- 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
The opening of Studio 54, in April 1977, expanded gay disco culture to encompass a pansexuality that united gays, straights, and the sexually undecided under the banner of disco hedonism. As Steven Gaines observed in his biography Simply Halston , “Studio 54 was the embodiment of the most decadent social period of any city in modern history. By 1978, Dionysus had hired a press agent and New York was headlong into an era of staggering permissiveness.” Founded by gay Steve Rubell and straight Ian Schrager, Studio’s immediate success also solidified, in the public mind, the connection between disco and an aristocratic sensibility. The club was further proof that in the city-state of the discotheque, the preferred government was a circumscribed democracy. Rubell was famous for the arbitrary brutality of his door policies: allowing a woman in but not her date, demanding that people strip naked before entering, telling would-be guests they would never be let in under any circumstances because they were gauche, or not well shaven, or tackily dressed. This ruthless discrimination was justified as an artistic process Rubell called “painting the picture”: By preventing redundancy in the reveling crowd (too many investment bankers in suits, too many drag queens, etc.) and banning outright certain categories of people like “bagel nosh Jews” (those who looked like Rubell and came from his social background) and “Quiana from the Americana” (rich South American tourists from the nearby hotel), it ensured, according to the club owner Jim Fouratt, “that if you got in, you were in a world that was completely safe for you to do whatever you wanted”—that you were, in short, among the elect.
Disco’s rising fortunes were further buoyed in December 1977 by the astounding success of the film Saturday Night Fever . The double-album soundtrack eventually became the biggest-selling record of all time until Michael Jackson’s Thriller , and the film irrevocably established most of the stereotypes associated with the disco era to this day: the white three-piece suit, gold chains, precision blow-dried hair, patented dance-floor moves. Saturday Night Fever propelled disco fever to epidemic proportions: By 1978, 40 percent of all the music on Billboard’s Hot 100 was disco. Meanwhile the discofication of America proceeded: There were disco lunch boxes, disco “Snoopy” bed sheets and pillows, disco belt buckles, disco records by old-timers like Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman, an estimated two hundred all-disco radio stations, disco dance courses, disco proms, books about the proper makeup to wear to discos—and an estimated twenty thousand discotheques nationwide.
The rise of Studio 54 and the phenomenal success of Saturday Night Fever made disco a ubiquitous feature of the pop-culture landscape as well as a living paradox. The media focus on celebrities like Margaret Trudeau, Andy Warhol, and Halston at Studio 54 projected an image of disco as a snob medium, an elitist music-based lifestyle adopted by name-dropping poseurs. This conceptualization surfaced, however, at the very moment when disco was gaining suburban grassroots appeal, as Americans across the nation grew accustomed to hearing the disco Star Wars theme piped into their malls and supermarkets. Mainstream disco was, at the same time, a de-gayed version of the original. It is no coincidence that the Bee Gees, the chief apostles of the mainstreaming, had nothing to do with the original disco constituency and didn’t come from a dance-Tnusic background at all. Their songs, in fact, diverged from the hedonistic, highly sexualized genre of most early disco in favor of macho posturing (“Staying Alive”) and ersatz romanticism (“How Deep Is Your Love?”)—in other words, traditional pop-music themes. Kevin Kaufman, a deejay at the time at a club called Disco 2000, in Reno, Nevada, later observed, “I don’t know any gay bar worth its salt in ’77 or ’78 where you would ever, ever have heard them play ‘Staying Alive.’”
During this heyday of mainstreaming, Interview magazine, which shared with Studio 54 a parasitic relationship to celebrity culture, decided to profile Olivier Coquelin, the man who had brought the discotheque to America some fifteen years earlier. Since his concept had ultimately triumphed, one might have expected an exultant Coquelin, but instead his tone was apocalyptic, sensing as he did that the entire social basis for the discotheque was slipping away. “I think the world as we know it has a few years to go,” he said. “By ‘as we know it,’ I mean as we enjoy it—with servants, with Camembert, with fine wines. This will soon be finished… . What we know now—taking ‘The Queen Mary’ to Europe for six days and all those P. G. Wodehouse kinds of things—is gone, and it’s gone forever. We have 10 years, maybe 15 or 20 years at most, to enjoy whatever is left.” But even the prescient Coquelin couldn’t know that, that makes for bumpy nostalgia today for disco, the end was still closer at hand.