Although both Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day and Alice Echols’ Hot Stuff spend a fair amount of time discussing the rise of New York City’s disco scene, today I’ll keep it short, and focus only on some of Echols’ other ideas, while in the coming weeks I’ll drop some other posts on New York disco. The arguments of Echols’ that interested me most concern both the idea of “disco” as a movement of corporations/advertising as well as its part in the (then) ongoing sexual revolution.
While the term “disco” is thought to have originated from the French word “discotheque”, simply referring to a place of drinking and dancing, it somehow became associated with not only a style of music, but femininity, homosexuality, commercialism, etc., connotations that would cause a backlash that seems to be still unmatched in popular musical cultures. Although today, amongst young people, “disco” as a genre of “dance music” is likely thought to be a funny fad our parents went through in the 70’s and eighties, many saw it as an embodiment of everything wrong with popular culture. While some arguments against disco, such as those primarily developed from homophobia, had little to do with the economics behind disco many of disco’s other criticisms did. What started out as an underground movement in New York City became the target of a gold rush in which businessmen started branding and even franchising their idealized discos selling “cigaretts, T-shirts and necklaces” (198). And entrepreneurs were by no means the only ones trying to cash in on the “disco fever”. With the growing popularity of the “Philadelphia sound,” films such as Saturday Night Fever, which was merely another “vehicle for Travolta”, forced a media-constructed image of disco, glossing over some of its “authentic” elements, particularly its core fan base of gay black men (185).
The idea that disco had “correct dances” was entirely an industry invention, leading to what we could now call goofy videos such as the one above.
In fact, Echols recalls an interesting anecdote that the Village People, a creation of French producer Jacques Morali, and first thought of as a band for gay men, were suddenly so transformed by the record company advertising machine that they were able to film “In the Navy” on actual US Navy ships. Although arguments that through incorporation, what were once subcultures always become inauthentic are common, it would seem to me that America’s idea of disco was never even really a subculture. There were discotheques in New York, yes, but as Echols points out, once disco “collapsed” nothing really changed amongst the members of this scene. Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, hugely important parts of the “authentic” disco scene stayed relatively unknown and arguably became most popular in the 80’s well after the “death of disco”.
As an almost sidebar, it’s also important to note the treatment Echols gives to sexuality’s role within disco culture. She saw the dance floor as a space in which “sex wasn’t free it was an exchanges…disco was a culture of getting down…” (111). While other researchers might debate these claims, as many early adherents of the movement noted parties, such as those held at the Loft, for their distinctly asexual vibe, I found it to be an interesting point of contrast to disco’s modern resurgence. In the video below, taken at New York’s Webster Hall, one can clearly see the reaction of the (predominately heterosexual) crowd to this modern disco music.
Now again look at what could perhaps be called an idealized image of the club experience when hip hop was the dominant form of rhythmic music in America:
Ironically, it would seem that if anything, the dance floor has become less sexual. Just as Sarah Thorton argues that in the 90’s the use of MDMA popularized rave culture amongst women looking to avoid drunken advances, perhaps today a similar shift could be seen in the rise of clubs where dancing again becomes an individual activity. More on popular musical reasons for this shift from partnered to solo dancing are yet to come…..