- 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
For the first half of the 1970s, disco was an extended conversation between black musicians and gay dancers. These were halcyon days for those in on the disco craze while it was still a glorious secret from journalists and most of the white, heterosexual world, before it became, as Andrew Holleran put it, “another possession of the middle class.” But the mainstreaming of disco after 1975 was probably inevitable in a recession-plagued America. As cultural commentators ceaselessly observed at the time, paying a deejay fifty dollars a night to spin records was a lot cheaper than hiring live entertainers, and a nominal cover charge was easier on the wallet than buying a ticket to a rock concert. All told, disco promised euphoria, glamour, and decadence at a reasonable price. As the Hustle craze of 1975 elevated disco to a national phenomenon and enticed straight white people to boogie, a clash of cultures occurred. A mere half-decade after Stonewall, heterosexuals were being forced to navigate in an inverted cultural landscape whose terms were set by gay men. Dancing Madness , published in 1976 to capitalize on the disco craze, set down some guidelines: “The first test for the hetero male who wishes to be in tune with the basics of bisexual chic is to not feel threatened when addressed as ‘baby’ rather than ‘sir.’” A reporter from Harper’s , dispatched to the disco front in 1977, noted the nuanced stratagems necessary for straight entry into the world: “Now middle-class young men cruise the banquettes each weekend, but the tone of the place is sufficiently gay that a woman can protect herself by adopting a fierce gaze to indicate dykishness, or by staring fixedly at herself in a mirror, for self-absorption is respected here.” The author concluded that heteros “might say they were there only as watchers, only as voyeurs, [but] they were also becoming participants, regulars in a scene which could never be theirs, outlaws in what had always been an outlaw world.”
Indeed, disco firmly situated itself within the cultural politics of the 1970s, which ran a bizarre gamut from radical-chic terrorist groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army to orthodox feminism, from gay liberation to the environmental movement. Whereas groups like the S.L.A., representing the tail end of New Left radicalism, endowed every action—eating, sleeping, bank robbery— with political significance, disco was just the opposite. Its lifestyle contained a politics, but it was one that often remained implicit and unarticulated. What was the politics of disco? It can be found, ironically, in a statement made by a motivational-research euru named Ernest Dieter in the 1950s, who told executives: “One of the basic problems of prosperity is to demonstrate that the hedonistic approach to life is a moral and not an immoral one.” Disco, as music and as way of life, was the standard-bearer for the hedonistic fringe of liberalism that held that nothing was wrong if it felt right, that personal exploration through dance, sex, or drug use was indeed a quasi-religious quest, with a morality as valid and legitimate as the counter-morality condemning it. Disco’s countercultural politics lay particularly in its elevation of the human body as an instrument of pleasure. It strove to rupture the tie between pleasure seeking and shame.
In fact, disco’s defiance of shame was designed specifically by and for gay men, who had always found themselves on the losing end of straight society’s equation of sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, with shame. Instead, disco’s philosophy, fused in the rapturous gay underworld and then adopted by straight men and women, is best conveyed by the lyrics of one popular disco song: “Shame on you, if you can’t dance too.” The only “shame” in disco lay in the inability to get in touch with one’s body through dance, drugs, and sexual exploration. However powerful it was, though, this antishame politics remained only occasionally acknowledged by its practitioners as a countermorality, and this made it highly vulnerable to attack.