Once largely derided as shallow, faddish consumerist music, disco has been reappraised as the stifled sounds of cultural liberation. Of course, it could always be both.
In 1979 there seemed to be an endless supply of disco—and an endless supply of disgruntled grumblings about disco. People called the music mindless and shallow, a bunch of imbecilic boogie-oogie-oogies over a monotonous, robotic beat. Disco culture was said to be consumerist and celebrity-obsessed: a milieu where fashionably dressed somebodies could carouse inside a club while the nobodies were stuck behind the velvet rope outside. And the stuff was all over the radio, sometimes replacing other formats entirely and sometimes subverting them insidiously, as rock bands added disco sounds to their songs and as white singers invaded the playlists of black stations.
If you asked the grumblers to come up with a conspiracy theory to explain the music’s rise, they might say its secret agenda was to stifle people’s political consciousness, a version of Abbie Hoffman’s complaint that disco was “Elegant. Ruling class … Music not exactly designed to promote community or kindle the passion for social change.” They might denounce it as a scheme to undermine black radio, à la the critic Greg Tate’s angry joke that disco could be called DisCOINTELPRO.
Most likely, they’d attack it as a plot against rock’s gritty authenticity, a kind of mind control at work on the dance floor. Steve Dahl—the Chicago DJ behind the infamous Disco Demolition Night of 1979, when disco-hating rockers blew up a bunch of dance records in a baseball stadium—called disco a “disease” whose victims “walk around like zombies.” In “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” a largely fabricated report in New York magazine that was the basis for the movie Saturday Night Fever, Nick Cohn described disco as an “automaton chugging” while “impassive” dancers went through the required motions. It wouldn’t have taken too much work to turn that sort of rhetoric into a full-fledged Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario.
Today, by contrast, we get Jamie Kastner’s The Secret Disco Revolution, a documentary/mockumentary hybrid from 2012. In this telling, “beneath disco’s carefully vapid veneer, its true aim [was] the mass liberation of gays, blacks, and women from the clutches of a conservative, rock-dominated world.” The narrator informs us that “a revolution of this scale required revolutionary masterminds,” though “we can only speculate as to their actual identity.”
That’s tongue-in-cheek. The filmmaker doesn’t really think a radical cabal cooked up the world of mirror balls and hi-hat beats. But Kastner’s thesis didn’t come from nowhere. Under the current critical consensus, disco was a tide of musical innovation and cultural liberation. All Kastner did was pretend someone planned it that way.
Even in the ’70s, disco had defenders in the intelligentsia. In 1979, the New York Times’s John Rockwell pushed back against the idea that disco was “imposed on the world by a diabolical conspiracy” and argued that “there’s a lot of interesting disco being made these days, and a lot of variety within a form that is often considered monolithic.” (He also anticipated the emergence of postpunk, invoking “the coming together of disco, punk rock, and old-fashioned ‘progressive’ rock.”)
With time, this tolerance became more common. As experimental dance music evolved in the ’80s and afterward, its advocates were happy to look back at disco as the soil from which their vibrant genre emerged. And if you were more inclined to regard those later dance records as harsh robotic noise, their ’70s precursors started to sound more appealingly human. (Why, some of them had live musicians. Singers! Horns!) Yes, a lot of old disco had an alien, electronic quality, but as house, techno, and similar genres flourished, the influence of artists like Kraftwerk was waxing while the warmer strains of soul were on the wane.
By the ’90s, meanwhile, cultural archeologists were uncovering evidence that the disco scene contained forgotten nuances. Crate-digging DJs dug out dance records that were far stranger than the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack: odd and entrancing work by Arthur Russell, Larry Levan, and other quirky and inventive producers. Historians explored the disco scene’s emergence in the early ’70s, before the genre’s formulas emerged. In a foretaste of today’s turntablism and mashups, the era’s most important artistic figure was the DJ spinning other people’s creations and remixing them into something new. As rock radio moved away from freer formats and imposed more restrictive playlists, DJs could still be creative in the clubs.
And on the political side, a wave of writers found something subversive in the genre after all, no matter how it looked to Abbie Hoffman. While disco haters had stressed the elitism of places like Studio 54, a club where celebrities could party and preen while bouncers kept the ordinary proles outside, pro-disco partisans pointed to the more egalitarian atmosphere of disco’s early days, to its roots in marginalized gay and black and Latino communities (and in independent record labels), and to the leveling spirit of the dance floor, where the audience instead of the star held center stage.
By the 21st century, serious and sympathetic book-length histories of the music were appearing, notably Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day (2003) and Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around (2005). The revisionists’ view has become so dominant that it has begun to attract revisionists of its own. Alice Echols’s Hot Stuff (2010) took the pro-disco position for granted, then pushed back against its more sweeping sentiments—acknowledging, for example, that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t an accurate representation of the original disco subculture but suggesting that it nonetheless gave “a richer portrait of the disco seventies than critics and discographers have granted it.” (“The movie lured all kinds of people, including sexist hyper-macho guys, onto the dance floor, but if anything the movie seeks to expand, not constrict, the parameters of masculinity.”)
And now we have The Secret Disco Revolution, which has enough layers of irony to oscillate between embracing and mocking the revisionists’ ideas. The mockery mostly takes the form of interviews in which the director asks old-timey disco stars like the Village People and Kool (of the Gang) to comment on those academic defenses of disco. By and large, the musicians react with the puzzlement you might expect from an Elvis sideman being asked if his guitar licks helped end the Vietnam War. This makes for some funny scenes, but there’s a level on which it misses the point. You can provide the soundtrack for gay liberation without giving a damn about gay lib yourself, and you can reflect feminist currents in the culture without deliberately setting out to create a feminist song.
Kastner is also unfair to Echols, setting her up as holding reductive views that her book explicitly rejects. Interviewed in the film, she says that “ ‘disco sucks’ is usually understood as being fundamentally a sentiment rooted in homophobia and racism, and I think that there’s a lot of that there, there’s a lot of evidence to support that.” But I got the impression that the camera cuts away before she could finish her thought. Her book takes a more nuanced view, exploring the many aspects of the disco backlash that were not rooted in anti-gay and anti-black bigotry.
The movie is happy to mock the musicians as well as the academics. In the film’s funniest sequence, the current members of the Village People brazenly assert that there was nothing gay about their material, claiming that “there was not one double entendre in any of the music” and that “In the Navy” was written as an earnest celebration of sea life. This is intercut with an interview with Henri Belolo, who wasn’t a member of the band but produced their records, co-wrote many of their songs, and played a major role in inventing their image. As the singers issue their denials, Belolo talks about “how we created a gay-positive message” and discusses the barely hidden gay-cruising subtext of “YMCA.” At that moment, the Village People become a different type of revisionists, rewriting their history with the self-confidence of a Soviet censor snipping Trotsky out of a photo. Or maybe they’re being poker-faced jokers, too. But I don’t think so: At the end of the movie, right before the credits roll, we see some post-interview footage of a Village Person pretending to throttle Kastner as he warns the filmmaker that he reads too many books.
The classical conspiracy theory is a black-and-white tale of good and evil. (Mostly evil.) But there is an ironic style of paranoid thinking too, a sort of story that’s more mischievous and ambiguous than the usual conspiracy yarn, more interested in playing with an idea than embracing it. If you’ve read the Illuminatus! trilogy or the Church of the SubGenius’ tracts, you’ve seen this style at work. At its best, The Secret Disco Revolution belongs to that tradition: Its conspiracy theory is a satiric exaggeration of a worldview it neither entirely endorses nor entirely rejects. All the film’s claims are suspect, but even its most suspect claims contain truths.
Even the Village People’s absurd denials have some truth to them. The country, after all, is filled with people who happily dance to “YMCA” without any thoughts about gay guys looking to pick someone up at the Y. If it’s possible to create a gay-lib soundtrack without meaning to do so, it’s just as possible to deliberately craft the gayest thing ever and then watch as it gets played at straight people’s wedding parties. Whatever you might intend to say when you release a record, its meaning is made on the dance floor.