Don’t give me that look. I don’t want to hear about schlock, commercial, banal, apolitical … Whatever. Late 70s arena rock had no artistic or moral platform to stand on, as far as that’s concerned. If disco sucked, then only as much as any pop music ever sucked, and a lot less than a hell of a lot of 80s music.
And something about audiences rejecting it? Bullshit. Let me tell you how it was.
Disco was cheap. Cheap to produce, cheap to provide, and cheap to enjoy. You pulled up in the parking lot, paid a few bucks, and went in to dance.
Disco was sex. Available, fun, varied, and relationships were just a whole ‘nother issue.
Disco was a leveler. Black people danced with white people, gay people danced with straight people. That shit only mattered when you went upscale.
Disco permitted all abilities. You didn’t have to be good at it, but if you were, then credit was due there too. The struttin’ solos from Saturday Night Fever were fiction.
Everyone, everyone had Heatwave’s Too Hot to Handle, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album, ABBA ’til you could plotz, Donna Summer’s three-peat gold albums, Chic’s C’est Freak, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Barry White. Everyone.
So … what happened? I know. Maybe you can see it. Watch it all the way through, and think …
… look, everyone, white and black people are having fun together.
Then some time in 1978-79, wham: it “sucked.” It was for faggots. It was over. It was dead. And if you even hinted that maybe you kind of liked those couple of years sweating and body-rubbing and laughing with people, or that it was pretty amazing to exchange smiles with a black person for no good reason, or that maybe Saturday Night Fever was a pretty good movie if you actually watched it, then shut up. That was eighth grade for me, listening to Dennis Erectus, broadcasting from KOME nearby in San Jose. I especially remember my friend Mickey, whose dad owned the local radio station, turning on a dime and transforming from a hard-core blow-dry glitterball dance jock into a surly anti-faggot arena KISS-rocker in the space of a weekend.
Never mind that the same person owned, managed, and marketed Donna Summer and KISS. Never mind that I totally knew what the words “Queen” and “AC/DC” meant … no one else seemed to, all of a sudden. In a heartbeat, disco was all-and-only gay, and rock was straight. Never mind that the Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” Wings’ “Silly Love Songs,” the Four Seasons’ “Oh What a Night,” the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” and the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” are disco songs, and that list goes on and on. I mean, what, we’re not supposed to say “Let’s Dance” and “Dancing in the Dark” are disco? Oh wait, did someone mention KISS? “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” and that is nuff said.
I’d say the real thing to do is simply to listen to a lot of stuff, without rotten-cherry-picking the obvious dross – I mean, you’re comics readers, no one knows better than you how unfair and aggravating it is for someone to put some piece of shit under your nose and bleat “how about this” when you try to talk about the medium or especially a specific idiom within it. Movie people and music people don’t stand for that, and you know you shouldn’t re: comics, so don’t turn around and pull that crap just specially for this one thing.
John Parikhal, a Toronto radio station consultant, found that disco was curiously vulnerable to mob-think condemnation – if people polled individually any which way about it, or neutral, or mildly positive, and if a ringer were to begin ranting and raving about how bad it was, then they turned into disco-hating rabid dogs. He was the go-to for two American consultants, Lee Abrams and Kent Burk, who orchestrated the DJ efforts such as the above-mentioned Dennis Erectus in California (his thing was gay-baiting) and especially Steve Dahl in Chicago (his was the “cultural void,” for which the cure was presumably Journey), who steadily built up squads of … well, you can only all them brownshirts, convening at his urging to smash things. You are probably familiar with Disco Demolition Night in 1979. I still meet people who were proud to be there.
The widespread narrative that disco was dead by 1980 marks the moment when radio stations stopped playing it, at least by name. Infrastructure matters. We’re talking about marketing labels and distribution.
That’s what I was perceiving on the ground in 8th grade, realizing I’d never be wearing certain shirts again or mentioning certain music even in the presence of friends who’d owned ten times as many disco shirts and twenty times as many disco albums than me.
The actual music, however, remained untouched. Moving into the 80s, in addition to some of the songs I listed above, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Erasure, and dozens of others all kept makin’ that same sound and topping the charts; I guess it doesn’t “suck” if it’s called dance or pop music.
Disco hate-talk can never get its story straight: too gay or ruined by too many straights, too black or not authentically black enough, too much “everyman” or too imposed by the companies … for the simple reason that nothing of the kind happened at all. The music stayed on. Echols very rightly points out that when people play music for group gatherings, when it’s just for themselves, e.g. wedding receptions, straight-up disco is flatly the most popular kind. You can see it right now in the bookstores, the hotel bars, restaurants, anywhere … you probably won’t hear anything with “beep beep” in it, but there’s lots more than that – “Afternoon Delight” comes on, and people start swaying, nodding, trading smiles. Put on K.C. at work and watch the cubicles vanish, as Mavis the tight-ass manager lady is suddenly boogeying with Curtis the custodian.
I use the word hate for a reason.
Is it the gay thing? I can spot you one or more of the Village People -but the question is, so what? People liked’em. And they still do. Am I to believe that Can’t Stop the Music was really a bust? Considering it became and remains a cult hit, that various members did well in other groups, and the group itself has been successful since the early 90s, I call hatchet job.
I’m not playing down gay presence and activism in social terms; see That’s “Mister Faggot” to you for details. This was a serious and even terrifying era for gay activism and more than discrimination, outright murder, but that side of disco as such really wasn’t a big deal until the whole “sucks” thing got going. For instance, “We Are Family” and “I Will Survive” didn’t start as the gay anthems they became in the 80s.
Besides, ten minutes’ listening will show you the main vocal sound for disco was not the falsetto, but that croonin’ purr from Barry White, and the primary topic and auditory cue was the female orgasm, especially when facilitated by the lovin’ man who knew just what to do because she told him. Ah geez … “Honey Honey” (let me feel it / don’t conceal it), “Ring My Bell,” “I Wanna Kiss You All Over,” and what was that one, oh yes, “(Push Push) In the Bush” … seriously, disco is the most graphic-awesome het sex musical ouevre in history. That sweet li’l pop song I ref’d up above with the nods and smiles is plain filth, and more power to it.
Put that in the context of black-and-white dancing and black-and-white groups and black-and-white music, recognized and celebrated right out there in front o’God ‘n everyone. Which is exactly what got axed right out of pop culture in two short years. Oh, it’s perfectly OK for a specific white pop star to have black backup singers or dancers on-stage for a specific performance or video, and also for an all-black group to perform for white people (what a surprise), but the idea that the band is a mash-up, or that any band could be? That the designated and target-marketed and above-all, socially interacting-with-each-other audience is? In the U.S. – that’s gone. Gone like the vans.
I’m sayin’ this is totally about racism, specifically the kind that says those people can have their music over there, but none of this unsupervised, anyone-meet-anyone, touchin’ and boogeyin’ stuff! My take goes way past what Echols suggests. Here are non-professional, non-choreographed, plain ordinary black and white people dancing together, and shamelessly committing tons of straight meet-up hook-up sex. You wanna trigger rejection via identity politics, that’s some serious fuel. Don’t trot out conspiracy-theorist at me. I’m not talking about motives at all, but about the social dynamics which a particular economic cabal manages to tap into. The economic context, in that disco was not extracting money into record and band companies all the time, unlike arena rock which did exactly that, only provided the willing infrastructure for that campaign to be applied. In that context, and in effect, the “disco sucks” campaign rates up there with Nixon and Agnew’s “black people do drugs, so to fight drugs, we’re going military on black people.”
If you want to not like disco, for whatever reason you name however bogus (“I don’t like falsetto,” says the guy who listens to Queen and Journey), go ahead. But the minute you start talking about bad dumb music, and stupid-looking people, and “sucks,” then … regardless of your personal psychology, that’s a nasty legacy to be representing.
Uncritical and constant contempt for disco plays it real safe on this one, partly to achieve its aim. It’s all implication and playing games with contradiction, as with slutshaming defenseless Donna Summer and claiming disco white-ified “real” black music at the same time. Specific realities are assiduously avoided: Barry White? Chaka Khan, former Panther? Crickets. No mention. Who? Because if you don’t say it, then people won’t know, and that’s the point. The point was to render that whole connection invisible but potent and that’s just what the rhetoric does.
My position about that underlies my view of Dazzler too. I don’t know if she was ever in a really good comics story – I remember the original X-Men appearances and what I can only call a very Claremont mini-series, and I remember the new and I think not bad at all costume and hairdo from the 80s comics. But not any knockout actual story or classic whatever. That’s not really my topic here, though. What I really see is the very same thing with actual disco. Overt condemnation, snark, utterly contradictory and irrelevant attempts at criticism (“her powers suck!” “they’re ridiculous!”), historical framing that relies on presumed motives, and more …
… and yet on the ground, there she is, and everyone likes it that she is. She wasn’t a “brief fad,” there’s no “mystery,” it’s nothing to do with some inexplicable stubbornness on Marvel’s part to keep her on deck. Dazzler is a favorite. The fan art, the cosplay, the plain fun of reader culture surrounding her, didn’t ever go away and isn’t abating now. Dress it up as the character maturing, or that it’s some kind of artifact, or ironic (“uhhhh … see, Springsteen didn’t mean it, it’s not really like for-real disco …”), go ahead. The original costume and hair aren’t going anywhere either. She’s dazzlin’ right now.
Don’t be so stuck up. C’mon, you over-ironic hipster twits. Look silly. Sweat. Trade some smiles.
Get down, get down.
Links: Cinema Suicide (a good example of the kind of snarky nonsense I’m arguing against)
Next: Aces high
Posted on November 19, 2015, in Commerce, The 70s me and tagged Alice Echols, Barry White, Dazzler, disco, Disco Demolition Night, Hot Stuff, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Saturday Night Fever, Steve Dahl, Village People. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.