Music

Disco Doesn’t Suck. Here’s Why.

Once largely derided as shallow, faddish, consumerist music, disco has been reappraised as the stifled sounds of cultural liberation. Of course, it could always be both.

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In 1979 there seemed to be an endless supply of disco—and an endless supply of disgruntled grumblings about disco. People called the music mindless and shallow, a bunch of imbecilic boogie-oogie-oogies over a monotonous, robotic beat. Disco culture was said to be consumerist and celebrity-obsessed: a milieu where fashionably dressed somebodies could carouse inside a club while the nobodies were stuck behind the velvet rope outside. And the stuff was all over the radio, sometimes replacing other formats entirely and sometimes subverting them insidiously, as rock bands added disco sounds to their songs and as white singers invaded the playlists of black stations.

If you asked the grumblers to come up with a conspiracy theory to explain the music's rise, they might say its secret agenda was to stifle people's political consciousness, a version of Abbie Hoffman's complaint that disco was "Elegant. Ruling class….Music not exactly designed to promote community or kindle the passion for social change." They might denounce it as a scheme to undermine black radio, à la the critic Greg Tate's angry joke that disco could be called DisCOINTELPRO.

Most likely, they'd attack it as a plot against rock's gritty authenticity, a kind of mind control at work on the dance floor. Steve Dahl—the Chicago DJ behind the infamous Disco Demolition Night of 1979, when disco-hating rockers blew up a bunch of dance records in a baseball stadium—called disco a "disease" whose victims "walk around like zombies." In "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a largely fabricated report in New York magazine that was the basis for the movie Saturday Night Fever, Nick Cohn described disco as an "automaton chugging" while "impassive" dancers went through the required motions. It wouldn't have taken too much work to turn that sort of rhetoric into a full-fledged Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario.

Today, by contrast, we get Jamie Kastner's The Secret Disco Revolution, a documentary/mockumentary hybrid from 2012. In this telling, "beneath disco's carefully vapid veneer, its true aim [was] the mass liberation of gays, blacks, and women from the clutches of a conservative, rock-dominated world." The narrator informs us that "a revolution of this scale required revolutionary masterminds," though "we can only speculate as to their actual identity."

That's tongue-in-cheek. The filmmaker doesn't really think a radical cabal cooked up the world of mirror balls and hi-hat beats. But Kastner's thesis didn't come from nowhere. Under the current critical consensus, disco was a tide of musical innovation and cultural liberation. All Kastner did was pretend someone planned it that way.

Even in the '70s, disco had defenders in the intelligentsia. In 1979, the New York Times's John Rockwell pushed back against the idea that disco was "imposed on the world by a diabolical conspiracy" and argued that "there's a lot of interesting disco being made these days, and a lot of variety within a form that is often considered monolithic." (He also anticipated the emergence of postpunk, invoking "the coming together of disco, punk rock, and old-fashioned 'progressive' rock.")

With time, this tolerance became more common. As experimental dance music evolved in the '80s and afterward, its advocates were happy to look back at disco as the soil from which their vibrant genre emerged. And if you were more inclined to regard those later dance records as harsh robotic noise, their '70s precursors started to sound more appealingly human. (Why, some of them had live musicians. Singers! Horns!) Yes, a lot of old disco had an alien, electronic quality, but as house, techno, and similar genres flourished, the influence of artists like Kraftwerk was waxing while the warmer strains of soul were on the wane.

By the '90s, meanwhile, cultural archeologists were uncovering evidence that the disco scene contained forgotten nuances. Crate-digging DJs dug out dance records that were far stranger than the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack: odd and entrancing work by Arthur RussellLarry Levan, and other quirky and inventive producers. Historians explored the disco scene's emergence in the early '70s, before the genre's formulas emerged. In a foretaste of today's turntablism and mashups, the era's most important artistic figure was the DJ spinning other people's creations and remixing them into something new. As rock radio moved away from freer formats and imposed more restrictive playlists, DJs could still be creative in the clubs.

And on the political side, a wave of writers found something subversive in the genre after all, no matter how it looked to Abbie Hoffman. While disco haters had stressed the elitism of places like Studio 54, a club where celebrities could party and preen while bouncers kept the ordinary proles outside, pro-disco partisans pointed to the more egalitarian atmosphere of disco's early days, to its roots in marginalized gay and black and Latino communities (and in independent record labels), and to the leveling spirit of the dance floor, where the audience instead of the star held center stage.

By the 21st century, serious and sympathetic book-length histories of the music were appearing, notably Tim Lawrence's Love Saves the Day (2003) and Peter Shapiro's Turn the Beat Around (2005). The revisionists' view has become so dominant that it has begun to attract revisionists of its own. Alice Echols's Hot Stuff (2010) took the pro-disco position for granted, then pushed back against its more sweeping sentiments—acknowledging, for example, that Saturday Night Fever wasn't an accurate representation of the original disco subculture but suggesting that it nonetheless gave "a richer portrait of the disco seventies than critics and discographers have granted it." ("The movie lured all kinds of people, including sexist hyper-macho guys, onto the dance floor, but if anything the movie seeks to expand, not constrict, the parameters of masculinity.")

And now we have The Secret Disco Revolution, which has enough layers of irony to oscillate between embracing and mocking the revisionists' ideas. The mockery mostly takes the form of interviews in which the director asks old-timey disco stars like the Village People and Kool (of the Gang) to comment on those academic defenses of disco. By and large, the musicians react with the puzzlement you might expect from an Elvis sideman being asked if his guitar licks helped end the Vietnam War. This makes for some funny scenes, but there's a level on which it misses the point. You can provide the soundtrack for gay liberation without giving a damn about gay lib yourself, and you can reflect feminist currents in the culture without deliberately setting out to create a feminist song.

Kastner is also unfair to Echols, setting her up as holding reductive views that her book explicitly rejects. Interviewed in the film, she says that "'disco sucks' is usually understood as being fundamentally a sentiment rooted in homophobia and racism, and I think that there's a lot of that there, there's a lot of evidence to support that." But I got the impression that the camera cuts away before she could finish her thought. Her book takes a more nuanced view, exploring the many aspects of the disco backlash that were not rooted in anti-gay and anti-black bigotry.

The movie is happy to mock the musicians as well as the academics. In the film's funniest sequence, the current members of the Village People brazenly assert that there was nothing gay about their material, claiming that "there was not one double entendre in any of the music" and that "In the Navy" was written as an earnest celebration of sea life. This is intercut with an interview with Henri Belolo, who wasn't a member of the band but produced their records, co-wrote many of their songs, and played a major role in inventing their image. As the singers issue their denials, Belolo talks about "how we created a gay-positive message" and discusses the barely hidden gay-cruising subtext of "YMCA." At that moment, the Village People become a different type of revisionists, rewriting their history with the self-confidence of a Soviet censor snipping Trotsky out of a photo. Or maybe they're being poker-faced jokers, too. But I don't think so: At the end of the movie, right before the credits roll, we see some post-interview footage of a Village Person pretending to throttle Kastner as he warns the filmmaker that he reads too many books.

The classical conspiracy theory is a black-and-white tale of good and evil. (Mostly evil.) But there is an ironic style of paranoid thinking too, a sort of story that's more mischievous and ambiguous than the usual conspiracy yarn, more interested in playing with an idea than embracing it. If you've read the Illuminatus! trilogy or the Church of the SubGenius' tracts, you've seen this style at work. At its best, The Secret Disco Revolution belongs to that tradition: Its conspiracy theory is a satiric exaggeration of a worldview it neither entirely endorses nor entirely rejects. All the film's claims are suspect, but even its most suspect claims contain truths.

Even the Village People's absurd denials have some truth to them. The country, after all, is filled with people who happily dance to "YMCA" without any thoughts about gay guys looking to pick someone up at the Y. If it's possible to create a gay-lib soundtrack without meaning to do so, it's just as possible to deliberately craft the gayest thing ever and then watch as it gets played at straight people's wedding parties. Whatever you might intend to say when you release a record, its meaning is made on the dance floor.

This article originally appeared in The New Inquiry.

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34 responses to “Disco Doesn’t Suck. Here’s Why.

  1. Disco cannot and should not be rehabilitated. I damn you, damn you to hell. Jesus, get the funky beat out of my head!

    1. Walk without rhythm and we won’t attract the worm.

      1. If you walk without rhythm you never learn.

      2. I have this weird vision of Christopher Walken playing Paul Atreides. No idea why.

    1. OK, but did William Shatner cut a disco album?
      If not, it disco doesn’t matter.

  2. Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this, that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die. Oh, for a few years – maybe many years – it’ll be considered pass? and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at, or – worse – completely ignored. People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits and platform shoes and people going like *this* but we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco. Those who didn’t understand will never understand: disco was much more, and much better, than all that. Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever! It’s got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.

    1. Disco-funk was the soundtrack to Blaxploitation films.

      Without disco-funk, there would be no Dolemite!

  3. Some of it wasn’t awful; most of it was; little of it was great; wasn’t sad to see it go.

  4. No, it’s just unremittingly horrible. No redeeming value whatsoever. I’m glad Andrea True is dead.

  5. Disco had a life span just like any other genre capitalized on. The earlier stuff is good, but by the time gramma was out their shaken her dentures the party was over. Prog Rock was very good until YES had to put out Tales From Topographic Oceans (which did have about half an album of nice parts) and ELP got chubby and tired. Hair bands had some edge until 1983 when the record suits decided to diversify and get the chicks to the shows; to be mercifully killed by Grunge which had its own birth-to-peak-to-parody cycle. And the list goes on – Psychedelic, Roots Rock, Progressive (80’s), Surf Rock, etc. I’m a (free market) capitalist so I don’t have a problem when capitalism kills a pop movement (in movies, music, literature) but it stands that the best part of anything is at the front end and rest hits the median +/- one standard deviation, or is dreck. The idea is to find the best parts – and the internet is wonderful in accomplishing that. Of course, neophytes have just as good a chance to start at the wrong end and dismiss a genre before they find the godfathers of a particular movement.

    1. Damn you, Fd’A, that was my post! It was mine!

  6. After a decade (the sixties) of druggy, yellow submarine, mellow yellow bullshit crap, disco was a refreshing up-tick.

    Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” and a woman in a dress and heels, dancing with a guy not in tattered filthy blue jeans, was actually adding the sexuality the previous music tried but failed to deliver.

  7. Actually, disco sucks. It’s a fact.

  8. Did you know that disco record sales were up 400% for the year ending 1976? If these trends continue…Ayyyy!

  9. “Disco Doesn’t Suck. ”

    Yes it does.

  10. I grew up in rock’s Greatest Generation* and I can stand just about any genre except disco.

    Disco sucks.

    … Hobbit

    *Yeah, I said it. Bite me.

    1. PS (reply to my own post):

      Saturday Night Fever

      QED

      BH

  11. Disco Stu doesn’t advertise.

  12. Disco may suck forever…

    ..but THE PLAYBOY MANSION ROLLER DISCO will Rule In Eternity

    With extra shirtless James Caan

  13. Disco Demolition Night – creation of the great Steve Dahl – shall live on as one time when humanity got it utterly right.

    1. Also Mike Veeck, Bill’s son. Got Mike run out of baseball for years. There’s a book about his return with the minor league St. Paul Saints in the early 90’s.

      Bill Murray was part owner of the team and Darryl Strawberry appears post drugs, a guy with no legs invited to camp and nuns doing massages at the ballpark. It’s called “Slouching Toward Fargo” and I highly recommend.

  14. It was once almost universally accepted as a fact that nothing could ever suck more than disco. Then someone invented rap.

  15. NY Hustle FTW! (and more generally all types of ballroom dance)

    little known facts: a lot of modern music being made still has that disco beat, so you can ballroom hustle to it and actually be good at dancing in a club/bar; I’ve literally never seen good dancers at any club or bar, just blaring loud music and people doing the same awkward repetitive motions

  16. The only disco song that matters:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…..feature=kp

  17. if the Village People make a comeback album, I’m outta here.

  18. While disco does suck, but it isn’t dead. Disco can’t be dead while KC still lives.

  19. Disco was just the POP MUSIC of the time…. Most of it designed to dance to, it was supposed to be FUN. Just like all POP music there is good stuff and bad stuff… I don’t mind hear “Play that Funky Music White Boy” every once in a while… and try going to a wedding an not hearing KC and the Sunshine Band…

  20. Anytime Reason speaks in derision about conspiracy theories, I have to laugh. And your ideas, Jesse, as to what goes into a conspiracy theory…I see them all the time here.

    “Ruling class….a scheme to undermine…a plot against authenticity, a kind of mind control at work…going through the required motions.”

    Just what so many here say about the scientific consensus on climate change. The scientists warning us are elitists, scheming to undermine our economics, plotting and engaging in mind control of the public.

    Conspiracy theories are touted all the time here, Jesse.

    1. This article does not deride (or praise) conspiracy theories. Your list of my ideas “as to what goes into a conspiracy theory” is not, in fact, my notion of what goes into a conspiracy theory. And pretty much everyone on Reason‘s staff, as far as I know?certainly everyone on staff who writes about the subject?does not hold the view of climate change that you attribute to “so many here.” Otherwise, great comment.

  21. Much of the animus expressed towards disco, back in the ’70s, was simply down to good old fashioned gay-hating. We forget, perhaps, the visceral level of those ostentatious declamations against “fag music”.

    Even Frank Zappa had a go at disco on that basis. Rockers were, by-and-large, total homophobes who were visibly disturbed to be in the presence of out-gays.

    But then there were the more adventurous, less judgmental straight couples who would go to gay discos and make it their music, too. Much of the appeal of disco was its utility in getting people off of their perpetually stoned asses and enjoying exuberant movement.

    It really was smashing!

    1. Much of the animus expressed towards disco, back in the ’70s, was simply down to good old fashioned gay-hating.

      This is straight-up bullshit. The Ziggy Stardust tour was 72-73 and Queen released their biggest hits in the last half of the 70s. To say 70s rock hated fags is like saying 80s tennis hated women and lesbians.

      Take your selective reading of history back into whatever closet you got your narrative from.

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