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2. “Musical Genre”: A Definition
3. Social Backgrounds during the 1970s
3. Disco as a Musical Genre
4. Did Disco suck?
5. The Legacy of Disco
The term “genre” is often confusing. When asked to categorize certain songs or groups into musical genres, many people will probably have trouble to do so. There are many genres, and not all of them are accepted or even known by everyone. Some genres are hard to tell apart for many people. Given all these problems, should we continue to use genres to classify musical styles?
One of the more widely accepted genres is disco. Most people would, however, not regard it as one of the most important genres in music history. Common associations with disco include the Bee Gees, the Village People, and the movie “Saturday Night Fever”. Many people would also associate disco with the gay scene, given the fact that it is very probable that disco music is played at gay parties. Disco, for most people, is easy-listening and has a slightly tacky image. Why do so many people think that it is “phony, sounding all the same..” ? Then again, why was disco so successful during the 1970s? And finally: how come that with the disco revival of the 1990s, the shadowy existence of disco during the 1980s was exchanged for retro reminiscence?
The fact that disco is not considered an important part of music history is shown by its rather stepmotherly treatment in literature. It is not very easy to find material that is both relevant and scientifically substantiated. Of the literature used for this work, the books Just My Soul Responding by Brian Ward (though containing a fairly short section on disco) and A Change Is Gonna Come by Craig Werner, both proved to be very useful regarding the evaluation of disco as a product of its time. The books Hot Stuff by John-Manuel Andriote and Saturday Night Forever by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen are less scientific, but in exchange they both offer very enthusiastic inside views by people who seem to have lived for disco in the 1970s. Both are thoroughly researched and full of interesting additional information. Saturday Night Forever even includes instructions how to dance “The Hustle” and “The Bus Stop”, as well as a discography listing the authors’ favorite disco records. Author Jussi Kantonen also wrote the on-line article “How to throw an Euro-disco party” The purpose of both books is to raise awareness of the importance disco had on the music industry, and on the people themselves, back in the 1970s. Saturday Night Forever focuses on describing the so-called disco ‘underground’, meaning disco music of higher quality which was produced beyond disco mainstream.
The lack of literature on disco is in a way compensated for by many web sites that are devoted to disco music. Some provide very useful information based on the authors’ own research (e.g. disco-disco.com ), or on articles written by music journalists (e.g. discostyle.com ), or on both (e.g. jahsonic.com ).
To explore the life of disco as a musical genre, the term “musical genre” itself has to be clarified first. Therefore, this work will first focus on the definition and purpose of musical genres. Then the social background of the 1970s will be explored, followed by a look at the development disco went through during that decade, including its problematic reputation at the end of that development. Last, a description of the legacy of disco shall prove that musical styles never totally die out.
2. “Musical Genre”: A Definition
Richard Middleton in his book “Studying Popular Music” categorizes popular music into the following levels, in dependence on the theory of ‘langue’ and ‘parole’ by the famous linguist Ferdinand de Saussure:
“langue: a general Western music code, governing the territory, roughly speaking,
of functional tonality (starting, that is, about the sixteenth century and still
largely current today);
norms: e,g, the mainstream conventions c. 1750 - c. 1900, or those governing the post-1900 period; within these
sub-norms: Victorian, Jazz age, 1960s, etc.; and
dialects'. e.g. European, Euro-American, Afro-American; within these
styles: music hall, Tin Pan Alley, Country, rock, punk, etc.; and
genres: ballad, dance-song, single, album, etc.; within many of these
s ub-codes: e.g. within rock, rock 'n’ roll, beat, rhythm and blues, progressive, etc.; and
idiolects: associated with particular composers and performers; within these
works and performances.”
This means that for Middleton genres are types of songs or musical performances, a sub-category to musical styles. However, this does not seem to be the definition most people would give for “musical genre”. The distinction between the words “genre” and “style” in daily use are very blurred, if at all existing. By all means, the term “musical genre” is generally perceived as a category that is on the same level as “musical style”. The on-line dictionary and encyclopedia ‘WordIQ’ defines it as follows: “Musical genres are categories which contain music which share a certain style or which have certain elements in common.” As this is the usual definition of the word “genre”, it is also the one underlying this work. WordIQ continues:
“Some genres, such as Indian music, are geographically defined; others, like Baroque music, are largely defined by chronology. Still others, such as Barbershop, are defined by quite precise technical requirements. Some genres, however, are quite vague, and may be contrived by critics; post-rock, for example, is a term devised and defined by Simon Reynolds. To some extent, all attempts to categorise music will have a degree of artificiality to them, because musicians tend to produce music in any style they choose, without concerning themselves with which genre they are working in.”
Genres are thus a kind of categorization with the purpose to give people orientation through the rather complex musical scene. However, the landscape of genres has become as complex as the scene itself: They are innumerable and hard to tell apart from each other for most people. Some artists make music with the explicit intent to create a new genre, because they do not want to be categorized along with other musicians. This led to the fact that by far not every genre is acknowledged by the public, and that some musical styles have been given several names used only by music experts. Some genres seem to be almost invented by music journalists or the musicians itself.
As a consequence, non-experts–depending on their degree of interest in music–know only a couple of genres like rock, pop, rap, techno, reggae, blues, or heavy metal. Regarding even these few genres it’s hard to tell exactly how they are defined. Many people refuse to use genre terms to describe music, either because they think the classification of genres is too complicated, or because they do not want music to be categorized at all. However, it seems that without any classification it is hard to talk or write about music, making genres indispensable for the music scene.
In addition, the facts that musical styles almost always transport certain messages and represent certain lifestyles and attitudes, and that most people prefer one or more certain genres, classification of music seems to be necessary to help people identify with their music. This process underlines the fact that many scenes are “closed” units that have specific expectations of their members and regard them as traitors, should they listen to other styles of music not closely related to their own–of course, this varies from scene to scene, but it is very clearly visible e.g. in the heavy metal world, where techno or hip hop music is usually resolutely disapproved of. The same goes vice versa, which is why projects to unite different musical styles (e.g. Run DMC with their Aerosmith cover “Walk This Way” in 1986 ) draw so much attention to them when they succeed. Today the music scene is getting more and more open towards these projects, while simultaneously, the musical scenes seem to protect themselves against that by more and more confining themselves into their worlds. However, the original prototypes of rock performers, blues singers, or rappers seem to become antiquated. They slowly disappear as their musical styles mix with others more frequently today. Up-to-date artists do not represent a specific style, they represent all, or at least a couple of them, at once.
3. Social Backgrounds during the 1970s
“The years that followed the sixties were like the proverbial ‘morning after’. The cupboards were bare, the once-mighty passion for public acts now spent, along with much of America’s heretofore indefatigably optimistic spirit.”
When disco was born, the society of the United States was facing some major challenges. The black people moved to large cities while white people preferred to leave the cities for the newly-created suburbs. The term “Chocolate Cities” came up. As a consequence of this ‘automatic’ segregation black communities often felt left alone and neglected by the government. While the number of blacks living below the poverty line increased, so did the size of the gap between black and white wage levels. The word “stagflation” was created to describe the existence of high inflation and high unemployment at the same time.
Jimmy Carter, U.S. president from 1977-1981, had great support from black voters during his election, but soon enough Carter “misplay[ed] the political game” in many ways and alienated both the black and the white communities. Some people released their anger through taking political action: The gay movement gave a voice to the people that had felt oppressed for a long time. When the people realized that their administration would not be able to solve their problems, they started to look for healing in other areas than politics. Crime rates and drug abuse increased, but fortunately enough, many found relief in music rather than in delinquency.
3. Disco as a Musical Genre
The type of music everybody today associates with “disco” came up for the first time in the early seventies and developed throughout the seventies and early eighties. It originated in gay clubs and from there literally captured the world, attracting people regardless of their color, sexual orientation, or gender. One of the first popular disco songs was Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” in 1974. It was not until the movie “Saturday Night Fever” and the soundtrack with songs from the Bee Gees came out, however, that people were convinced that it was okay to dance in discothèques even if you were white and straight.
Being one of the first styles to emerge out of the mixture of other, formerly confined musical styles (funk, soul, even reggae) and new elements (electronic dance music), disco played a special role in the landscape of musical styles and in the development of change described in chapter 2.
Mixing musical genres means bringing people together who were originally separated from each other. But disco went a step further by attracting people who had not been interested in music before. It offered a new way of escaping everyday life by going to clubs and dancing to music that does not put all the emphasis on its lyrics. Disco was made by and for mostly everybody. For the first time in modern music history there was a genre that was not listened to exclusively by blacks, latinos, or whites. Disco was thus only challenged by those people who disapproved of this new development.
The name “disco” was accepted by the wide public because it stood for a type of music that was new and unheard of before, even though it was composed of known elements. Moreover, like all important genres, it not only stood for a musical style. The term “disco” represented certain emotions and attitudes expressed through this music. It brought many new aspects which were more than important for the further development of music to what it is today. Some of these aspects were:
- For the first time, disco music was produced with the clubs in mind where it would be played eventually. Before that, music had been made exclusively to be listened to on the radio and on records.
- Simultaneously, disco music was released in a new format which made it easier for DJs to play it. DJs were a major creative force for disco, helping to establish hit songs and encouraging a focus on singles: a new sub industry of 12-inch, 45-rpm extended-play singles evolved to meet the specific needs of club deejays.
- Electronic elements were incorporated and mixed with human lyrics, often the way of singing was very emotional and thus softened the otherwise rather “cold” appearance of music that is made with the help of machines.
- Disco as a type of party music encouraged people to celebrate themselves and to put emphasis on having fun. Going to clubs and dancing to disco music meant putting one’s worries behind. The allegation of “hedonism” emerged from this fact. The presumption was given a solid base when Studio 54 opened in 1977 and soon thereafter became a real temple of hedonism.
- While the lyrics in some disco songs were rather banal, other artists, mostly black and/or gay artists and women, used disco as a powerful means of self-expression. Artists like Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”) and Donna Summer (“Hot Stuff”) celebrated their femininity through the songs they performed with huge success. Moreover, many disco musicians dared to break taboos by displaying a homosexual disposition and wearing eccentric clothes. Disco emerged out of the social distortion that followed the Stonewall Riot of 1969, and as such, it gave the people a message of respect; both towards others as towards one’s self.
Therefore, disco was much more than the simple kind of party music it was often perceived as, and still is. Disco was full of innovation. It gave artists a means of self-expression and listeners a means to escape reality for a while. As any commercial product, of course, disco was exploited by some producers when they took it to banality. However, one has to take a close look at some of the popular disco songs to tell whether the lyrics have a deeper meaning, although they appear rather vacuous at first. This is the case with the song “We Are Family”, performed by Sister Sledge and written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards from the band Chic. Even though the message might sound a little corny to someone who listens to it today, at the time “it reasserted a gospel vision of harmony and unity at the precise moment Jimmy Carter was unceremoniously showing Andrew Young to the door”. It is still an anthem for homosexuals today, just like “I Will Survive” (which is very popular among self-confident women, too).
The paradox of disco music was constituted by the fact that it was music made for people who wanted to have fun, but it was also part of the “tradition of psychological survival”, just like earlier dance music. Disco was made for people who wanted to escape their sometimes dire reality and to express the pride they felt even though they were a suppressed minority. This, however was a vicious circle, as more and more people (among them stars like the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Cher, and many others ) wanted to join the party and it eventually became not much more than that – a big party. In the worst case it was “a banal and vacuous caricature of black music’s more corporeal and sensual drives”. Disco had of course more to offer than that. At the same time “YMCA” and “Stayin’ Alive” were played in the glamorous downtown nightclubs, other clubs preferred to play what the authors of Saturday Night Forever call ‘underground music’: Songs like “Heaven Is A Disco” by Paul Jabara or “Lady Night” by Patrick Juvet. Even though disco had gone commercial when the movie “Saturday Night Fever” came out in 1977, it had existed as a very innovative musical genre before that day, and it continued to do so during the disco mass hype, mostly staying in the underground scene. The disco scene, like that of many other genres, split apart because they did not succeed in maintaining quality in the music and in keeping away from commercialization for the masses. Moreover, disco had many faces: Eurodisco, for instance–with artists such as Giorgio Moroder from Germany, Cerrone from France, and many other artists from different countries–heavily influenced the disco scene, as did the Latin disco sound. Besides that, like mentioned above, many other artists came out of their genres to release disco records. For all these reasons, the meaning of ‘disco’ is as ambiguous as that of many other musical styles.
4. Did Disco suck?
In 1979, “Disco sucks” was the motto of the newly formed anti-disco movement. However, the negative image disco had for many people (and still has today for some) had just as many different faces as the music itself.
The explanation why disco sucked depended on the role of the criticizer. “Straight America” hated it because for them it represented the pride of the gay movement and other unwanted notions of minorities. The fight against supposed revolutionaries and their music had already been older than a decade in the United States, so that it was not very surprising that conservative and upright citizens were against disco. Even though many of them were probably as unsatisfied with Carter’s politics like the people they were criticizing ), disco for them was as dangerous as anything that in their view promoted hedonism and immorality. Also, the looks of all the clubgoers imitating John Travolta had something weird about them. Primarily, the most dangerous things about disco seemed to be
- that it had developed in gay clubs and that many performers and listeners were gay, or black, or worst: both,
- that corporal sensuality played a big role in the music,
- and that some clubgoers were taking drugs to support their party efforts.
This kind of criticism did not distinguish between various facets of disco music. It was brought forward by outsiders who saw only the broad picture shaped by movies like Saturday Night Live, by reports about Studio 54 and other clubs in the media. Interestingly, the “Disco sucks” movement that started by the end of the seventies did not only consist of conservatives. Feminists felt that disco discriminated women while rock listeners found that disco with its ‘gay attitude’ was far from being masculine:
“Only by killing disco could rock affirm its threatened masculinity and restore the holy dyad of cold brew and undemanding sex partners. Disco bashing became a major preoccupation in 1977. At the moment when Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 achieved zeitgeist status, rock rediscovered a rage it had been lacking since the '60s, but this time the enemy was a culture with "plastic" and "mindless" (read effeminate) musical tastes. Examined in light of the ensuing political backlash, it's clear that the slogan of this movement--"Disco Sucks!"--was the first cry of the angry white male.”
The movement peaked on July 12, 1979, when radio DJs Steve Dahl and Garry Meier told people to bring disco records to Comiskey Park in Chicago and burn them there during a football game. The second game had to be canceled as their action nearly led to a riot. In the end, the movement was successful, and by 1980 disco was out of fashion.
Another kind of criticism developed out of the ‘genre splitting’ process described above: For serious disco listeners their music had to be artistic and ambitious, just like is had been before “Saturday Night Fever”, and like it continued to be afterwards in the underground. The transition between ‘serious’ and commercialized was of course smooth, however, whether one liked the Bee Gees or not was a distinctive factor. This group of people also did not approve of other trends commercial disco brought along, among them the way Studio 54 presented itself. The question whether or not a club should decide who to let in based on looks, style, or degree of famousness still accounts for controversy today.
5. The Legacy of Disco
Allmusic.com writes: “Disco lost momentum as the '70s became the '80s, but it didn't die -- it mutated into a variety of different dance-based genres, ranging from dance-pop and hip-hop to house and techno.” Some people claim that house music is just disco music speeded up. In any case, today’s club music has its origins in the more innovative and artistic side of the disco movement that took place in the underground clubs. As disco became less popular, the dance scene had developed a life of its own. Dance tracks did not have to be played on the radio for people to get aware of them, they could be promoted directly through the clubs. DJs experimented by mixing existing records and thus create new tracks, inspiring not only the dance/house music scene but also other styles like hip hop and pop music in general. The gay dance scene remained alive with artists such as Jimmy Somerville, Erasure, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Another disco legacy is the revival that it experienced at the end of the 90s. The Broadway musical “Saturday Night Fever”, the movie “Studio 54”, and disco cover songs prove that people are still attracted to message of simply having fun that disco music delivers. Regarding the other messages, e.g. that of “I will survive”, they, too, have not lost their significance today. Yet, this revival took place at a time when the United States seemed to be a better place than during the 70s: The information technology stimulated the economy, women and blacks were almost equal to everyone else, and the only political scandal was of a sexual nature. John-Manuel Andriote explains the phenomenon by calling it a “twenty-year nostalgia cycle”, based on the fact that the fifties were very popular during the seventies. Maybe it is a natural process that when people grow older they miss the old days so much that they start a fashion simply by reviving the past, thereby infecting their children. Maybe people also enjoy to explore the roots of the music they listen to today, finding out that the roots were sometimes actually better than what eventually grew out of them. Probably all these reasons are true, and there are others, like the fact that catchy tunes stay catchy over a long time.
Disco is not only a musical style. When it came up, it was a response to what the people needed at that time: They wanted to escape their everyday life, which was tough in the 1970s especially for blacks, by simply having fun and dancing to music that had a very danceable beat. Disco emerged out of soul and funk–that is, black music–to become a musical genre that appealed people regardless of color, sexual orientation, or gender; thereby giving way to a new development of unity after all the segregation and discrimination that had been taking place in the United States. Of course, not everyone approved of a development towards unity and freedom, and so disco drew heavy criticism from conservative America, especially after the triumphal conquest of the mainstream charts when the movie “Saturday Night Fever” came out, officially making it okay to listen and dance to disco music even if you were not gay or black. Disco with its message of having fun was a symbol of hedonism for many, and they were not totally wrong, proven by the fact that many clubgoers took drugs and had a lot of sexual intercourse on a typical Saturday night. Yet, disco was more than party music, it was a means of expression for blacks, gay men and women alike - and it had the ability to create a whole new scene where music was made especially for clubgoers and promoted exclusively in clubs. It offered a means of artistic expression for ambitious DJs and music producers, giving way to a ‘disco underground’ which satisfied the needs of more demanding music listeners. Even though the “Disco Sucks” movement helped putting the hype to an end, it did not kill disco. From its beginning, disco had incorporated electronic elements without trouble, and as the DJs kept on experimenting disco became the precursor on the basis of which new musical styles like house and techno emerged. Finally, the disco revival of the 1990s proved that even though disco is widely underestimated regarding its influences, it has not lost its potential to make people dance.
Andriote, John-Manuel. Hot Stuff – A Brief History of Disco. New York: HarperCollins 2001.
Jones, Alan and Kantonen, Jussi. Saturday Night Forever – The Story of Disco. Chicago: Chicago Review Press 2000.
Middleton, Richard. Studying Popular Music. Buckingham: Open University Press 1990.
Ward, Brian . Just My Soul Responding - Rythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations. London: UCL Press 1998.
Werner, Craig. Section 3: I Will Survive” [ on disco and soul ] , in A Change Is Gonna Come - Music, Race and the Soul of America. Edinburgh: Payback Press 1998.
Last visited (all web sites): April 2004.
Word count: 4,233.
 Brian Ward . Just My Soul Responding - Rythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations. London: UCL Press 1998.
 Craig Werner. Section 3: I Will Survive” [ on disco and soul ] , in A Change Is Gonna Come - Music, Race and the Soul of America. Edinburgh: Payback Press 1998.
 John-Manuel Andriote. Hot Stuff – A Brief History of Disco. New York: HarperCollins 2001.
 Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen. Saturday Night Forever – The Story of Disco. Chicago: Chicago Review Press 2000.
 The theory can be found in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale, first published by Charles Bally and others shortly after his death (Paris: Payot 1916).
 Richard Middleton. Studying Popular Music. Buckingham: Open University Press 1990, p. 174.
 Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster. The Century. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing 1999. Quoted from Andriote, Hot Stuff, p. 10.
 This term was invented by George Clinton who with his band Parliament released the song “Chocolate City” in 1975. Text sample: “And don't be surprised if Ali is in the White House / Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasure / Richard Pryor, Minister of Education / Stevie Wonder, Secretary of Fine Arts / And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady… God bless Chocolate City and its vanilla suburbs", see http://www.waikato.ac.nz/wfass/subjects/geography/cultural.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 183-187.
 Andriote, Hot Stuff, p. 10.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 193.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 207.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 205.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 205.
 Ward, Just My Soul Responding, p. 428.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 204.
 Ward, Just My Soul Responding, p. 426.
 The Song “Heaven Is A Disco” is mentioned (and called “totally bizarre”) in Jusi Kantonen’s introduction (p. xiv), “Lady Night” is mentioned in Alan Jones’s introduction (p. xix) to their book Saturday Night Forever.
 According to John-Manuel Andriote, “’Underground’ in those days meant unpublished addresses, elevators up several flights of an old building, and word of mouth. It was in the underground that society’s ‘outcasts’ – black, Hispanics, gay men, the working class – found community and flourished”. Andriote, Hot Stuff, p. 20.
 On the “disco sucks” campaign: http://www.jahsonic.com/Disco.html and Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 209-211.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 209.
 Andriote, Hot Stuff, p. 10.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 210.
 Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come, p. 209 and http://www.jahsonic.com/DiscoSucks.html.
 See Jones and Kantonen, Saturday Night Forever – Practically, the whole book is about this topic.
 Andriote, Hot Stuff, p. 133.
 Andriote, Hot Stuff, p. 5.