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(Slip & Slide) Suicide: Vocal Anonymity in Dance Music

15th of January, 2024

(Slip & Slide) Suicide is by far the best track on the album it’s from. It opens with a ticking and some aspirated notes which feel they could be from every familiar instrument without sounding anything like them. It has two main bass sounds, one low and syrupy and one serrated and fizzy. Kosheen’s aesthetic strategy at the time was combining drum & bass with trip hop, and the relaxed 2-step has a swing and a low crunchy snare that makes it sound like fast boom-bap hip hop. It is a pop music / drum and bass fusion that almost has a verse-chorus structure, but the verses in Suicide are mostly completely instrumental or consist of only cryptic two and three word fragments from singer Siân Evans. For the chorus, Evans’ tenor is self-effacing but compressed and high in the mix. It remains this way right until the final word of the chorus, when this register is inverted as Evans belts out “suicide!” with a previously unheard intensity and portamento right at the exact moment she is drowned out by a burst of percussion and bass. This negotiation sees Evans soundly defeated: she is made into a stranger in her own song. Her chorus becomes an interloper in a dance track which is resistant to the pop structure that her voice implies.

Dance music has an uneasy relationship with ownership and with personality. In 1996, Coco Star recorded the vocals for a song which was written for her by her record label. These vocals were then re-recorded the following year for a song which would be released that year called I Need a Miracle on a different record label. The same year, German trance duo Fragma would record a track called Toca Me, released on the same label. A British DJ would then illegally produce a mashup of these two tracks in 1999 which would become extremely popular. Fragma and their label—which happened to own both songs anyway—capitalised on this popularity by releasing an official single combining both songs called Toca’s Miracle, which would reach number 1 in the UK singles chart. Coco Star never received any royalties for the track, which was technically illegal since the label had mistakenly used the 1996 vocal recordings owned by another label instead of the 1997 vocals, which they did own. Coca Star made a statement about this in 2017 on her Facebook page.

“Some of the biggest DJs out there are doing it. They're making the most money, yet they expect to pay the least. They believe they're superior to us—but without us, what would the fans be singing?”
—Coco Star

Righteous indignation, perhaps. But doesn’t something seem off about this? There are loads of dance tracks that do extremely well without having any vocalists attached. She takes umbrage with the fact that the producers “believe they are superior to us”, which is strange because by most metrics that would quantify an individual’s commercial contribution to their team—“Wins Above Replacement” style—they almost always are. Even so, we might reply to Coco Star: “singers believe they are superior to lyricists, but without them, what words would you be singing?” The original writers for I Need a Miracle, Rob Davis and Victor Imbres, also received no royalties from Toca’s Miracle.

I don’t mean to suggest that Coco Star does not deserve her money, she does. But the whole situation reveals more than just a story of exploitation, it reveals a set of values about music held by musicians and capitalists. More specifically in the case of Coco Star, it reveals something that resembles an ideological contempt for instrumental music. The possibility that fans might love music without singers is the punchline of a rhetorical question, but such a situation is completely normal in dance music and it is the scorn with which the possibility is posed that is instead alien to us. Coco Star’s critique is grounded in the language of the defendant, but she also smuggles in an aesthetic critique without situating it within an industrial critique. The industrial critique emphasises also that there is a financial priority which, through its imperfect representation of labour, produces hierarchies in aesthetic contribution. This critique recognises that each of the subaltern roles in this division of labour are just as susceptible to exploitation. For every vocalist who remains unpaid there is a producer who remains unpaid. For every producer and singer that remains unpaid, two major record labels inconspicuously pocket the difference.

Kosheen does not run into this problem because Siân Evans also writes her own words and is a permanent member of the band. Their 2001 album Resist does not feel as though she is an anonymous piece of found footage that is weaved in amongst the more organic instrumental parts, it feels like she’s supposed to be there. That is, with the exception of Suicide. Most of the tracks are essentially structured as pop songs, with producers contributing drum and bass or trip hop arrangements to compositions that centre the vocalist. Suicide is the only track on the album that makes the compromise between pop and dance in a way that specifically alienates both, making found footage and lumpy contrivance out of Evans’ humanity. This, unfortunately, is part of the reason why I think it’s so much better than everything else on the album.

“That change highlighted their greatest strength—Siân Evans, not just as a vocalist but as a writer. Resist was the first time the band's music allowed her the room to stamp her own personality on it, rather than being essentially interchangeable with any other faceless one-shot dance singer.”
“Siân Evans at least found her way to #1 in the UK charts recently, which is something, but she did it as one of the faceless guest dance vocalists that Resist should have stopped her from becoming. Shame.”
—Iai, RYM user

The word “faceless” here sounds like the denigration of music which relegates vocalists to guests and strangers rather to guests rather than support them as stars—we see a cause for regret that something as personal and individualistic as Resist did not serve as a vehicle to propel Siân Evans to stardom. The conflict of values here is fascinating to me. The Toca’s Dream fiasco is a literal example of the depersonalising effect of capital, as the record label (but not the producers) did not bother to distinguish between the singers and turned Coco Star into an impersonal voice at the end of a telephone. Suicide is an example of the depersonalising effect of drum and bass. Evans has every opportunity to assert herself as a subject, and she does not avoid doing this on principle. It is here on Suicide that she is most powerful, as she and her producers work together to make an aestheticisation of ego-death.

In light of the present century and its challenges, we should take some comfort in any art that manages to partake of true pop accessibility whilst dismissing the myopia of individual mystique. Such art hints at what might be possible; it is at least crypto-revolutionary.

The word “jungle” implies terrain, and the culture it describes represents the victory of ground over figure. The movement produced an atmosphere of toxic smog that melted flesh from bones and turned individual producers into the avatars of an anti-individual superintelligence. Substance and Decoder, the other two members of Kosheen, both use pseudonyms because they belong to this continuum. The culture of anonymity runs deep: the 90s was the era of the uncredited mixtape. The 00s was the era of limewire rips; where artist metadata in digital files was left blank or sometimes guessed at. Even in the transition away from rave and toward trip-hop and downtempo, this ethos makes itself felt here.

(If only as a false positive because we have gone looking for it.)

Further Reading:

The Historical Peculiarity of the Greek Chorus
The Shining Ice
In Front of These Gates