I’m not certain about exactly when the term ‘sad banger’ came into use, but it was definitely used by critics describing Robyn’s 2010 hit, ‘Dancing On My Own’, which defined the decade and resulted in a raft of imitations. As the journalist Mark Savage put it, a sad banger is “a song whose instrumental sets you up for good times, only to sucker punch your heart with lyrics of Biblical sadness.” With its pounding electro-pop beat and lyrics telling of heartbreak on the dancefloor, Robyn’s masterpiece was exactly that.
It sounds dramatic to attribute so much influence to one song, but 10 years later and the effects of ‘Dancing On My Own’ really can still be heard echoing across our musical landscape. According to Garage Magazine, when recording her 2017 album, Melodrama, Lorde kept a photo of Robyn in the studio to watch over the sessions and, when asked by friends, chose ‘Dancing On My Own’ as the pop song she would ‘immortalise’. Lorde would channel this inspiration into her own hit single, ‘Green Light’, which managed to deal with heartbreak while also being a ridiculously catchy, danceable pop tune.
Then, just last year, legendary producer Mark Ronson released an entire album of sad bangers, sticking a heart-shaped disco ball, complete with lightning bolt crack, on the cover art, just to hammer home the point that sad bangers kind of have their own genre now. No doubt, when the concept for this album came around, Ronson had Robyn front of mind, channelling that influence into the infectious, country-tinged floor-filler ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart’ and shuffling disco track ‘Late Night Feelings’.
Much of this influence can be put down to the timing of Robyn’s single, which, it should be noted, did not find immediate success. The song was more of a slow burner; its influence building over the course of the decade. During this time, it captured the hearts of young people across the US and UK, not just because it dealt with the universal theme of heartbreak but because it also tapped into millennial issues like our obsession with other people’s lives and wanting things we can’t have, both perpetuated by the social media channels we scroll through each day. “I’m just gonna dance all night,” sings Robyn, offering up a perfectly acceptable, if temporary, solution to her heartbreak. But for many millennials, dancing all night isn’t just about shedding emotional baggage, it’s a way of forgetting about a world in which many of us feel powerless and unable to achieve our dreams.
Of course, none of this is specific to 2010 or to Robyn. The disco movement of the 1970s and ‘80s tackled issues much more serious than the existential dread of us apathetic millennials, including institutionalised racism, poverty and homophobia. Nightclubs became a safe haven for anyone deemed ‘different’ and provided a home for the LGBTQ movement, as DJs cranked out tune after tune of upbeat music by the likes of Chic, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and Earth, Wind & Fire. While the music was joyous, the everyday struggles of these communities often worked their way into the lyrics, giving us some of pop music’s original sad bangers. 'Dancing On My Own' struck a similar chord with modern LGBTQ audiences, becoming a queer anthem that seemed to reflect the loneliness of many people's experiences of coming out, finding love, but feeling marginalised by family and friends.
So, since the early days of pop music, sad bangers have played their part. And their combination of dancefloor appeal and emotional heft makes a good case for these tracks being amongst some of pop music's very best. Life is a series of highs and low, good times and bad times, joyous triumphs and lonely failures. So why wouldn't our music reflect this too?
1. ABBA - Dancing Queen 
You’re probably questioning this one. Isn’t ‘Dancing Queen’ a happy song, beloved by audiences of all ages? Not quite. 34 years before Robyn released perhaps the defining ‘sad banger’, ABBA dropped this bona fide pop classic, which paints us a picture of a young woman, high on life, dancing the night away. But listen carefully and you’ll pick up hints of melancholy in the words and the music; the type that gives you goose bumps without you knowing why. Apparently singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad cried the first time she heard the song. After all, reminiscing on our younger years can often be tinged with sadness, a longing to return, and ABBA wraps that feeling into four minutes of pop perfection.
2. Gloria Gaynor - I Will Survive 
The decision to include this disco classic in the list was a tough one, as I ummed and arred over whether its themes of survival and empowerment actually made this an all-out banger, rather than a sad one! But you only need to take a look at the dancefloor while this track plays to see the emotional catharsis it brings to so many people as they scream that legendary chorus, backed by lush strings and a solid, bongo-embellished disco beat. Whether it’s abuse, discrimination, illness or plain old heartbreak, ‘I Will Survive’ is about reflecting on the bad times, finding your inner strength and moving on to a brighter future.
3. New Order - Bizarre Love Triangle 
Given its opening line – “Every time I think of you / I feel shocked right through with a bolt of blue” – New Order’s classic 1986 single (which didn’t chart until released on their greatest hits collection in 1993) might seem like a straightforward love song. But the lyrics that follow, not to mention the track’s title itself, suggest otherwise, as lead singer Bernard Sumner describes the frustration and confusion of being stuck in a relationship while being in love with somebody else, agonising over what could be but not having the courage to take the leap of faith. It’s heavy stuff, but New Order packages it into a glistening synth-pop gem: the drums crash, Peter Hook’s signature basslines soar and that classic chorus can still bring euphoria to any dancefloor.
4. Frankie Knuckles - Your Love 
This classic by the ‘Godfather of House’ is one of the defining Chicago house tracks, leaving a legacy longer than perhaps any other song on this list. After disco went underground in the 1980s, house music emerged from its ashes, showcasing a whole new sound but bringing similar levels of emotion and dance appeal. Written by Chicago native Jamie Principal, this was actually Knuckles’ first foray into production and he later admitted he had no idea what he was doing. But perhaps that’s what gives the track its honest, raw appeal. An initially sparse arrangement with a kick drum, snare and looping synths, ‘Your Love’ builds and builds with a pumping bassline, programmed strings, and Jamie Principle’s expressive vocals: “Don’t make me wait for your love / I can’t let go.” The result is a sexy but slightly melancholy club banger with one of the most iconic synth lines of all time, sampled later in The Source and Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’.
5. The Killers - Mr Brightside 
The last song of the night at bars, student unions and indie clubs across the UK for much of the late 2000s and into the 2010s, things got to the point where even the people who loved ‘Mr Brightside’ grew tired of it. But there are plenty of reasons why this sleeper hit (its first release didn’t even chart) became an enduring British anthem. For one, it wore its UK influences on its sleeve, combining the synth-pop of Depeche Mode and New Order with the dark lyrical content of The Cure and an anthemic chorus reminiscent of an Oasis track. But most importantly, as is the case with all of the best sad bangers, the song mixes euphoria with melancholy; its floor-filling beats and optimistic title propping up a dark tale of paranoia, delusion and betrayal.
6. Robyn - Dancing On My Own 
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 103, Pages 44-48.