Note: This piece was originally written in 2018, to commemorate the 20th year anniversary of the original release. Now with the 20th anniversary of the re-release of the hit single (May 2020), this piece never found a home in a proper music publication, so I’m publishing it here. Enjoy!
You’ve probably heard UK musician Sonique’s calling card, “It Feels So Good”, even if you don’t know from where. I recently played the song for my friend, a gay Mennonite boy from a small town in rural Indiana, and even he recognized it. It was a flash in the pan, hitting #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 2000 two years after its initial release in 1998. It’s a song that still holds its own, with easy-breezy lyrics of a wistful attraction, futuristic two-step garage instrumentation, and a high note in the chorus that still gives me chills. It’s as much of a song as a vibe of its own — a translation of the spirit of PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect) in the rave scene into a radio-friendly dance hit, one that still sounds ahead of its time at 20 years of age.
“It filled a void,” says Stan “The Man” Priest. Priest was a DJ for Tampa (FL) based radio station 93.3 FLZ in the late 90s, and was arguably the first to play the record on American radio. “People for looking for what was next. It was rare to find something that really broke through, and this song was much ‘poppier’ than any of the other breakbeat or electro songs that were out at that time. ”
Once Priest unleashed the song onto the airwaves, it took on a life of its own.
“I found this record in a store in Tampa called Digital Underground, as a white label record,” he recalls. “There was no writing on it, other than ‘It Feels So Good’. At that time, music didn’t move as fast as it does now. But as soon as people heard it the first time, it was like I couldn’t stop playing it.”
Executives from Republic Records made haste to sign Sonique, and she was signed and touring not long after.
The transgressive nature of the song was felt even at the time of its release. A 1999 article in Billboard attributes this quote to Tom Mackay, then A&R at Republic: “Sonique isn’t a typical pop star. She melds a pop song structure with dance songs.” At that time, the “dance remix” was hegemony in the clubs, a completely different arrangement than the “radio edit”. While this format still exists today, the late 90s birthed a number of anthemic dance remixes to melodic originals — think Thunderpuss’s remix of Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay)”, which this generation knows as the final boss lip-sync from season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Ultimately, “It Feels So Good” offered something innovative: a radio mix that was club-ready, with the dance elements of build and drop that complimented a verse-chorus format. It would be perhaps a decade before we began to reliably hear this again on mainstream radio, with Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In The World)” (2010) and “We Found Love” (2011) bringing the then-burgeoning sound of EDM to a radio-friendly format.
It’s the visuals for the song, however, that give the song another flavor. In the original music video, Sonique stands amidst club-ready dancers of various genders and presentations who flirt with each other without pretense. Two men vogue and prance together, coming close without fully embracing; a pair of women in identical dress serve an erotic Gemini fantasy; and Sonique, with short hair and a wickedly androgynous look, is seen with a male lover who echoes her vibe. Now, while that was a time of fashion choices both extravagant and questionable, it’s undeniable to me that the video is centering — if not uplifting — a kind of queerness and sexual fluidity that only the dancefloor can foster.
When the song was re-released in 2000, a second video was made, and the narrative comes full circle to reality: Sonique playing a waitress who moonlights as a DJ. She sports a few more androgynous looks — first a red track jacket, then shedding that for a camisole and men’s boxer shorts — before showing off behind the turntables as the crowd finds further bacchanal.
While this imagery seems at home in the 2010s, pop music in Sonique’s time was not yet so forward-thinking. Any other music video featuring a young female singer would have seen her dolled up in teenybopper attire and pursuing a cookie-cutter male love interest. Meanwhile, Sonique really just does her own thing: her looks are street fashion, her dance moves are quirky and stiff, and she centers herself as a performer rather than as a sex object. I interpret Sonique’s imagery as a subtle rejection of patriarchy and the image-conscious nature of the music industry overall. In her own words: “It wasn’t even an image, it was just me… I’m female and proud, I’m not going to disfigure myself to be a woman.”
And what of Sonique herself? Born Sonia Clarke in London to Trinidadian parents, the ingenue left home at 16 and immersed herself in the electronic music scene of the 1980s. The raver imagery of her solo work isn’t surprising considering she once worked with acid house outfit S’Express; nor is the depiction of her in the DJ booth, as she was making her living as a DJ for years before she recorded her first track. It’s thus fitting that she didn’t market herself as a disposable pop star; she had already made a life for herself in the counterculture of electronic music and the era of the club kid as a musical maverick, a working woman. She stood out by embodying excellence. It’s a swagger befitting of a Caribbean woman, an entertainer with roots in the nation that perfected the spiritual predecessor to electronic raves: Trinidad Carnival.
The artist herself has kept it moving, suffering only in a lack of recognition. Though Sonique still releases music and tours at the age of 50, the original mix of “It Feels So Good” — along with her entire debut Hear My Cry — is unavailable on both Spotify and Apple Music at the time of this writing. In 2018, that’s as good as being invisible. (Author’s note: The album has since been uploaded in full to Spotify.)
Still, the song and its power is not completely lost on today’s clubgoers.
“As a child of the 80s, I grew up around a lot of italo disco and freestyle music which to this day influences my sets,” says ICKARUS, a genderqueer DJ based in Brooklyn. ICKARUS hosts nightlife events for the queer community, and is known to drop a remix of the song by London-based DJ Ku De Ta. “The ongoing popularity of this song, I believe, has a lot to do with a sense of nostalgia for millennials. Everyone on the dancefloor who is around my age recognizes the song in one way or another and is always singing along, even if they’re not entirely sure when they became familiar with it.”
But I believe there’s more than just nostalgia at play. Sonique’s artistry 20 years ago manifested a future that was more accepting and affirming than its host time period. Sonique opened up space for individuals who had no footing in respectable society — LGBTQ folks, gender non-conforming folx, black women who didn’t bend to white male expectations — to find liberation on the dance floor. “It Feels So Good” didn’t just have catchy lyrics backed by a banging beat. I believe it appealed to a greater human element of one-ness and belonging, one that isn’t easily replicated even in dance music today.
“She created an anthem, you know?” remarks Priest. “The song still means a lot to me. There’s still something very much there. It was a tough act to follow.”
Some potential successors could be envisioned. A contemporary record that seems like an obvious spiritual successor is “Your Love” by London musician Moko. “Your Love” made a decent splash upon release, with a sound and video that evoked a certain nostalgia of its own. It’s to my great chagrin that Moko, a capable vocalist and visual artist, is relatively unknown outside the UK.
After all, Sonique risks being left within an ongoing tendency for black women innovators to be relegated or outright erased. Black women with powerful singing voices — Jocelyn Brown, Loleatta Holloway, and Martha Wash to name a few — have too often become faceless and figureless backing tracks for the activities of white/European clubgoers, at times uncredited and often unrecognizable. Not to mention that the highest-paid male DJs in dance music now are white — Calvin Harris, Tiësto, David Guetta — as well as the highest-paid women, Australia’s NERVO. It’s imperative that dance music especially honor its roots — disco and the clubs in Chicago frequented by black gay men like progenitor Frankie Knuckles — rather than be subsumed by an industry which values black artistry while crediting white faces and bank accounts.
If that’s the case, let this be an invocation for Sonique’s legacy. In this, the 20th anniversary year of the release of a life-changing dance-pop song by a world-class artist, report to your local dance floor with pride and insolence. In the spirit of both Assata Shakur and the pre-chorus of Sonique’s own song “Alive”, break free of your chains. This tumultuous era of world history and global politics means that we can’t afford to miss out on the joy and euphoria that a night under the sound system can enjoin in us — and most importantly, that allow us to get up the next morning and fight the good fight.
HASSAN GHANNY is a writer and performer based in Boston, MA. His music and culture writing has been featured in LEVEL and Cuepoint, and he is a regular contributor to Boston Hassle. He can be found on Instagram @diaspora.gothic .