Disco had a depth of origin and mixed racial identity that fuelled its popularity and the backlash against it
The recent deaths of disco stars Donna Summer and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees reminds us that,like many American music genres,disco came and went,doing both with a bang. But unlike most genres,disco was declared dead,its detractors spit on its grave,and it went on to quietly assume life under a host of other names. But disco faked its own death. As over-exposed as disco eventually became,a closer examination reveals that the genre had a depth of origin and mixed racial identity that fuelled both discos popularity and the backlash against it.
Early disco borrowed from the horn and string-heavy R&B of Gamble and Huff,a black music production duo,and took root in urban nightclubs. Many elements of disco dancing were borrowed from the salsa moves of Miami-based Cuban immigrants,and discos leading artists,including Donna Summer,were trained as singers in the black gospel tradition. Disco was black and brown music,but everyone was welcome to join in. Prior to the disco era,jazz bands had been integrated,but pop music kept black and white artists separate on the charts. The blurred racial lines of disco were different than the re-recording of Little Richards rock n roll songs by white artists. Disco also wasnt the one-off embrace of one race by another,like Jimi Hendrixs popularity as a black rockstar in a white landscape. Disco didnt simply tolerate diversity or see race-mixing as an inevitable product of genre-hopping it revelled in it,and was the first genre to earnestly do so. So disco,with its Afro and Latin rhythms,multi-coloured cast of musical artists,and messages of sexual and racial free-for-all,began to mirror Americas changing sensibilities.
As Hollywoods formulas often do,1977s Saturday Night Fever mainstreamed disco by whitewashing it. What had until then been the experience of men and women,straights and gays,whites,browns and blacks,was now presented through the white,straight,male tunnel-vision world of Tony Monero. John Travolta exemplified disco as a macho Italian kid whose dancing prowess was both a way to attract women and a weekend escape from his day job at a hardware store. And wow,could that white boy dance!
Barry Gibb once explained that in contributing to the films soundtrack,the Bee Gees thought they were making R&B or blue-eyed soul. The word disco wasnt even on their radar as Brits,they thought the word was merely short for discotheque but thanks to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack,the Bee Gees will always be known as disco icons. And they became such with the knowledge that,at the time,what they were making was best considered black music. This was music that,thanks to the films popularity,soon became near-universal.
The problem with the universality of art forms,though,is that everyone proceeds to take ownership of them. Disco was eventually everywhere from television commercials to Sesame Street,and people were sick of it. But instead of rolling their eyes and turning the dial as they had with do-wop and later would with hair metal,listeners sick of the over-saturation of disco went on the warpath. The Disco Demolition at Chicagos Comiskey Park in July 1979 began as a promotional baseball game with an anti-disco theme. Crates of disco records were rigged with explosives,set ablaze,and left to burn amid chants of disco sucks from the packed stadium. The evening turned into a riot.
Sure,disco had become lame,but that kind of reaction makes it hard to ignore discos racial baggage. In truth,the racial and gender-bending emphasis had gone too far for some people. Punk music,some strains of which were not-so-quietly racist,and rock music,whose fans revered the live instrumentation that disco downplayed,had been set aside for long enough,and simply turning the dial would not do. Disco was nobodys heart-of-America music. It was easy to set up a disco club in Anytown,USA,but much harder to feel connected to disco knowing that this was the big city music of the brown and queer. Disco would be pushed out of the national consciousness along with many other things racially mixed and gender-bending,and declared dead.
But disco never truly died. Black and Latin dance music forms were reborn and re-labelled as house,dance and rap. Even today there are countless artists whose music could easily be considered an evolved form of disco. Think about it: if The Black-Eyed Peas arent just a differently-costumed,less subversive version of The Village People,what are they?
Thembi Ford is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer