By 1979, disco reigned supreme in American music. It claimed eight of fourteen Grammies that February, and nine of the Top 10 records. That summer, disco accounted for 40 percent of all records on the charts. But a year later, with rock DJs proclaiming "Disco sucks," the only thing people were dancing on was its grave. In Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (Norton; $26.95), University of Southern California historian and former disco DJ Alice Echols tells the story of the genre’s birth out of late soul and its transformation of gay life, women’s sexual expression, the record industry and pop music as we know it today. –Christine Smallwood
How did you get your start as a disco DJ?
I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I was in the history department but was part of a contingent of people whose real academic life was in the women’s studies program. In 1979 the university decided to review the women’s studies program. It looked as if the university might have shut down the program, and so we more or less occupied the administration. Afterwards we went to have a victory party because it was clear that we had been pretty successful. We went to the Rubaiyat, a predominantly gay bar, and the music just stunk. Disco had crashed, or was in the process of crashing, and the management had hired a guy who was into New Wave, which was fine, but he just played overlong mixes of the B-52s and Gary Numan. We were complaining and somebody said, Alice, you have all of these disco records. Why don’t you try to DJ? So I got a trial gig at the Rubaiyat, and then was hired, largely because they didn’t know what to do.
The social history you cover–the history of the clubs, producers and the political climate–really overlaps with the musical history, the evolution of the sound of disco.
Disco is to a great extent the work of black performers and black producers. Disco hijacks soul music and takes it in a very different direction than the ’60s soul of James Brown. It works off a big beat–really the Motown beat, rather than Brown’s more polyrhythmic approach. But what these black producers and artists do is move soul music into a more, in their view, sophisticated terrain. They start using different instruments, not just a honking saxophone, but instruments like the French horn.
This move toward sophistication and elegance and symphonic soul is first put forward by Isaac Hayes. Motown is the root, but Hayes puts forward a different kind of masculinity, one with real vulnerability along with a strong race consciousness. That vulnerable masculinity reaches its fullest expression in the figure of Barry White. His is a kind of soul music that is not about a got-to got-to got-to sock it to me, baby, masculinity. It’s about, or it says it’s about, the ladies. It’s all about pleasuring the ladies.
You write that disco is anonymous, producer-driven music. And yet you tell the story through its most famous acts–Donna Summer, Labelle, Chaka Khan, Sylvester.
One could argue that for the most part, with the exception of Donna Summer, the women I write about were not women whose careers were defined by disco. And that’s true! One of the music’s big challenges was the fact that it was producer-driven, and the vocalists were not stars about whom people wanted to know very much. It’s very hard to market music without recognizable personalities.
You write about how the "disco break," in which the music drops down and then builds back up to a crescendo, is a device from gospel. The experiential aspect of disco seems like gospel experience in other ways, too–like, the real stars of disco are the people in the club, the people dancing.
When James Brown was trying to go disco, I remember seeing the back of an album of his that said something about how times have changed, and the people on the dance floor are the real stars, which has got to be galling if you’re James Brown and you’ve always been the star. Disco privileged the dance floor, and gay men were very much a part of that. They were the early adopters of this music, in large measure because most rock-and-roll acts didn’t want to play gay bars. So gay bars relied on jukeboxes.
Most people don’t understand that one of the reasons disco insists on the relentlessness and unstoppability of the music is that the gay men who first embraced it had this very equivocal experience in their bars. You could meet men, but under very repressive conditions. It was a place of surveillance. So to have an experience of dancing through the night without the music stopping was important because it contradicted the experience in the bar before disco, when those bars were criminalized. There are disco historians who say that disco and gay liberation were on different courses. But I think it’s impossible to differentiate between them, to take the politics out of dancing. It’s no accident that the first gay liberation groups in New York City took as one of their first activities the planning and staging of dances.
And disco encouraged the turn away from effeminacy and toward macho style.
That shift was already under way. But disco does something interesting. Because the music is so overbearingly loud, disco really forces gay men to dispense with the chitchat. There’s no beating around the bush here. Instead it’s "push, push in the bush." In a good disco the loud beat of the music really does feel as though it has taken up residence in your body. It’s a very sexual experience.
And the sweatbox quality of so many discos made it almost impossible to do anything but take your shirt off, which then made it much more likely that you would feel, as your neighbors in the dance floor clearly had, that you needed to go to the gym. If you wanted to have sex in the gay bar of old, you would just sit there in a state of longing or you would go out and try to find some rough trade. With disco, these men began to become, as Edmund White says, the men that they’d been looking for. There’s a really important shift in gay subjectivity and sexual self-understanding and probably in sexual practices, as anal sex becomes destigmatized. Previously it had been seen as a mark of effeminacy. The macho-ness underwrites a greater sexual expressiveness.
People said disco was dead, but dance music is stronger than ever.
What is Lady Gaga? Is she somehow not disco because she can be read as "ironic"? So much of what’s on the airwaves now is really a form of disco. One of the most interesting changes is the way in which rap has become much more, as it was in its early days, dance-music oriented. The idea of rock-and-rollers, back in 1980, about disco being in flames and so would never ruin another day–go to Trader Joe’s, go to Whole Foods, listen to what they’re playing. Very often it’s tapes of classic ’70s disco. Or turn on the radio. The music is third- or fourth-generation disco, at least to my ears. So much of what disco pioneered has resulted in a music that really values hybridity over purity. Disco was never into purity.