Trigger warning: Mentions of abortion and miscarriage
There is a phrase sometimes voiced by music journalists when it comes to discussions of dance music, “the thinking man’s dance music.” It tends to be ascribed to electronic acts that transcend dance music’s immediate physical, movement-prompting quality, when synthesisers and drum machines equally excite the mind as they do the limbs. The phrase may perhaps be originally attributed to Talking Heads’ bassist extraordinaire Tina Weymouth: “When Talking Heads started, we thought of ourselves as thinking man’s dance music.”
Jockstrap follow in this lineage. However, their music, provocative, sensual, and effeminate, perhaps calls for a new label: “the thinking woman’s dance music.” Live at Manchester’s New Century Hall, Jockstrap bathed in the glory of their dizzying debut LP I Love You Jennifer B, whilst splicing in lucid remixes of the recently-released I<3UQTINVU to consolidate their intellectual, intimate, and gendered approach to dance music.
Jockstrap’s knack for genre experimentation and biting lyricism was quickly established within the show’s opening five minutes. Vocalist/guitarist/violinist Georgia Ellery (already of indie royalty due to her previous role in Black Country, New Road) and keyboardist/mixing-desk-wizard Taylor Skye lilted onto the stage to the tetchy strains of ‘I Want Another Affair’. A fan-favourite of EPs gone by, the track bleeped along like a SNES video game soundtrack, only with immediate, visceral images of promiscuity overlaid on top. The duo’s self-reflexivity, black humour, and foregrounded female sexuality were made apparent before they’d even properly begun their set.
Opener ‘Debra’ combined the motif of video games with allusions to Nabokov, rave culture, and horoscopes, picking up where ‘I Want Another Affair’ left off – albeit with a less childlike melody and more palpable menace. For every gleeful synthesiser pattern taken from a Donna Summer record, Jockstrap undercut it with the suggestion of something darker. Ellery commanded the stage, beckoning her audience into her world, with the dangling of her arms, the plucks of her violin bow, the etherealness of her voice.
This is the world of I Love You Jennifer B, a beguiling, masterful record, in which Ellery’s audience was left no choice but to enter. The crowd bobbed their heads, both grooving to the sampled beats of ‘Jennifer B’ whilst unpicking the scattered lyricism of Jockstrap’s modernism-meets-dance-music. Here was the thinking woman’s dance music at work.
Other cuts from Jockstrap’s debut LP were blared across New Century Hall. ‘Neon’ glittered with thwarted ambition and senseless pain, and the successful single ‘Greatest Hits’ was enjoyed with knowing grins, as if an anti-establishment joke had been snuck into the pop charts. The LP was complimented with cuts from the duo’s recent work, I<3UQTINVU, a tongue-in-cheek remix album that recycles sounds from I Love You Jennifer B in new ways. Jockstrap’s dance music truly is so refined and layered that they can make a whole new album out of their last one, and nobody seems to mind. The eclectic remix work also includes rap features, functioning similarly to a Gorillaz record.
‘Good Girl’, using recycled strands of ‘Jennifer B’, pulsated live with a psychedelic tint, a moment in which Ellery could drop her Beat-esque lyricism in favour of dancing to Skye’s sonic playfulness. ‘Sexy 2’, another track from the recent remix record, showed the duo’s softer side. For all their in-your-face hedonism, Jockstrap can also offer folk-like intimacy, akin to the hushed anguish of obscure folk singer Sybelle Baier.
Ellery’s lyricism is perhaps Jockstrap’s secret weapon. Whilst many punters were scratching chins, attempting to stitch together the impressionistic words of ‘Concrete Over Water’ or ‘Lancaster Court’, the majority of the audience was likely too engrossed in the group’s rich, genre-bending soundscapes to pay much attention to the poetry laced in-between. Like any truly life-changing dance act, Jockstrap’s visceral effectiveness is subtle – something audiences can choose to take in whilst jostling in the mosh pits or leave somewhere in the recess of the subconscious.
There is a double discourse present in Jockstrap’s music of a simultaneously empowered and constrained feminist in conversation with herself amidst ludic instrumentalism. Entrapment and liberation are always in tension with one another. ‘Angst’ echoed disturbingly with allusions to abortion and miscarriage – a moment of poetic, acoustic female solidarity in what was supposed to be a dance show.
Ellery’s words then became distorted, like a glitch, alluding to a disruption of self; a disruption of experience. It can be rare for a dance act to wrestle with motifs of female trauma, but Jockstrap did (and does). And, somehow, Ellery then managed to switch to the Saint Etienne-esque indie dance of ‘Greatest Hits’ without it feeling insensitive or jarring.
Jockstrap confidently asserted themselves as industry giants in New Century Hall. Their nuanced mastery stretches from gut-punching bass drops and stuttering synthesisers to lyrical confessions and gendered tensions. Whilst certainly harbouring an art-school pretentiousness that many could be put off by, Jockstrap make sure that their pretentiousness is a pretentiousness that you can dance to. Ellery and Skye have something really special in Jockstrap. The age of the thinking woman’s dance music is upon us.