Rock History, What I Leave Out: Disco
September 16, 2008
Disco deserves a second chance.
The music is much maligned, for reasons that have as much to do with its audiences–gay men, folks of color, women, working class, John Travolta–as much as it has to do with the music itself. Yes, some of it reeks like a camembert on a hot summer’s day. “A Fifth of Beethoven,” which I always play in my music history classes as an example of a fascination with high culture gone horrifyingly awry (What did you just do to the Fate motive????), comes to mind in that category.
But, despite the misgivings that I have about disco, the genre offers some pretty compelling reasons musically, culturally, and historically for its inclusion in my class. In a reverse of what I usually do with this column–since I know someone will read it and say, “Of course you don’t teach disco! It sucks!” I’m going to go with those first, and then address why I don’t teach it.
Disco undoubtedly descends from the rock & roll tree, just as surely as punk or heavy metal, each of which I do teach (and more of the former of those in just a second). One could easily plot out one line from soul to funk to disco. And, hell, just listening to the growing prominence and function of the bass line–first based on an R&B bass line, then doing a repetitive thing, then adding syncopation to the repetitive thing, then doing a repetitive thing with octave ornamentation and syncopation–should be convincing enough to say that dismissing disco as simple or bad or soulless is at the very least a little off.
Most of the musical criticism of disco revolves around the production: it is not “real” music; it is manufactured. But if you look at and actually listen to a band such as Chic, you can hear that the band is a real band in every sense of the word. Nile Rodgers incorporates a distinct, easily identified rhythmic pattern into his guitar part; Bernard Edwards plays a melodic, syncopated, completely inspired bass line.
After listening to Chic’s “Good Times,” you probably recognize it from several contexts, up to and including samples in Grandmaster Flash’s “Grandmaster Flash and the Wheels of Steel”; Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight;” imitation in Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Blondie’s “Rapture”; and distillations of Edwards’ bass line in most early Duran Duran songs (of course, they were later produced by Nile Rodgers).
And then there are the drums of disco, all high-hatty and crunchy, that are oh-so-tasty. Here’s Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”:
And, finally, there are some FANTASTIC vocal performances in disco. Donna Summer? What would the world be without “Love to Love You?” or “I Feel Love”? A whole lot darker and less sensual, that’s what. And what about Labelle? Here’s some “Lady Marmalade” for you (also–listen to that hi-hat! And check out those costumes!):
But these are not the things that most people talk about when they complain that disco sucks. No, people think of the really awful disco songs, such as the ouvre of the falsetto-favoring Bee Gees, or the highly produced Village People. So my question is, why is disco remembered for its shittiest, and not for its best?
Back in the heyday of disco, aka the late 1970s, the music was favored by certain audiences mentioned above, who do not and did not fit the mold of “what rock critics like.” Reebee Garofalo, a pop music scholar, has argued that disco’s audiences brought out the worst in some people. Homophobia, for example, almost certainly played a part in the dismissal of disco as “real music;” racism played another; and then there’s sexism, since almost all the vocal performers of disco were black women.
When I think about the big “disco sucks rally” in Chicago, I think of Nazi book burnings. So does Nile Rodgers. At that rally, on July 12, 1979, people destroyed more than 10,000 disco records. There’s something completely disturbing about hating something so much that you can’t just turn off the radio, but have to actively, literally blow it up in center field. It’s not just about the music at that point.
I have no shortage of what I could say about disco, particularly as a gender and sexualities scholar. And I think that disco influenced hip-hop, new wave, and even the recent resurgence of post-post-punk/dance-punk bands that flourished in the early 2000s. So why do I leave it out?
I mostly leave disco out because I have other battles to fight, and I try to include a balance of “things the kids will like” with “things the kids really ought to know before leaving this class.” In the beginning, it’s all about getting them to understand things like the Great Migration’s effects on everything from Chicago blues to Motown. At the point in the semester where disco arrives, I usually have a big wave of resistance from the majority when I expose them to punk. While you’d think that they would be open to it, I’ve yet to have a class that embraced punk rock. Or even shook hands with it, on the whole. So, putting disco into the mix at that time would be a fine dance indeed. Perhaps even the “Last Dance.” And I’m pretty sure I would not feel love.