Aikman’s Cellar. Sweaty. Crowded. The uplifting sounds of disco music moving the crowd to let them forget themselves, to focus purely on the music. Suddenly a fight breaks out, drunk guys giving attitude and resorting to violence. It is five minutes till the end of the last set for the evening, music off, lights on. Two girls unable to intervene, the organisers of the event, suddenly overwhelmed by the cramped, unpredictable environment out of their control. DISCO is LOVE shouts one. DISCO is LOVE no FIGHTING shouts the other. People look at them in both confusion and surprise amidst the jostling, as more people attempt to pull the fighters apart.
To this day I have no idea what possessed me to scream DISCO is LOVE! in the face of three large brawling boys, nor do I really know why Georgia echoed these sentiments, seeing as in doing so we were both trying to extinguish a fire by gently blowing on its flames (in other words, having no effect whatsoever). However, in the moment, it represented what we both felt about disco, that its joyful rhythms should not be associated with violence. This association between music and emotions is something that most people have felt. Whether it is that song that reminds you of summers past or the music that played in the background during life’s seminal moments. I had my first kiss to All Star by Smash Mouth and to this day I cannot listen to that song without cringing. Infact, as I write this article I am currently grimacing intensely at the memory.
Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Gino Soccio, Kiki Gyan, Steve Monite. These are just a few of the numerous, insanely talented artists that lent their voices and creativity to the invention of music that uplifts the soul. Disco is the music that our parents grew up dancing to at discos and I have witnessed first-hand the excitement that my parents feel when they hear me practice mixing disco, losing themselves in their memories, busting dance moves from muscle memory. Though bringing joy to some, my sister is always keen to point out that disco is “uncool”. This article aims to prove her wrong, by exploring the origins of disco, its implications for society and why she should take a break from listening to Lana del Rey on repeat and instead give disco a try.
The origins of disco reveal the genre as one which lowers boundaries, giving marginalised or oppressed in society a voice or a space to express themselves. Disco music gained exposure through DJs playing at underground clubs, popular with African-American, gay and Latinx communities. The creation of 12-inch records and 45-rpm extended play hits, helped meet the demands for more disco. Often when people think of disco, Studio 54 comes to mind, with its hedonistic lifestyle, the temptation to free yourself completely of any inhibitions upon entering its glitzy interior. The popular culture aspect of disco, which centred on exhibitionism and a consumerist society, overshadows the emotional element of disco and ignores its beats as vehicles for empowerment, liberation and inclusivity. The very musical elements of disco as a fusion of soul, pop, salsa and funk rhythms are a testament to its inclusivity. In transcending borders and cultures, incorporating such extensive musical influences, disco was able to gain popularity across the globe ensuring that disco fever engulfed not only North America, but also South America, Europe, and Asia.
To quote Ken McLeod from his article titled, “A Fifth of Beethoven”: Disco, Classical Music, and the Politics of Inclusion (American Music, 2006), he states that “disco was not a monolithic construct” (p348). In other words, its fluid form allowed for many distinct sub genres of disco to appear. Disco was the epitome of counter culture in its day and sexual liberation, promoting both freedom and self-actualization, thus allowing people to claim aspects of disco as a source of identity.
Although DISCO is LOVE was an immediate reaction to sudden chaos, love is indeed at Disco’s core. Many of the spaces that were created in which people were able to listen to Disco music, were born out of a desire to ensure a space in which free love could be expressed. During the 70s, when homophobia was blatant, pervasive and even enshrined in law, those who did not conform to the heterosexual moulds of conservative society, were shown little love or given little freedom to openly love as they chose. In New York City it was illegal for gay bars, or spaces in which same sex dancing was allowed, to operate. DJ David Mancuso organised his first inaugural Valentine’s Day Party 1970, entitled Love Saves The Day. Taking place in his own home, Mancuso initiated a space in which gay culture could flourish, consequentially resulting in many other similar spaces to open throughout the city. These spaces offered a new, less restrictive form of dance which further encouraged self-expression as the traditional shackles of partnered dancing fell away. Instead, people could now strut their stuff on the dance floor as an individual, not constrained by anyone or anything. This ultimately changed the way in which people interacted with each other as part of the group, as part of a crowd with one overarching intention -that of FREEDOM.
It would be a disservice not to acknowledge the fall of disco, to mourn its gentrification and inclusion into the mainstream. From underground clubs to private parties,the journey of disco music diverted from its more earthy roots to that of the shiny plastic possession of record labels who distorted its distinctive energy. It had shifted from its funk beginnings to becoming entangled with orchestral music, creating a more commercial sound. Films like Saturday Night Fever, not only helped to further institutionalize the sound but also whitewashed its roots, making it whiter, straighter and blander. Now unfortunately seen as an“elite” form of music, disco went from inclusivity to exclusivity, much to the detriment of the marginalized peoples who gave it its origins and who turned todisco as their champion or solace from discrimination.
To conclude this brief snapshot into the history of disco, it is possible to witness the joy that it brings in the present day, particularly during the pandemic that we are currently facing. Although I am lucky that my flatmates are easy to convince into a dance break during study hours, the beauty of disco as mentioned early in this piece, is that there is no need for a partner. You are able to dance, unrestrained, without having to rely on any one for the steps. Disco is magnificent pandemic music as it is able to combat the blues from being cooped up by providing an escape that can be sought regardless of location and of other people.
When I am in need of cheering up, I often find myself falling into the warm embrace of Kiki Gyan or Steve Monite and so I urge you during this bleak holiday period to try the same and give disco a chance. Given that this winter break is all about family time and given that DISCO is LOVE, what could be more festive than bringing all generations together for a little We Are Family by Sister Sledge.
One only has to look at Chic to see this sentiment perfectly encapsulated.
¹ "The First Woman Rapper MC Sha Rock Talks Women in Rap, Sugar Hill Records, & Her Movie Project”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8UBKxJg1SQ >
² “On set w/ Aaliyah, Da Brat, Missy Elliott & Lil’ Kim (1999): You Had To Be There”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOzcH9Fim1M >
³ hooks, bell. “Hardcore Honey: bell hooks Goes on the Down Low with Lil’ Kim”, (May 1997), < https://www.papermag.com/lil-kim-bell-hooks1-1427357106.html?rebelltitem=62#rebelltitem62 >
⁴ hooks, b. (1994, February). Sexism and misogyny: Who takes the rap? . . . Misogyny, gangsta rap, andpiano. Z Magazine. < http://s18.middlebury.edu/AMST0325A/hooks_Sexism%20and%20Misogynywho-takes-the-rap.pdf >
⁵ Adams, Terri M., and Douglas B. Fuller. “The Words Have Changed but the Ideology Remains the Same:Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 36, no. 6, 2006, pp. 938–957, JSTOR, < http://www.jstor.org/stable/40034353 >
⁶ Barnes, Dee. “Here’s What’s Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr.Dre Beat Up”, < https://gawker.com/heres-whats-missing-from-straight-outta-compton-me-and1724735910 >
⁷ “Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche Flawless Speech”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75BknhBhWVg >
⁸ “Joan Morgan Talks Hip-Hop Feminism & The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeYRRzt2ikQ >
⁹ “WAP and the Spectacle of Sexual Liberation”, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=ILApR36KgQw&fbclid=IwAR23XawseazqgOGpZJ-VknYVIx3SuO_qkbtovWHiPO5_KP3Z3IwTRmtCrp8 >
¹⁰ Gracie, Bianca. “How Women Reclaimed Hip-Hop in 2019 by Making Their Own Rules”, 19 December 2019, Billboard, < https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8546781/female-rappers-2019-dominance >
Music never lets you down
Puts a smile on your face
Anytime, any place
Dancing helps relieve the pain
Soothes your mind, makes you happy again
Listen to those dancing feet
Close your eyes and let go
But it don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing
Bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa
Chic - Everybody Dance from the album: Chic (1977)