- 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
No one was more alarmed by the growth of disco than were fans of rock music. They saw it as a direct and intentional challenge to rock’s position at the top of pop music’s ziggurat. Rock fans framed their struggle against disco as a Manichaean conflict of ideological opposites, in which disco represented all that was synthetic, aristocratic, and fake, while populist rock stood for all that was earthy and real. Rhetorical polarities notwithstanding, history told a somewhat different tale. Rock had originally lost ground to disco precisely because it demanded a relationship between performer and fans in which the latter were reduced to passive, idolatrous spectators. This dynamic was reversed by the democratic principle within disco that relegated many performers to a state of near-anonymity and made the dancers the stars. Moreover, disco stood for a new sexual order that, in the words of the writer Alice Echols, “seemed to arouse something like castration anxiety in rockers.” Rock had been an ongoing celebration of uncontested straight male sexual dominance; disco bypassed hetero men in favor of black women divas, gay male dancers, and virtually any other alternative. To reaffirm their sexual primacy, rockers needed to destroy disco and the altered sexual hierarchy it stood for.
In fact, disco rejuvenated rock by serving as the kind of enemy the latter had been lacking since the generation-gap wars of the 1960s. Instrumental in the growing antidisco movement was Steve Dahl, a Chicago disc jockey and fervent disco hater most famous for officiating at the Disco Demolition rally in Chicago’s Comiskey Park Stadium in July 1979. The idea was to detonate disco records during the intermission of a baseball doubleheader, but charged-up White Sox fans—chanting, “Disco sucks” and “Death to disco”—lost control and began tearing up the stadium. Just as the bloody Altamont concert a decade earlier had become an epitaph for the sixties counterculture, so the Comiskey riot became visual shorthand for the end of the disco era.
The year 1980 proved a fateful one for disco. In the eighteen months after Comiskey Park, the market for disco music crashed, a popular backlash against sexual license became part of a conservative wave that elected Ronald Reagan President, and a new, mysterious “gay cancer” appeared that would soon be known as AIDS. Together these developments undermined the hedonistic lifestyle that disco had sustained. This naturally came as a great relief to the rock majority, many of whom would have continued the counterrevolution until the last disco dancer had been consumed. But what emerged was a more subtle cultural tradeoff. Disco-derived music had found a lasting place in the hearts of Americans and so continued to thrive into the 1980s and beyond, taking the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna to the very pinnacle of long-lasting celebrity and popularity. Madonna would build her persona on a watered-down version of disco-era hedonism. At the same time, the word disco was effectively banished from the language for the next decade—even as a term for describing a nightclub—and the lifestyle associated with it became an object of scorn, ridicule, and embarrassment.
As early as 1978 the novelist Andrew Holleran had looked back on the dawn of disco and sighed, “Any memory of those days is just a string of songs.” The same may be said today, but for different reasons. Certainly the nostalgia-soaked 1990s have rehabilitated disco music and associated kitsch, but much of the original context has been erased, including the unfettered pleasure seeking that it once symbolized. Films like 54 and The Last Days of Disco , along with disco marathons and Studio 54 documentaries churned out by VH1, present the contours of the original disco boom while eliminating the gay content at its core. On the basis of current representations, one might conclude that disco died a natural death when the market for disco music collapsed, circa 1980, not that disco stood for an unleashed sexuality that flew in the face of mainstream mores even during the “anything goes” seventies. The ensuing AIDS crisis further called into question many of the equations set up by gay liberation and heralded by disco: that the sexual was sacred, that sexual liberation was personal liberation, that shame was the only enemy.
For this reason disco makes for bumpy nostalgia even in gay circles, as everyone tries to imagine (or recall) what a consequence-free world could have looked like. And this legacy has imbued disco with a mellow aura of decadence turned innocence. It occupies an extreme place in history, a brief, dizzying, exhilarating moment when the guiding cultural principle was Mae West’s axiom: “Too much of a good thing may be a great thing.”