The emergence and subsequent disappearance of disco music in the 1970s has now come to be known as one of the most defining cultural eras in music history. The genre took the world by storm, but the epicentre of disco music and its origins can be traced back to major US cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Miami.
It was in these cities that major clubs brought disco to the forefront of the national conversation, and today the influence of disco lives on, with its prevalence felt in popular culture like music and film, as well as in fashion. So, what exactly was it about the disco movement that had people hooked, and in turn, what led to its untimely demise?
Disco as a liberation movement
A tremendous part of disco’s success was the fact that it brought with it a much–needed sense of liberation for society. This was particularly significant among marginalised communities, with the carefree nature and frivolity of disco providing an essential outlet and source of release for minorities in America, at a time when social tensions of the 1960s had created a sense of restlessness and apprehension among these groups. Many African Americans, Latin Americans and LGBT groups relished in the carefree sentiment that disco brought, with disco acting as a safe haven for people to be themselves and defy societal norms.
After the 1969 Stonewall Riots, an increasing amount of LGBT rights groups were being formed in the United States, its members no longer willing to face the discrimination they had been dealing with for decades, largely at the hands of the police. Underground bars and clubs would be raided to ensure that no homosexual activity of any kind was taking place – even holding hands or dancing with someone of the same sex.
At the time, it was actually illegal in New York City for two men to dance with one another. But this decriminalisation in 1971, along with the decriminalisation of homosexuality in most states in the 1970s, paved the way for a transformative period for the gay community in 1970s America, with disco largely aiding with LGBT visibility due to its atmosphere of self–expression. Following decades past of increased social polarisation, many welcomed this shift towards a more welcoming society.
Empowering female artists
The driving force of disco was, of course, the incredible artists that shaped the genre. With bands like Sister Sledge, The Trammps, and the Bee Gees, to name but a few, and solo artists like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, the music scene was transforming swiftly throughout the 1970s. Black female artists like Gaynor and Summer helped to shape disco, with a specific focus on female agency and empowerment.
Summer’s lengthy and controversial seventeen–minute hit, Love to Love You Baby showcases the growing sexual permissiveness of the disco era, with the track being one of the first of its time to truly hone in on female sexuality and agency. Summer has been widely regarded as a cultural icon, and as one of the defining voices of the era, she is often dubbed the “Queen of Disco”. Her incalculable influence is still widely felt in pop culture today, with pop artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna taking inspiration from her music.
Gloria Gaynor was another hugely influential figure during this time, and it’s fair to say that I Will Survive, Gaynor’s 1978 hit touching on personal strength and empowerment, is now one of the most famous songs of all time. In 2012, Rolling Stone ranked the track as the second–best disco song of all time – losing out on top spot to the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive. Since its release over forty years ago, the immediately recognisable disco classic has also been regarded heavily as a gay anthem.
The song’s message, which is one of strength and resilience in the face of adversity, celebrating Gaynor’s desire to carry on living freely despite her hardships, was a message invariably welcomed by marginalised communities. With the song’s release coinciding with the beginning of the AIDS crisis, perhaps even further bringing its message to resonance with the gay community, it’s been described as a classic emblem of gay culture in the post–Stonewall and AIDS eras and “arguably disco’s greatest anthem”.
The influence of the discothèque
Disco music’s atmosphere of self–expression was at its most demonstrable within the major disco clubs throughout the 1970s, and many of these clubs initially just started out as smaller underground dance venues. The Loft, founded by David Mancuso in New York City, was one of the most prominent underground dance venues, most notably esteemed for its inclusivity. The Loft was said to be a safe place and a feeling of home for the many gay, Black and Latino youth who would attend, instilling a sense of community among those who perhaps previously had never felt a true sense of belonging.
The rise of social dancing helped implement the element of disco which fought for self–expression and individualism. Before the disco era, dancing had somewhat died out as a social activity, but this new, more inclusive club scene brought with it a new style of individualised, freeform dancing. Not only that, it also transformed the dynamic of social dancing – whereas previously it would be mandatory to bring someone of the opposite sex as your dance partner to get into a club venue, disco dancing was more of a free–for–all.
For the first time, people could go onto the dance floor as an individual, allowing for a new form of freedom and expression. As well as this, this new way of dancing allowed people to experience being part of a crowd for the first time – the interactivity of crowds at clubs heightened the experience for disco lovers, creating a camaraderie of people of all genders, sexual orientations, and nationalities.
Disco into the mainstream and Disco Demolition
By the late 1970s, disco was taking over the world and creeping into the mainstream, largely aided by films like Saturday Night Fever (1977), starring John Travolta, the soundtrack of which is now regarded as one of the best–selling albums in history. Although the film has since garnered some criticism for diluting disco into a more marketable package – dubbed by Pitchfork in 2007 as “disco for straight, white males” – the film’s success at the hands of the Bee Gees’ classic soundtrack popularised disco in a way it hadn’t been before, and saw it catapulted to the forefront of mainstream music, with radios across America switching to all–disco formats.
However, the transition of disco into the mainstream soon garnered problems for the genre. As with anything popular in mainstream culture, there were those who just simply didn’t like it – this was particularly prominent among rock music fans, who saw disco music as trite and overproduced. Fans of rock resented the disco movement as more and more radio stations favoured disco over rock. Steve Dahl, a then-24-year-old disc jockey who had been fired from a Chicago radio station when it went all–disco, was no exception, and would take out his frustration by destroying disco records on air.
The backlash to disco gave rise to different slogans, which Dahl promoted on his radio show; “Disco Sucks” and “Death To Disco” became common, with t–shirts even printed for disco–haters to showcase their disdain. This movement came to a head with Disco Demolition Night in 1979, again organised by Dahl. The event was a Major League Baseball promotion held at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois, which involved each attendee being admitted to the game for 98 cents on the condition that they brought a disco record; between games the dumpster containing all the collected records was to be blown up in an attempt to publicise the Disco Sucks ‘movement’.
An estimated 50,000 people attended the event. In contrast, a mere 15,000 people had attended the stadium the night before for a normal baseball game – it was pretty clear that these people weren’t here for the baseball. Vince Lawrence, now a prominent house music producer, was working as an usher at the game at the time, and was one of the few African American people at the stadium.
He recalled to the Guardian how he quickly realised that something wasn’t right; that people weren’t just turning up with disco records, but anything made by a black artist – “it was just disco records and black records in the dumpster”. The night took a turn for the worst after the explosion of the discs; riots started among the crowd – according to a report by NPR, not satisfied with just blowing up the records, an estimated 7,000 people slid down the foul poles, lit things on fire and stole the bases, creating so much damage that the second game scheduled had to be forfeited.
It was becoming increasingly clear that this culmination of disco hatred, disguised by an innocent alliance with rock music, showcased a bigger issue. For some disco haters, it was a fear of American identity being stripped of its whiteness; for some it was the femininity of disco, representing an emasculation of sorts – disco and the style it portrayed was a direct contradiction to the macho whiteness of rock music at the time. As put by Alice Echols in her 2010 book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, “for some, disco’s hegemony was yet another affront – further evidence of the growing power of racial and sexual minorities and the shrinking power of white straight men”.
Of course, some disco–haters just simply didn’t like the music, but the widespread media coverage and support that Disco Sucks acquired perturbed minority groups given the aggression of the incident. With disco, these minority groups had finally had representation in mainstream media, finally able to look up to successful artists who actually looked like them. For this reason, the aggressive hatred of disco seemed personal, and Nile Rodgers of Chic likened the incident to a Nazi book–burning – “this is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco’”.
There were other issues rising to the surface with the disco scene, namely the prominence of drug culture within the underground clubs, and the AIDS epidemic which devastated America in the early 1980s. Although disco was said to already be on its way out by the time Disco Demolition Night came along, the Disco Sucks movement certainly hastened its departure; disco was seemingly now a bad word, and in just over eight weeks, the number of disco songs on the Billboard Top 10 went from six to zero. Despite claims that this was the “death of disco”, disco didn’t necessarily die, it was more that it was absorbed back into the underground, to be resurrected in the 1980s as house or pop music, with Donna Summer being the only notable disco artist to maintain past chart successes.
Today, disco’s influences are obvious all around us. It brought about the rise of the DJ and invented the remix, as well as the fact it is still heavily felt in recent chart–toppers, with the likes of Doja Cat’s Say So and Dua Lipa’s Don’t Start Now having major success thanks to the songs’ disco undertones. The societal influence of disco went much deeper – disco brought about a more accepting and liberated society, with a carefree message of being who you wanted to be despite societal norms. Despite attempts to shut disco down, it has lived on through the many genres and subgenres since the 1980s, and it is this very resilience that is a testament to what disco was all about.