Courtesy of BBC

September 7, 2020

PONTIN | Let’s Take Disco Seriously

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To the chagrin of history enthusiasts everywhere, many of the cultural moments most essential to American imagery have since shed their charm and disintegrated into tasteless, Halloween costume-style tropes. Disco is no exception. These days, we reduce the groundbreaking nature of disco culture to a pair of go-go boots and a metallic halter top. The vibrancy and vitality of the music that emboldened these trends has been largely forgotten.

We look not to the marginalized artists who bore the movement almost entirely on their own, but to the mainstream media fixtures who popularized it. As the style continues to weave its way through the musical food chain and into our ears, it’s undeniably clear that the disco inferno rages on — and, as Donna Summer would tell us, it’s some pretty “hot stuff.”

In order to truly understand disco’s place in the American music terrain, it is imperative to understand the 1970s as a backdrop. The countercultures and the progressivism of the preceding decade nearly pushed right-wing and even moderate Americans over the edge, leaving them to fume in the wake of their own dismissal. They craved a widespread reinstatement of more conservative social policy, and for the most part, they succeeded. The “silent majority” championed a leader committed to the erasure of plans designed to ease the burdens of the poor (thanks, Nixon). The “New Right” blocked the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. U.S. engagement in proxy wars reinforced a heavily fabricated and deeply ironic sense of democracy that had come to be synonymous with the American name.

However, what these conservatives desired above all else was neither victory in Congress nor in the courtroom — they lusted after a restoration of conventional, establishment values. They yearned for a day when the exclusion and the (albeit superficial) stability of the 1950s would return, when nuclear families would once again join around the television for their daily dose of capitalist programming and immerse themselves wholeheartedly in the consumer society. What did they receive in return for these earnest wishes? Bell bottoms, overflowing nightclubs and an expanding spotlight on Black performers.

Disco was at once off-the-record and record-breaking. As the crooning voices of Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Franki Valli dominated radio waves on the surface, a movement dedicated to unapologetic individuality was churning in venues largely outside the sweep of the public eye. Disco scorned the notion of uniformity that conservatives were mobilizing to rebuild in politics and popular culture, exchanging wholehearted self-expression in its place. The style was grounded in inclusivity, from its use as a platform for silenced populations to its roots that traverse multiple epochs and continents — the brassy tones of jazz, the playful undercurrents of salsa and the emotional vigor of 1960s funk.

Nightclubs frequented by Black, Latinx and LGBTQ partygoers were largely responsible for the genesis of the genre. Deejays harnessed their own musical expertise to nurse age-old categories of sound into an aural experience awash with unmistakable qualities of motion and animation. A waltz into any one of New York’s numerous nightlife landmarks would reveal a haven entirely separate from the orderly grid of sidewalks just beyond the door, with Midtown’s Studio 54 as the most prominent example.

Disco was fueled by an easily discernible commitment to the ostentatious, spawning a fashion complete with bold shapes and outlandishly loud patterns. More so than other genres, disco culture was also remarkable for its physical aspect, ranging from acrobatics performances in clubs to dance floors that filled until they practically had pulses of their own. As if all of this intrigue wasn’t enough to alarm straight-laced, religion-loving Americans in wide swaths of the country, even the most innocent of the nightly rituals were forbidden under the city’s Cabaret Law, a legal remnant of Prohibition that was only repealed in 2017.

Before long, however, the narrative was carefully detached from its “provocative” roots. John Badham’s 1977 blockbuster Saturday Night Fever promoted an image of disco that was simply incongruous with the style’s origins, swapping out the Black and gay major players for John Travolta’s leather-clad Italian-American. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack was largely monopolized by the Bee Gees, who, though achieving legend status, were not exactly representative of the population that truly cultivated disco. For example, the voices of several Black women — Sister Sledge, Chaka Khan, the Pointer Sisters, Diana Ross — that ruled the disco era were not granted spots on the record, thereby ushering them to the sidelines of a movement they were deeply responsible for creating.

By the end of the decade, hating disco had become the proxy for expressing discontent with those who had generated it. In 1979, “Disco Demolition Night” even entered the vernacular as baseball fans in Chicago destroyed not only disco records, but work by Black artists of a handful of styles.

While disco may no longer be the genre at the forefront of the American club scene, to dismiss it as entirely irrelevant would carelessly neglect an extensive and irrefutable legacy. Disco was a crucial period of experimentation for a handful of music production technologies that were coming of age in the 1970s. Remixing is perhaps the most striking example, having originated earlier in Jamaica yet achieving compelling success during disco’s heyday. Likewise, disco’s widespread utilization of synthesizers moved the innovation out of the ether and into the open, inspiring countless styles that feel at first glance utterly and completely detached from disco itself — ambient, house, ethereal wave. Even beyond these advancements, the lineup of modern artists whose sounds draw from disco is a long one, including Daft Punk, Mark Ronson and Tame Impala.

Disco thrived on a disruption of the status quo and a total refusal of the value system that prevailed at the time it was created. It derailed the notions of what was expected and accepted, highlighting communities largely ostracized from the ideals upheld in previous decades. Disco expanded the demarcations of how we conceptualize music, driving home the impression that sound bleeds into fashion and leisure and lifestyle. Disco is surviving proof that art cannot be compartmentalized from the remaining aspects of our lives — it shocks us, it shakes us, it shapes us.


Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.