 1992 opus, Ingenue, and its now-classic hit single, “Constant Craving.” At the time, lang said that she wanted to lay herself bare in her music. She wanted to capture that moment when euphoria and ecstasy and anxiety collide in your mind—from the perspective of an openly queer person breathing the air around them without fear.
From there, lang rode of a wave of adulation and relevance in the ’90s-era club world. She deftly moved between kingpins like Vasquez and Love to Infinity and upstarts like DJ Krush and Bobby D’Ambrosio. She and Tony Maserati hit a compelling creative high with a version of the All You Can Eat song “Sexuality” that embodied the tension of a community of people who were reconciling the unyielding danger of AIDS with the human need for carnal contact. It stands as a vivid snapshot of a time populated with as many ghosts as survivors.
As the ’90s unfurled, lang continued to innovate by carrying the baton for people who were grappling with issues of gender. The 1997 collection Drag seemed to offer a convergence of increasingly forbidden images of smoking. But the real danger was not in the drag of a cigarette, but rather in drag as a construct of the binary of him, her, and them. It was evidenced by sharp visions of lang as a suited man at one point, and then becoming the hyper-femme focal point of the camp classic “Theme from the Valley of the Dolls.” Once again, she enlisted Vasquez, who dressed her in rhythms that rumbled restlessly beneath the song’s melodic frills. And, once again, lang embodied the truth of the people who have evolved far beyond the cartoonish, genital-free gender-bending of the ’80s into a brave new world of identity politics. lang offered an anthem that gave voice and groove to the moment.
Simultaneously, lang rose to even greater heights in the pop cultural mainstream. In 1996, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. She then contributed the critically lauded song “Surrender” to the soundtrack to the James Bond epic Tomorrow Never Dies. The combination of her success on multiple levels made lang an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. She was a leader of immeasurable power.
By 2000, and the resultant lang album Invincible Summer, she seemed to arrive at a place of wistful remembrance. Every warrior finds a point to simply exhale and assess the joys and pains and victories of their journey. “The Consequences of Falling” and “Summerfling” marked that moment with remixes that provide rose-colored glasses for the memories and clarity for the road ahead. In tapping Love to Infinity and Wamdu’s Chris Brann for post-production and remixes, she wisely noted the shift from one decade to the next with urgent grooves and sumptuous string passages. It was a brilliant contrast of energizing fire, but with an undeniable glimmer of hope.
Clubland was a complicated, sometimes deceptive environment during the ’90s. On the surface, it had the carefree revelry of ’70s disco, but it was deeply battle-worn. AIDS had ravaged its ranks, while those who survived strived to find clarity and pride in their identity: whether it was race, gender, or sexuality. For many, it was all fun and games, until it suddenly wasn’t. One thing was certain, it was no longer enough to settle for facsimiles of who we were. We needed our truth amplified—wide-eyed and buoyant, but with a humanity and an empathy that could only come from one of our own. For that decade, k.d. lang dared to tell the truth. Hers. And ours. As time progresses, she boldly continues to do so…and during that period, we learned to follow her lead; we now settle for nothing less.
Billboard Dance Music Editor, 1990–98