This thriving underground community has its own rules of dress and attitude, not to mention musical instrumentation. While proud of its nonmainstream sensibility, the genre is constantly caught between outlaw status and popular acceptance, and as a result, it must keep reinventing itself to avoid the big co-optation lurking around the corner.
Alternative rock? Heavy metal? No, it's dance music, as thriving and diverse a subculture as any in pop. To outsiders, dance music probably boils down to a woman shrieking over a throbbing club beat. In reality, the genre literally never stands still. Its many offshoots include Top 40 divas (currently represented by Crystal Waters' ''100% Pure Love''), Latin hip-hop (the likes of Lisa Lisa), the mostly instrumental electronic rush of house and techno, and acid jazz (old-school bebop with a heavier beat). The music can find its way to deejays via independent 12-inch singles, which introduce new talent nearly every week. Yet, it can also come right down the middle of the road; remixed, bass-heavy singles by k.d. lang and Celine Dion currently populate the Billboard dance chart. What binds it all together is a sense of living for the moment, as when a surging single brings everyone together on the dance floor in communal sweat-stasy.
Three years ago, that moment was occupied by C+C Music Factory's ''Gonna Make You Sweat,'' a massive crossover hit that helped make dance music part of the mainstream pop vocabulary. Not exactly innovators, producers David Cole and Robert Clivilles are popularizers who keep an ear out for street-buzz sounds and then, with savvy marketing skills, smooth them out just enough for radio. However, intergroup squabbles (involving the ad hoc group's shifting array of singers) and a middling 1992 remix album put the power brakes on C+C's rise. So the two men go all out to compensate for the lost time on the all-too-aptly titled Anything Goes.
The tip-off is the album's first single, ''Do You Wanna Get Funky,'' which incorporates mild rapping, dancehall, and the return of two members of the group's first lineup: singer Zelma Davis and Martha Wash, the belt-it-out star of ''Gonna Make You Sweat,'' who has returned to the fold, lawsuits and snippy anti-C+C interviews behind her. Individually, each of their styles could build up some steam. Together, though, they cancel each other out; whatever groove exists simply vanishes beneath the clutter.
The same can be said for Anything Goes, which finds C+C shamelessly dipping into all of the above styles as well as anything else they think will return them to glory, including shots at doo-wop hip-hop, ballads that sound like Mariah Carey rejects, and whoop-it-up party rap. The mix could have been groundbreaking, but C+C don't really have much of a signature sound, so the record mostly comes off as desperate.
Cole and Clivilles also take a shot at techno on the feeble ''Hip Hop Express.'' They should leave those subgenres to the likes of the Waterlillies, a New York duo whose thoroughly alluring second album, Tempted, could be the future of dance or one of its futures anyway. The concept is stunningly simple: Put a human face on techno by layering a female voice and pop hooks onto this most electronic and inhuman of musics. On its own, singer-producer Sandra Jill Alikas' voice, a stock-still alto not unlike Enya's, would be just another aural massage, but instrumentalist-producer Ray Carroll's gently boinging tracks add all sorts of shadings wanton desire in ''Tempted,'' all-enveloping warmth in ''I Wanna Be There,'' sorrow in ''Never Get Enough.''
Tempted loses its way halfway through, thanks to two ballads better suited for a Broadway musical. And throughout, Alikas' lyrics tend toward the submissive, which is particularly glaring now that female musicians like Liz Phair and PJ Harvey aren't taking muck from anyone. (It makes sense that the album ends with an a cappella rendition of the Carpenters' ''Close to You,'' which shares the same sad-sack sensibility.) Then again, you don't come to club music for lyrics, but rather for a charged sonic rush, and that's where Tempted delivers the goods. In the hands of folks like the Waterlillies, dance music will continue to catch us off-balance just when we thought we knew all the steps. Anything Goes: C