Disco: Still Sucking After All These Years

Jonathan Bellman

A persistent thread on the American Musicological Society listserv has involved Disco music. Sub-threads have involved the style’s early association with (appropriation by?) the gay community, whether (following from that) the phrase “Disco Sucks!” is a specifically anti-gay sentiment, and even whether “_____ sucks!” refers originally to the on-male sex act or whether (following, I think, William Safire) it’s an abbreviation of an older phrase of insult, “_____ sucks from the rear teat!”, which means that _____ is the runt of the litter, bad, useless, etc. Now, Dear Reader, before you archly think “Summertime in academia, eh?”, pray reflect on Disco’s huge role in American popular music and popular culture, and the demonstrated fact that many of us were in high school and college in the 1970s. The prevalent popular music was, loved or loathed, of signal importance to us. (And to those who assume that musicologists only care about manuscript fragments, Beethoven’s hair, and boxed sets of Great Works: I’m sorry that you have it so utterly wrong.)

Anyway, I need to get this off my chest:

I hated Disco with such a fine a perfect loathing that I quite literally stopped listening to the radio. I had been into: various offshoots of Art Rock (Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, and the Electric Light Orchestra, before they totally sold out), Folk and Country Rock (the British bands, Steeleye Span in particular, and such American country-rock outfits as the New Riders), and the piano horses: Billy Joel (up through Turnstiles) and Elton John (up through half of Caribou). Suddenly, you couldn’t get away from Disco: sensing which way the wind was blowing, ELO went after it in a big and successful way (“Evil Woman”), Elton John (“Philadelphia Freedom,” “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart,” “Island Girl,” all of which I heard in a row three days ago, in some demonic joke), etc. etc.  That’s all there was.K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Donna Summer, endless anonymous groups and everyone trying to sound like them: songwriting and hot instrumental playing disappeared, to my ear, and instead everyone—seemingly overnight, became a pod-person, dancing to this godawful narcissistic poseur garbage with the incessant high-hat whooshes.

Cultural critics sometimes make Disco out to be a reaction against this or that cultural development or musical style. I did perceive Disco to be a reaction at the time, but for me it was a reaction against caring about anything. Maybe people were all cared out after the 1960s and Vietnam War, I don’t know, but in my high school years (’71–’75) and immediately after, the whole Disco ethos with its generic sound, attendant couture, and “just dance” ethic seemed to me to be not all that far from the insufferably miserable ballads and other songs at the time. It is instructive, here, to remember the big hits from 1974 on that WEREN’T Disco: “Billy Don’t Be A Hero,” “The Night Chicago Died,” “Afternoon Delight,” “Save All Your Kisses For Me,” “Torn Between Two Lovers,” “Love Will Keep Us Together,” and on and on. Those were not really dance numbers, but they had something in common with Disco: they targeted an IQ level in the low 50s. No protest, no thought, no wordplay (think how refreshing Paul Simon and Randy Newman lyrics sounded throughout that period), no cool harmonies, no fun hooks or arresting instrumental display, nuthin’.

To the young’uns: really, you’ve no idea just how terrible popular music was then. The vast majority was corporate, ground out songs-by-committee (or producer) earning huge profits, and it was like soma—musical twinkies and cheese-whiz for the mindlessly consuming masses—the entire charts, for most of the 1970s. To me, it was a consummately TV-headed decade, only to be followed by…another consummately TV-headed decade. Hey, we’ll all be OK just so long as you don’t think. Oh, Nixon’s fine, whatever, wasn’t paying attention, I got stoned and I missed it. “Now Watergate does not bother me,” sang Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Does yore conscience bother yew?” (Check out Warren Zevon’s riposte “Play It All Night Long,” with some really wicked lyrics.)

This was the time covered by the Ford and Carter presidencies. Need I say more? Black holes in the leadership positions, while the American populace lamely did the Hustle and wondered if it was really wrong to, in Carter’s words, “lust after another woman in your heart.” Believe, even though it beggars belief: it really was like that. The wages that kind of cultural passivity were the 80s, God knows, and all kinds of cultural bills from that are STILL coming due.

With regard to cultural politics, I would add that in my earliest awareness Disco was not particularly associated with the gay community, so that didn’t really figure in to my reaction to it. It is (he said, folding his hands primly) of course not my place to call the gay-Disco association at least a questionable call, as it has been explained to me that Disco is often heard as a celebration of pre-AIDS gay male identity, a sort of soundtrack to a golden age. I’ll have to take people’s word for it on that one, but it is unacceptable for my (or anyone’s) extreme distaste for the music to somehow be maneuvered into an implied cultural gay-bashing. (Besides, there was no question about Elton John’s proclivities, and he simply played killer piano, so I was a devotee…until he deemphasized the piano in the mid-1970s, and that was that.) Sometimes it really is about the music itself, analysts and commentators and “the literature” and all that aside.

A good 60–70% of the soundtrack of the 70s was Disco. I and many others remember this as a time of profound, corporate-driven diminishment in popular music, a time where experimentation was all but killed off. In the wider American culture, it was virtually the same, a time of no social responsibility, a whirlwind pursuit of profit, permeated by cultural incompetence on all levels. Surely I exaggerate, you smirk? Go catch some footage of Ford bumping his head on stuff, or find some transcripts of him and his dull-normal minions opining about WIN buttons in the context of—it makes me want to weep—economic policy. Reflect on that State Department moron in the Carter administration telling the nonplussed Poles that our country had “licentious desires” for theirs. (If you look at the Reagan, H.W., and W. administrations, it’s easy to think that such clod-like American idiocy is the product of one party: it ain’t. Next time Carter makes pronouncements on the world situation, take a look at his presidency.)

Death to Disco? Too kind a fate. For me personally, the 1970s, the decade of high school and college, were just fine: learning growth, travel, exponential increase in musical and other experiences, and (just at the end) I met my wife. For American culture at large, forever emblematized in my mind by Disco music, it was absolutely catastrophic.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to Disco: Still Sucking After All These Years

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Would you care to expound on rap?

  2. Lisa Hirsch says:

    (I should note for onlookers that Jonathan and I are the same age, and that I howled all the way through the posting above. Yes, it was a visit to various bad dreams of my youth. I was listening to Beethoven and Stravinsky once I gave up most rock and pop music around age 15. I have one small bit of data to add, though: going to a lesbian bar felt pretty daring in 1980 – almost everybody was deeply closeted then – and the soundtrack was disco.)

  3. Jonathan says:

    Rap and hip-hop: no, I won’t expound–I’m too ignorant and never spent enough time around rap. Hated it, yeah, but my opinion was formed in the bad old days when there was all the strutting and badness and all that. I loved, by way of commentary, Randy Newman’s “Masterman and Baby J.”
    That said, I’m finding I really agree with a comment Eric made to the “Wreck-Your-Car Great” blog: rap works best for me (too) as garnish, or as a break. It doesn’t stand on its own, in my ear, but I’m pretty distant from the target audience, no?
    Also: my wife and I heard it in the mid-1980s on the street in Oakland, CA, near an entrance to the main BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. Bunch of boys, bunch of girls. The boys were doing all the sound effects–mouths alone, no electronics–and the girls doing the rapping. It was absolutely electric. By the way, I don’t recall any jewelry, strutting, or hate speech–this was on-the-fly, improvised oral poetry. Wonderful.
    Interesting comment about the lesbian bar, Lisa–the association with Disco is always framed as a gay-male identity thing, so this was new to me.

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    That’s a pretty good riff on rap! I think Disco was the bar sound-track of the late 70s, regardless of who was in the bars.

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