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Disco Changed Everything. So Why Did It Die?

Disco Changed Everything. So Why Did It Die?


This is one of my favorite
opening scenes to a movie. It’s from 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever.” ♪♪ Tony Manero’s walk,
the BeeGees in the background, the paint can, the double-stacked pizza, this! I love this scene because there is this
weird sense of glamour to everything. And that’s actually pretty reflective of
the moment in history this film tries to capture. A moment in the ’70s
that left a lasting impact on American sexuality, especially with the American man, and prompted a backlash. ♪♪ That beat is known as four-on-the-floor, created by drummer Earl Young
and it changed the way we danced. And the genesis of the beat was, according to Young in a BBC interview, something kind of mundane. It’s just like a walkin’ move like this [drum beat] It’s a walkin’ feel. [drum beat] So, when the people hear that,
you automatically wanna move something and I said, well jeez, this is
– this is, pretty cool. So I said I’m gonna put this to a groove. Now, here is Young playing with
the Trammps on a classic disco hit that you probably will recognize. ♪ Burn baby burn ♪ That’s the sound most people would
categorize as being disco. But the type of music people were dancing
to in actual discos in the ’70s didn’t always fit that description. Disco was a very eclectic sort of music. It started out being a little bit
of everything, and I think at its best it still remains very, very unpredictable. And it was those at the
margins of society who really defined the direction
that disco would take. The venues where disco
flourished and first took root, and the communities that fed into that and that served as its dancers, as its
music producers, as its DJs and so on came directly out of especially
Black and Brown Latinx communities that we might describe now as queer. Gay liberation in the ’60s and ’70s , and crucially the Stonewall Riots in 1969,
were very important for disco. Up until the Stonewall Riots,
the survival strategy of queer communities was to be as invisible
as possible to not get noticed. Despite the 1960s being characterized
as the decade of free love being gay was still illegal
in most of the country. Even in New York City, gay bars didn’t
allow dancing between same-sex couples. Enter the Stonewall Inn, opened in 1967. Its clientele included drag queens
who were often turned away from other gay bars, as well as runaways and homeless youth. And gay men weren’t told that
they couldn’t dance together. In June 1969, Stonewall was raided
by the police, and the people who went there fought back. The police were actually forced
to take cover inside the bar, where the angry mob locked them
in and set the building on fire. In the aftermath, the regulations that
ruled New York City nightlife relaxed, including the ban on same-sex dancing. Gay nightlife in the city exploded,
and everyone wanted to dance. Most of the clubs that existed before
Stonewall were really very underground with one or two exceptions. And after that, there was a much more
comfortable gathering of people. You were going to celebrate a kind of
openness that really hadn’t been possible before. That’s where the disco DJ comes in. Disco really gave birth to the modern DJ. These guys were innovating with
technology and music in a way that hadn’t been done before. And maybe for the first time, they had devoted followings that
followed them from club to club. The DJs that were playing what
became known as disco were, I think, really adventurous. You could go to a club and hear music
that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else, and hear it put together in a way that
you wouldn’t hear in any other format. Now, while disco was pretty much
defined by gay men, club owners, prominent DJs,
producers, record promoters as it evolved as a genre,
it was the voice of female artists – particularly women of color —
who came to dominate the sound. And these women
were breaking with tradition. ♪ Mocha chocalata ya ya ♪ ♪ Creole lady marmalade ♪ Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” was
an iconic ’70s song, unabashedly sexually aggressive
and it was about a sex worker. literally translates to: Lady Marmalade happened and I’m really
happy and we’re happy that it was as big as it was. And as big as it was in
the clubs and in disco. But that was really just, kind of,
like the icing on the cake of who we were as a group. Four or five years before that
track was released, the then-called Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles
traded in their matching dresses and hairstyles for a look
that was, well, a little more radical. I think, at the time, for a girl group to shed their wigs, shed their gowns, shed their you know, kind of, that kind of look
and become much more assertive and more vocal, political, social statements. This was really a group of women
who were making their own decisions about the music they
wanted to write and perform. In her book “Hot Stuff,” Alice Echols
discusses how female disco artists like Labelle and others expanded the
idea of what was socially acceptable for women by singing about
female sexual desire. Labelle was early on the
scene with tracks like “Lady Marmalade” and later
“Going Down Makes Me Shiver.” ♪ Going down to your river
r-river m-makes me shiver ♪ Then came Donna Summer. ♪ [moaning] ♪ Although not quite literally,
with her 17-minute-long moan-a-thon “Love to Love You Baby.” ♪ Love to love you baby ♪ And Anita Ward’s 1979 hit “Ring My Bell” wasn’t actually about
ringing any literal bells – a fact that escaped me when
I was singing along to it as a kid. ♪ You can ring my bell,
ring my bell♪ Now, Hendryx is quick to point out that
Black women had been singing about sex and sexuality for a while. That was kind of a part of the,
you know, the Black music that sexual, sensual, energy and lyric
was always, you know, “Let’s get it on.” I don’t think it was something
that we felt was a taboo. It didn’t seem strange or odd to us. But Echols says that the specific focus
on female pleasure was something new. The female orgasm became a
central theme in a lot of songs, as well as its own sort of instrument –
as it was in “Love to Love You Baby.” It was its own rebuff to the sort of
hypermasculinity of rock music that focused on male pleasure. ♪ I’m gonna give you my love.
Want a whole lotta love ♪ But the explosion of female pleasure,
didn’t really sit well with all the critics. I think the biggest backlash
that we received was “Lady Marmalade” because it was everywhere. And I think some people who
were, I guess, much more conservative in their
musical tastes or their outlook on life took exception with the song. Part of the exception to the
music was part of a bigger exception to the spread of disco culture –
and what it represented. Gay nightlife was becoming increasingly
cool among celebrities and trendsetters. In a column in 1975, Aletti estimated
that 2,000 discos had sprung up across the United States, with two or
three hundred in New York alone. And that was even before the symbol
of disco debauchery, “Studio 54,” opened its doors, and
“Saturday Night Fever” broke box office records. Gay clubs, I think, really changed the
whole way people went out dancing. And they did represent a kind of freedom to the gay people that went there. And a lot of straight people enjoyed going there for the experience of sort of taking part in this liberation. Part of it has to do with the ability to express yourself, and if you can be in a community where you can express yourself truly then I think people are gonna
look for it and go to it and want to be there. The spread of disco didn’t just bring with it music and dancing, it also brought the evolution of sexual expression and fashion for
both gay and straight men. It’s especially interesting to look at
how disco transformed or at least tried to transform what it
meant to be a man in the 1970s. In the sense that you should be wearing
clothes that were much more fitted to the body, much more
revealing of the body, that you should be in shape, and it also assumed that you
should know how to dance. This became part of what Dennis Altman dubbed in his 1982 book,
“The Homosexualization of America.” With the greatest example of this
being the mainstreaming of these guys: ♪♪ ♪ It’s fun to
stay at the YMCA ♪ By the way, they weren’t even
marketed as a gay group. Their own label, Casablanca Records,
made it clear that they were for clueless straight Americans. Navy officials were so oblivious that
they actually allowed the video for “In The Navy” to be filmed
on one of their warships and they even used it in
one of their recruiting videos. But despite mainstream America’s
embrace of the Village People, not everyone was down with
how disco was changing and challenging American masculinity. If you compare this to the way that other
musical genres in the ‘70s presented masculinity – so the rock
masculinity or country music masculinity – those that were coming out of the
disco scene really stood in stark relief. A lot of people resented
exactly that impact. The sense that gay
culture was sneaking out into the mainstream and taking
over on some level. And this really came to a head in 1979. That’s when Chicago radio DJ
Steve Dahl organized Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park,
not long after being fired when the station he worked
for switched to a disco format. Dahl had this to say when he was asked
by news outlets what he had against disco. Well, the first thing I have against it is
that I can never find a white three-piece suit that fits me off the rack. So … I hate the taste of piña coladas, I don’t – I’m allergic to gold jewlery,
so there’s nothing there for me. You can see now in hindsight a
real concerted effort by journalists, radio personalities and so on
to vilify disco ahead of this crash. The disco backlash wasn’t just one thing.
It was a lot of things coming together. Notably there was a crash in disco
sales, in the sale of disco recordings – the bubble popped, so to speak. But in addition to the backlash and
dropping record sales, there was also the impact of the AIDS epidemic,
especially on the gay community and the gay community that
was going to the clubs. I think the impact that AIDS had
on the key audience for a lot of clubs was devastating. You can’t keep going when
a lot of your audience is dying. A lot of the people who were involved
in opening up society, we lost a lot of those people. But disco’s legacy lives on. Not just through its impact on dance
music and club culture, but in the ways that it redefined
what it meant to be gay, what it meant to be a woman,
what it meant to be a man, and what sex in America was all about. Disco never really died.
Disco lived on and went underground back into the queer and especially
Black and Latinx communities from which it arose.
And it turned into things like garage in New York.
It turned into house in Chicago. Disco turned into synth-pop and Eurodisco
and all sorts of other things in Europe. Disco had an afterlife in many
other parts of the world, even after it was supposedly dead. Madonna came up right after
this whole death of disco. And if Madonna wasn’t disco,
I don’t know what is. OK, I can’t be the only one who really wants to dance right now, right? Let us know what your favorite songs are from the era and don’t forget to like, share and subscribe, and while you’re at it let us know what else you want us to cover here at Pop Americana.

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