The disco backlash

Dance music disco ballDisco evolved in New York City and Philadelphia nightclubs during the late 1960s out of African American and Latin American music. It became especially popular in the gay community. “Love Train” by the O’Jays came out in 1972, arguably the first hit with some of the key elements that came to define disco: lush orchestration (with a focus on strings) and the kick drum emphasizing each beat. The watershed year arrived in 1975, when several songs broke through to mainstream success: “Never Can Say Goodbye” by Gloria Gaynor, “Get Down Tonight” by KC and the Sunshine Band, and “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer.

Outside of inner city clubs, the genre mixed with other dance styles. In an Orange County gay club in 1975 you would hear Donna Summer followed by “Brick House” by the Commodores. Within two years, however, disco completely dominated dance music in clubs, even in the suburbs. 1977 was also the year when Saturday Night Fever catapulted disco into the mainstream.

The genre’s explosive success and the growing popularity of clubbing drew promoters looking to make a fast buck. This resulted in a deluge of formulaic, superficial music. Suddenly, everyone was releasing a disco track—even rock acts like the Stones and Rod Stewart. Could the style evolve as a major current in pop music? I posed that question in a college newspaper article in April 1979. I pointed out hints of sophistication beyond what one might expect. Songs like “Dance” by Paul Jabara employed different time signatures. “If I Can’t Have You” by the BeeGees avoided symmetrical phrases. “I Love You” by Donna Summer and “Groove Line” by Heatwave used an expanded harmonic palette. But in the end, disco became limited by its primary purpose: to speed the dance.

Still, the vehement reaction against disco surprised many. In July 1979, the White Sox held a Disco Demolition Night in Chicago during games against the Detroit Tigers in Chicago. A crate filled with disco records was blown up on the field. The event caused such havoc that the White Sox had to forfeit the second game.

During these years, I was playing keyboards in a dance band that regularly gigged throughout Southern California. Part of our appeal came from our versatility. We could perform all the popular genres from hard rock to disco, easily switching from Ted Nugent to Steely Dan to Sly and the Family Stone. This versatility undoubtedly made us a logical choice for one Orange County high school beset by warring music camps. We would play “Get Down Tonight” and the dancefloor would fill with the disco camp. Then we’d play “Walk This Way” and the disco camp would retreat, replaced by the rock crowd. Back and forth it went for an hour. Then each side began catcalling and badgering us to play only their genre. A riot broke out. The school administrators shut down the dance.

As someone who finds something interesting in all genres, it’s difficult for me to understand such vitriol. Was there an element of racism and homophobia in the disco backlash? Undoubtedly so. Haters knew that disco was popular with black and gay audiences. Nevertheless, there were certainly good reasons to be annoyed with disco, given its ubiquity and mindlessness. As the 80s unfolded, disco became less prominent. The three most influential artists of the decade—Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson—each dabbled in disco before infusing their sound with other elements that re-defined dance music for a new era. Younger listeners turned to fresher styles such as punk and new wave. But disco continued to bubble up in later incarnations: EDM and house, followed by their infinite offshoots.

After half a century, however, the club and rave culture seems to have peaked. People don’t go out like they used to, thanks in part to the pandemic. And thanks to oversaturation, the popularity of EDM has decreased since its peak years of 2014-18—much as oversaturation affected the popularity of disco. What will happen next to the heartbeat of dance music is anyone’s guess. But the soul of disco—the thumping kick drum, the syncopated high hat, the electronic pulse pioneered by Georgio Moroder in Donna Summer’s 1977 hit “I Feel Love”—continues to infuse dance music.

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