The Semester in Review

The last six months have been a whirlwind of activity, finally culminating in this overarching post.  I’ve read book, essays, listened to countless new tracks, traveled and explored scenes in New York and Miami, conducted casual interviews for the sole purpose of attempting to discover both American dance culture’s history as well as the reasons behind its resurgence in popularity.  In the following post, I will cover new ground, as well as reiterate some of my previous points, with the goal of creating a brief roadmap dance music’s trajectory in America, from disco to the present, when it would seem to be the soundtrack for an entire generation.

A Young David Mancuso

If there is a person or place that can be held responsible for the rise of dance music in America, at least in its first days, it is David Mancuso, a true product of the 1960’s and student of Timothy Leary’s (Lawrence 9). Hosting some of the first underground dance parties in his SoHo loft, aptly named “The Loft” Mancuso threw some of the trendiest parties in Manahttan in the late sixties and early seventies, eschewing many of the racial and sexual divisions of the time, hosting a wide variety of future tastemakers from Frankie Knuckles to Larry Levan to Nicky Siano, Studio 54’s first resident DJ.  At the “Loft”,  Mancuso created one of the first spaces that crafted the dance floor:

as a site not of foreplay but of spiritual communion where, thanks to the unique combination of decor, space, music, drugs, lighting, and dance, as well as Mancuso’s guiding party ethos, sensation wasn’t confined to the genitals but was everywhere-in every new touch, sound, sight, and smell. (Lawrence 25)

Although, in the 21st century, it may seem rather conventional for one to throw a dance in party in a loft space, dancing in clubs was still a regularly rare event in the early seventies, due to an outdated club model, as the venues “didn’t charge at the door so you had to encourage people to drink more… [and] play music that people could dance slow to, and if they wanted to drink then they could drink (37).”  If one wanted an experience like that which Juan Garcia describes as one where “touch often takes the form of gestures of social warmth, of engaging with others on the dancefloor in a way that is non-verbal but nonetheless meaningful,” he or she would likely be required to go to a gay, or at least partially gay club, a trend that continued, especially outside New York, until freelance writer Nik Cohn published an article in New York magazine (Garcia 87).

A recent reincarnation of David Mancuso’s classic Loft party.

Entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”,  the article followed the exploits of a young heterosexual Italian-American named “Vincent” and his rituals at the club 2001 Odyssey, one of many new disotheques in the tri-state area that did not cater to a gay/black crowd.  Eventually, “Tribal Rites”  became Saturday Night Fever, another ”vehicle for rising star John Travolta”, and a real mark of the beginning of the disco craze that swept through America in the late seventies (Lawrence 185). What started out as an underground movement in New York City in the Loft, and then in countless gay and partially gay clubs, had now become the target of a gold rush in which businessmen started branding and even franchising their idealized discos selling “cigarettes, T-shirts and necklaces” (Echols 198).

Disco entrepreneurs used the popularity of their venues and the genre to sell nearly everything.

However when studying “disco”, as well as American’s conception of “the discotheque,” it  is important to remember that all the mirrored balls, bell-bottoms, and tall blondes  are based largely on a fictionally constructed narrative, and one that the public willfully accepted as many couldn’t accept the idea of a space where women, gay men, and African-Americans had a greater role.  Although Cohn, when writing the article that would spark a phenomenon, never admitted that his guide through the disco world was black, or that Vincent wasn’t real (he later confessed that he was a composite character), the image he created of a straight white disco, playing white music, was the one that stuck (Lawrence 228). Of course it didn’t help the original disco scene that the record labels, as well as the businessmen most profiting from disco, had made a cold calculation

that straight consumers didn’t want to know [about the real disco] and were fully capable of kidding themselves that they didn’t know-a nimble-footed version of what D. A. Miller calls an “open secret,” which is “reminiscent of Freudian disavowal” inasmuch as “we know perfectly well that the secret is known, but nonetheless we must persist, however ineptly, in guarding it.” (332-333)

Perhaps the best example of this pervasive and willful ignorance on the part of the American public in regards disco’s gay and black associations was the rise of The Village People,  a creation of French Eurodance producer Jacques Morali. In an interview with the Village Voice, the head of marketing for major disco label Salsoul Records commented that:

“The Village People is the first gay-to-straight `crossover’ group, a group with an originally gay image and following that’s made it in straight discos.” So what did the straight audience make of it? “The funny thing is that straights don’t really believe the group is gay. (331-332)

In fact keeping the illusion of the nation’s straight/white identity was so important to Americans that even the US Navy, which at the time banned homosexuality, allowed The Village People to film the music video for In the Navy on actual US Warships staffed by real sailors.  However, disco, as well as the apparent commercial appeal of gay tropes, became popular at a price, one paid primarily by the gay community that started the movement and by the end of the seventies, disco’s popularity had begun to suffer under increasing homogeneity, becoming something described by  writer Andrew Holleran as

the fast, mechanical, monotonous, shallow stuff that is being produced for a mass market, light years away from the old dark disco, which did not know it was disco, which was simply a song played in a room where we gathered to dance (333).

What Holleran hints at but does not explicitly state is that “disco”, specifically the stuff we think of when we think of disco, was less of a musical or cultural movement but more of a clever brand that media companies could use to generate revenue.  The “old dark disco,” the stuff played at the early gay clubs, is still in many ways the foundation of modern dance music.  These early disco records are the ones Frankie Knuckles churned into “house music” in the early eighties, not the songs topping the billboard charts like “Disco Duck” . While there were still successful  clubs in the late seventies, Studio 54 being the most prominent, they were largely different breed of venue, not a dance club, but what Timothy Lawrence refers to as the “mediatheque” (19).

By the late seventies, it seemed that even disco’s earliest fans had lost their interest.  The music and the image of disco were both becoming more and more shallow, despeartely still try to gloss over disco’s real origins.  While popular versions of the “death of disco” never fail to mention Steve Dahl’s burning of the disco records at the White Sox stadium, in many ways disco had already run its course, becoming so far removed from its original creators, that it’s brand became completely diluted .  Although Dahl describes his disgust for disco as pertaining to the fact that “the whole lifestyle seemed to be based on style over substance,” Tim Lawrence points out that “ superficial and artificial had, after all, become derogatory euphemisms for gay (377).”   Although it would appear to many in the media that “disco was dead,” “the dark stuff”, the stuff of real disco music never went anywhere.  In fact if not for this backlash, there might never have been The Paradise Garage or The Warehouse.

Inside the Paradise Garage. Doesn’t exactly seem to fit in with popular notions of who was going to discotheques in New York….

From the ashes of disco, the roots of modern dance music began to form.  The Paradise Garage, opened in 1976, was supposed to essentially monetize the hardcore dance crowd that frequented David Mancuso’s loft.  Larry Levan, who previously had played at The Baths, a popular NYC nightclub that mixed a bathhouse and dance club, was hired to DJ.  The rest is largely history: the Garage packing dance floors into the eighties, with Levan’s eclectic style of not only mixing a wide range of genres but using equalizers for the first time to mash together songs. But,  perhaps the Garage’s most important contribution was that it “cultivated the cult of the DJ,” a process that would become hugely important in the later development of dance music (359).

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a new scene was brewing when entrepreneur Robert Williams decided to open a nightclub in Chicago called the Warehouse or the House for short..  After failing to persuade Larry Levan to come play the opening party, Williams persuaded Frankie Knuckles, another frequent face in the NYC underground scene, to DJ and the night was an overwhelming success with the club completely filled to capacity.  Eventually, Knuckles agreed to move to Chicago to become the full time DJ at The Warehouse, however, when he arrived, it was a far different scene than what expected with nobody showing up on most nights.  Rather than the Warehouse, which had floundered in his absence, the majority of the Chicago club-goers went to the Bowery, another local venue.  Seeing an opportunity, Knuckles started visiting the Bowery and eventually started DJing there as well. So impressed with his skills as “conductor”, Knuckles eventually was able to bring the entire Bowery crowd to the Warehouse, forcing the Bowery group into bankruptcy (299-300). After time, the popularity of the Warehouse spread and people began asking what to call the weird mix of European electronic music with old R&B, disco and funk that Knuckles was spinning.  The common response: “Oh that’s ‘house music”.

Really interesting interview with Frankie Knuckles on the history of DJing.

In 1986 a different group of Midwest producers unknowingly changed the direction of dance music while playing around with a Roland TB-303, an early bass synthesizer, eventually creating “Acid Trax,” a simple song that would spawn an entire genre of music.   Since I have previously covered the means through which the sound was exported to Europe—the route of travel was nearly the same as that of MDMA—I will simply say that from the American Midwest, the origins of modern dance music were born.  What is important here, since we are primarily concerned with American dance music, is the reimportation of nearly this same dance music in the nineties.

NY Club kids posing.

By the late eighties, the New York club scene was largely stagnant. Canadian entrepreneur, Peter Gatien, who had opened successful clubs in Orlando, Miami, Atlanta had one property in New York that he wanted to really revamp.  By this time, the “club kids” phenomenon had already gained attention in the New York nightlife scene, with young kids in elaborate costumes, and often under the influence of copious amounts of drugs, would dance all night–creating a fun atmosphere that attracted attention, and theoretically customers.  However, the crowd turned out to often bring in unpaying customers, leading Michael Alig and his cohorts, to ”bankrupt nearly every club they touched” (Limelight).  Eventually, Michael had come to know Peter Gatien through his Disco 2000 parties and mentioned a new group of bridge and tunnel guys that were throwing these huge parties and listening to European techno music, a drastic shift from the disco and rock that dominated the upper-echelon of the NYC nightlife scene at the time. Lord Michael, an American from Staten Island heavily involved in these events and who recently had been exposed to the post-rave culture of the UK, one still heavily dependent on MDM, eventually was given the opportunity by Gatien to try a night at the Limelight.  It was an astounding success, increasing the Limelight’s attendence to threefold what it was before the techno parties.  However, with the crime rate in New York soaring, and Bill Bratton’s “no crime goes unpunished” strategy to clean up the city, New York had lost its tolerance for the free-spirited atmosphere that allowed scenes such as disco to flourish.  The hedonistic atmosphere, coupled with the drugs literally being dispensed from the stage eventually would spell Gatien’s downfall, as an overbearing DA office was able to pin one small count of tax evasion on Gatien, leading to his deportation and the end of the legal New York Rave Scene (Limelight).

A video from The Tunnel, one of Peter Gatien’s many clubs.

While the world danced to ever-more evolving types of music, there was always the specter of Rock and Roll lurking in the shadows. Even as disco became the dominant music in America:

There was always anger in the music business…Radio DJS liked having the power of being able to say, `If we don’t play it it’s not a hit.’ The clubs brought them down a peg or two, so they were the first ones to put a nail in disco’s coffin. (Lawrence 374)

By the end of the seventies, rock had lost so much attention both on the radio and off that straight white males such as Chicago radio host Steve Dahl began to feel that “rock music was threatened as a species (373)”. While the initial backlash against disco was ostensibly due to its “superficiality,” Lawrence notes that in nearly every narrative, some homophobic and/or racist element always would arise (379).  Although the movement against disco was certainly racially and sexually motivated, Lawrence tends to miss the fact, that in many ways, disco was also musically departing from the white/male traditions of rock, placing rhythm in the foreground and guitar and vocals in the back.   According to Gilbert and Pearsonk’s history of dance music, rock n roll was once a dance music but stopped being so once critics started taking it seriously. They saw rock ending its classification as a “dance” music with the entrance of Bob Dylan using the electric guitar mixed with Western literature, thus becoming a “sanctioned art form” rather than the EDM which “valorized…pleasure” a value that has historically been looked down upon by Western critics. In many ways, dance music is diametrically opposed to our modern conception as

House, Techno and the kaleidoscope of sub-genres gave birth to the most significant change in popular music since the 1960s heyday of psychedelic rock…not only did they change the way people made music..they also radically altered the way people listened to it…they moved the focus away from its creator towards the  listener (Prendergast 367)

Whereas rock revels in the idea of a superstar, a brand to sell to the public, disco, at least in its early days centered more around the music, as

This lack of personal identity…allows unawed dancers to assert their own … such a dance-floor democracy has been alien to white rock, which promotes a superstar elite and generally subordinates the music to the mystique of its makers. (177)

Not only did this shift from creator to listener rearrange the power structures of the dance floor, it also “presented the major labels with an apparently irresolvable conundrum: how to sell faceless music (371)”.  Whereas rock relied upon branding, the LP and radio play, all revenue-generators for the record labels, disco was dependent upon local scenes, DJ’s and the 12 inch, undoubtedly one of the economic reasons why record labels weren’t crying over the death of disco. Invented by accident, the 12-inch was loved both for its potential to increase the volume of a recording–as the individual grooves could be spread out allowing for more bass–as well as the record companies’ belief that they could now sell single tracks, without having to worry about producing the b-side filler (212).  However, this strategy eventually backfired as Americans’ appetite for a single that cost nearly as much as an LP started to wane towards the end of the disco boom.  While it made plenty of sense to market singles to DJ’s, as the would only play one song from a record at a time, singles were never craved by the general public–a trend that would continue until 2001.

From the 1970’s to 2001, the idea of a record stayed largely the same even as the medium evolved: from record to tape to CD, allthough the latter may soon disappear.  Although the mp3 was invented in the nineties, it wasn’t really until Apple launched its iTunes store, with the blessing of the major labels, that the technology became widely adopted.  Although the 99 cent single has undoubtedly hurt record sales, not to mention forcing many stores into bankruptcy it has also launched a revolution in how the modern consumer can listen and produce music.  In many ways, everyone can now be their own personal DJ.  Granted this does not mean people are mixing and beat-matching tracks to form extended sets, but it certainly strips radio DJ’s and the like of their power as services such as spotify and ipod playlists become more widespread.

By dissolving dichotomies such as Performer-Audience, Record-Label-Consumer, Educated Listener-Uneducated Listener, dance music has reshaped our current understanding of our relationship to music.  Since it is music that is perhaps best felt rather than analyzed, it is no surprise that the critical establishment largely shunned it, while accepting genres such as hip hop, which has “lyrics”, something “intellectual” about it. However, as both major record labels have slowly been replaced by download stores, and critics by bloggers, it woud make sense that dance music has recently emerged out of its shell.  Connected by the internet, a new generation of musicians–something I covered in my posts “Everyone’s a DJ”–has been created less likely to fall into the structures that have dominated pop music for the last fifty years and more likely to do something different, put it on Soundcloud and hope for the best.

At 1:25:10 DJ and producer Maceo Plex remixes famed classical composer Steve Reich, seamlessly incorporating post-minimal classical music into his modern set.

While far from being a complete history of American dance music, I hope that this has provided some account for the ways in which dance music reemerged recently on the American scene.  While it’s perhaps easy to think that disco died because it actually was superficial, or only because of a racial and sexual backlash, when we look deeper it’s clear that there were a lot of people with primarily economic reasons for wanting disco to fail.  The decentralization of an industry historically dominated by straight white males, has not only changed the way music is produced but also created an opportunity for formally disenfranchised individuals to voice/sing their story.  Although dance music DOES mark a massive shift away from the melodies composed by “fourteen-year-olds on guitar,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be another backlash. In classical music, Erik Satie was writing background music, or as he called it “Furniture Music”, in the early 20th century, where the goal was simply music fit for an ambient space, one similar to techno producers today, some of whom even incorporate works by composers such as Steve Reich in their sets.  It is said that high culture often eventually makes it way down to the lowest of forms, and it would seem time in America, that music takes a different route than verse-chorus, verse-chorus.

Works Cited

Echols, Alice. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.

Gilbert, Jeremy, and Ewan Pearson. Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Limelight. Dir. Billy Corben. Perf. Moby, Michael Alig, Edward I. Koch. Rakontur, 2011. DVD.

Prendergast, Mark J. The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Moby : The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003. Print.


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