Mike tells Sarah how a silly sports promotion galvanized a reactionary movement. Digressions include “Charlotte’s Web,” Jane Fonda and German-language musicals. Songs are dissected; the honor of David Bowie and late-night salad bars are defended.
Huge thanks to historians Tavia Nyong'o, Eric Gonzaba, Luis-Manuel Garcia and Gillian Frank for helping Mike with this episode!
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Mike: I will probably cut this out. Did you know that the number one city for You’re Wrong About listeners is Chicago?
Sarah: No! And I think we should keep this in. I think that'll make Chicagoans be like, “Yeah! Another thing we're best at that no one knows about.”
Sarah: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, where every so often we stop being so depressing and get gay.
Mike: This episode is extremely gay and not depressing. So that was very good.
Sarah: Welcome to You're Wrong About, the episode where whenever we take one fucking break from talking about straight culture, things get so much better. Ah, what a thought.
Mike: I was thinking earlier today that the best thing about this episode is the worst thing that happens to anybody in this episode is somebody breaks a hip.
Sarah: Oh, good. That's pretty serious. But yeah, if that's the worst.
Mike: We're taking a break from all that this week, it's going to be great.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall. I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic. And as I was just demonstrating to Mike right before we started recording, Disco, which is our topic today, is very integral to this show because there is a song that I listened to every single week before we start recording. And Mike, what is that song?
Mike: Rasputin Makings of a Love Machine, or something.
Sarah: By Bony M. and I love it so much. And it's just like, it puts me in exactly the right energy for when we start recording. Which is just like joyful and energetic and ready for history.
Mike: It’s a bop. We're going to talk about other bops. I'm going to introduce you to other unknown bops today.
Sarah: I'm so excited, but yeah, I guess I want to start by saying the kind of stake I have in this topic because that like, we're talking about disco today and disco is a much maligned form of music, the Tonya Harding of music one might say, because all it ever did was love us and give us something to dance to and provide freedom and expression for the “tacky” and mainstream American culture responded by being really, really mean.
Mike: Or did it?
Sarah: Or did it?!
Mike: This is what we're going to talk about today.
Mike: Oh, it's very complicated. It's much more complicated than I thought it was when I started looking at it.
Sarah: I’m super excited. Let's do it.
Mike: So yes, today we are talking about a specific aspect of disco, namely, the Disco Demolition Night of June 12th, 1979. What do you know about this event?
Sarah: So, I know that this happened… was it at Comiskey Park in Chicago? And is that where the White Sox play?
Sarah: You can neither confirm nor deny that, but it is in Chicago.
Mike: And it is a game of the White Sox, yes.
Sarah: And so they had, in the way that baseball games have themes, they had Disco Demolition Night, which in my head is like… a bunch of people flung their disco records onto the turf and they were, I guess, bulldozed or something like that and I think it damaged the field and it was bad for it. And I feel like it was this publicized image of like, “The End of Disco!” and maybe there was a “Disco Sucks” banner.
Mike: Yes. There were many.
Sarah: And I feel like it's cited as like, “The End of Disco” the way that, like, Altamont is seen as the end of the sixties. And it's like, well obviously any narrative where some huge social and creative movement ended on one night in a zip code is, on some level, very silly. And so the question becomes, why did we start telling ourselves that story?
Sarah: I've done this before.
Mike: I know! I'm sitting here panicking cause you're spoiling all of the good stuff we're going to get to.
Sarah: Am I? It's like if I'm going into a Disney movie and I'm like, “So I'm guessing that that main character wants something and they're going to sing about it.” Like, that doesn't mean I don't want to hear the song. It means I’m excited about it.
Mike: I mean, it was going to be a big twist that like Disco Demolition Night did not kill disco, but that also doesn't mean that it didn't matter.
Mike: What do you know about the sort of threads underneath Disco Demolition Night?
Sarah: So, Disco Demolition Night, I'm pretty sure I learned about it in some kind of VH1 Countdown and I feel like I learned in retrospect that, you know, one of the big threads of anti-disco sentiment was that disco was a world where queer culture flourished.
Mike: Yes. And also it has not been lost to historians that the vast majority of disco music was made by black people and always had been.
Sarah: Yeah. And VH1 did not talk about that as I recall. I mean, maybe they did, and I missed it because I was 11.
Mike: I mean, one of the main stories that goes around about Disco Demolition Night is that if you came with a record, a disco record to be destroyed, you would get in for 98 cents. That was a discount.
Sarah: Oh boy.
Mike: And so one of the people who was an usher that night, who's a black dude, noticed that people were coming with like, Marvin Gaye records and like, James Brown records and so he started to think like, “This doesn't seem like it's people that hate disco. This is people that hate black music. This is how it's being understood by the overwhelmingly white crowd who went to the event that night. This is almost to the day, I think it's five days off, being the ten year anniversary of Stonewall.
Mike: So, you have the image of an extremely white crowd in a ballpark that is in the middle of a very black neighborhood who are burning, destroying, chanting against extremely black and extremely gay music. As an image, it's not great.
Sarah: And then it gets to grow this epidermis and then sort of masquerade through history as like “Disco music is cheesy!” And everyone's like, “I agree!”
Sarah: “Let's talk about it on VH1!”
Mike: But sort of the debate I want to debunk in this episode is that a lot of the other podcasts and articles and stories that get told about this event, talk about how the original understanding of it was that it was just like, “Well, disco sucks. There's no deeper anything going on. A cigar is just a cigar, whatever.” And then we look back at it in hindsight and we're like, ah, actually this is really racist and homophobic, like quite openly. And then what you find whenever you go into the comments section of any random, you know, Chicago Sun-Times article about the 25th anniversary of this event, whatever, the people commenting on it, almost universally, will say, “Well, I was there that night and I'm not racist. I'm not homophobic.” And so that creates this debate where it's sort of like, well, were the people they're racist and homophobic? Were they not racist and homophobic? It really gets into the motivations of the people who organized the event, and we will get into those. Like, we'll get into the evidence for whether or not people who attended that night knew how racist and homophobic it was or not, but even if we accept the fact that many of the people who went that night honestly did not know that this event was racist and homophobic. They didn't go for those motivations. They just thought disco sucked.
The deeper and more troubling question about this is that, if you're a decent person, how did you end up at what was sort of six inches away from a book burning? It's just worth thinking about. How do a bunch of people who would never participate in an event that was explicitly racist and homophobic, how do they end up at what turned into really a riot about halfway through. I mean, this was like a violent event that resulted in arrests and injuries. Like, that's a much harder question than was the guy who organized it homophobic or not?
Sarah: Right. Well, and don't you think that it's, I mean, rendering moot for a second the question of the intent of the guy. Like, how much do you tell an audience about what an event is going to be?
Mike: Right, exactly.
Sarah: Because I also feel like if you get like a relatively small number of people with a similar angry take on something, then that can escalate pretty easily.
Mike: Oh yeah. And that's basically what we're talking about. And also this event was understood by gay people and black people as an assault on them.
Mike: Yeah. Nile Rogers who's in the band Chic, you know, who does the song Freak Out? He says he was watching the footage of it and looking at the newspapers the next day and he says, “It felt to us like a Nazi book burning.” And also, it was not a coincidence that they use the term “sucks”, “Disco sucks.” That term, like it's been completely normalized now and you can say it on TV, but at the time it was much more of a transitive verb than it is now. People understood it as having a homophobic connotation to say that something “sucks” in 1979 and even journalists at the time understood the effects of this.
So, this is from a Rolling Stone article that comes out less than a month after Disco Demolition Dight, it says, “White males, 18 to 34, are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins. And therefore they're more likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security.”
Sarah: Wow, Latins.
Mike: So while I think the intentions of some of the people there were probably fine, I mean, one of the things that has totally been memory-hold about this event was that it was not only Disco Demolition Night. It was also Teen Night.
Mike: So if you were a teenager, you also got in for 98 cents. So there really were a lot of like teenagers there who just were like, “Oh, I want to go to a baseball game for cheap.” and like, literally didn't know that any of this was happening and so I just think the central question of this episode is how does such a wide range of people end up participating in an event with undeniably racist and homophobic impacts?
Sarah: Let’s tell it. Can we start with the beginning of disco?
Mike: Oh God. Yes.
Sarah: Just a little? Okay.
Mike: You say just a little, but I want to talk about this for like seven hours.
Sarah: Good. I've got my provisions. I have juice in here.
Mike: So the way we’re going to do this is I'm going to walk you through the history of disco with a couple of songs.
Sarah: Wow. I'm so excited.
Mike: So what's really important about the early days of disco, and I think this is very difficult for people of our age cohort to understand, is that in early disco, the word “disco” did not refer to a genre of music because that genre of music did not exist yet.
Sarah: Did it refer to a place where you danced?
Mike: It kind of referred to like a scene. It's associated with a certain type of person and it's associated with certain activity, basically underground dance clubs. One of the most interesting descriptions of this I found was from a guy called Tony Smith, who's one of the really, really, really early disco DJs. He grows up in the projects in lower Manhattan and he's in a band and he starts playing records in between his band set.
So they'll have a little intermission of like an hour between performances and he'll play records during that time when he's literally like 14 or 15 and he finds out that he's really good at picking which records to play and that people like his sort of DJ sets more than they like his actual performances. And so what starts happening is, people start holding these informal semi-legal dance parties. They would go into parks in lower Manhattan, and they would break into the street lamps and they would plug in the speakers, like hack into the wiring of the street lamps and plug in speakers to it, and then they would just have these all night dance parties in parks.
And even earlier than that, there's also a lot of these house parties in Philadelphia where people are just like inviting over friends and there'll be like a DJ in the corner who's playing music. It's just like a big party of people dancing in somebodies’ homes and then like, sometimes it's in warehouse space or lofts or like, you know, they start using this sort of repurposed real estate for it, but it's all completely underground.
Like there's no sort of record label support. There's no institutional support. It's not really in nightclubs yet.
Sarah: When did record label support ever lead to anything particularly great?
Mike: Yeah. Another thing that is really easy to forget about this period in the late 1960s, early 1970s, is that there was just a lot less music than there is now.
Sarah: Yeah. People didn't have SoundCloud to tweet about. Dark time.
Mike: And as people are going to more of these dance parties, there's a growing demand for music you can dance to, but there's not all that much supply of music. So, there's not that many songs that are sort of like what we think of as dance music now. Basically all the entire culture of DJ that we're now so familiar with of mixing records and making these nonstop mixes and continuing the beat going forever, that was something that DJs had to create because there wasn't enough dance music to keep people dancing forever. Right? And songs are structured in these like three minute long bursts, and every song has its own sort of little beginning and crescendo and then outro.
And so what DJs started doing was they wanted to make the dancing, the beat, perpetual and so the only way to do that is you take like little snippets of other songs and you start chopping them together and you can build in your own little crescendos into it. Right? So rather than just relying on the song, you can be like, “No, I'm going to play something really fast and then I'm going to slow it down and then it's going to reach this crescendo” on like a 40-minute long cycle rather than a three-minute long cycle. So they're basically making collages out of music that already exists to keep the audience at these dance parties dancing. I mean, this is what I love so much about it. Tony Smith talks about how there's all these different genres that people are playing at the same time. So disco is oftentimes positioned in opposition to rock, but he says in his early shows that he would play Led Zeppelin, he would play Rolling Stones, but he would also play, like, James Brown and he would play Barry white and Isaac Hayes and all this soul music that was coming out of Philadelphia. There's one DJ that would play the theme from the movie, Carrie, which is like a really dark and ominous orchestral track and then he would mix it with Diana Ross.
Sarah: Oh my God. That sounds amazing.
Mike: So you're basically getting these like, really eclectic, really just interesting performances by DJs and they're stitching together genres from all over the place. I mean, it's overwhelmingly black music what they're playing. A lot of it is soul. A lot of it is R&B. A lot of it is Motown, but it's basically, it's like, you can go and see one of these DJ performances and you'll hear, you know, a hundred songs in the course of like 45 minutes.
And so one of Tony Smith's favorite songs from this time is by a band called M.F.S.B, which stands for either “mother, father, sister, brother” or “motherfucking son of a bitch”, depending on who you ask and when you ask the band. So, we're going to listen to the song together and you can tell that it's just on the border with disco.
Okay. Uh, three, two, one go.
Sarah: I'd like to skate to this. It's just so dreamy. It's got a nice beat. It starts off very gentle. Ah, this beat also, it reminds me of the morning intro on like, a Chicago talk show.
Mike: That's true. That's really insightful. Yeah.
Sarah: Right? *newscaster voice* Bringing you the news! Entertainment, headlines, plus James Simmons with gardening hints.
Mike: One thing I think is really interesting about this is you can hear how the sort of tempo and the tenor of the song changes throughout. Like, there's parts of this that you could dance to, but then it sort of slows down and the crescendo sort of ends. So, you can see how DJs would listen to this and be like, “Ooh, I'm going to take that part and loop it.”
Sarah: I think that today this would practically be easy listening.
Mike: I know, right? And it’s also instrumental. There were a lot of, like… this was a time in American music when instrumentals were like, the shit.
Sarah: Yeah! You could sell like a million copies of just a trumpet solo.
Mike: It’s wild.
Sarah: I can imagine doing dramatic like, pose, you know, to this, like the womp, womp, womp, you just do a little pose with each one of those. Right. Yeah, it's really good.
Mike: I interviewed a lot of historians for this because you know, like, how I get, but one of the historians I interviewed for this is named Tavia Nyang’o.
So this is from Tavia Nyang’o’s article about disco called, Disco and its Discontents, about the way that before this, dancing had been something that was sort of implied that you were supposed to be doing it with a partner.
Sarah: You know what I'm picturing the world before disco is like? It's just the Peanuts kids, you know, dancing around with their elbows out just whipping their little shoes around.
Mike: I mean, of course people, whatever, danced by themselves on planet earth before disco, but this really normalized the idea of going to a club and like… you danced with one person and then you sort of turn around and you're dancing with another person and you're dancing with a boy and then you're dancing with a girl and you're not there to dance with your sweetheart.
Mike: You’re there because of everybody. You're part of this giant crowd.
Sarah: Or that like you're there to dance to the music and the music will bring you partners.
Sarah: It's interesting. I can also see that perhaps there was some hostility to disco and this like, you know, technophobic way, because it was like one of the first interventions of technology in live music.
Mike: I read like four books for this and one of the things that most of them mentioned is that sound systems and nightclubs sucked ass for disco, that apparently with live music and recorded music it was all mono. So it was just like, every speaker played exactly the same thing and so, all of a sudden, in the seventies, you had these, like, hundred thousand dollars sound systems being created and music that was being produced with all these different tracks and so, DJs could also start doing like the things that we see now where you twist a knob and then the music only goes to the tweeters. It's like tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, and then you bring in the bass, like foompah, foompah, foompah. Like, you could start doing that in clubs in ways that you like physically technologically couldn't before this revolution in sound systems and in recording.
Sarah: So it's about the kind of technology we can use to experience recorded music also.
Mike: Yes. And at this time, the vast majority of people that were in this scene were people of color and gay people. Like, this was the soundtrack to marginalized communities. This was something that most of like straight mainstream America had no idea what was going on.
This is an excerpt from Edmund White's 1973 book, The Joy of Gay Sex: “There's no better proof of the strength of disco than the emergence of gays from their closets. Gone are the days of sleazy, hideaway bars buried in basements. Now hundreds of gays troop into big spacious, luxurious discos, where the dancing, the sounds, the lights, and the company are great.
In fact, the main problem that gay discos face is how to keep straights from moving in an elbowing out the original gay clientele.” A problem with which I'm extremely familiar.
Sarah: Wait, was that you? Or was that the book?
Mike: Oh that was me.
Mike: So I mean, of course it matters that this is the decade after Stonewall, right? And in 1971, New York lifts a ban on male-male dancing.
Mike: So it becomes legal for men to dance with each other, which is also extremely important.
Mike: So the next song we're going to listen to… me and my boyfriend have been doing this thing where, when we're on road trips, we'll often look up the Wikipedia entry of like a genre of music, like jazz or house music or whatever, and it'll list like some of the early tracks, and we’ll listen to the early tracks just to see what they sound like. Like, what does early house sound like? What does early jazz sound like?
Sarah: That's really cool.
Mike: It's actually really fun on road trips. I recommend this as a hobby. So, like a month ago when I started doing the research for this, we did this with disco. And so, my boyfriend is like, playing songs in chronological order.
And when he put this one on, I just immediately started to cry. We will talk about why, but let's listen to it. This is, I swear to God, this is like one of my favorite songs ever.
Mike: Do you know that song?
Sarah: Oh, yeah.
Mike: Okay. Uh, three, two, one go.
One thing that's interesting in this song is they start with the chorus.
Mike: That's like a disco thing, to start with the crescendo of the song, because if people are dancing, like, that's where you want to get to as fast as possible. Right?
Sarah: Right. Cause it's made for dancing, not listening. I love that.
I know what you mean about immediately starting to cry because I can feel my, like, weeping pleasure center being pressed on, like with the knife that Catherine Zeta Jones uses to depress the weight sensor in Entrapment. I’m like, yup!
Mike: It's just so nakedly positive, right? It's just like the most earnest fucking thing you can possibly imagine.
Sarah: I think that I first heard this song in a Coors commercial.
Sarah: Because this is, you know, there's like songs that just have good energy and they get sort of unmoored from their context and they end up in ads in the nineties.
Sarah: I want to skate! When will I skate again, Mike?
Mike: Let’s just have the rest of the show be the sounds of us skating. Just no more talking.
Sarah: Don’t you see us at a roller rink, like, linking hands with everybody there and just like skating around in a big circle? Ugh.
Mike: You're going to make me cry.
Sarah: I know. Sorry. No, it's so good and it does that thing that I remember noticing that music was doing to me when I was in, like, seventh grade.
That feeling of like, you just feel it in your chest.
Mike: Oh, totally. Yeah. And so this song perfectly encapsulates what people love and what people hate about disco.
Mike: It is like extremely positive. Like, if you're on a dance floor, how can you not want to hug and hold every single person around you?
Sarah: This song made some babies.
Mike: Yeah. Oh yeah. It's also, there is the sort of political significance of things like this too, right? In the seventies, the country is in turmoil. There's this sense of the end of the sixties, as you mentioned before, with like, Altamont has happened. Kent state, where student protesters were killed, is seen as the sort of end of like, hippies. You know, Martin Luther King has been assassinated.
I mean, there's just a lot of disillusionment and you know, we're about to get Watergate. We're about to get the oil crisis. We're about to get inflation. I mean, there's just so much turmoil happening. This is an excerpt from a book called Last night A D.J. Saved My Life: “Like the twist craze before it, disco was forged and amid a terrible recession and the deep scars of war, this time in Vietnam. People have always lost themselves in dancing when the economy's been bad. The discos now are doing the same thing that the big dance halls with the crystal chandeliers did during the depression. Everyone's out to spend their unemployment check, their welfare, to lose themselves.” And I do think that's one of the main appeals of a song like this.
Sarah: That it just makes you feel good and it's very emotional.
Mike: It's super emotional. And I mean, people later on will sort of deride disco as simplistic. It's apolitical. It has no social consciousness. It's just like, bumper-sticker, “love everybody”, boring, bullshit. Which… fine. Like, that's not incorrect.
Sarah: Sometimes the best messages are stupid though.
Mike: Yes! And also, so people at first didn't call it disco. They just called it dance music. And they meant that literally. It's like, music that you dance to.
Sarah: Which is really quite an indictment of like, all previous music. It's like “How were people doing then?”
Mike: But it’s like, if you're making music for a dance floor, which is what early disco explicitly was designed to do, people don't want complicated thoughts about like, Israel/Palestine when they're trying to dance. Right? Like, of course it's simplistic.
Sarah: That would be great though if you had like a 17 minute long disco hit, that was explaining The Munich Olympics. Like, I find it interesting when people get upset about other people wanting to feel good. Like, how dare people want music to make them feel good. And it's like, what would you have them do?
Mike: Yes. And also, I mean, a lot of the people that were complaining about disco later in the seventies, like these same people were listening to like, “We all live in a yellow submarine.”
Mike: There's also a theory, which I do not subscribe to, but is an interesting way of looking at this, that things like Love Train and sort of early seventies love, peace, love, togetherness, a lot of that is kind of like the extension of the flower children, hippie stuff of the 1960s. I mean, a lot of that stuff is still really around.
Sarah: Yeah. These things don't suddenly evaporate.
Mike: Yeah. But what happened was it's all the same people and all the same emotions and messages, but they all switched from LSD to cocaine. I don't think that that's true.
Sarah: It was like, “Let's just love each other right now. Right now.”
Mike: Yes. So I don't like… I don't find that theory convincing, but I also like thinking of it as sort of the fast forwarding of the same ethos.
Mike: One of the other things that sort of makes me cry to Love Train for a different reason now than it did a month ago is that the early days of disco actually were pretty peace, love, and understanding. Like, they were very integrated by race. They were very integrated by sex. Like, some of these values actually got implemented, which is so rare.
Sarah: Right? I'm sure people were afraid of disco because you do start to truly believe something that makes you, you know, so positively imprinted on an idea.
Mike: And this is an underground movement. Like, you're not getting the sense that the mainstream is watching you and so you can go out and just be yourself for the first time in your life, potentially. You're a gay person. You can go out and like, dance with other dudes and it's not illegal.
Sarah: So disco refers to the world where this happens basically.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I came across in my Stonewall research that I didn't get to mention in that episode is that Greenwich Village, of course, was like a hangout for gay people and homeless people and sex workers and it's all these sorts of groups that are sort of on the margins of society, but it was also a place where people in interracial relationships would go to hang out publicly because they didn't feel safe in other parts of New York. And so, part of the appeal of these clubs was like, you could dance with people of another race.
Sarah: You could go there with your girlfriend.
Mike: Yeah! And so this is an excerpt from Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life, about an early disco club called Sanctuary: “‘It had an incredible mixture of people’ recalls Jorge Latoray, a gay male dancer. There were people dressed in furs and diamonds, and they were the funkiest kids from the East village. I would say that women made up 25% of the crowd from the very beginning, probably more. People came from all cultural backgrounds and all walks of life and it was the mixture of people that made the place happen.” And so like, Love Train is inspiring because it kind of happened. In the early seventies, we also get something called The Loft, started by a D.J. named David Mancuso, which is basically like a literal loft, like a former industrial space, that he turns into these private parties. This is where sort of D.J. mixing becomes a big deal. This is also the invention of the disco ball.
Mike: Well, apparently it was invented in the 1800s.
Mike: I've seen different sources, late 1800s, early 1800s, but like old. And it was a big thing in nightclubs in the 1920s and then it disappeared. Then, David Mancuso had one in his loft that he would shine the spotlight on and that was the only light in the entire club and that was something really special. And so, then people started iterating on it and they open the Studio 54 and they opened up all these like copycat clubs. They all just straight up steal his idea of the disco ball.
Sarah: Wow. So David Mancuso is the father of the disco ball.
Mike: And he also, interestingly, shuts it down at 3:00 AM because he's like, “Everything that happens after 3:00 AM is bad.”
Mike: Like it's all going to turn to people too drunk, too high, too whatever. Like, everybody goes home at three.
Sarah: Fair. This guy sounds smart. He sounds like a smart person.
Mike: Yes. I don't want to go too overboard with this because I think The Loft is a really good metaphor for these values and then planting the seeds that become the perversion of those values over time that The Loft itself is very racially diverse. It’s very gender diverse. It's very open. But, you need an invite to get in. So it's a walled garden and within the garden, it's very diverse.
Sarah: But you need to know someone who already is in there.
Mike: And so, I like the model of The Loft. I think that everybody there had really good intentions, but another one of the historians that I interviewed, a guy named Luis-Manuel Garcia, he's written a number of articles about the early days of disco. He does ethnographies in Berlin about nightclub culture, and this is an excerpt from one of his articles: “Despite these utopian and nostalgic visions of open and egalitarian belonging, systems of exclusion were part of the disco scene from the very beginning. In the form of “members only” policies, these were initially justified as self-protected and legally necessary to keep the cops away, but later turned into a form of elitist, social curatorship, selecting and excluding people based on beauty, celebrity, glamour, and social connections. This is a stark reminder that, while utopias may feel inclusive and egalitarianism, they are often created, maintained, and shaped through exclusions and hierarchies of coolness.”
And so I don't want to cancel David Mancuso parties in 1971. I think that, like, everybody was doing their best.
Sarah: Well it’s also like, if you're having a party in a finite space and you don't want people who are going to upset the vibe to show up, like, I don't know a better way to handle that.
Mike: Exactly. It doesn't appear at those parties that people were being turned away for like, “Sorry, we don't let fat people in. Sorry, we don't let black people in.” It doesn't sound like that was the ethos.
Mike: But we're already seeing the seeds of the way that that ethos sours over time.
Sarah: But like the most known thing about Studio 54, which is apparently going to be, you know, birthed from this is exclusivity and the fact that its owner famously said that he would not let himself into his own club.
Mike: Yeah. So all of the music that we've heard so far has been like proto disco. Like, Neander-disco. It's not quite there.
Sarah: The disco of the cave bear.
Mike: Yes. But what happens is over the early seventies, radio stations and record labels and musical artists start to realize like, there's these weird songs that are selling like a hundred thousand copies. Like, famously there's this import called Soul Makossa by this Cameroonian artist named Manu Dibango and it’s like, very funky and very cool and it sells a shitload of records and radio DJs are like, “We haven't been playing this. It's not on, like, a record label. Why the hell are so many people buying it?” And it's because people have been hearing it in clubs. And so, the record industry in the mid-seventies starts to wake up to the power…
Sarah: … of the disco consumer.
Mike: Yes. And so this song, which fucking slaps, it's the first song, I believe the first disco song that charted, it's the first song that I listened to for this and was like, this is fucking disco. Like, there is no way you can see it as anything else.
Sarah: I’m so excited.
Mike: So, okay, here.
Sarah: Oh, Gloria Gaynor.
Sarah: Okay. I'm ready.
Mike: All right. Three, two, one, go.
Sarah: The beat’s nice and strong and fast from the start. We got these flourishes.
Mike: You got the high hat, very important high hat.
Sarah: And then we have Gloria Gaynor, who’s very important and has such a beautiful voice. Ah! And you know, I never think of this, but like, this is the lyrical stylings of a soul song. You know, this could be totally in place with totally different instrumentals.
Mike: The fact that a lot of disco artists are like, former gospel people, former Motown people. And Donna Summer was in a German language production of Hair.
Mike: And so all of these things seem important, that it's these like very crescendo-y, powerful female vocalists.
Sarah: Yeah. Very vocally oriented, vocally talented.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. I just love that, like, it's hard to define what disco is, but it's like, this is it.
Sarah: Oh yeah. You know it when you hear it.
Mike: Oh yeah. It's like pornography.
Sarah: I mean, it's also Gloria Gaynor singing this emotionally plaintive song and her vocals are doing so much work on their own and there's so much emotion in there and then she has all this energy and dance ability provided by the instrumental part.
Sarah: And then one of my other favorite disco songs is Don't Leave Me This Way.
Mike: Oh my God. I know.
Sarah: Which is like, how can you listen to that song and think that it's emotionally vacant?
Sarah: Uh, someday Mike, someday we're going to skate together.
Mike: Another really important thing about the song, checkout how long it is.
Sarah: Yeah. Six minutes, 18 seconds.
Mike: And this is on an album where the first three songs are continuously mixed. So the first nineteen minutes of the album plays out like one song, which also shows how much the sort of club sensibility is taking over actual recorded music.
Mike: People lost their minds when this came out.
Sarah: What year is this from?
Mike: Oh, this is 1974. Wow.
Sarah: So that's early that's earlier than I would've guessed for this sound being so complete.
Sarah: Aaah, Gloria.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: So good.
Mike: And so this is really the period when disco goes mainstream, between 1974 and 1977. Partly because this comes from a black gay scene, the main record labels are really not taking this seriously.
Sarah: They’re like, “We don't know if we think black people and gay people can make music. It hasn't been proved.”
Mike: “History tells us…”
Sarah: “History shows us that white, straight people are the best at music.”
Mike: And so like, they’re really leaving money on the table and that this is booming in the underground. Like, clubs are opening up all over first New York and then all over the country. These clubs are popping up everywhere.
The number you come across a lot is that between 1975 and 1977, 12,000 discos opened across the U S.
Mike: Also the only lesbian discos open in 1976.
Mike: So it's actually really hard to find stories of what lesbians were doing in this time. It's actually really frustrating if you look through the books and like control-F for lesbian stuff, they're actually like barely mentioned. So all we have is that there were lesbian discos.
Sarah: I feel like lesbians are like giant squids. They're like this powerful, mysterious creature that, like, if you look at history and are like, where are the lesbians? The books are like, “We don't know. The lesbians live deep in the ocean where no one can see them.” And it's like, I don't think that's true. I think that we can ask the lesbians what they're doing.
Mike: So all of a sudden, we're getting a real business model.
Sarah: And so it's profitable. So, suddenly it becomes worth being interested in.
Mike: And so, this is the thing. It's not just profitable, it's wildly profitable because most nightclubs are based around live music and live music is really expensive and it's a huge hassle to organize, right? Like, you can't have eight hours of a live band playing, right? You'd need three or four bands, and you'd have to coordinate their tours and you'd have to pay them and you need to do sound checks. Doing this consistently would require a team of like a hundred people to organize this much music.
Right? But so what the disco turn starts to do is it allows nightclubs to just hire one D.J. So Tony Smith talks about when he's – I think he's only 17 or maybe 18 – he gets a job in a gay nightclub called Barefoot Boys and he starts deejaying from 9:00 PM to 4:00 AM every single night, seven nights a week.
Sarah: How’s school going for him?
Mike: I know. It's not clear. And they're also, they're spending the days scouring record stores to get these weird, you know, Jamaican import B-side whatever and D.J.s start forming clubs where they, like, trade records with each other. Like, some of them apparently are dicks, but there's also the utopian ethos of disco. It also extends to D.J.s not necessarily seeing each other as competitors, but almost collaborators. “Here's five of my records that do really well. Give me five of yours and I'll play them for a week. You play mine for a week and then we'll swap back.” Everyone just wanted everyone else to do well. It was like Great British Bake-Off.
Sarah: And clearly this would be so attractive from a financial perspective because you're maximizing your profits at the same time that you're minimizing your overhead.
Mike: And Tony Smith talks about this, that like, the fire department capacity, you know, over the door, so it's like 369 people. And he's like, “We started turning people away after about a thousand.” So they're just like packing these clubs. And, you know, you can sell people drinks for like seven, eight hours a night now and you're only paying one D.J. and they're not paying the D.J.s particularly well. One of the reasons that we get, you know, bootleg, like people start selling bootleg mixtapes. One of the reasons why D.J.s start doing that is because they're not making enough from performing seven nights a week. So, they start recording their shows illegally and selling reel to reel tapes to club goers for $40.
Sarah: Oh wow.
Mike: In like 1970s money. But people are so desperate for this. I mean, you can't get this music anywhere.
Sarah: Yeah. I'm sure it would be kind of a status symbol to own actually.
Mike: Oh totally. So as this is happening, it's all ramping up. Then we get, you knew it was coming, 1977, Saturday Night Fever.
Mike: What do you remember about the actual movie?
Sarah: So it's basically about John Travolta is a young, disenfranchised guy who feels like his life is going nowhere and he wants somebody to help him. You know? And he is the king of the disco club and that's kind of… he's a big fish in a small pond is how the movie wants us to see him.
Sarah: I mean, I didn't fully under–… I remember watching this with my best friend and her stepmom who was like, “We're going to watch Saturday Night Fever, girls. It's fun.” And I truly believe she must've not remembered how incredibly dark this movie is.
Mike: The cultural place that that movie has is something similar to Dirty Dancing.
Sarah: “It's about disco!”
Mike: It's amazing!
Sarah: The soundtrack is much more fun than the movie.
Mike: Oh yeah. And it's still, I think, the second top selling soundtrack ever.
Sarah: Yeah. So I bet that like a lot of people saw Saturday Night Fever and were like, “Whether I enjoyed that or not, that was a distinct experience and one that I can't have again in the near future because the VCR won't be invented for a few years and won't be popularized until Jane Fonda releases her wonderful workout tape.” But then you buy the record, and you listen to the record all the time and you remember the record.
Mike: Did you know that it's based on a cover story for New York magazine?
Sarah: I do know that. I also know that that cover story was faked.
Mike: You knew that? I didn't know that until researching this.
Sarah: Yes. Because I really am interested in journalistic hoaxes and so my understanding is that this young British writer had been commissioned to write a story about the disco scene and he was too shy to research it and so he basically made all this up.
Mike: Yeah. Do you know what actually happened, why he didn't write it?
Sarah: No. What happened?
Mike: The club that they described Saturday Night Fever, both the article and in the movie, is a real club. It's called Odyssey. It's in Bay Ridge, which apparently is part of Brooklyn and, I guess, he got a cab out there with a friend on some, you know, one-in-the-morning-on-a-Saturday-night kind of thing. He got there. The cab pulls up. There's a fight outside, like a rough fight. Guys are getting shoved around. He opens the door to get out of the cab, the guys in the fight get shoved into him or something and somebody pukes on his shoe and so he is just like, “Oh fuck this.” He gets back in the cab and he's like, “Take me back to Manhattan.” He never goes back to the club. He bases his entire story on one guy who he saw sort of leaning nonchalantly against the wall as this fight is going on. He's just like, smoking a cigarette, watching this fight.
And he says that all of his descriptions of a down and out guy, who's working at the paint store and dancing at night, all of that stuff is based on like sixties mod kids that he knew in the North of England.
Mike: But I want to read you an excerpt of the actual article, because like you, I am fascinated with journalistic fabrications and as soon as I found out that it was fake, I was like, I have to read this immediately. So this is a scene where the journalist is pretending to be a fly on the wall at this Odyssey nightclub: “Vincent was already at work on the floor. By now, the dancers had gathered in force, his troops and he worked them like a quarterback calling out plays. He set the formations, dictated every move. If a pattern grew ragged and disorder threatened, it was he who set things straight. Under his command, they unfurled the Odyssey Walk, their own style of mass hustle for which they've formed strict ranks, sweeping back and forth across the floor in perfect unity. Fifty bodies made one while Vincent barked out orders crying ‘One and two and one and tap and turn and one and tap.’ They were like so many guardsmen on parade, a small battalion uniformed in floral shirts and tight flared pants.” It's like, how do people not know this was fake? A guy is leading a unified dance of fifty people on a dance floor and they can hear him counting time?
Sarah: Also, I mean, what jumps out at me is that everything you have said to me so far is that what this scene is about and what makes it appealing is that it's sort of open and queer.
And here it's being described as like, “No. It's appealing because it is rigid and militaristic and because one guy is in charge and he tells all the other guys what to do and they do it in perfect synchronized fashion.” And it's like… they're not Rockettes. Like, that doesn't sound fun.
Mike: The whole idea of sort of a rock star dancer goes against the disco ethos too. Right? Because it's very democratic. It's all about like the D.J. It's not really about like, “This one guy's an amazing dancer and like let's all stop dancing to watch this guy.”
Sarah: Yeah. It's a very interesting misreading. Isn't it?
Mike: You know, it's the kind of misreading that happens when you do literally no work and make something up out of your brain. But I mean, the real sort of legacy of Saturday Night Fever is that both the article and the movie strip all of the blackness and queerness out of the disco scene.
Sarah: They really do.
Mike: They go so far out of their way in that movie to make sure you know that John Travolta is not gay. There's a scene where him and his friends beat up a gay couple or at least harass a gay couple.
Sarah: Yeah. That shows that they're not gay. Nothing like harassing gay people that you're not.
Mike: Yeah. “You can tell I'm not gay by how I'm really mean to gay people.”
Sarah: It's proof!
Mike: There's also a scene where they're in a burger joint and one of John Travolta's friends calls David Bowie “a half fag” because he's bisexual. It manages to be offensive toward gay people, bisexuals, and David Bowie all at the same time. And so, the New York magazine article, it’s a cover story so there's actually this beautiful illustration on the cover that goes with the article and the illustration is of a bunch of people in a nightclub with big lapels and everything and they're 100% white. So the image that people got from Saturday Night Fever was that discos were white and straight. Like, that was the overwhelming message that people got.
Sarah: A safe place for homophobes is what a discotech is really.
Mike: Yes. Also John Travolta did an interview, I think it was in 1980, and he says that he learned all of his moves from watching Soul Train. He had two different private teachers that taught him how to dance and they were both black dudes. So it's also just this explicit sort of appropriation of like, black dancing styles and black music and black fashion.
Sarah: And it was so successful that we, you know, that I certainly grew up with no inkling that that had happened. Like, disco was so successfully coded like, not just white, but something that, like, cheesy white people do.
Mike: Yeah. Yes. And so this basically creates the crescendo of disco that will eventually produce the backlash.
Sarah: Yeah. That makes sense.
Mike: Within two years of Saturday Night Fever’s release, the number of discos across the country triples. One of the most important things that happens is 200 radio stations across the country switch to disco only format.
Mike: There's a station that plays, like, mellow rock. It then switches about a year after Saturday Night Fever comes out to all disco and within a year it's the number one radio station in New York.
Mike: So all of these other radio stations around the country are seeing this and they're like, “Cash.” Like, “Let's do this. Like, if we switched to disco, you get all this money.”
Sarah: So basically anytime something is seen as a proven cash cow, it's going to oversaturate the market.
Mike: By the end of 1979, it's a $4 billion a year industry.
Sarah: It actually reminds me of reality TV where like, there were earlier iterations of it gradually and like, the real world existed for a long time. But like, there was something about Survivor and what amazing ratings it got that suddenly made everyone, you know, post the first survivor, be like, “Oh yes.” And then we see the backlash because suddenly it is everywhere and people are like, “Wait a minute. Like, I do still like other things.”
Mike: This gets us to the next song I'm going to play for you. This is a living nightmare.
Sarah: Oh God.
Mike: This is emblematic of disco's sort of over saturation at this point.
Mike: I'm sending you an MP3 entitled “Mystery Song.”
Sarah: Okay. Here it is. All right.
Mike: All right. Three, two, one go.
Sarah: Oh, I love this song! I love this! I listen to this all the time. It’s disco Star Wars. Okay. I know this is terrible, but I love it. I listen to this all the time.
Mike: It's deeply embarrassing, but it's pretty good.
Sarah: I love it. I love it. This one, I assume, has the disco canteen abandon it and the little blaster noises.
Mike: Oh, I don't know because I've never listened that far. I can only make it like a minute in.
Sarah: Ugh, I love it. But think about this, think about you. You've just seen this great new movie called A New Hope and you're like, “Oh my God, I love this movie so much that I want to dance to it.” And like, you can.
Yeah. So the point of this interlude, I guess, is that I really love the like crassest, most openly commodified cash grabs of the disco genre.
Mike: Yeah. Cash grabs is a great way to put this next phase, because what you get is this just huge overinflation of disco output between 1977 and 1979. So, there's disco versions of, like, Jingle Bells. There’s an album called Sesame Street Fever, which has all of the Sesame street songs turned into disco.
Sarah: I think I've seen that.
Mike: It's actually pretty good. There's also Mickey Mouse disco.
Sarah: Ew, no.
Mike: They start doing like disco versions of breakfast cereals, which I don't even know what that means.
Sarah: What? How can a cereal become– and this is a great example of like, when something that starts off as underground culture for like, marginalized populations, it's kind of like “nothing good happens after 3:00 AM.” Nothing good happens after it's a cereal.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, basically the two things that really piss people off, existing bands start making disco songs. Kiss infamously comes out with a disco song. Rod Stewart comes out with a disco song. Blondie does Heart of Glass.
Sarah: Which everyone loves and is now like the iconic Blondie song.
Mike: Yeah, I guess. But like at the time it's like, “Oh, they're selling out and doing disco.”
Sarah: Right. Cause they're like New York punk rockers, right?
Mike: Yes. And the second thing that really drives people crazy is because there's so much fucking disco coming out all the time, the quality just like completely tanks.
Sarah: Yeah. This is like slasher movies in the eighties. Yeah. Anything that starts off as something that is made cheaply and lovingly by people that are invested, like, once it generates a certain amount of money, it's going to be very hard to wade through all of the sort of cynical cash grabs and then the genre will come to be seen by a lot of people as a cynical cash grab genre, which is really especially heartbreaking considering how it started.
Mike: Another one of the historians that I interviewed, a guy named Gillian Frank, who wrote a great article about the anti-gay elements of the backlash and who also has a podcast, which is very good, he said that what explains a lot of this period is that finally the big record labels got involved, but they were all convinced from day one that this was a fad. They thought it couldn't last. It wasn't a legitimate form of music. So, they deliberately flooded the market.
Sarah: They're like, it's not real music. Make money while the getting is good. Okay.
Mike: That also kind of ended up creating the thing that they were worried about, right? Because that created the sense of overexposure of disco and the sense that like, everyone has a disco album now and all the disco albums suck because there's like, ten thousand of them
Sarah: And because people make them in like three weeks.
Mike: Yes. I also, my favorite symbol of this is that some company, I don't know who, puts out something called the “Disco Bible”, which is an encyclopedia of songs based on their beats per minute. And so, you can just look up two songs that have exactly the same tempo and that makes them easier to mix. But what that does is, you know, the original D.J.s were doing unexpected stuff. They were putting in the fucking them to Carrie.
Mike: Whereas now we just get this like total sameness in the music. They all have the same tempo. And then the D.J.s start just going from like, disco song to disco song to disco song with the same tempos.
Sarah: And it doesn't seem to require any creativity.
Mike: Right. And it's like, yeah, a lot of the D.J.s were really crappy and they're playing crappy songs.
Sarah: I mean like, “And here's Disco Duck, again.”
Mike: This is from Alice Echols’s book Hot Stuff, which is a history of disco: “In December, 1978, Andrew Holleran, the novelist who had written with affection about the earliest gay discos decried the terrible uniformity of beat and style that now characterize disco. The music being cranked out for the mass market, fast, mechanical, monotonous, shallow stuff, was, he contended, lightyears away from the old dark disco, which did not know it was disco. It was simply a song played in a room where we gathered to dance.” To the outside world, it looks like disco, but to people who were actually dancing in those clubs in the early seventies, it has none of the factors that made that nightlife special.
Sarah: It doesn't have the heart.
Mike: Yeah. This is also when we get fucking Studio 54 and this sort of very celebritized, very commodified version of disco where even when Studio 54 was empty, they would make sure that there was a huge crowd outside. The exclusivity of Studio 54 was a huge thing that they wanted to project and promote. From all of that, like Tony Smith used to D.J. there and it sounds like it actually was really cool on the inside, it's just like, for the rest of the country who's reading about this, there's all these clubs in Midtown Manhattan that basically become just celebrity V.I.P spaces and that's their main purpose.
Sarah: It’s just, like, mainstream, white, straight, rich American culture found this beautiful utopian subculture and colonized it and ruined it and sold it and like, made everyone hate it. Like, it's really this evergreen colonization and destruction of a subculture story.
Mike: Totally. And my favorite example of this is Nial Rogers, who's in the band Chic, he and his partner, Bernard Evans, aren't allowed into Studio 54, even though Studio 54 is playing their music.
Apparently, in anger, after this happens, they go back to Nile Rogers’ apartment. They're just like, jamming. It's like two in the morning and they come up with a song about Studio 54 called “Fuck you” and then eventually as they keep playing with it and make it more commercial, it becomes “Freak Out” and that's how we got that song.
Sarah: Oh that’s so good. So, okay. Here's a question. Were they not allowed into Studio 54, because A. they were gay? Were they gay or is it a song writing partner?
Mike: Songwriting partner.
Sarah: Okay. Were they not allowed in his Studio 54 because they were black?
Mike: It doesn’t seem like it. I also interviewed a guy named Eric Gonzaba, who I also interviewed for our Stonewall episode, who studies gay night life in New York and a bunch of other cities, and he was saying that this was the time, late seventies, where it kind of became cool to have like, a black friend and a gay friend. This was when we started to get this like, tokenization. It was apparently actually quite diverse in Studio 54. It was much more about whether or not you were a celebrity. But then we also, this is a time when the gay nightlife starts to get more stratified.
So this is when we move from the sort of early loft parties that like, if you're into disco you can get in to like, defacto “white only” gay spaces. And Ganzaba mentioned to me that like, this has always been a problem. Like, you don't want to idealize early gay nightlife. Like, they used to do this thing where they would ask you for ID and then if you were black, they would tell you, “Oh, you need two forms of ID to get in.” Black people are less likely to have ID in the first place and who the fuck has two forms of ID?
Mike: I think that the most changes in history, whether they're good or bad are not differences in kind. Most of them are differences in degree. You know, excluding was always a problem in the gay community, but it got worse. Like, going from, you know, a club being 25% black to being 0% black, that's not a difference in kind, but it's still extremely significant. And then, in the midst of this total overexposure, total saturation, we get the backlash. This is when we finally circle back to Disco Demolition Night and the D.J. named Steve Dahl who organizes disco demolition night. He was like a shock jock, rock D.J. guy. In late 1978, six months before Disco Demolition Night, he gets fired when his rock station switches to disco, and it takes him three months to find a new job and apparently he has a lower salary at the new radio station.
Sarah: So he has been disenfranchised by disco. He's like the disco M.R.A.
Mike: Yes, exactly. And so, rather than being transparent about the fact that like, “I have a petty personal squabble related to my income,” he of course turns this into this entire like, “Disco Sucks” movement.
Sarah: So like, disco essentially moved into his house and is taking care of his dog now.
Mike: Yes, exactly. Yes. He calls it “The dreaded musical disease.”
Mike: I mean, this is the thing. It's like, he starts talking about disco in these coded racist and homophobic ways, first of all. Second of all, in these completely grandiose ways, he's saying that like, disco represents, at one point, he says, “the cultural void in this country.”
Sarah: This is just dawning on me, but like, cultural criticism is such a great way of just being racist and it's like, incredibly violent rhetoric that you are allowed to get away with by being like, “I just have specific taste in songs.”
Mike: Totally. And this is also, I mean, so much of the rhetoric at the time was about the sort of zero sum casting of culture and I mean on some level it was correct, right? In that every rock station that flips to disco is like one fewer rock stations.
Sarah: Yeah. And there is a finite number of radio stations in the country, and it is hard to get access to music in other ways and it's expensive and like, yes, we have to take that into account, just like, the scarcity of access to music that is something that is really difficult to imagine now.
Mike: Yeah. You see a lot of this language like, “invasion” and “takeover”.
Sarah: It's funny because disco didn't take over. It’s just that the people who invest in live music decided that it wasn't worth the money anymore.
Mike: I mean I talked for a long time with Louis Manuel Garcia, this historical researcher about this. I think a big part of it, and there's no way to prove this, but when I heard I Will Survive for the first time, I was probably 13. And like, after I heard that song for the first time, I listened to nothing else for like a month. Little tiny gay kid, had never kissed a boy, didn't know what the hell was going on, and I like deeply felt everything about that song.
Like the way it sounded, the words of it, the voice, everything. It really spoke to me. And so, Louis Manuel said the same thing that like this music hits him on a gut level and I do feel like a lot of this backlash is from the fact that this was one of the first times that mainstream music, mainstream culture was embracing a form of expression that didn't speak to straight men the way that like Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones and Beatles do, right? It wasn't for them. There are like, obviously there are straight people that love, I Will Survive. There are straight people that disco really resonated with for whatever reason, but sort of on the whole, you know, these messages of like, “We Are Family” and “I'm Coming Out”, these are things that resonate really deeply with people living on the margins. Like, these statements of love and acceptance and self-confidence and self-love, it hits you when you're from one of those communities in a way that I don't think it really did on a large scale with straight people. And I think a lot of the backlash was like, “Well, this isn't mine. Like, this isn't for me. I don't see myself in I Will Survive. Like, fuck you. Why is this being shoved down my throat? Why is it on cereal boxes? Why do I have to see it in movie soundtracks?”
Sarah: Well, it's not an accident that the first place I heard I Will Survive was Ally McBeal. That song certainly was a song that straight women cared about and was part of the sort of mainstream, white, straight lady culture, I think, in the United States, at least in the nineties. So, it also makes sense that it could carry over in this like, lost from its original meaning, commercialized way, because straight women are allowed to have feelings.
Sarah: And are allowed to say I Will Survive. And you know, one of my broader arguments about music that's coded for white, straight, men, is that those songs are very often about feelings too, but like, you have to get really harsh and like, it makes you feel like you're really brave and extreme for having your emotions. And like, that's pandering to the kind of masculinity that we have built a wall around, emotional self-acceptance for white, straight men in this country. And so, yeah, I can see a lot of hostility towards disco because also, you're not going to not feel it. Like, I don't think that disco doesn't work on people and that's why the hostility. I think that the people who were hostile to disco weren’t like, “This isn't making me feel feelings.” They were like, “This is making me feel feelings and I don't like it.”
Mike: I mean, there's also, I mean, we talked about this with the John Lennon and Yoko Ono episode, but there's a long history of anti-blackness in rock, generally. I didn't actually know this before I started reading about this, but apparently Prince was opening for the Rolling Stones in 1981 and he got booed off.
Sarah: And also the Prince is, you know, an androgenous performer, which is funny, too. Because like, Mick Jagger is allowed to do that, but he’s white.
Mike: Exactly. Yeah. That, to me, speaks to the importance of race to this. Right? And disco flipped the power structure of music in that rock music is all about the performer. Right? You go there and you see like, Robert Plant doing this amazing guitar solo. Right? And you're glorifying this heroic individual figure. And yet what disco does, it's partly about the D.J., but it's really about the crowd. It's really about this feeling of collective, joyful experience. I mean, again, you can't read into people's motives because nobody knows why they feel the things that they feel, but it does feel like there is this sort of revolution in music that it becomes about the audience rather than about the performer.
And so, I want to be clear here as we talk about the deeper reasons why people didn't like disco, I just want to say, for the record, that it's actually fine for people not to like disco. I don't want to in any way imply that everyone who disliked disco is like, somehow a philistine or square or racist or homophobic. I think saying that disco is objectively good is just as silly as saying that it's objectively bad. We don't choose the aesthetic preferences that we have, but we do choose the way that we talk about them and I think that the real problem with this movement was not just that it was a bunch of people who didn't like disco. That's completely fine. But we need to be able to talk about those things without acting like they are objectively less sophisticated than other forms of expression and that the people who like them are somehow worse than us.
Sarah: I also actually feel like this is some of the hostility towards jam band music too. Like, people really strongly dislike jam bands and it's like just don't see a jam band then. Like, what can I tell you?
Mike: I know! Just don't go. So now we get to the part where we talk about, was the backlash to disco explicitly anti-gay, explicitly racist? Like, how much can you read into the motives of people who went to Disco Demolition Night?
Sarah: And also, how explicitly do people have to be describing their feelings in order to be having them?
Mike: So one of the main arguments of people who were like, “I was there. I'm not homophobic” and I think, to some level, this is true that a lot of the backlash to disco was partly, it was a backlash to like, the Bee Gees. They hated the sort of mall disco and they hated breakfast cereal disco. A lot of people genuinely didn't know that this started in the sort of gay, black underground.
Sarah: I didn't know that, and I love disco.
Mike: Right. What's important about this moment, sort of after Saturday Night Fever when disco gets really big, is that there are actually a lot of popular articles that talk about disco as something that originated in the gay, black underground. So, there's infamously a Newsweek article called “The Disco Takeover” that says, “What started a few years ago as all night dance music in African-American and gay clubs has moved into the American Heartland.” The Washington Post says, “Disco began among the bayous and backfields of the cultural landscape, the gay clubs and black clubs.”
Sarah: You know gay men! They love hanging out in bayous.
Mike: You know, not everybody reads these articles. It's not clear. You know, I mean, they're long articles, one or two sentences that mentioned this.
Sarah: But if the opening sentences of both these articles have the exact same alarmist gist then like, perhaps that is a rhetoric that people are absorbing casually elsewhere.
Mike: exactly. It's also important to note that this is the time when we get more visibility for gay people, especially in disco music. This is when we get The Village People and this is also when we get, are you familiar with Sylvester?
Mike: What’s important about Sylvester is that he's like, designed in a lab to make straight, white, America uncomfortable. Right? He's a gay, black man from San Francisco who wears very gender androgynous or explicitly feminine clothing. He wears eye makeup and he's unapologetic about it, right? Like, he shows up on American Bandstand and he does this interview with Dick Clark where he's just extremely flamboyant and like, totally himself and it's in people's living rooms. And so, the visibility of these artists is increasing as this disco backlash is ramping up and maybe that's a coincidence and maybe it's not.
We also have at this time, the rise of the anti-gay movement. This is Anita Bryant. This is, you know, Harvey Milk gets assassinated in 1978, right in the middle of disco's peak.
Sarah: There’s just like, anti-gay laws are just entirely the norm and have been basically unchallenged at this point and there's been no legal civil rights movement.
Mike: Right. And they're still being passed, right? Like, this is what Anita Bryant wants to do, is to make it illegal for gay people to become teachers. This is another thing that straight, white, America is being exposed to for the first time, like this extremely explicit movement against gay people. At the same time, they're seeing people like the Village People and Sylvester on TV.
Sarah: So this is a backlash against gay rights.
Mike: On some level, for some percentage of people, it absolutely is.
Sarah: Yeah. You're like, “I don't want these gay people on TV”
Mike: Yes! What Gillian Frank told me, and he spent all this time diving into the archives of what Steve Dawson and all of this “disco sucks” stuff, like he's read all of the sort of articles from the time talking about why people hated disco and what he said was, “What you find is very explicit homophobia, but most of the racism is coded.” He says this is kind of a preview for a lot of the fights that we had in cities later about like, school desegregation, where nobody like said, or very few people said, “I don't want my kids going to school with black kids” like people didn't say that. It was about like, “Oh, it's about local choice and it's about the distribution of resources.” Like, we're now in a place in America where all forms of prejudice like, we talk about everything in fucking code now. It's all dog whistles now. But this was a time where black people fell into that category, but gay people didn't.
Sarah: But within that is the idea that gay people are basically perverts. Right?
Mike: Yes. Exactly.
Sarah: And I feel like a lot of people who are like, not overtly hateful at that time would be like, “Well, you know, I don't think we should be murdering gay people or anything and they're citizens and stuff and I even know gay people, but like, would I let them teach my children?”
Mike: Yes. There's also, this has totally been memory-hold, this didn't come up in the other podcast that I listened to or other popular accounts that I read, but there's also a lot of weird misogynistic incel shit. So, one of the main arguments of Steve Dahl, the guy who eventually organizes the Disco Demolition Night, was that gay men are coming to take your women away or something.
Sarah: Are they going to start podcasts with them?
Mike: I guess there was this sense that women would go to discos explicitly to get away from straight men and explicitly to dance with gay men.
Sarah: I’m sure that they were. Like, take it as useful information.
iIke: I know. So he actually, despite the fact that Saturday Night Fever goes so far out of its way to establish that John Travolta is straight, is convinced that Tony Manero in that movie's actually gay because he like, does his hair.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: And that it's like, “This is a threat to me because I'm being forced to be metro-sexual to compete because women don't want to dance with me anymore.”
Sarah: Okay. Well, and that's just an expression of how, you know, men know how much they're torturing women and how the hygienic and beauty standards to which women are held and like, the amount of time that they're expected to spend on their appearance at a bare minimum is exhausting and miserable. It's like, great, stop making women do that then and just live your life. Be free.
Mike: Right. This is from Tavia Nyang’o’s article: “The ‘disco sucks’ movement represented a kind of collective stage fright, an aggressive shyness that transmogrified into a male demand for a return to the position of gazer rather than gazed upon, a demand based in the fear that the sexy male body might already be irrevocably on display.”
Sarah: Okay. But what are the gay men going to do with all these women once they get them?
Sarah: They're like, “Great. Now we have all these women.”
Mike: I know! But you can see the same threads that we see now of sort of like the pussification of men. Like, this idea that men are sort of being forced to be women and like “men can't even be men anymore.”
Sarah: What if we stop abusing boy children and start being nice to them? Like, what if they grow up into like, nice adults?
Sarah: What if masculinity dies because we're nice and we stopped raising anyone assigned male at birth to be emotionally shattered and mean? Like, what if we get a generation of nice people? Like, what then? I think that's a real fear that people have, and they wouldn't describe it that way, but that's how I would put it.
Mike: There's also, I mean, there's a bunch of other arguments against disco. Like, the gay left, like left socialists, hate it because it's capitalistic and like apolitical. So there's essays written in these obscure, far left wing journals about how disco is not collective enough or something.
Sarah: I mean, there is a certain amount of leftist politics that's run by dudes who just enjoy gatekeeping their political fan culture and I think a lot of the “fun thing is bad” arguments could arguably be coming from that sector.
Mike: This is from a New York Times article called “Discophobia” that's published in 1979: “The disco decade is one of glitter and gloss without substance, subtlety, or more than surface sexuality. In the 1960s, Americans would have given anything for something as mindless and impersonal as disco, an escape hatch from the social responsibilities, from shouting and shoving in the streets. Now we have found the answer. All we have to do is blow dry our protein enriched hair, anoint ourselves with musk oil, snort another line of cocaine, and turn up the volume. After the poetry of the Beatles comes the monotonous, bass pedal bombardment of Donna Summer.” Fuck you!
Sarah: You know what's weird to me is that like, sixties music, the best music of that time was also about euphoria, right? Like, you know, popular music and music that is popular among youths will always be different than the music of the previous youths because youths can't share music once the previous youths are no longer youths. It just doesn't work that way.
Mike: Right. It's also just this fake thing that rock music is somehow not commercial?
Sarah: Yeah. What the fuck, dude?
Mike: Like rock music is not glitter and gloss? Like, what are you talking about?
Sarah: The Rolling Stones did a Rice Krispies commercial in like, 1964.
Mike: It's this idea that everybody wants to believe that their own aesthetic preferences are somehow objectively pure. Like, they match their principles objectively when it's like, no everybody's music is dumb.
Sarah: And that their adolescences were better than other people's adolescences, which they're not. We're just sad that we're not adolescents anymore.
Mike: So it's sort of, I mean, I think of the backlash against disco, everybody finds something in disco to hate. It's this perfect storm because disco is at once too black and it's too gay. But it's also too mainstream because it's on cereal boxes and it's too underground because it started in these nightclubs that I'm not familiar with. But then it's also, it's too elitist because like, Studio 54 is this bullshit that's only for celebrities and the Christians think that it's too illicit because it's too sexual. But then the actual, young kids that are having sex with each other think it's like kind of square because it's like, you know, Sesame Street. It's literally like every segment of society finds a reason not to like disco. It's perfectly set up for everybody to turn on it on a dime.
Sarah: Yeah. It's everyone's whipping boy.
Sarah: The sentiment against disco also reminds me of something that we talked about a little bit in our Jessica Simpson episodes, about how, like, if something is being aggressively marketed to you as a youth demographic and you know that you're being pandered to, like, you kind of have to rebel against the forces that are pushing that in your face. And unfortunately, you can't really take that out on the people who are doing the marketing because you can't see them and you don't know who they are and so you take it out on the artist.
Mike: Yeah. That's very insightful.
Sarah: Thank you.
Mike: One of the other things that people don't talk about that much is that this “disco sucks” movement was not just Disco Demolition Night. So, Steve Dahl started a club for people that hated disco that eventually had 10,000 members. The purpose of these clubs – this is fucked up – they would go to village people shows and they would stand outside, and they would throw marshmallows at the people waiting in line to get in and they would go to other shows and throw peanuts at people. It was called “feeding the animals.”
Sarah: So this is an excuse for organized homophobia.
Mike: Like, full on.
Mike: I do think there are people at Disco Demolition Night who genuinely didn't know and were like, “I like baseball.” But then there's also people, if you're in a fucking club that is dedicated to hating a form of music and throwing things at people waiting in line to go to a fucking show, like, no. You get zero good faith forgiveness for me.
Sarah: And it could be a group that's like “We think that American radio has been taken over by a commercialized art form and we want to take back the airwaves for rock.” It's like, yeah. I get that. The goal of that is not to destroy someone else's good time and to target them in a hateful way and use their tastes as an excuse to scoop up a big group of people.
Mike: Yeah. I also think that the thing of throwing marshmallows, it's sort of one of those things that like, you have some plausible deniability of like, “Oh, this isn't abusive. Like we're not throwing wrenches. We're not throwing bottles.”
Sarah: “They’re just marshmallows.”
Mike: When it's very obviously designed to humiliate another person and humiliating them in an explicitly anti-gay way and it seems like the kind of thing, to me, that is specifically calibrated, that when somebody gets really mad at you and fights back and punches you in the fucking face, you can be like, “Well all I was doing was throwing marshmallows.”
Sarah: Yeah. There are some experienced bullies in that group.
Mike: Totally. So this is from Alice Echols’s book: “In Los Angeles, a radio station released a promotional anti-disco record with songs like Disco’s What I Hate, Disco Defecation, and Death to Disco. In New York, radio listeners protest a rock radio D.J. because he played disco singer Donna Summer’s so-called “sex anthem”, Hot Stuff.
This is the worst one. Two D.J.s at a Detroit station formed an anti-disco vigilante group called “Disco Ducks Clan”. They were laying plans, which were later aborted, to wear white sheets onstage at a disco that was switching back to rock.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: I mean, it's, it doesn't get much more explicit than that.
Sarah: Yeah. The subtext is the text.
Mike: Yes. So if you were there that night and you're a good person, I believe you. If you were a member of one of these clubs and you say, like, “I had no idea that it was racist and homophobic.” I don't know, man. And so Steve Dahl, of course, participated in the same coded shit. He gives an interview right before Disco Demolition Night, like trying to promote it where they're like, “Yeah. Why do you hate disco so much?” And he says, “I hate the taste of pina coladas. I'm allergic to gold jewelry. So there's nothing there for me. You have to spend so much time blow drying your hair. I just think it's a waste of energy.”
Sarah: You don't have to blow dry your hair to like a funky beat.
Mike: Fuck you, Steve. He also says, this is also a nice little coded language thing, he says “I have a problem with the culture, not the music.” It's like, uh, do you care to tell us what you mean by that, Steve? Can you just keep talking, Steve? What do you mean by the culture? So we finally get to the event, as I mentioned, it's Disco Demolition Night. If you bring a disco record, it's 98 cents to get in. I think it's ordinarily like, four bucks.
Sarah: It does suggest kind of a dedication to destroying personal property cause like, records aren't cheap.
Mike: I know!
Sarah: I bet a lot of teens are like, going to their sister's record collection.
Mike: Yeah. And also, as you and listeners will know, I am an expert in sports and there's also some baseball context here.
Sarah: Yeah. You're Mr. Sports. That's what we call you.
Mike: Apparently, I have no idea why, but apparently baseball was also just like, in the dumps at the time and they were doing increasingly desperate gimmicks to get fans to come. So infamously in 1974, Cleveland had Ten Cent Beer Night and then that turned into basically a riot and they never did it. Steve Dahl is friends with the son of the owner of the White Sox who also hates disco and he's like, “Let's do this. This'll be a fun thing.” So they start cooking up this idea of having a Disco Demolition Night. They advertise it around. Comiskey park holds 50,000 people-ish and depending on which source you read, 90,000 people show up or maybe 70,000. Like, some huge over capacity crowd shows up and there's 15,000 people outside hanging out as the game is going on. So, it's the White Sox versus the Detroit Tigers and it's a double header. Basically the entire first game no one's paying attention to the game and they start chanting “Disco sucks! Disco sucks!”
Sarah: When do they demolish disco? Like, between games? Or when?
Mike: Yes. Steve Dahl has a crate full of 50,000 disco records
Sarah: Big crate.
Mike: Steve Dahl comes out dressed in military fatigues. He has like, an army jacket sort of thing on and an army helmet on. And so he has this giant crate of records that he puts in the middle of the field and then he sets off a ton of fireworks around the crate and then I guess there's just like a big ass explosion like shards of records go everywhere.
Mike: Because the fans are bored and they hate disco, I guess they've just been whipping their disco records at the field all night. So, like, they've been throwing their disco records like frisbees. So the field is just littered with random disco albums.
Sarah: Are they throwing them at baseball players at all?
Mike: Yeah. They have to stop the game a couple of times.
Sarah: Because people are getting disco records thrown at them. It's just like, you get an eight track whipped at your head.
Mike: And then this is wild. After this explosion, it basically becomes a riot. Like, 7,000 fans storm onto the field and start just like, picking up disco records, breaking them over their knee.
Somebody starts a bonfire and so there's just a giant fire in the middle of the baseball field and people are picking up records and throwing them on the fire and like, dancing around this giant fire. Fans from outside storm in, I'm not sure how, like they're climbing the fences or like pushing against the chain link fences or whatever.
They start climbing up and like, threatening people in the luxury boxes and like, trying to get into the clubhouse.
Mike: I guess the players are just whisked out. All the players are really afraid for their lives. They've given interviews after this. They're like, “What the fuck is going on?”
Mike: And you know the famous announcer Harry Carey, who does the Chicago Cubs?
Mike: He is, for whatever reason, doing the announcing that night and he starts singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over the speakers to try to quell the unrest.
Sarah: That's beautiful.
Mike: That’s all he can think of to do.
Sarah: Isn't that just the most beautiful, surreal vision? Like, I want a montage of that.
Mike: And then at 9:08 PM, this is about 25 minutes after the start of the riot, riot cops come on the field and start arresting people. This is where we get our broken hip. There's one guy who runs one of the vendors in the stadium. He breaks his hip in sort of the shoving matches that ensue.
They make 37 arrests for like, disrupting the peace or whatever. I think most people end up getting released the next day, but it's like a legit riot and police crackdown. Since 1954, there's only been five instances where baseball teams have forfeited games, and this is one of them.
Sarah: What are the other ones?
Mike: One of them was the Ten Cent Beer Night. There's one in 1995, apparently in Oakland, where it was like Novelty Ball Night. Like, they'd give you a ball when you walked in and then everybody throws them on the field, like 50,000 balls on the field, which like… guys, what, what were you expecting?
Sarah: I think they're so funny because it seems like something that a child would put together, that if you give baseballs to like everyone who comes into a baseball game that they're going to throw them on the baseball field.
Mike: Also the idea of like, “We're going to blow up a bunch of disco records” and it's also teen night.
Sarah: Yeah. Explosions and teens! And then we're going to go have them watch something that, while beautiful, is very long and boring and relies on the long stretches of time where nothing is happening. But why were people so ready to make a disturbance? Like, what do you think about that?
Mike: I love this. Gillian Frank read all of the news coverage from the newspapers the next morning and this is so typical of when sort of racist and homophobic things happen, there's this leap by elite institutions to be like, “Hey, this wasn't racist and homophobic. Like, it’s just a thing that happened.” And so almost immediately the theory that forms is basically that, like, if you get 50,000 teenagers anywhere, they would have done this, which just isn't true. Also, that a lot of them were smoking pot.
Sarah: Ooooh, pot! The drug that makes you riot.
Mike: No! Like, if it was like, Free Eat an Entire Viennetta Box, yeah. But like, riots don't come from a bunch of stoned people.
Sarah: I don't know, Mike. It's Satan's lettuce. I think that really speaks to the idea that people had at the time and really, I mean, some people still, that like all illegal drugs, because they're equally illegal, I guess, are equally extreme and like, yeah a bunch of people smoked pot and they're going to have a huge riot, basically.
Mike: I mean, I do think there is something interesting in the fact that the crowd was overwhelming young. I think some of the teens were just like, the crowds rushing onto the fields so I might as well too.
Sarah: Right. Well, there are a lot of teenagers who just want to be part of a disturbance and if a disturbance starts, they're going to get in on it. It’s ironically the same feeling that you would be trying to get by dancing to disco music!
Mike: Yes, exactly. This is also immediately, like literally within 24 hours, we have Steve Dahl saying like, “Well, I didn’t know it was homophobic and racist” and like, “Oh, I was just like making a couple of jokes on the radio. I didn't know.” So, this is what he says. He actually says this to the Chicago Tribune on like the 40th anniversary of the night, but this is, like, very typical of his rhetoric. He says, “We blew up disco records, made fun of the Bee Gees, and Saturday Night Fever. It goes no deeper than that. Sometimes a stupid radio promotion is just a stupid radio promotion.” I don't know, Steve. I think like, he used to say the word disco with a lisp. He would say “dithco”. Like, yeah okay. You're joking. Officially, you're joking, but how many bigoted movements have used humor as a weapon, dude? And again, gay people and black people understood it as racist and homophobic immediately. It's not clear that we should be judging things like this on their intention. We should be judging them on their effects.
Sarah: Right. It's also interesting that in sort of mainstream reporting on this, there's not the sense generally that a marginalized community knows what it feels like to be marginalized and understands this experience more intimately than the person who throughout their entire life has had plausible deniability whenever they do something that is harmful to another community, because the whole point of being the perpetrator of these kinds of behaviors is that you don't really think that much about them.
Mike: Exactly. And it's kind of amazing that within basically a year, disco becomes this societal embarrassment. The disco radio station in Chicago, the day after Disco Demolition Night, they play Donna Summer's Last Dance for 24 hours straight and then they turn off and turn on again as a top 40 rock station and this begins a wave of disco stations across the country switching back to rock or switching to other formats. This is also the rise of like, oldies stations. Like, that wasn't something that had really existed before.
Sarah: And because the whole disco sex backlash showed the power of nostalgia as a marketing tool, I guess, because what people are expressing through that is like, “I feel threatened because this thing that I love is no longer culturally ascendant” and so an easy way to get money from those people is to just make a little space for all the old stuff that they like.
Mike: And also the way that nostalgia can be weaponized. I mean, if you look at almost any reactionary authoritarian regime across the world, right now, “I will make things like they used to be” is the message at the heart of all of them. And I don't think Steve Dahl obviously rises to that level, but he's like a tiny little taster of how easy it is to turn nostalgia into a weapon.
Sarah: *sings* Teeny little demagogue.
Mike: Studio 54 closes in 1980.
Sarah: Also, weren't they cooking their books the whole time too?
Mike: Oh yeah. They go to jail.
Mike: Because of the rise of disco, the Grammys had a disco category and then it's so derided by 1980 that they cancel it. So, “Best Disco Song” only existed for one year. Do you want to know which song won it?
Sarah: Okay. So, something that came out in 1979?
Sarah: Is it Love to Love You, Baby?
Mike: Ooh, uuh, no.
Sarah: Is it by Donna summer?
Mike: It's by Gloria Gaynor.
Sarah: It's not… is it I Will Survive?
Sarah: Oh, well that really feels right.
Mike: Doesn't it? I know.
Mike: If one song is going to be the only song that’s ever won Best Disco Song, it's like, yeah. Right? Like we as a society, it's fine.
Sarah: We did something right.
Mike: Yeah. And so that's it. That's the death of disco before we, um, we're going to do a slight debunking, but for now that's the death of disco.
Sarah: So, is the debunking that disco didn't die because it was always in our hearts and it's still there and we can blow on that ember and turn it into a raging disco Inferno anytime we want?
Mike: Stop spoiling my episodes.
Sarah: I just can tell because I can feel this go in my heart.
Mike: Yes, we will. You are absolutely correct. But before we get there, we have to do a slight debunking of all of these nationwide anti-disco movements. It turns out all of these were orchestrated. So, what Alice Echols finds out when she looks into this history is that radio stations figured out that having an anti-disco club was a really good marketing opportunity.
Mike: There's these consultants to radio stations that start doing focus groups and they find pitching yourself as an opposition to disco is a great way to get listeners and keep loyal listeners to keep them from switching stations because disco stations are, of course, your main competition.
Mike: So you want to instill in people that disco is some sort of enemy of rock. So this is an excerpt from Alice Echols’s book: “What we discovered through focus groups was that most people in these groups were fairly neutral about disco until one or two disco haters began ranting, at which point the entire group would turn decisively anti-disco.”
Mike: “Abrams managed within a week to convince 60 radio stations to appeal to their base by launching anti-disco campaigns.” So, it's like Coke versus Pepsi.
Sarah: Well, it's turning the feeling of, “I love rock” into “I hate disco. I must protect my baby rock from disco.”
Mike: Yes. And one thing Gillian Frank mentioned to me was that like, this was actually the beginning of identity and music being very closely linked. Most human beings like listening to many different genres of music. You're in different moods. Nobody is like, “I only listen to rock”, but once you have radio stations that are competing with each other and record labels that are competing with each other, it makes a lot of sense to try to lock somebody into one genre because you're basically making them a loyal consumer.
Sarah: Right. It is Coke versus Pepsi. Oh my God.
Mike: It is! Taco Bell wants you only to eat Taco Bell.
Sarah: It was capitalism all along!
Mike: I was waiting for you to say that!
Sarah: It’s not just a clever saying!
Mike: The only group that works out for are like, record labels and especially radio stations. Radio stations have very different incentives than record companies because they're not selling you music, they're selling you as a demographic to advertisers. And so, another theory for why disco crashed during the late 1970s was that it turned out, from advertisers, that because disco audiences tended to be less affluent, radio advertisers didn't want disco stations. So, a lot of the disco stations that switched back, it wasn't necessarily because everybody hated disco all of a sudden, it was just a financial decision.
Sarah: Right. It's like, where are the best profit margins? And then that's where the culture will go and then we'll be told that all of us spontaneously decided we didn't like the thing that makes less money now.
Mike: Yeah. There's also, you know, if you look at the actual sales data, disco records had been falling in sales for like, months, basically because of oversaturation. There was just too much disco on the market. People were getting really sick of it and like there's been dozens of other musical genres that have had this sort of fad peak, pretty steep decline.
Sarah: Like the lambata.
Mike: Gillian Frank compared it to the rise and then crash of boy bands in the nineties. There's some of that in there. Tony Smith, the D.J. who we met earlier in the episode, he says that by 1979, he was already playing New Wave and synth stuff, like early electro. And so the club scene has sort of already moved on. And Donna Summer is putting out like, I Feel Love, which is like one of the first electro songs. Like, things are already becoming obsessed with synthesizers and moving on from sort of soaring strings.
Mike: What it turns out is that Disco Demolition Night didn't kill disco, but what it did was it killed the word disco. People just stopped calling it disco. Like, they switched the name to “dance music” very quickly. The music itself, basically, just became the DNA of what we now know as EDM and also especially rap, right? Like, one of the first rap songs, Rapper's Delight, is a loop of a Chic song, Good Times and like, all of the deejaying techniques from disco became standard in rap songs and there's a really famous D.J. named Frankie Knuckles who used to D.J. at a gay bathhouse.
Sarah: Would that be like lower tempo stuff?
Mike: No, like bathhouses used to be dope. They would have like, a place where you could have sex, a place where you could dance, and then they'd also serve food and stuff. It's like, why would you ever leave?
Sarah: I didn’t know there was food.
Mike: Yeah. It says like, a fucking salad bar. It's amazing. After a lot of the clubs start closing in New York City, he moves to Chicago. He starts deejaying at a club called The Warehouse and he starts selling these bootleg tapes and nobody really knows what genre they are because the music is so weird and they start calling it “warehouse music” and then eventually they shortened that to “house music” and basically, that becomes like, Chicago, Detroit house music.
Sarah: So basically, this is like Charlotte's Web. Disco died but then it had all these babies and we're Wilbur.
Mike: This is from Alice Echols’s book: “If disco died, it was not immediately obvious from the pop charts of the 1980s. Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince made music that many would argue was disco in all but name.”
Sarah: I would use the Star Wars metaphor for this, which is, as Obi Wan Kenobi says, “If you strike me down now, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” And like that happened. Like, we tried to kill disco and in response disco was like, “I am so great that I will just become the bones of most great pop music of the next decade and you won't even call me disco because I am everything good.”
Mike: Yes. This is a quote from Tavia Nyang’o: “The perceived failure of disco was really the failure of a form of disco that valorize the patriarchal, the heterosexual, and the bourgeois, not the queer disco. As such, the failure was not so much a failure of queerness as a failure of the regressive attempts to contain queerness and appropriate discovery.”
Mike: So it's like, yeah, we got sick of disco. We hated disco, but we hated the least interesting kind of disco.
Sarah: It's like trying to capture a skunk to keep as a pet and then like, it becomes domesticated and sad and lonely and it wastes away and you're like, “There are no more skunks in the world because we found this one and it didn't do well in our care.”
Mike: And so the quote I wanted to end with is a lovely quote from this book, Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life: “Disco was a whole movement. People really felt that. They felt disappointed later on that the idealistic quality of it was being trampled in favor of money and celebrity. As much as disco was glitzy and certainly loved celebrity culture, there was never a sense of it being driven by that. It was much more driven by an underground idea of unity. The manifesto was the music. Love is the message.” Goosebumps. Love it.
Sarah: Yeah. And just, in conclusion, if a piece of media makes you feel joy, maybe don't get mad about it.
Mike: Yes. Let other people have their things. Don't join movements with the name “clan” in the title…
Sarah: And, uh… and you will survive!
*I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor plays*