A Foreigner’s Guide to Disco Polo
Disco polo is like McDonald’s. No one wants to be seen enjoying it, yet everybody does. 50% disco and 50% folk music, the tacky but catchy genre is essential at weddings and in provincial bars.
What is disco polo?
Let us analyse a typical disco polo hits of recent years, the 2012 song She Dances for Me, which had nearly a 100 million hits on Youtube.
The melody is a tad primitive but certainly earwormy. The lyrics are self-explanatory. In its Polish version, this composition by the band Weekend is often called the biggest disco polo hit of all times.
Some say disco polo is comparable to italo disco, but after curious beginnings the genre became narrower and purer than its complex Italian equivalent. It is closer to turbo-folk and chalga ‒ its Balkan relatives ‒ minus the Turkish influences. Born in the transitional 1990s, disco polo went out of style in the early 2000s, but is currently experiencing a vibrant revival. Observe how the Polish football team bursts into song in the locker room:
The first wave
In 1990, Top One released the song Biały Miś (editor's translation: White Bear). This old Polish ditty, whose authorship is not known for certain, sold like hotcakes in this techno-pop guise. Listen at your own risk.
Many wished to follow in the footsteps of the successful band and, given the strong demand for a new style after the singer-songwriter trends of the 1980s, the genre became a cultural phenomenon. Bands like Boys and Milano emerged. By 1993 this type of music was referred to as ‘sidewalk music’, because cassettes were sold from foldable bed frames set up on pavements.
With time, however, growing enthusiasm led people to look for a more noble designation, and the genre was rechristened disco polo ‒ a calque of italo disco. Sale numbers were dizzyingly high from the very start. It was common for albums to sell a million copies. In 1994 the mainstream TV network Polsat started airing a weekly show called Disco Relax, devoted to the trending music style. In its heyday it used to draw 8 million viewers to the screen. Dance clubs featuring live or lip-sync performances of disco polo were opening by the dozen.
It’s worth mentioning that the first golden era of disco polo was also accompanied by bold fashion statements that redefined traditional aesthetics‒ tasselled loafers, white socks and shiny tracksuits. Toward the end of the 1990s Disco Relax’s ratings started to fall, a sure-fire sign that the popularity of disco polo was on the decline. The party ended in 2002 when the show was taken off the air and the genre lost much of its prominence.
A quick look at some unforgettable artists of the era:
Led by vocalist Marcin Miller, Boys is well-known for its 1995 version of the prison folk song Wolność (Freedom). Immensely popular in its day, the track used to be a favourite of the mob, whose members appreciated its origin.
The venerable Bayer Full, which was formed in 1984, is responsible for timeless hits such as Majteczki w Kropeczki (Polka Dot Panties) and Wszyscy Polacy (All the Poles). A few years ago there was some commotion regarding the band’s alleged success in China, but unsurprisingly the story turned out to be mere gossip. Nevertheless Bayer Full sold an impressive 16 million copies in its native Poland, and the band is still active.
This dazzling vocalist will always be remembered for hits such as Baiao Bongo and Powiedz Mi (Tell Me). Her talents were even noticed by the famous record company EMI, but somehow the collaboration of the two parties didn’t prove exceptionally fruitful.
The second wave
Like a resilient virus, disco polo survived its hour of darkness. For most of the 2000s, it was limited chiefly to more or less reputable dance clubs but eventually it made its way back into the circulatory system of mainstream Polish music. This was mostly brought on by the aforementioned viral hit She Dances for Me, as well as a brand-new channel called Polo TV.
It began airing in 2011 and quickly became the leading music station in the country, inspiring the creation of other such TV entities. Today, disco polo is once again a big business. Major artists can give 30 concerts a month and earn a very pretty penny indeed. Music videos sometimes feature stars of the Polish silver screen. The formerly rural genre has even gained fans in large cities. For example Katowice now boasts a dance club called Disco which is, according to its website, ‘the only VIP Disco Polo club in Silesia’. The biggest names of the second wave include Czadoman, the artist behind of Ruda Tańczy Jak Szalona (Red-haired Girl Dances Like Crazy ‒ almost 60 million hits on Youtube!) and whose trademark is a custom-made superhero suit, and Claudi, a girl band known for the remarkable jingle Daj Mi tę Noc (Give Me this Night).
Most Poles would agree that disco polo is an unrefined scene, but it has now permeated Polish culture so thoroughly that many sophisticated youngsters appraise it more affectionately than critically. It’s associated with weddings and New Year’s Eve parties spent dancing drunkenly with older relatives, something which every Pole must go through at least once or twice a year.
Author: Marek Kępa, July 2016