- Historic Sites
It began in the Paris underground of World War II and evolved over thirty years into a phenomenon that so overturned cultural norms that it could not survive
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
Bona fide revolutions—whether political, cultural, or spiritual —occur infrequently in history, and it’s possible to pass an entire lifetime without experiencing one. What, then, do transcendence seekers or would-be revolutionaries do in the meantime? One option is nightlife, one of society’s few sanctioned antidotes to the monotony of the day-to-day, or what the French call le quotidien . The elements that prevail during times of revolution—the exhilaration of collective experience, the inversion of social roles, the supremacy of the present, the triumph of imaginative life—can all be found in the dusk-to-dawn alternative world of the nightclub. Nightlife is, in a sense, revolution during the off-season. Passions and vices that would trouble the day are exiled to the nocturnal realm of clubs, where they are transformed into virtues, encouraged, and at the same time contained and prevented from causing social upheaval.
From the juke joint to the dance hall, American clubs in the post-war era have been the center of a cultural struggle pitting the forces of hedonism, revelry, and sexual liberation against those of socio-sexual stability and control. The furor generated in the 1950s by Elvis’s gyrating pelvis and that era’s television censorship of certain “sexually provocative” dances like the Alligator illustrated white, adult, middle-class fears of what could be called the spillover effect of dance music, the possibility that the sexualized frenzy of the dance floor might seep out onto the streets and into the suburbs of America. At an extreme the broad brushstrokes of Cold War logic painted a frightening picture of provocative dances exposing white youths to black music and culture, weakening their moral fiber, promoting juvenile delinquency, and wearing down their resistance to the perils of both miscegenation and communism. It was this chain of reasoning that led a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to conclude in 1958 that “the gangster of tomorrow is the Elvis Presley type of today.”
No wonder that the discotheque, that salient feature of American nightlife from the 1960s to the 1980s, became an enactment zone for the cultural revolutions of the era. In the sixties discotheques served as the laboratories for new multimedia entertainment meant to complement the high provided by LSD, marijuana, and other drugs; in the seventies disco spawned a lifestyle that confronted white, heterosexual America with a composite bogeyman—a lifestyle devoted to rampant promiscuity and avid, recreational drug use, peopled by newly liberated gay men dancing to up-tempo black rhythm and blues. Disco, in short, brazenly confirmed all the old fears that under the right conditions the passions aroused in clubs might overflow their bounds and foster a broader ferment. For a short while the essential cultural tension between restraint and desire seemed to be overthrown.
From its very origins the history of disco is a story of strange bedfellows, of odd couplings and midnight encounters that take place only in clubs. Associations banished from broad daylight— between debutantes and bikers, between working-class delivery boys and high-profile fashion designers, between mobsters and newly liberated gay men—freely blossomed in the fantasy-scape of the discotheque. But for all its ephemeral onenight stands, disco itself is the product of two more lasting across-the-track love affairs: the first between Europe and America and the second between the social elite and the cultural underworld.
Given its subsequent history, it is fitting that the discotheque originated as a den of resistance in Nazi-occupied France. During World War II the Germans took full advantage of the legendary Parisian nightlife of cabarets and bistros, but they banned “swing” dancing and jazz clubs because of their American and black and Jewish cultural pedigree. Consequently, jazz became an emblem of dissent in the French resistance, and illicit clubs adopted the low-key approach of playing records over crude public-address systems, since live performances, for so many reasons, were impractical. Out of necessity, secrecy, and austerity emerged a uniquely European nightclub format, pioneered at bars like La Discothèque in the Latin Quarter’s Rue Huchette, where patrons could order drinks along with their favorite jazz records.