In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs we discovered in video games.
Among the many quantum leaps that make Grand Theft Auto V the best open-world game ever produced is its massive, eclectic soundtrack. Los Santos, the game’s simulacrum of southern California, is a sprawling den of iniquity where players can be turned on to songs—and even entire subgenres—they never knew existed. The GTA franchise has become a stellar platform for pop music since Rockstar Games first started using licensed music in 2001’s GTA III, but the soundtracks have gotten bigger, broader, and more ambitious with every new installment. GTA V includes 16 narrowly focused stations, and rather than the stream of predictable genre hits featured in its predecessors, V features music mixes curated by esteemed musicians and DJs including Flying Lotus and Gilles Peterson. Because of the new approach, each station includes the kind of obscure curveballs music aficionados love turning others onto.
It took me no time to choose Space 103.2, Los Santos’ local funk station, as my default road music. On DJ duties is funk legend Bootsy Collins, who tosses in some well-known classics, including Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby” and Collins’ own “I’d Rather Be With You,” the apex of his solo output. But Collins also tosses in some funk tracks that fell between the couch cushions of history, including Kano’s “Can’t Hold Back (Your Loving),” one of the standout tracks to emerge from Italy’s robust disco scene. It’s no wonder Italo disco, as the subgenre came to be known, is so infrequently mentioned in discussions around the pop music of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Disco music is still widely regarded as a standalone punchline (see: The Simpsons’ Disco Stu), making it to America what polka music is to central Europe. Disco’s global influence doesn’t comport with the narrative that casts it as a brief, national lapse in judgment, so a track like “Can’t Hold Back” gets ignored by those loath to admit disco was once among America’s chief exports.
That’s a shame, because “Can’t Hold Back” is as infectious and danceable as anything to come out of the New York City and Philadelphia scenes where disco first took shape. Disco was a producer’s genre, and Kano was the brainchild of producers Matteo Bonsanto, Luciano Ninzatti, and Stefano Pulga, who teamed up with Glen White, a West Indian-born singer whose roles in European traveling musicals led him to Milan, the birthplace of Kano. Despite the worldly pedigree, Kano strove to sound identical to its American counterparts, and the band was successful judging from “Can’t Hold Back,” which is practically indistinguishable from a Chic song. (“Can’t Hold Back” is from Kano’s sophomore album New York Cake, a title that suggests a deliberate effort to conceal the music’s provenance.) Like Nile Rodgers’ best creations, the song features not one, but two rubbery bass lines—no wonder Collins chose it—and a monster hook that refuses to leave your brain once it’s taken root.
The goofy lyrics are about an unrepentant succubus, which makes them as vaguely sexist as a far more popular 1982 single: Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” But vague sexism is par for the course in the GTA series, as is cutting loose, flouting societal norms, and embracing your id, just like the disco scene that gave rise to “Can’t Hold Back.” It sounds like an odd choice at first blush, but “Can’t Hold Back” is the perfect accompaniment for running down pedestrians in a stolen ambulance.