If I had a cultural bete noir in my youth without a doubt it was disco. A revolution? Perhaps, but one can’t help thinking of the French Revolution as characterized in A Tale of Two Cities, with the most boorish elements of society rising to the top and holding everyone else prisoner. Often characterized in retrospect as having been liberating to gays, women and African Americans (we’ll get back to this), on the ground what it looked like was John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever, whom I can’t help noticing was white, male, straight and sexist to the point of caricature. It was the age in which American society began its worship of retarded thugs, a nightmare which, 40 years later, we are still living.
If anything, it seems to me, the disco era was counter-revolutionary. If the 60s were about individualism and expression and “anything goes”, the 70s were about conformism. You HAD to be beautiful. You HAD to dress in a certain uniform. You HAD to dance a certain way. (More than that, you HAD to dance, period). This was the period in which young people gave up on the idea of changing the world. The highest goal of all was now, to quote Kool and the Gang, to “have a good time.”
I think of disco in many ways as one of the harbingers of post-modernism, as well, for there were many backward looking symbolic markers evoking the 1920s, 30s and 40s: the return of “couples dancing” in the form of The Hustle, with complicated moves and actual touching (unlike the more anarchistic dancing of the 1960s). And the era’s emblem, the disco ball, the ubiquitous mirrored orb that had previously been associated with dance halls of the big band era. My mom (who was of the swing era) LOVED these developments. And do you know who hated and resisted the idea of the ACTUAL liberation of blacks, women and gays? Same person. And undoubtedly most of the other working class people in my small, industrial town, and all across America. Disco was “progressive”? No, I think it was reactionary. I think it was absolutely the cultural pathway to the ascent of Ronald Reagan, and a new time of selfishness, consumerism and the worst sort of empty-headed hedonism. It may have been different AT Studio 54, or WITHIN the music industry, or in big cities, where people were all urban and sophisticated. But out in the provinces — and I’d bet money even in the outer boroughs of New York — disco was a thugocracy.
And if you were uninterested in partaking in this famously “liberated” disco culture, that’s when it was most intolerant of all. My memories of this are of course colored by the fact that I was adolescent at the time, and perhaps this was just the form that normal adolescent alienation took in my generation. Yet what an APT form! Existentially nightmarish to an almost totalitarian degree, really no different in its way from 50s era McCarthyism: “What’s the matter, Bob? You aren’t joining in the party game. The others are getting a little concerned…”
Surprisingly, The Secret Disco Revolution (opening nationwide in selected theatres tomorrow) manages to sidestep all of the ire you encountered in the first four paragraphs above. It works this miracle by striking a campy, ambiguous tone that leaves the film-maker Jamie Kastner conveniently immune to any charges of “guilt by association” with the most preposterous claims made on disco’s behalf. Kastner makes the lightning rod for the film’s most egregious claims an academic named Alice Echols, author of the book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. Most of the principal affronts to human reason in the film come out of her mouth. (Although Kastner does manifest her thesis that disco liberated blacks, women and gays in the form of a Mod Squad-like trio of mascots who Virgil-like silently guide us through this history.)
Because I haven’t done it so far, let me get this obvious statement out of the way: I think social dancing is a valuable, even a necessary human activity. It’s a mating ritual, a means of expression, and even a form of exercise. But if you’re going to tell me to my face that blacks are more liberated because they get to DANCE, we are going to have a problem. And I have celebrated dozens of black dancers on this very web site. But you know what? A black man is President of the United States, and another one is the head of the American Museum of Natural History. A black woman is national security advisor. Shall I go on? It’s very easy to keep blacks, women and gays singin’ and dancin’, we’ve been doing that for a long time. But there’s not a lot of dancing going on in the corridors of actual power. I have no desire to watch Angela Merkel dance, nor do I think she would be somehow better at her important job if she were able to. (I hope I don’t need to add the small point that I have plenty of female, gay and African American friends who don’t like disco).
A more convincing argument for the progressive powers of disco can be made on the plane of sex. Where Echols and I (and I’m sure everyone else) agree is that sex is really what disco is about. Echols’ one moment of wit in the film (I hope it’s an intentional one) is when she calls Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby” “a feminist critique on three minute sex”. In other words, through such songs concern for female pleasure became in the eyes of many a legitimate celebratory theme in music, hopefully spilling over into real life. And the Village People are held up in the film as positive gay ikons, socially legitimizing homosexuality as well (although, interestingly, the members of the group deny any “coded messages” in their songs.) I am 100% on board (obviously, I hope) for the breaking down of barriers, and the freeing of the oppressed. This week in particular I celebrate the right of everyone to love and be loved by whomever they want, however they want, so long as no one gets hurt. And I’ve even broached a plan to create a tee shirt proclaiming my whole-hearted enthusiasm for the female orgasm, but it was vetoed by the Duchess.
All that said, and it’s pretty important, sex is but one area of human life. All humans need to be free and happy in that area, but (excuse my language) if we are all fucking like bonobos morning, noon and night, much as I am in favor of the idea, no one would be growing food, curing cancer, or taking out the garbage. So I’m a little against fixating on, getting stuck on a perpetual celebration of the rather limited Disco Revolution, which goes just so far and no further. There’s having an orgasm (which all beasts do) and there’s filibustering the Texas legislature, or arguing against DOMA before the Supreme Court. I’m not saying they’re opposites, or mutually exclusive. I’m saying, “Perspective! Proportion!”
So much then, I hope for the out-sized claims made on disco’s behalf. So what’s good about it? Well, it may surprise you to know that I actually like a lot of it, as music, especially in retrospect when I’m not being told I HAVE to like it. Thelma Houston’s version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is one example among dozens that I find particularly majestic. And The Secret Disco Revolution works best on this level, as it takes you by the hand and guides you through its history, with the help of people who were there like Michael Musto, and Vince Aletti and many of the producers and artists.
But even here we encounter problems. Echols speaks approvingly of disco as a “reaction against black protest music”, which was apparently getting to be “too much”. Disco she says warmly “didn’t HAVE TO [emphasis mine] be raw and spontaneous” like “James Brown and Wilson Pickett“. I’m sorry? Those are examples of a direction that should have been turned away from? And while we’re on the subject of black music: Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee, Sly and the Family Stone? That was music that was actually about something beyond your next toot of cocaine and your next lay. I’m not a baby boomer, by the way. I have no dog in that fight. I just know what I hear.
And wow, this next aspect is so major I can’t believe it’s an afterthought. Disco put a LOT of musicians out of work — for a while it seemed in danger of putting ALL musicians out of work. My brother was a drummer who played in lots of proto-disco and disco type bands. (In fact he taught me how to play the 4/4 beat, and how to work the pedal of the high hat so you could get that “fffffp” accent on the cymbal). This is to give you an idea of how sympathetic he was to the actual music. But long about 1979 he was sporting a bumper sticker on his van that said “Down with Disco: Support Live Music.” I contemplated that slogan for a long time, what the implications of it were. I’m obviously someone who has devoted a big portion of his life to producing live entertainment. I hate the idea of replacing live performers with recordings. Disco was to music what talkies were to vaudeville.
Lastly, like other accounts I’ve seen, this film buys into the narrative trope that disco “died” in 1979 with the chart success of “My Sharona” and a “Disco Sucks” record burning event in Detroit. The idea that “disco sucked” was not new then; many people had been grumbling that for years. SOMEBODY was buying those Lynyrd Skynyrd records. And I am rather unconvinced that anything died in 1979. What was club music, house music, synthpop, dancepop, funk, Rick James, Madonna, etc etc etc. Bluegrass? I guess industry people and marketing professionals parse that shit out, brand it, hang labels on it, decide what’s “in” and what’s “out”. But flying above it all here in my B-29, those people down there on the dance floor look pretty much the same.
All this makes you really want to see the movie, right? I actually enjoyed it in a “get off my lawn” kind of way. Learn more, including screening info here: http://www.secretdiscorevolution.com/