Sunday, June 19, 2016

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (2010)

Alice Echols's history of disco is a useful academic assessment of the state of disco and the many conventional wisdoms, often contradictory, that have clung to it since the '70s. She charts the basic rise and fall through the nightclubs, and the embrace of disco by marginalized American social groups such as African-Americans, women, and gays, finally arriving at the commercial debacles that followed the grimly persistent "Disco Sucks" campaigns of the late '70s and then the usual arguments that disco never went away, which I happen to subscribe to also. Echols is well suited to the task, as an academic with interests in American studies and history, and also as a long-time DJ in and around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan. She devotes chapters to each of the social groups, with two for gays and another one on the movie Saturday Night Fever, which in many ways represents the watershed commercial milestone moment for the music—or, really, for the word "disco." The general shape of this history was well known to me, but there were many interesting revelations along the way. I hadn't known, for example, how much Chic looked to Roxy Music for a kind of formal inspiration. In many ways disco is a prototypical story of American social norming, with underclass groups providing cultural vitality as a means to mainstream acceptance. One refraction is that disco did not succeed until John Travolta made it safe for straight white men. Another is that these same straight white men simply could not handle such intimate acquaintance with dangerous subversive minorities, rising up to reject it with uncontrolled, unconscious violence. Hmm, something about this feels so familiar. Echols has no particular axe to grind. She just likes the music and here tries to solve the mystery of how it could rise so high, yet fall so low, enduring a cultural exile that still seems remarkable, not least for the way the music itself simply continued on, under new names: dance music, DOR, techno, electronica, etc., etc. Chockful of notes, sources, and recommended songs (some new to me and nice finds), it's a terrific summary of one key strand of pop music that continues to play on and affect everything.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. I'm just watching a documentary on disco where she's the main talking head: The Secret Disco Revolution.

  2. I get this one a little mixed up w/ Peter Shapiro's Turn the Beat Around b/c I read them both the same summer but I liked the social group frisson from which disco evolved, which comes through in both accounts. Gay dance clubs love African American soul music. Gay disco embraces the soulless machine. With dance music female desire is transformed into a kitschy universal. By the time disco classes start showing up on retirement home activity calendars a backlash is inevitable. Regardless, "I Feel Love," that rhythm track, is a game changer, as revolutionary, as important, as any Chuck Berry guitar lick or Velvets drone-a-thon. Also, liked, as I recall, how Echol's story isn't Studio 54 but, right, actually more Saturday Night Fever, gritty, working class, but in college town, Michigan. Nice write-up.