For Donna Summer’s 1977 album I Remember Yesterday, her songwriter-producer team of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte had an ambitious idea: every song on the album would represent a different decade in pop music, leading up to the disco sound of the present day (circa the late ’70s), before finally culminating with a song that was meant to sound like it came from the future. That “song from the future” would be the groundbreaking: “I Feel Love,” a disco song that was unique in that it was played almost entirely on synthesizers—a bold move at a time when electronic music was still largely niche. While all-electronic groups like Kraftwerk did exist, they were the exception rather than the rule. Where Kraftwerk fully (and knowingly) played into the idea of electronic music as being dispassionate, geeky and robotic, “I Feel Love” had the sensuous physicality of all the best dance music, showing that the precision of machine-driven tunes didn’t have to be at odds with pop music’s passions and pleasures. (Ironically, the song’s precision was a carefully crafted illusion: it had to be recorded in 20- to 30-second bursts to keep the synthesizers from going out of tune, and you can hear some of the tape edits if you listen closely enough.)
Though they can’t have known it at the time, Moroder, Bellotte and Summer were providing a working blueprint for where dance music could go after disco’s commercial decline at the turn of the ’80s. Genres like hi-NRG and house music were the first to build off of that blueprint—the former taking its metronomic 16th-note pulse as a starting point and upping the tempo and intensity, while the latter expanded on the song’s slow-burning, sci-fi sensuality. All of this would prove to be especially invaluable to the gay club scene, which had been hit hard after the infamous “disco demolition night” (a public burning of disco records at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1979 that culminated in a riot) killed most major labels’ interest in distributing new disco music practically overnight.
But “I Feel Love” and the synth-driven dance records that immediately followed in its wake (see Amanda Lear’s proto-hi-NRG “Follow Me” from half a year later) had already planted seeds for the sounds that would permeate gay dance clubs for decades to come. By tracing how the song was embraced and reinterpreted in cover versions, we get a window into how dance music’s relationship with queer culture evolved in a post-disco world. Going through the major cover versions of “I Feel Love” (it would require at least 10 other articles to get through the remixes) can feel like a trip through time, or a condensed dance music history lesson. With that in mind, I’ve chosen to highlight one from each of the three decades since the ’70s original to show how just one song’s evolution over time can give us insight into the shifts in the culture around it, on or off of the dancefloor.
Bronski Beat – “I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me”
In 1983, a rumour spread that Donna Summer (now a born-again Christian) had allegedly gone on a homophobic rant at a concert in Atlantic City, implying that the AIDS crisis was God’s punishment against gay people. It’s still never been confirmed whether this happened (Summer would spend the rest of her life arguing vehemently that it hadn’t), but the backlash from the gay community was immediate; calls for boycott went so far that Summer was allegedly going to be barred from performing at an AIDS charity gala in 1985. So when the English group Bronski Beat—all of whose members were gay—decided to cover “I Feel Love” in 1984, it was partially meant as an act of reclamation, a way to invoke the death of the author on behalf of the fans that felt they’d made her who she was. As an editorial in The Advocate put it at the time, “her music is very much the property of the people who scored their life to it. They own it as profoundly as she does.”
Though Bronski Beat was mainly a synthpop band (a genre that itself owed a massive stylistic debt to “I Feel Love”), they often weaponized the fast tempos and clipped, staccato rhythms of hi-NRG music to deliver pointedly political songs, like the anti-gay-bashing anthem “Why.” This was a stark contrast to the majority of hi-NRG records which, like Patrick Cowley’s “Menergy” and The Flirts’ “Calling All Boys,” used the music’s frantic energy as an expression of unhinged, campy, boy-crazy sexuality. But “I Feel Love” is performed with the same earnest urgency as Bronski Beat’s political protest numbers; even with Jimmy Somerville’s angelic high tenor floating over top, it sounds more militant than erotic. As with the next two covers on this list, it also combined “I Feel Love” with a different song, evoking the kinds of continuous DJ mixes where clubgoers might have first heard it. In this case, “I Feel Love” was combined in a medley with the classic ’60s teen-death ballad “Johnny Remember Me,” queering that song’s original boy-girl dynamic and giving the unearthly qualities of the original an eerie, funereal subtext.
It was a twist that suited the times. Though hi-NRG was the underground gay club music of choice in the early ’80s, it would soon be superseded by house music—a slower, moodier strain of electronic dance music pioneered by Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles. There’s something fitting about how, over the course of a decade where the gay community was decimated by HIV/AIDS and a global shift towards fiscal and social conservatism, the frantic hedonism of hi-NRG would come to be supplanted by house’s icy minimalism, a sound that was just as often used to evoke loneliness, longing and heartache as fun and fulfillment. In light of all this, Bronski Beat’s decision to transition “I Feel Love” into “Johnny Remember Me” feels like a perfect statement for the decade’s midway point: ghosts had begun to take up residence in the club, and they weren’t going away anytime soon.
Underworld – “King Of Snake”
In contrast to the embattled ’80s, there are some who would characterize the late ’90s as being an era of carefree, mindless fun, one of the last moments of real optimism in pop culture. There are others, of course, who would point to such shameful cultural moments as the rioting and sexual assaults at Woodstock ’99 to argue that the ugly, entitled machismo that would characterize culture in the Bush Jr. era had already arrived. Lending a bit of credence to both of these arguments is big beat, the laddish, loutish English dance music genre that briefly broke through to the American pop charts. Characterized by heavy, distorted drum loops and basslines; loud, overcompressed production; and shamelessly gimmicky sample flips and beat drops, big beat was at once aggressive and deeply goofy, a spiritual precursor to such proudly obnoxious dance genres to come as brostep. Naturally, it was a huge hit with overwhelmingly straight, male and white rock fans, many of whom weren’t yet ready to give most other dance music genres the time of day. (An example: The Prodigy’s The Fat of The Land, released in 1997, got positive reviews in Q, NME, Spin and Rolling Stone. Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig’s landmark album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art, released the same year, did not get talked about in any of those publications.)
Underworld—originally formed in 1986 as a new wave band before replacing four of their members with a DJ ten years their junior—belonged to a completely different strain of English dance music. Taking house music in an artsier, more cerebral direction, their version of progressive house played up the genre’s expansive, atmospheric qualities in a way that was as suited to a night at home studying as it was to sweating it out on the dancefloor.
However, 1999’s “King of Snake”—effectively the beat for “I Feel Love” with new lyrics on top—is as brash and blustery as any big beat song you could name, and feels distinctly like the kind of song that could only have come out in the gimmicky late ’90s. Though the title refers very literally to the winner of a snake-fighting tournament, the chants of “snake!” feel vulgar, almost phallic. There’s nothing like the transcendent, ethereal femininity of Donna Summer’s vocals here—or anything that could be construed as feminine at all, really. It’s an exaggeratedly masculine, heterosexual “I Feel Love” for exaggeratedly masculine, heterosexual times. And yet, like a lot of artifacts from the late ’90s, there’s something exhilarating in its shameless tackiness: it’s a group of art-school dilettantes indulging in a moment of pure dumb fun, at maybe the best possible cultural moment to done it.
Madonna – “Future Lovers/I Feel Love”
In 2005, Madonna needed a sure thing. Her last album, 2003’s American Life, had been an ill-advised attempt at making something more unpolished and downbeat. While it was still a big hit by any other artist’s standard (going to number one in 13 countries is hardly a “flop”), it was still the lowest-selling album of her career up to that point. In need of a new direction sure to win back the fans she’d potentially lost, Madonna decided to do something uncharacteristic for her and look backwards: 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor was a throwback to now-retro dance genres like disco and electro-pop, with some big, obvious nods to ABBA and the Pet Shop Boys. “Future Lovers” paid homage to “I Feel Love” and, on the subsequent multi-million selling Confessions Tour, was combined into a medley of the original.
But wait, let’s back up for a second. When did disco—which we’d last mentioned when we were talking about the 1970s—become a hip enough point of reference that Madonna would bank her comeback on it? There had been some disco-revival rumblings since the mid-to-late ’90s, sure, but the early 2000s were a tipping point. Disco-tinged hits by artists like Kylie Minogue and Daft Punk culminated in the emergence of nu-disco, a genre that merged the disco sound of the ’70s with many of the technological advances and developments in dance music production from subsequent decades. Unlike the last time disco had gone mainstream, there would be no “nu-disco demolition night” to stop it. Mainstream culture had become more accepting of queerness (or, if you want to be cynical about it, more intent on assimilating it), even as nu-disco’s fuzzy nostalgia decontextualized disco from its queer roots.
Madonna stands at a fascinating intersection, with some accusing her of appropriating and watering down gay culture for the mainstream, even as legions of gay followers hold her up as an icon and an inspiration. Her performance of “I Feel Love” is certainly unlikely to sway either side. If you want to see it as her absorbing another queer cultural touchstone into the Madonna™ brand, you could; if you want to see it as her paying tribute to one of the major influences that paved the way for her, you could see it that way, too.
But let’s acknowledge how her cover fits into the song’s fascinating, decades-long journey through pop culture. From being a signifier of the culture war in the ’80s to being an artifact of one of dance music’s crisis of masculinity in the ’90s, “I Feel Love” is now being covered without irony or subtext. When Sam Smith recorded their own version two years ago, they did so with none of the twists or tweaks of any other cover on this list, instead covering it with pure, faithful reverence. Once the song of the future, it is now, for better or for worse, a staple of the past; a universally beloved dancefloor classic. What a ride it took to get here.
Correction: October 12, 2021 9:05 amAn earlier version of this story used incorrect pronouns for Sam Smith.