By David Metcalfe
February 13, 2018
In 2018, when most people think of “disco”, they imagine it something like this:
I can’t help but laugh at the “sophisticated Mama!” part. It is classic. And let’s face it, with disco’s shiny and elaborate costumes, overt sexuality, and well, overall absurdity, it is perfect fodder for comedy.
Apart from the widely mediated “comedic disco” is the concept of disco being “dance music”. Essentially, a genre existing for and fulfilling the sole purpose of being able to move one’s body to a rhythm.
I would like to suggest in this article that both of those conceptions, while true in certain regards, severely lack appreciation for the incredible cultural movement that permeated 70s disco, erupting and exploring new, never before seen concepts of sexual, racial, and gender identities. The radical culture shift brought about by 70s disco would eventually go on to influence 80s music as both a backlash and continuation of it.
While some have suggested 70s disco to be “post-structuralist” music, I instead suggest that it was a new form of subcultural construction, which went on to construct the predominant culture as it came into mainstream prominence towards the late 70s. Throughout this article, we will go through 5 main sections:
- Learning the Disco
- Music as Creator and Reflection of Social Change
- Disco as “Manly” Music
- African American Disco Subculture
- 80’s Backlash and The Death of Disco
Section 1: Learning The Disco
To get yourself acquainted with disco music, try clicking around this video to hear some samples of popular disco songs:
Any musician with a good ear will notice that nearly all disco music has a similar composition structure. There is a “four on the floor” beat, an 8th or 16th note hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line. Technological advancement allowed for electronic synthesizers to be used to create and edit music, which gives 70s music its iconic electronic sound.
Disco Is “Incredibly Lame”
To us in modern times, disco seems, like Owen Wilson says in the 2004 movie Starsky and Hutch, “incredibly lame”. This scene does a good job of encapsulating many aspects of the supposed “lameness” of 70s disco culture.
We’ve all seen in movies (or perhaps in real life) that typical scene where the protagonist gets bumped by some tough guy in the bar, and the tough guy challenges him to a fight. The protagonist then proceeds to display martial prowess as he beats up the tough guy. This scene from Starsky and Hutch is, of course, creating situational irony by juxtaposing the typical “tough guy” fight scene with the supposed “lameness” of disco dancing.
And to us here in the 21st century, it works. The writers of Starsky and Hutch are so confident that we find disco “lame”, they are willing to base the crux of the scene on that contingency. However, disco was not always considered “lame”.
Disco Is Cool
In fact, disco was even considered cool by many in the predominant culture, especially in the latter half of the 70s. It’s perfectly exemplified by John Travolta’s iconic dance scene in the 1977 classic Saturday Night Fever.
Far from “lame”, this scene features Travolta as the star of the party, with everyone looking on in admiration, and the culture did not find it “lame” in the least. This movie launched Travolta into celebrity stardom. He was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor that year (DiOrio, 1977). His graceful dancing coupled with his macho appearance and demeanor later landed him a role in the 1978 classic film Grease.
Although not everyone appreciated disco in the 70s, it had a strong energy that wore through the critics and into the top of the charts time and time again. The “Bee Gees”, “ABBA”, Barry White, Donna Summer, the “Jackson 5”, “KC and The Sunshine Band”, “Earth, Wind and Fire”, the list goes on. The point is, there were tons of huge artists making it to number one for creating disco music. Disco took the charts by storm.
While nowadays we laugh at disco as some silly, absurd dance music, it was at one time an up and coming, multi-million dollar industry that boasted some of the greatest musical talent in the world. Disco stars were idolized. Disco clubs were the number one Saturday night party destination in cities all over America. Disco dancing was praised as an art form. DISCO WAS COOL.
Section 2: Music as Creator and Reflection of Social Change
To find the incredible power of music to speak to profound aspects of the shared human experience, one can look just about anywhere. Every country has a national anthem to represent its national identity, every religion has songs of praise to represent shared spiritual beliefs, every movie features a soundtrack to represent its message, etc., etc.
“Anthems” are a type of song that serve to represent a particular group or cause. For example, the Canadian National Anthem is meant to be a representation of Canadian values. Since our government is trying to be on the forefront of minority rights, they have recently decided to change the lyrics slightly in order to make it gender neutral. It serves to make a statement that Canada is progressive to the rights of people.
Or the song “This I Believe (The Creed)” by Hillsong Worship, which is a modern day anthem of the Nicene Creed made by the Catholic Church around 325 AD. It is such an obvious example of group indoctrination, it is almost absurd in its approach. It has everyone sing in unison “I believe…(whatever doctrine some ancient Catholics made up)”.
And when we hear certain songs, they instantly make us think of “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “Titanic”, “Rocky Balboa”, etc. Anthems can create synonymy between the song and its subject that goes beyond the mere content of the work itself. Songs have the power to change or solidify our beliefs, and since we do not critically think through them like we would a book, they can do so much more inadvertently.
It’s a Woman’s World
This is an actual advertisement from the 1960’s:
Isn’t that completely ridiculous?!?! “If you purchase this tie, your wife will not only prepare meals for you, but get down on her knees to serve it to you.”
But somehow, only a couple decades later, women were pursuing their own careers, joining the military, competing in professional sports, etc. The 80s featured popular feminists like “Madonna”, who commonly said things like,
The music industry served as both a catalyst and reflection of these changes in many respects throughout the quickly changing social atmosphere of the 1970s. A popular song from Helen Reddy called “I Am Woman” in 1973 became an anthem of women’s rights and their ever changing role in society (Arrow, 2007).
Never before the 1970s was there the kind of strong, defiant woman mentality that began to permeate American culture. Beyonce is indebted to the groundbreaking work of disco diva Donna Summer, and Gloria Gaynor (as I will discuss more later on) was pivotal in creating a powerful female voice in popular music. But disco was not nearly as much about female empowerment as it was about the response of men to these changing times.
Disco’s influence was primarily on reconstructing masculinity as a response to the women’s rights movement experienced in the 1960s in order to define a male identity coherent with new forms of femininity. It also served as both a celebratory and responsive notion of African American identity in the wake of desegregation. That’s why the next two sections will be concerned with how disco affected those two identity constructs.
Section 3: Disco as “Manly” Music
Smooth, Rugged, and…Manly?
Aside from Saturday Night Fever, there were a plethora of disco movies hitting theaters all over America. Thank God It’s Friday took a similar approach, being very clear in its representation of disco as being something for “rugged” men.
You’ll notice Marv is leaning against a black truck with flames on it, and talks about his new leather jacket as being “smooth, but rugged…like me!”. His dancing features impressive acrobatics requiring strength and athleticism, which makes it “manly”, but also is smooth and stylish, which forces one to question whether it can still be considered “manly” or not. It’s a push against the potential softening of masculinity that could come from dancing culture if left “unchecked” (Peterson and Anderson, 2012).
The whole movie, much like Saturday Night Fever, is sexually charged throughout. The dancing itself is, but there is a hook-up culture around it. Basically, the dancing is a “show of attraction”, kind of like a peacock showing their feathers to attract mates. The men want to look good and dance good to impress the women. The women are watching to see which men are impressive enough to accept if they should offer their advances. Disco is portrayed as masculine, heterosexual, and something that can easily blend with mainstream culture.
Soiree For Gays
While mainstream disco certainly could appeal to masculine, heterosexual men, there was also a strong gay subculture. This gay subculture, although musically mainstream, had a very different cultural dynamic. They operated in “underground clubs” because it was illegal to practice homosexuality in many places, and even in legal areas, was very socially frowned upon.
The sexually charged, masculine energy of disco dancing appealed to gay men. It also provided a forum for the flamboyant gay man to showcase colorful costumes or cross dress. This is how disco became associated with homosexuality.
Although homosexuality was prominent in disco subculture, it was not a component of mainstream disco culture. But since people are so fearful of gays, they often make quick, unfounded assumptions based on little evidence. People found out that a gay subculture existed, and many made blanket statements that all disco is gay (Lawrence, 2011).
In an ever changing gender dynamic, the 70s was a time to explore new ideas that didn’t fit normal social boundaries. While before, men had to prove themselves through physical labor, money, and a wife and children, 70s disco had no care for such things. For the disco man, they looked to prove themselves by showcasing athleticism through precise dance moves, money through expensive outfits, and sexual virility through incorporating a sexual energy into their demeanor.
In John Travolta’s iconic dance scene from Saturday Night Fever (as shown previously), he actually begins doing partner dancing with a young lady. But when he hears the music pick up, he says “ahh, forget this!”, loses the girl, and starts doing his own dance. He is then admired by girls all around the club. It is symbolic of “forgetting” conventional notions of 60s masculinity in favor of a new creation. But it still remains difficult to decide whether he is being masculine or not. The song in the background is by the “Bee Gees” whose high pitched voices subvert typical masculinity. In addition, the overt sexual moves are projected outwards to all rather than other types of “dirty dancing” that project sexuality only towards one’s partner. It opens up the idea of unconventional sexuality and questioning of clear gender identity.
That scene from Starsky and Hutch (as shown previously) is actually making fun of something that really happened. 70s disco clubs frequently had “dance offs” as a way to prove oneself against another. It’s literally like rams running into each other to win a mate. The winner would be praised by the club, and was sure to go home with a lady that night.
In the final episode of the brilliant show Freaks and Geeks, Jason Segel has been fully rejected by the girl he likes, and has started dating a new girl who loves disco. To prove himself as a man, he performs a dance at the club. His new girlfriend loves it, and finds it extremely attractive.
Not only does his new girlfriend love it, but he gets so enamored with his own dancing, he forgets about his old girlfriend, and kind of gets lost in a euphoria, so much so that he doesn’t even want to get off stage. He feels like he could dance there forever. That is the truest spirit of masculinity in 70s disco.
Section 4: African-American Disco Subculture
Surviving Subjugated Segregation
The 60s had seen the last of legal racial segregation in America, and the times were changing. However, 60s America simply branded a new kind of racism. Basically, black people were expected to act “white”. However “white” they acted, was how accepted they were in society. Many black musicians were successful in the 60s, but did so as a kind of domesticated, controlled people, with the purpose of “serving” white people with their music. All of the lyrics were affirming of “white” values.
“The Shirelles” were a typical “doo-wop” group in the 60s. They had a typical style of hair, clothes, and were all smiles. Even music with more energy in it, like Chubby Checker’s classic version of “The Twist” still conformed to white ideals.
And most importantly, what are these black people smiling about? Blacks were being horribly mistreated all over America. They were denied jobs, education, fair trials, admittance into restaurants, etc. When these two songs were written, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were receiving death threats. These black musicians were being confined to a white man’s world, and none had the ability, or the will, to do anything about it.
But 70s disco? Yeah, you better believe some black rights enthused culture construction was going on. Gloria Gaynor became a huge symbol of resisting the white man’s oppression. Since both women and black people were looking to resist oppression, she spoke for both groups in a powerful way. Her 1978 hit “I Will Survive” was an anthem of black resistance to oppression.
“It took all the strength I had not to fall apart
Kept trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart
And I spent, oh, so many nights just feeling sorry for myself
I used to cry but now I hold my head up high
And you see me somebody new
I’m not that chained-up little person still in love with you
And so you felt like dropping in
And just expect me to be free
And now I’m saving all my loving for someone who’s loving me”
It’s powerful lyrics draw direct opposition to “The Shirelles” pathetic and domesticated requests of “will you still love me tomorrow?”. Gloria Gaynor doesn’t take crap from anyone. She acknowledges that racism has been very severe, and she refuses to allow it to stop her. She holds her head up high and triumphantly exclaims, “I WILL SURVIVE!”.
“Afro”disiacs and the New Blacks
Black and white disco cultures were very segregated. The cultural differences that came as a result of America’s racist history continued to shape social constructions of segregation even after they were not legally enforced. Black disco included many similarities to white disco, with its general sexual energy, precise dance moves, and up tempo beats, but it also took on some different forms.
You’ll notice in this video that 1) literally everyone is black and 2) I’m pretty sure everyone has an Afro. Soul music came through in disco to encapsulate a variety of feelings. While “I Will Survive” takes on deconstructing the still present oppression, “Boogie Down” works to construct black identity.
There was a mix of sentiment in black disco culture towards society. “Kool and the Gang’s” 1979 hit “Celebration” is literally, well, a celebration. The 1970s was an awkward mix of celebrating the great achievements of the civil rights movement, while not giving in to the idea that things were now perfect. But for the first time, black people were able to find their own voice into mainstream culture, getting hits all over the top charts that were not merely fitting the role that whites gave to them, but instead paving their own.
Section 5: 80’s Backlash and The Death of Disco
Disco Sucks: Transition From Revered To Reviled
Whenever something becomes popular, it loses appeal to people who want music to enable them to identify with a subculture. In the late 70s, as disco went from niche to all encompassing, young people began to rebel against disco. “Disco Sucks” was a popular movement generally from people in the rock community who criticized disco as being mindless, consumeristic, and overproduced (Walker, 2014) . Basically, it was too “mainstream”.
An infamous night on July 12, 1979, known as “Disco Demolition Night” was a massive event at Comiskey Park in Chicago where, in between two baseball games, thousands of disgruntled rock fans destroyed disco records and incited a riot. The Chicago Police Department arrested several people, and the White Sox were not able to play their following game due to extensive damage done to the field. It’s known as “the day disco died” (Dozer, 1979).
Remember Jason Segel’s dance from Freaks and Geeks? In the same episode, Seth Rogen and James Franco break into the disco multiple times just to yell “Disco Sucks!”. Although the show was made in the late 90s, it is set in 1980. This makes it a perfect turning point for disco culture from revered to reviled.
At the end of the episode, a worker at the disco talks to Seth Rogen, informing him that he’s right that disco sucks, and the place is losing money and will be closing soon.
Influences On Later Music
Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna were the three biggest pop artists by far in the 1980s. And what do they all have in common? Uhh, yes, they all got their music styles from disco. In a literal sense, the beats, electronic sounds, and up beat tempo is directly from the disco music preceding them. But more so, the “culture of liberation” lived on through them.
Michael Jackson and Prince challenged conventional conceptions of masculinity with their high voices, eccentric personalities, and elaborate costumes. Madonna challenged conventional femininity with her overt sexuality and powerful attitude. They all owe much of their success to the great musicians who paved the way for them.
And from there, Beyonce owes much of her success to Donna Summer, and Katy Perry to Madonna. The many pop styles that came from disco serve to show the incredible musical influence it had as a revolutionary art form (Mankowski, 2010).
The spirit of disco was partially redeemed for a while in the late 90’s. One song coming out of that was “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai. You probably know it better as “Napolean Dynamite Dance Song”. Napolean Dynamite is a weirdo who doesn’t fit in with the normal culture. He tries doing his own thing by learning to dance, and his dance performance for the school ends up being the triumph of the movie. Napolean’s expressive, subversive, and triumphant depiction on the dance floor is inspired by the 70s spirit of disco.
Although most people think of disco as some “lame” or “gay” thing, it was a powerful movement that testified to the ability of music to have incredible effects on self-expression and define culture in radical new ways. It reconstructed ideas of sexuality through its sexual energy and hook-up culture. It reconstructed ideas of gender through its constant struggle between being graceful and rugged. It reconstructed ideas of race through creating a segregated subculture where black people had an expressive musical voice for the first time.
Even if disco isn’t your thing, I think we can all “catch the fever” of self-expression and authenticity. I hope that music may continue to speak to minorities and be a powerful agent for social change so that people may be able to express themselves in the way they see fit, without arbitrary social constraints. That’s what disco’s “culture of liberation” is really all about.
Arrow, M. (2007). It has become my personal anthem: ‘I am Woman’, popular culture and 1970s feminism. Australian Feminist Studies. 22(53), p.213-230. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/socabs/docview/61694636/5A6700F47F214175PQ/18?accountid=14474
DiOrio, C. (1977). “Saturday Night Fever”. Variety.
Dozer, R. (1979). “Sox promotion ends in a mob scene”. Chicago Tribune. p. 1, sec. 5.
Lawrence, T. (2011). Disco and the queering of the dance floor. Cultural Studies. 25(2), p.230-243. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/socabs/docview/875715000/D7B8A27559A747E3PQ/8?accountid=14474
Mankowski, D. (2010). Gendering the disco inferno: sexual revolution, liberation, and popular culture in 1970s America. University of Michigan. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/socabs/docview/762032418/fulltextPDF/CFF208D485734D3BPQ/1?accountid=14474
Peterson, T., Anderson, E. (2012). The performance of softer masculinities on the university dance floor. Journal of Men’s Studies. 20(1), p.3-15. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/socabs/docview/921643600/D7B8A27559A747E3PQ/10?accountid=14474
Walker, J. (2014). Disco doesn’t suck. Here’s why. Reason. Retrieved from http://reason.com/archives/2014/05/27/paranoia-at-the-disco