The year 2016 saw a spree of celebrity deaths that gut checked every corner of modern culture. In music, there was the loss of figureheads like Prince, David Bowie, and Phife Dawg, as well as a number of lesser-known icons who left their own impact on history. This included one of New York’s most influential nightlife figures, David Mancuso, who died in November. Mancuso is credited with jumpstarting New York’s underground dance scene in earnest with his loft parties in the 1970s. The events, which take place to this day, started at Mancuso’s home in Soho as "rent parties," not unlike the ones that took place in Harlem the decade prior. As the years went on, they came to represent dance music’s role in the city as a safe haven for LGBT and minority communities who, at the time, were often attacked or harassed in traditional environments. In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy earlier this year, Mancuso explained how, through his own frustration with the types of spaces people had to party, he designed the loft parties to foster inclusivity and safety first. “Once you have the different economic groups mixed together, the social progress starts to kick in,” he said. “You have people from all walks of life coming together.”
The track "Final Credits," by the British producer Midland, would have been a fitting tune for the audience at one of Mancuso’s parties. Released this summer via the producer’s label, Regraded, the track is at the top of the dance music magazine Mixmag’s best tracks of 2016 list. The roughly seven-and-a-half-minute song is at once an unrepentant disco track and an experimental endeavor in dance music. It borrows its hypnotic refrain from Lee Alfred’s 1980 single “Rockin-Poppin Full Tilting,” itself a formidable dance tune that Midland then imbues with a sort of ambient dread that makes “Final Credits” immediately recognizable as a song made this year. At around the three-minute mark, a pitch-modified Gladys Knight emerges. Her voice bursts free from the track’s hazy production and takes center stage. The lyrics are from the singer’s 1972 single “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” which made it to the top of the soul charts in 1973 and managed to cross over to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 the same year. “Final Credits” takes the song and unfurls it as though it were a film. “I keep wondering, wondering what I'm gonna do without you / And I guess you must be wondering the same thing too” we hear, as the track’s bass rumbles forward. “So we go on, go on together living a lie.” Knight’s unearthly ability to take the word “lie” into another dimension is driven to what borders on the limit as the track’s familiar four-to-the-floor drum pattern explodes after the first verse. It’s one of those moments in a song that makes you say “whoa” out loud.
That a track based on a hit from the ’70s resonated on dance floors around the world in 2016 is a pretty good metaphor for the dysfunction of this wretched year. The communities that sought refuge at venues like Mancuso’s loft in the ’70s are again in a perilous position. The election of reality television star Donald Trump, who stoked the passions of white supremacists and far-right conservatives, has the potential to introduce a harsh new mainstream to American culture. Even before Trump, and before Brexit, "Final Credits" was making its way around the world’s best clubs, its melancholic refrain foreshadowing the end of something no one could describe but could doubtless feel.
On a trip to Berlin this summer I heard the song on the patio of the iconic club Berghain. Not far in the distance was a construction site for a new shopping mall and music hall that many fear will put the club and its crowd of revelers in danger as more traditional, monied interests begin to occupy the once derelict region of the city. Trump was creeping into prominence then, too, on the back of email leaks masterminded by Russian hackers. In a few weeks, Great Britain would vote itself out of the European Union. It was easy, with this year’s non-stop barrage of headaches and heartaches, to get lost in "Final Credits," to follow Knight’s voice into oblivion.
We’re going to need more tracks like "Final Credits" in 2017, as well as more spaces for people to hear them. Mancuso’s loft parties, which tangibly embraced the idea of disparate groups of people coming together, helped to bring forward a cultural revolution that for its time was vital. If we’re to learn anything from the past, it’s that the only way to survive what’s coming is to get people in the same room together, dancing.