meta-script'Let's Dance' At 40: How David Bowie's Biggest Album Became His Most Conflicted | GRAMMY.com
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David Bowie in 1983

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'Let's Dance' At 40: How David Bowie's Biggest Album Became His Most Conflicted

On his 1983 album 'Let's Dance,' David Bowie wanted to create the decade's defining soundtrack. While incredibly commercially successful, the release left Bowie with mixed feelings. On its 40th anniversary, revisit the album's history and complexities.

GRAMMYs/Apr 14, 2023 - 01:06 pm

"Fame puts you there where things are hollow," David Bowie sang on his 1975 first U.S. No. 1, a riposte to the superficial nature of celebrity he'd once so desperately craved. The phrase "careful what you wish for" could equally be applied to 1983's Let's Dance, which later thrust the 19-time GRAMMY nominee into his highest level of stardom.  

The triumphant title track was a self-described "post-modern homage" to the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" — its powerful vocal crescendo actually borrows from the Beatles' cover — and reached No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming Bowie's default floorfiller in the process. But for an artist always more interested in "nibbling at the periphery of the mainstream" than entering it wholeheartedly, this mainstream success presented a conflict. 

Bowie's attempt to provide the mid-'80s' defining soundtrack arrived after a period of turbulence for the Thin White Duke. He'd left RCA after recording his 11th album for the label, 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), suffered the tragic loss of his close friend John Lennon and began a feud with longtime producer Tony Visconti that would last a remarkable two decades.  

You might have anticipated Let's Dance, therefore, to be something of a somber, soul-searching affair. Yet not for the first, or the last, time in his career, Bowie subverted all expectations. Instead, he delivered a pure party record specifically designed to take residence at the top of the charts. 

Appointing Nile Rodgers — the GRAMMY-winning mastermind behind seminal albums by Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, as well as his own outfit, Chic — as producer was the clearest sign Bowie meant business. With the intention of creating a pure "singer's album," Bowie handed over all the instrumental duties to him, too.    

Rodgers had been looking forward to venturing outside his Studio 54 comfort zone, and was taken aback to discover Bowie wanted more of the same. "I felt a little hurt, like after all of our conversations about music and freedom I was being ordered back to the hit-making plantation," he wrote in his 2011 memoir Le Freak. Rodgers soon came around to the idea, later telling the Guardian that an album cover in which a pompadour-sporting, red-suited Little Richard gets into a Cadillac was the starting point. The album was completed in just 17 days at New York City's Power Station studios. 

Despite its chart-unfriendly lyrics ("Visions of swastikas in my head"), the Oriental pop of "China Girl" — a polished reworking of Bowie's contribution to Iggy Pop's 1977 classic The Idiot — added to his Billboard tally. So did  opener "Modern Love," a meditation on faith which impressively manages to sound both incredibly effervescent and resolutely nihilistic. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," a retooling of his theme to Paul Schrader's same-named erotic horror, abandons Giorgio Moroder's brooding synth-based atmospherics for arena rock guitar licks courtesy of a then-relatively unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan. Fans remain divided as to which version is the definitive. 

But Let's Dance is a more multifaceted body of work than its singles would suggest. "Criminal World" is a spirited take on the transgressive debut single from new wave outfit Metro (perhaps surprisingly for someone so famously open-minded, Bowie removes the original's bisexual overtones); the 60s-tinged falsetto pop of "Without You" and contemporary art rock of "Ricochet" exemplifies his ability to bridge the gap between the past and the future. Only closer "Shake It," a blatant retread of the album's eponymous smash, foreshadows the creative rut that would follow.  

Bowie's profile was further bolstered by his embracing of the burgeoning MTV (while promoting the record, he called out the network for its snubbing of Black artists). Designed to highlight the disparity between Australia's Caucasian and Aboriginal communities, the striking promo for "Let's Dance" found itself in constant rotation, its depiction of an Indigenous couple's daily hardships and clever red shoes metaphor providing both substance and style. The From Here to Eternity-referencing clip for "China Girl" even beat Michael Jackson's blockbuster "Thriller" for Best Male Video at the inaugural VMAs.  

This wasn't the only awards recognition Let's Dance received, either. Earlier on in 1984, Bowie earned GRAMMY nominations for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Vocal Performance Male for "Cat People," losing to the King of Pop on both occasions.  

And then there are the figures. Let's Dance reportedly became new label EMI's fastest-selling since the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 16 years earlier, sparking a renewed interest in Bowie's back catalog — at one point he had nine entries in the UK Top 100, suggesting the record was a vital entry point into the far more weird and wonderful treasures lurking within his discography. Its current sales tally stands at a career best 10.7 million, firmly eclipsing the 7.5 million of closest challenger, 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie wanted a juggernaut and he sure got one.  

Of course, the press reception wasn't always as enthusiastic, with Robert Christgau, one of America's most esteemed music journalists, describing it as "pleasantly pointless" and the New York Times' Debra Rae Cohen arguing it was Bowie's "most artless" record to date. Yet the biggest critic of Let's Dance proved to be the man who made it.  

Bowie first started to distance himself from the record in 1987 when he claimed Let's Dance was more Rodgers' vision than his, which the producer has since refuted. A full decade later, Bowie  revealed the album's accompanying tour confirmed one of his biggest fears: "I was something I never wanted to be. I was a well-accepted artist. I had started appealing to people who bought Phil Collins albums." 

Even more worryingly, Bowie acknowledged he'd stopped caring about his audience — which perhaps explains the existence of 1984 follow-up Tonight, a surprisingly throwaway record which he'd eventually concede was the nadir of his career. "I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it," he told Interview in 1995, also adding that he'd pandered to the success of Let's Dance and subsequently "put a box around" himself.  

Reeves Gabrels, guitarist in the Tin Machine group Bowie put together to help restore his creative integrity, could vouch for such despondency, telling Uncut, "[David Bowie] felt he had lost his way after Let's Dance. He didn't like where he was going and wanted to change it, so Tin Machine fell on that grenade." 

Bowie's attitude to his commercial heyday appeared to have softened since, however. He even defended Let's Dance in 1997, denying it was mainstream but instead a new hybrid which paired dance beats with blues-rock guitars ("It only seems commercial in hindsight because it sold so many," he said). Its big three singles were staples of his last major tour, A Reality, in 2004. And although he tried to shift the blame for its populist sound toward Rodgers, Bowie still asked the producer to oversee 1993's Black Tie White Noise, a much more experimental listen.  

Perhaps buoyed by Rodgers' increased pop cultural cachet, Let's Dance has also received a critical reevaluation: in 2014, Rolling Stone hailed it as "the conclusion of arguably the greatest 14-year run in rock history" while four years later it graced Pitchfork's Best Albums of the 1980s poll.  

Let's Dance could never be considered Bowie at his coolest. However, for a man who often thrived on contradiction, it’s perhaps fitting that the record he almost disowned was the one that connected the most. 

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21 Albums Turning 50 In 2024: 'Diamond Dogs,' 'Jolene,' 'Natty Dread' & More

Dozens of albums were released in 1974 and, 50 years later, continue to stand the test of time. GRAMMY.com reflects on 21 records that demand another look and are guaranteed to hook first-time listeners.

GRAMMYs/Jan 5, 2024 - 04:08 pm

Despite claims by surveyed CNN readers, 1974 was not a year marked by bad music. The Ramones played their first gig. ABBA won Eurovision with the earworm "Waterloo," which became an international hit and launched the Swedes to stardom. Those 365 days were marked by chart-topping debuts, British bangers and prog-rock dystopian masterpieces. Disenchantment, southern pride, pencil thin mustaches and tongue-in-cheek warnings to "not eat yellow snow" filled the soundwaves.  

1974 was defined by uncertainty and chaos following a prolonged period of crisis. The ongoing OPEC oil embargo and the resulting energy shortage caused skyrocketing inflation, exacerbating the national turmoil that preceded President Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal. Other major events also shaped the zeitgeist: Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman slugged it out for the heavyweight title at "The Rumble in the Jungle," and People Magazine published its first issue. 

Musicians reflected a general malaise. Themes of imprisonment, disillusionment and depression — delivered with sardonic wit and sarcasm — found their way on many of the records released that year. The mood reflects a few of the many reasons these artistic works still resonate.  

From reggae to rock, cosmic country to folk fused with jazz, to the introduction of a new Afro-Trinidadian music style, take a trip back 18,262 days to recall 20 albums celebrating their 50th anniversaries in 2024. 

Joni Mitchell - Court & Spark

Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark is often hailed as the pinnacle of her artistic career and highlights the singer/songwriter’s growing interest in jazz, backed by a who’s who of West Coast session musicians including members of the Crusaders and L.A. Express. 

As her most commercially successful record, the nine-time GRAMMY winner presents a mix of playful and somber songs. In an introspective tone, Mitchell searches for freedom from the shackles of big-city life and grapples with the complexities of love lost and found. The record went platinum — it hit No.1 on the Billboard charts in her native Canada and No. 2 in the U.S., received three GRAMMY nominations and featured a pair of hits: "Help Me" (her only career Top 10) and "Free Man in Paris," an autobiographical song about music mogul David Geffen.

Gordon Lightfoot - Sundown

In 2023 we lost legendary songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. He left behind a treasure trove of country-folk classics, several featured on his album Sundown. These songs resonated deeply with teenagers who came of age in the early to mid-1970s — many sang along in their bedrooms and learned to strum these storied songs on acoustic guitars. 

Recorded in Toronto, at Eastern Sound Studios, the album includes the only No.1 Billboard topper of the singer/songwriter’s career. The title cut, "Sundown," speaks of "a hard-loving woman, got me feeling mean" and hit No. 1 on both the pop and the adult contemporary charts. 

In Canada, the album hit No.1 on the RPM Top 100 in and stayed there for five consecutive weeks. A second single, "Carefree Highway," peaked at the tenth spot on the Billboard Hot 100, but hit No.1 on the Easy Listening charts.

Eric Clapton - 461 Ocean Boulevard

Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard sold more than two million copies worldwide. His second solo studio record followed a three-year absence while Clapton battled heroin addiction. The record’s title is the address where "Slowhand" stayed in the Sunshine State while recording this record at Miami’s Criteria Studios. 

A mix of blues, funk and soulful rock, only two of the 10 songs were penned by the Englishman. Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s "I Shot the Sheriff," was a massive hit for the 17-time GRAMMY winner and the only No.1 of his career, eclipsing the Top 10 in nine countries. In 2003, the guitar virtuoso’s version of the reggae song was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame

Lynyrd Skynyrd - Second Helping

No sophomore slump here. This "second helping" from these good ole boys is a serious serving of classic southern rock ‘n’ roll with cupfuls of soul. Following the commercial success of their debut the previous year, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second studio album featured the band’s biggest hit: "Sweet Home Alabama." 

The anthem is a celebration of Southern pride; it was written in response to two Neil Young songs ("Alabama" and "Southern Man") that critiqued the land below the Mason-Dixon line. The song was the band’s only Top 10, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Top 100. Recorded primarily at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, other songs worth a second listen here include: the swampy cover of J.J. Cale's "Call Me The Breeze," the boogie-woogie foot-stomper "Don’t Ask Me No Questions" and the country-rocker "The Ballad of Curtis Loew." 

Bad Company - Bad Company

A little bit of blues, a token ballad, and plenty of hard-edged rock, Bad Company released a dazzling self-titled debut album. The English band formed from the crumbs left behind by a few other British groups: ex-Free band members including singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke, former King Crimson member bassist Boz Burrel, and guitarist Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople. 

Certified five-times platinum, Bad Company hit No.1 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 in the UK, where it spent 25 weeks. Recorded at Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Studio, the album was the first record released on Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label. Five of the eight tracks were in regular FM rotation throughout 1974; "Bad Company," "Can’t Get Enough" and "Ready for Love" remain staples of classic rock radio a half century later. 

Supertramp - Crime of the Century

"Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer …" sings Supertramp’s lead singer Roger Hodgson on the first single from their third studio album. The infectious B-side track "Bloody Well Right," became even more popular than fan favorite, "Dreamer." 

The British rockers' dreams of stardom beyond England materialized with Crime of the Century. The album fused prog-rock with pop and hit all the right notes leading to the band’s breakthrough in several countries — a Top 5 spot in the U.S. and a No.1 spot in Canada where it stayed for more than two years and sold more than two million copies. A live version of "Dreamer," released six years later, was a Top 20 hit in the U.S. 

Big Star - Radio City

As one of the year’s first releases, the reception for this sophomore effort from American band Big Star was praised by critics despite initial lukewarm sales (which were due largely to distribution problems). Today, the riveting record by these Memphis musicians is considered a touchstone of power pop; its melodic stylings influenced many indie rock bands in the 1980s and 1990s, including R.E.M. and the Replacements. One of Big Star’s biggest songs, "September Gurls," appears here and was later covered by The Bangles. 

In a review, American rock critic Robert Christgau, called the record "brilliant and addictive." He wrote: "The harmonies sound like the lead sheets are upside down and backwards, the guitar solos sound like screwball readymade pastiches, and the lyrics sound like love is strange, though maybe that's just the context." 

The Eagles - On the Border

The third studio record from California harmonizers, the Eagles, shows the band at a crossroads — evolving ever so slightly from acoustically-inclined country-folk to a more distinct rock ‘n’ roll sound. On the Border marks the studio debut for band member Don Felder. His contributions and influence are seen through his blistering guitar solos, especially in the chart-toppers "Already Gone" and "James Dean." 

On the Border sold two million copies, driven by the chart topping ballad "Best of My Love" — the Eagles first No.1 hit song. The irony: the song was one of only two singles Glyn Johns produced at Olympic Studios in London. Searching for that harder-edged sound, the band hired Bill Szymczyk to produce the rest of the record at the Record Plant in L.A. 

Jimmy Buffett - Livin’ and Dyin in ¾ Time & A1A

Back in 1974, 28-year-old Jimmy Buffett was just hitting his stride. Embracing the good life, Buffett released not just one, but two records that year. Don Grant produced both albums that were the final pair in what is dubbed Buffett’s "Key West phase" for the Florida island city where the artist hung his hat during these years.

The first album, Livin’ and Dyin’ in ¾ Time, was released in February and recorded at Woodland Sound Studio in Nashville, Tennessee. It featured the ballad "Come Monday," which hit No. 30 on the Hot 100 and "Pencil Thin Mustache," a concert staple and Parrothead favorite. A1A arrived in December and hit No. 25 on the Billboard 200 charts. The most beloved songs here are "A Pirate Looks at Forty" and "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season." 

Buffett embarked on a tour and landed some plume gigs, including opening slots for two other artists on this list: Frank Zappa and Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Following a successful tour of Europe and North America for their 1973 album, Selling England by the Pound, Genesis booked a three-month stay at the historic Headley Grange in Hampshire, a former workhouse. In this bucolic setting, the band led by frontman Peter Gabriel, embarked on a spiritual journey of self discovery that evolved organically through improvisational jams and lyric-writing sessions. 

This period culminated in a rock opera and English prog-rockers’s magnum opus, a double concept album that follows the surreal story of a Puerto Rican con man named Rael. Songs are rich with American imagery, purposely placed to appeal to this growing and influential fan base across the pond. 

This album marked the final Genesis record with Gabriel at the helm. The divisiveness between the lyricist, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks came to a head during tense recording sessions and led to Gabriel’s departure from the band to pursue a solo career, following a 102-date tour to promote the record. The album reached tenth spot on the UK album charts and hit 41 in the U.S. 

David Bowie - Diamond Dogs

Is Ziggy Stardust truly gone? With David Bowie, the direction of his creative muse was always a mystery, as illustrated by his diverse musical legacy. What is clear is that Bowie’s biographers agree that this self-produced album is one of his finest works. 

At the point of producing Diamond Dogs, the musical chameleon and art-rock outsider had disbanded the band Spiders from Mars and was at a crossroads. His plans for a musical based on the Ziggy character and TV adaptation of George Orwell’s "1984" both fell through. In a place of uncertainty and disenchantment, Bowie creates a new persona: Halloween Jack. The record is lyrically bleak and evokes hopelessness. It marks the final chapter in his glam-rock period — "Rebel Rebel" is the swaggering single that hints at the coming punk-rock movement. 

Bob Marley - Natty Dread

Bob Marley’s album "Natty Dread," released first in Jamaica in October 1974 later globally in 1975, marked his first record without his Rastafari brethren in song Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. It also introduced the back-up vocal stylings of the I Threes (Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths.) 

The poet and the prophet Marley waxes on spiritual themes with songs like "So Jah Seh/Natty Dread'' and political commentary with tracks,"Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" and "Rebel Music (3 O’clock Road Block)." The album also Includes one of the reggae legend’s best-loved songs, the ballad "No Woman No Cry," which paints a picture of "government yards in Trenchtown" where Marley’s feet are his "only carriage." 

Queen - Sheer Heart Attack

The third studio album released by the British rockers, Queen, is a killer. The first single, "Killer Queen," reached No. 2 on the British charts — and was the band’s first U.S. charting single. The record also peaked at No.12 in the U.S. Billboard albums charts. 

This record shows the four-time GRAMMY nominees evolving and shifting from progressive to glam rock. The album features one of the most legendary guitar solos and riffs in modern rock by Brian May on "Brighton Rock." Clocking in at three minutes, the noodling showcases the musician’s talent via his use of multi-tracking and delays to great effect. 

Randy Newman - Good Old Boys

Most recognize seven-time GRAMMY winner Randy Newman for his work on Hollywood blockbuster scores. But, in the decade before composing and scoring movie soundtracks, the songwriter wrote and recorded several albums. Good Old Boys was Newman’s fourth studio effort and his first commercial breakthrough, peaking at No. 36 on the Billboard charts. 

The concept record, rich in sarcasm and wit, requires a focused listen to grasp the nuances of Newman’s savvy political and social commentary. The album relies on a fictitious narrator, Johnny Cutler, to aid the songwriter in exploring themes like "Rednecks" and ingrained generational racism in the South. "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" is as relevant today as when Newman penned it as a direct letter to Richard Nixon. Malcolm Gladwell described this record as "unsettling" and a "perplexing work of music." 

Frank Zappa - Apostrophe

Rolling Stone once hailed Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe as "truly a mother of an album." The album cover itself, featuring Zappa’s portrait, seems to challenge listeners to delve into his eccentric musical universe. Apostrophe was the sixth solo album and the 19th record of the musician’s prolific career. The album showcases Zappa’s tight and talented band, his trademark absurdist humor and what Hunter S. Thompson described as "bad craziness."  

Apostrophe was the biggest commercial success of Zappa’s career. The record peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Top 200. The A-side leads off with a four-part suite of songs that begins with "Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow" and ends with "Father Oblivion," a tale of an Eskimo named Nanook. The track "Uncle Remus," tackles systemic racism in the U.S. with dripping irony. In less than three minutes, Zappa captures what many politicians can’t even begin to explain. Musically, Apostrophe is rich in riffs from the two-time GRAMMY winner that showcases his exceptional guitar skills in the title track that features nearly six minutes of noodling.

Gram Parsons - Grievous Angel

Grievous Angel can be summed up in one word: haunting. Recorded in 1973 during substance-fueled summer sessions in Hollywood, the album was released posthumously after Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose at 26. Grievous Angel featured only two new songs that Parsons’ penned hastily in the studio "In My Hour of Darkness" and "Return of the Grievous Angel." 

This final work by the cosmic cowboy comprises nine songs that have since come to define Parson’s short-lived legacy to the Americana canon. The angelic voice of Emmylou Harris looms large — the 13-time GRAMMY winner sings harmony and backup vocals throughout. Other guests include: guitarists James Burton and Bernie Leadon, along with Linda Ronstadt’s vocals on "In My Hour of Darkness." 

Neil Young - On The Beach

On the Beach, along with Tonight’s the Night (recorded in 1973, but not released until 1975) rank as Neil Young’s darkest records. Gone are the sunny sounds of Harvest, replaced with the singer/songwriter’s bleak and mellow meditations on being alone and alienated. 

"Ambulance Blues" is the centerpiece. The nine-minute track takes listeners on a journey back to Young’s "old folkie days" when the "Riverboat was rockin’ in the rain '' referencing lament and pining for time and things lost. The heaviness and gloom are palpable throughout the album, with the beach serving as an extended metaphor for Young’s malaise. 

Dolly Parton - Jolene

Imagine writing not just one, but two iconic classics in the same day. That’s exactly what Dolly Parton did with two tracks featured on this album. The first is the titular song, "Jolene," recorded  at RCA Studio B in Nashville. The song has been covered by more than a dozen artists. 

Released as the first single the previous fall, "Jolene," rocketed to No.1 on the U.S. country charts and garnered the 10-time GRAMMY winner her first Top 10 in the U.K. The song was nominated for a GRAMMY in 1975 and again in 1976 for Best Country Vocal Performance. However, it didn’t take home the golden gramophone until 2017, when a cover by the Pentatonix featuring Parton won a GRAMMY for Best Country Duo/Group Performance. 

Also included on this album is "I Will Always Love You," a song that Whitney Houston famously covered in 1992 for the soundtrack of the romantic thriller, The Bodyguard, earning Parton significant royalties. 

Barry White - Can’t Get Enough

The distinctive bass-baritone of two-time GRAMMY winner Barry White, is unmistakable. The singer/songwriter's sensual, deep vocal delivery is as loved today as it was then. On this record, White is backed by the 40-member strong Love Unlimited Orchestra, one of the best-selling artists of all-time. 

White wrote "Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," about his wife during a sleepless night. This song is still played everywhere — from bedrooms to bar rooms, even 50 years on. In the U.S., the record hit the top of the R&B pop charts and No.1 on the Billboard 200. Although the album features only seven songs, two of them, including "You’re the First, the Last, My Everything" reached the top spot on the R&B charts. 

Lord Shorty - Endless Vibrations

Lord Shorty, born Garfield Blackman, is considered the godfather and inventor of soca music. This Trindadian musician revolutionized his nation’s Calypso rhythms, creating a vibrant up-tempo style that became synonymous with their world-renowned Carnival. 

Fusing Indian percussion instrumentation with well-established African calypso rhythms, Lord Shorty created what he originally dubbed "sokah," meaning, "calypso soul." The term soca, as it’s known today, emerged because of a journalist’s altered writing of the word, which stuck. The success of this crossover hit made waves across North America and made the island vibrations more accessible outside the island nation. 

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Nile Rodgers and LE SSERAFIM hero
LE SSERAFIM

Photo courtesy of SOURCE MUSIC

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Meet LE SSERAFIM, The K-Pop Group Nile Rodgers Chose For His First Foray Into The Genre

In an exclusive joint interview, LE SSERAFIM and legendary musician Nile Rodgers — who is featured on their debut record, 'Unforgiven' — discuss the importance of being unconventional, and why K-pop is so exciting to Western audiences.

GRAMMYs/May 2, 2023 - 01:30 pm

What Nile Rodgers loves the most about K-pop is that it is fearless. The revered producer, guitarist, and four-time GRAMMY winner (as well as Lifetime Achievement Award recipient) spares no words on how invigorating the South Korean industry is. "For a musician like myself, it’s exciting to have that kind of challenge," he says over a Zoom from his studio, whose walls are covered in gold, platinum and diamond albums.

Rodgers’ work has soundtracked our lives more than we know. In 1977, he co-founded the disco vanguard band Chic, which then spawned samples for the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," and Daft Punk’s "Around the World." He collaborated with Diana Ross, David Bowie, Beyoncé and many others, and produced era-defining albums such as Madonna’s Like a Virgin and Duran Duran’s Notorious

Now, he’s ready to make his debut into the K-pop realm alongside girl group LE SSERAFIM. Rodgers is featured on "Unforgiven," the title track from LE SSERAFIM's debut studio album. The track also samples Ennio Morricone’s theme song from the 1966 spaghetti Western film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the music video, recorded in Thailand, sees them boldly take the town in cowgirl outfits — a celebration of all the "unforgiven girls" and "unforgiven boys" in the lyrics.

Rodgers couldn’t have chosen a better act for his first K-pop feature. LE SSERAFIM takes their name out of an anagram for "I’m fearless." In May 2022, the quintet became the first girl group launched by Source Music under HYBE — the same label of K-pop icons BTS and SEVENTEEN — with the fittingly-titled EP Fearless. Aiming to spread self-confident messages, LE SSERAFIM established themselves as unflinching, dare-devilish stars.

Throughout Unforgiven’s 13 tracks, LE SSERAFIM are boldly themselves, regardless of what others think. Whether they are the unforgiven villains of the title track, "a mess in distress" in "Eve, Psyche & The Bluebeard’s wife," or demonstrate vulnerably on "FEARNOT (Between you, me and the lamppost)," LE SSERAFIM live by their truth. And what’s more fearless than that?

GRAMMY.com caught up with Nile Rodgers and LE SSERAFIM's Sakura, Kim Chaewon, Huh Yunjin, Kazuha, and Hong Eunchae for an exclusive conversation about Western and Eastern collaborations, what makes K-pop so exciting, and what they learned from each other.

Nile, you have collaborated with many legendary artists throughout the decades. What made you choose LE SSERAFIM to be your first K-pop collaboration?

Nile Rodgers: Why? Because when I heard the song, I loved it.

LE SSERAFIM [in unison]: Thank you!

LE SSERAFIM, did you know about Nile’s work before? What was your reaction when you learned that he was featuring on "Unforgiven?"

Yunjin: Well, I grew up in the States, so of course I knew. We were all so shocked to know that such a legend would work with us. It hasn't even been a year since we debuted, we were so honored and so excited.

Sakura: It was a really, really huge honor, and I still cannot believe that it happened. When Nile first played the guitar for us, I was completely blown away. I was like, "Is this going to be in our song?" I couldn't believe it. I was really proud.

Yunjin: I remember when I first told my parents, they were like, "No way! You? You and Nile Rodgers?" [Laughs.]

Nile, what are your impressions about K-pop in general? How do you see its growth in America and across the world?

Rodgers: This may sound nerdy, but I love the fact that it seems like a lot of the K-pop that I'm hearing lately, the new music, [has] the harmonic changes. The chord changes are a lot more interesting than what's been happening [in other music fields] over the last few years.

And that's made me excited, because I come from a jazz background, so to hear chord changes like that is really cool. They’re not afraid, which is great to me.

LE SSERAFIM, as a K-pop group, why do you think that it's important to collaborate with Western artists like Nile Rodgers? Is making your music more global something that you strive for to reach more people?

Yunjin: As time goes by, on the contrary, I think it's harder to find boundaries. Music is a universal language, and I think it's very good and very honorable to have Western and Eastern artists collaborating from wherever they are. It's just so that more people can enjoy good music. Isn't that the only reason? Like, music is good, and so more people should listen to it.

Rodgers: And I agree.

How has this collaboration inspired you further? Is there anything you learned from working together that you want to apply to your future work?

Rodgers: I was thinking I should have worn a cowboy hat today. [Laughs.]

Kazuha: When we first met online, Nile played [the guitar] according to our song, and it was completely freestyle. It wasn't something like "Oh, I'm gonna sit down and play music," it was just completely freestyle. I thought it was really cool and fascinating for a new work of art to be formed just by going with the flow and feeling the vibe. I thought it would be nice to [have] that process for us too, as true artists and for [creating] similar works of art as well.

Since Nile mentioned the cowboy hat, "Unforgiven" samples The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack, which is a surprising novelty. What do you think about the fact that you are actually merging the past with the present, and bridging decades of culture in one song?

Sakura: I just learned that there are no set rules in music, we just do it.

Rodgers: I once attended a concert with maestro Ennio Morricone, who wrote the music for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He had me sit right behind him while he conducted. It was fantastic.

Yunjin: Wow, so it must have been very weird to hear that in a K-pop song?

Rodgers: It's cool. See, that's the thing I like. K-pop music is stretching the boundaries. I was talking to my engineer today, and we were listening to, not just the rest of [LE SSERAFIM’s] album, but other people who are sending me music or would like me to play with them. And I was noticing that, as I said earlier, harmonically, it's a lot more interesting than what's been happening in the last maybe 10 years, where it's been almost the same four chords over and over and over again, just different melodies.

Nile, you've heard the rest of Unforgiven. LE SSERAFIM’s album. What was the main takeaway that you got from it? 

Rodgers: I actually think that it's really cool. I think it's progressive. It's fun. It's exciting. I hope that what I feel is what the rest of the world feels — I loved it. There’s a lot of good writers and producers. It's really great.

**LE SSERAFIM [in unison]: **Aw, thank you so much!

The title Unforgiven is based on the idea that you don’t need excuses to be who you are. Is there anything specific that you learned about yourselves while working with this concept?

Yunjin: Through every album, we grow with it and then we are able to personify [it]. I think the main message that we want to convey has actually become our story. No matter what people say — even if they might judge us, or misperceive us, or point fingers at us —  regardless of what people think, we might become the villain in other people's eyes. But just like how our music is crossing lines and stretching out the boundaries, we want to become a team that can continue doing that.

Rodgers: I think what you're saying is exactly right. If you have a message and a concept, never worry about some people not liking it, because there's no way that everybody can like everything. 

I mean, even the five of you probably don't like all the exact same food at the exact same moment, but it's okay. Sometimes people don't understand it right away and they get it later on, and that's cool too. Art is personal.

Were there any challenges working together, or any obstacles that you had to overcome while recording?

Rodgers: Well, I was In America, unfortunately, and they were in Korea. You can see that we can work like this, we can work remotely, but it would probably be fun to be in the same room.

Chaewon: Sure, sure, hopefully.

LE SSERAFIM was the first girl group launched by Source Music under HYBE, and now you're part of such a strong new generation of girl groups who also debuted in the past few years. What are some of your thoughts about being part of this new wave?

Eunchae: I think it is really nice to be active in a time where so many great girl groups are getting a lot of attention. A lot of people are listening to their music, and while we are also promoting with other groups, we're getting a lot of motivation and positive influences. I'm really satisfied and happy with that.

There’s plenty of musical styles that you approach on Unforgiven — Latin rhythms, Jersey Club beats, and even some country rock. What are some of your favorite experimentations or favorite moments to work on in the album?

Chaewon: "Unforgiven!"

Yunjin: I think the fact that Nile is in our album is just… You just can't not have "Unforgiven" as a favorite. I think all of us have "Unforgiven" as our top two. It's my personal favorite title track that we have ever done.

Sakura, Kazuha and Eunchae: Yes, "Unforgiven"!

Rodgers: I didn't pay them to say that. [Laughs.]

Nile, do you have any other favorites in the album, besides "Unforgiven"?

Rodgers: I actually liked the whole album. That's why, when we first started talking, I really was impressed with the fact that it's not conventional. It's not exactly what you would think. As a musician, it's great to listen to, to have different styles of music, and all of the styles that they pursue sound sincere.

If you could collaborate together again, what kind of music would you want to make?

Chaewon: Wow, that’s hard. I think if we can collaborate together again, anything would be fine.

Yunjin: We will try our best at everything.

Rodgers: I have a feeling in my heart that we will collaborate again.

[LE SSERAFIM cheer and send heart hands and thumbs ups to Nile.]

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Display at Power of Song Exhibit
A selection of items on display at Power of Song Exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum.

Photo: Rebecca Sapp

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5 Things We Learned From GRAMMY Museum's New The Power Of Song Exhibit, A Celebration Of Songwriters From Tom Petty To Taylor Swift

Nile Rodgers, Jimmy Jam, Smokey Robinson and more provide deep insights into their hit collaborations and creative process at GRAMMY Museum's The Power of Song: A Songwriters Hall of Fame Exhibit, open from April 26 through Sept. 4.

GRAMMYs/Apr 26, 2023 - 08:23 pm

Since its founding in 1969, the Songwriters Hall of Fame has been celebrating the great songwriters and composers of our time. In 2010, it found a physical home at Downtown Los Angeles' GRAMMY Museum.

Now, the GRAMMY Museum is adding to that legacy with a special expanded exhibit, which dives deep into the history of songwriting and recorded music in the United States — as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame and its inductees' role in it. Whether you're a songwriter or musician who loves the creative process, a history nerd, or simply a music lover, this exhibit is for you.

When you enter The Power Of Song, you'll hear the voices of legendary Songwriter Hall of Fame inductees and GRAMMY winners — including Nile Rodgers, Carole King, Diane Warren, Smokey Robinson and Jimmy Jam — discussing their creative process and some of the biggest songs they've written. Take a seat on the couch to absorb all their wisdom in the deeply informative and inspiring original short film.

Turn to the right, and you'll find a timeline across the entire wall, explaining the origins and key points around songwriting and recorded music in the U.S. On the other wall, pop on the headphones provided to enjoy a video of memorable Hall of Fame ceremony performances. One interactive video interface near the entrance allows you to hear "song highlights," and another allows you to explore the entire Songwriters Hall of Fame database.

The exhibit is filled with a treasure trove of handwritten song lyrics from Taylor Swift, Cyndi Lauper, Tom Petty and many more, as well as iconic artifacts, including Daft Punk's helmets, a classy Nile Rodgers GRAMMY look, and guitars from Bill Withers, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Toby Keith.

Below, take a look at five things we learned from The Power Of Song: A Songwriters Hall Of Fame Exhibit, which will be at the GRAMMY Museum from April 26 through Sept. 4.

Daft Punk Rerecorded "Get Lucky" To Fit Nile Rodgers' Funky Guitar

Legendary funk pioneer and superproducer Nile Rodgers is the current Chairman of the SHOF and has an active presence at the exhibit. One case features the disco-esque lime green Dior tuxedo Rodgers wore to the 2023 GRAMMY Awards, along with the shiny metallic helmets of French dance duo Daft Punk, who collaborated with Rodgers on their GRAMMY-winning 2013 album, Random Access Memories.

Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk and Rodgers had forged a friendship and been wanting to collab for years prior to 2013's Record Of The Year-winning smash "Get Lucky." When they finally connected and Bangalter and de Homem-Christo played the CHIC founder the demo for "Get Lucky," he asked to hear it again with everything muted except the drum track, so he could create the perfect guitar lick for it.

Bangalter and de Homem-Christo decided to essentially re-record the whole song to fit Rodgers' guitar, which joyously drives the track — and carried it to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, Daft Punk's first Top 5 hit.

Nile Rodgers Display at GRAMMY Museum

***Photo:** Rebecca Sapp*

Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis Set Up Their Studio The "Wrong" Way Because Of Prince

In the exhibit film, Jimmy Jam tells several stories about working with — and learning from — Prince. He recalls how he and Terry Lewis watched Prince work and record everything "in the red," so they set up their Minneapolis studio to follow his lead. A sound engineer told them it was too loud, but that ended up being the sound that artists like Janet Jackson and Usher came to them for. It was a "happy mistake," as Jam put it, that helped their legendary careers as a powerhouse production duo take off.

Prince's dogmatic, tireless work ethic also rubbed off on the powerhouse pair. One rehearsal, the Purple One kept pressing Jam to do more, which resulted in him playing two instruments, singing and hitting the choreography from behind his keyboard. "He saw that I could do more than I thought I could; he saw me better than I saw myself," he reflected.

"God Bless America" Composer Irving Berlin Didn't Read Music

In his 50 year-career, Irving Berlin wrote over 1000 songs, many of which defined American popular music for the better part of the 20th century. Along with penning "God Bless America," "White Christmas," "Puttin' on the Ritz," and "There's No Business Like Show Business" (among many other classics), he wrote 17 full Broadway musical scores and contributed songs to six more plays.

Berlin also wrote scores for early Hollywood musicals starring the likes of Ginger Rodgers, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe, and Bing Crosby. He made a lasting, indelible mark on music, theater, film and American culture writ large.

Rather astonishingly, the widely celebrated American Tin Pan Alley-era composer was self-taught and didn't read sheet music. His family immigrated to New York from Imperial Russia when he was 5 years old, and when he was just 13, his father died, so he busked on the streets and worked as a singing waiter to help his family out.

In 1907, at 19, he had his first song published, and just four years later penned his first international hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Berlin had a natural musicality and played music by ear in the key of F-sharp, with the help of his trusted upright transposing piano, a rare instrument that had a mechanism allowing him to shift into different keys. His "trick piano," as he called it, where many of his unforgettable songs first came to life, is on display at the exhibit.

Read More: GRAMMY Rewind: Smokey Robinson Accepts A GRAMMY On Behalf Of The Temptations In 1973

Smokey Robinson Didn't Expect "My Girl" To Become A Timeless Hit

Smokey Robinson was an important part of Motown's hit-making factory as a singer, songwriter and producer. In the exhibit film, he discusses "My Girl," one of his classic tunes, which he wrote and produced for the Temptations in 1965.

"I had no idea it would become what it would become," he said.

He says that people often ask him why he didn't record the unforgettable song with his group the Miracles instead of "giving it away" to the Temptations, but he never regretted his decision. Instead, he's honored to have created music that stands the test of time and means so much to so many people.

Robinson joked that the Temptations' then-lead singer David Ruffin's gruff voice scared girls into going out with him. Really, he loved Ruffin's voice, and thought he'd sound great singing a sweet love song like "My Girl." Safe to say he was right.

After World War II, Pop Music Changed Forever

Prior to World War II, American music operated as a singular mainstream market, and New York's Tin Pan Alley songwriters competed to make the next pop or Broadway hit. In a post-World War II America, especially when the early Baby Boomer generation became teenagers and young adults in the '60s and '70s, tastes changed and new styles of pop and pop songwriting emerged. As rock shook up popular culture, Tin Pan Alley gave way to a new era of young songwriters, many who worked out of just two buildings in midtown Manhattan, 1619 Broadway (the Brill Building) and 1650 Broadway.

In this richly creative and collaborative environment, powerhouse songwriting duos began to emerge and reshape pop music, challenging and balancing each other — and creating a ton of hits in the process. The hit-making duos of this diversified pop era included Burt Bacharach and Hal David (Dionne Warrick's "That's What Friends Are For"), Carole King and Gerry Goffin (Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion"), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'") and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," both in collaboration with Phil Spector). In fact, there are far too many classics penned by these four prolific songwriter duos to list here.

While there are still songwriters that pen big hit after hit for pop stars (Max Martin is still at it, as is his protege Oscar Görres), the dynamics in the industry have continued to shift with singers taking on more creative power themselves. Today's pop stars — including Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift — have found success co-writing with their own trusted teams of songwriters and producers. But as this new exhibit shows, it doesn't matter who is behind the pen — the power of song is mighty.

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Essential Songs: Daft Punk performing
French musical group Daft Punk performing in Italy in 2019

Photo: Marco Piraccini/Archivio Marco Piraccini/Mondadori via Getty Images

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Daft Punk Essentials: 10 Songs That Showcase The Duo's Futuristic Innovation

The French electronic music duo's massive influence in the '90s and early 2000s transformed the dance landscape and continues to resonate. On the 10th anniversary of their smash hit "Get Lucky," revisit some of their biggest hits.

GRAMMYs/Apr 19, 2023 - 06:13 pm

Dance music wouldn't be the same without Daft Punk. In 1993, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo joined forces, not knowing they would become trailblazers of the decade's French house movement.

The duo took their name from a negative review of their former band Darlin', in which their music was criticized as "a daft punky thrash" — and so Daft Punk was born, living up to their name by merging creative absurdity with liveliness. The duo made few public media appearances, quite literally shrouding themselves in mystery through a sci-fi aesthetic accompanying their prolific, contemporary sound.

From their 1997 debut studio album Homework to collaborations with The Weeknd decades later, the duo built their extensive discography on a fearless restyling of electronica. Contributing to dance music popularization in North America with their 2006-2007 tour, Daft Punk is credited with ushering EDM into the mainstream.

Although the duo disbanded in 2021, their influence is everlasting: colorfully blending house with every genre from techno to synth-pop, Daft Punk has proved their creativity knows no limits.

In honor of the 10-year anniversary of the GRAMMY-winning duo's "Get Lucky" and their 30-year career span, take a listen to these 9 funky essentials by Daft Punk.

"Da Funk," Homework (1997)

Tripping into acid house, Daft Punk's single "Da Funk" is a glaring highlight from the duo's debut, Homework. Featuring a squirming, snappy 303 bass line and refreshing disco-inspired sound, the lyricless track is a '90s house classic.

"Around The World," Homework (1997)

Daft Punk's dynamic sounds are staples in clubs all over the world, and part of this is due to the smash success of their single "Around The World." The second single from their debut hit No. 1 on dance charts worldwide, its only lyric — fittingly, "around the world" — repeated 144 times to reach full earworm potential.

"One More Time," Discovery (2000)

Daft Punk regards "One More Time" as the bridge between Homework and Discovery, and this song speaks to the duo's timeless, overarching creativity. Spotlighting their signature auto-tuned vocals and futuristic production, the song is a full-blown celebration. Upon release, the track tied with "Around The World" by hitting No. 61 on the Billboard Hot 100.

"Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," Discovery (2001)

An instant influential hit, "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" combines the keyboard riff from Edwin Birdsong's 1979 funk song "Cola Bottle Baby" with heavily vocoded vocals. The song has been remixed, sampled, and covered dozens of times, and a live version of the track — from Daft Punk's live album, Alive 2007 — took home a GRAMMY for Best Dance/Electronic Recording in 2009.

"Digital Love," Discovery (2001)

Led elegantly by a Wurlitzer and filled with prolonged harmonies, this Daft Punk essential sloshes through a dreamy electropop soundscape. Longing pulses through the textured, technological track, and its softness cushions the song's outlined fantasy in a graceful way.

"Robot Rock," Human After All (2005)

Wonderfully mechanical, Daft Punk's "Robot Rock" is a staple of electronic rock. Its central and only lyric — "Rock, robot rock" — repeats over and over, meshing with a looping synth-led riff and electric guitar power chords. Filmed on VHS, its music video glitters as the first video to star Daft Punk exclusively.

"Starboy" - The Weeknd, Starboy (2016)

The title track from The Weeknd's third studio album, "Starboy," strays from Daft Punk's signature electronic sound, determinedly wandering into edgy pop and R&B. Surprisingly, the collaboration is Daft Punk's first and only No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

"Get Lucky" featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, Random Access Memories (2013)

Pulling in a couple of legends for collaboration, "Get Lucky" strikes a perfect groove as a disco-pop banger about staying up 'til the sun. Starring Nile Rodgers' radiant guitar riff and Pharrell Williams' funky vocals, the experimental song won Record Of The Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 56th GRAMMY Awards.

"Derezzed," TRON: Legacy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (2010)

Who better than Daft Punk to craft the soundtrack for a sci-fi film? The pair's robotic aesthetic and futuristic music perfectly complement the 2010 Disney cyberworld film Tron: Legacy, and "Derezzed" stands out as an especially immersive track. At the 54th GRAMMY Awards, TRON: Legacy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) was nominated for Best Score Soundtrack Album For Visual Media.

"Lose Yourself to Dance" featuring Pharrell Williams, Random Access Memories (2013)

Pharrell Williams returned to work with Daft Punk for the groovy "Lose Yourself to Dance" in 2013. His vocals float through the song's funky production, and partway through, a multi-layered clap imbues the track with new, crowd-sourced energy.

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