A week after Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager opened the doors to Studio 54 in April 1977, a spectacular occasion catapulted the New York City theater-turned-nightclub into the public consciousness. Rolling Stone’s first wife Bianca Jagger was famously seen sitting on a horse positioned directly on the club’s dancefloor while celebrating her 32nd birthday at a celebration given by fashion designer Halston. The classic photograph captures a moment before what would be years of legendary evenings at the spot where disco and dance music blossomed inside a community in search of escape from reality, with her red clothing contrasted against the white of the animal.
Beyoncé featured on the cover of British Vogue for a shot that reflected this same time in dance music history, in parallel with the announcement of her seventh studio album Renaissance, due for release on July 29th. The artist is emphasized on the dance floor in the gorgeous cover photograph, her black dress spilling over the side of a fiery red horse. It’s been four and a half decades since Studio 54 ushered in its own cultural revival, acting as a method of temporary detachment amid a period of severe economic and social struggle. Affirmed social progress was accompanied by severe setbacks and cultural turmoil aimed at Black lives, women’s autonomy, and LGBTQ+ rights. Does this sound familiar?
“With all the isolation and injustice over the past year, I think we are all ready to escape, travel, love, and laugh again,” Beyoncé told Harper’s Bazaar in 2021. “I feel a renaissance emerging, and I want to be part of nurturing that escape in any way possible.” In the launch of Renaissance, the singer appointed herself to be a vessel for liberation. On the album’s lead single, the pulsating house record “Break My Soul,” she returns from a trip through self-reflection to spread the news of the healing properties the journey provided just in time for summer: “I’m tellin’ everybody, telling everybody/ Everybody, everybody/ You won’t break my soul.”
Beyoncé tackles the concept of rebirth, which is at the heart of the renaissance, throughout the song. She encourages her audience to venture outside of themselves for a time in order to find their way back, recenter, and further explore their own priorities. What does she desire? To live in the present (“Ain’t taking no flicks but the whole clique snapped”), and to return to a period before she lost herself (“We go up and down, lost and found/ Searchin’ for love/ Looking for something that lives inside me”).
And what do her viewers want? While they sort things out, “Break My Soul” creates a waiting room with a trance-like rhythm constructed from a raucous sample of “Explode,” Big Freedia’s 2014 song, and synth inspiration from “Show Me Love,” Robin S’s timeless 1993 pop-house crossover hit. The genre lines that once divided disco and house music eras – or even regional offerings of dance subsets like New Orleans bounce, Jamaican dancehall, and Nigerian Afrobeats – have blurred in the time since these sounds were first introduced to the club scene, but the function remains the same: to aid in release.
On the bridge, Beyoncé sings of new beginnings via redemption, inspiration, and the construction of stronger foundations. Earlier in the recording, she references her function as a vessel, recalling falling in love and abandoning the 9 to 5 job that kept her up at night. Realistically, she’s probably only ever done the former, so take a multi-advise millionaire to quit your job when a recession is looming with caution. However, there is an understanding stated within the phrase that there is someone listening somewhere who probably needs to hear these thoughts the most, someone counting down the hours till the next time they can indulge in a night of full-bodied, whole-spirited dance.
The release of “Break My Soul” during Pride and Juneteenth celebrations taps into an ethos that has shaped dance music spaces for decades, one that channels the deepest yearning for release for the Black and queer communities that have historically escaped to the clubs to untangle themselves from the burdens of a world in crisis. In 2022, however, something as basic as getting together to dance and listen to music suddenly has its own pandemic-related hazards. Beyoncé is still enabling catharsis on a huge scale, but she doesn’t pretend to be unaware of how we get here. “Worldwide hoodie with the mask outside,” she raps. “In case you forgot how we act outside.”