Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture

October 14, 2010

Few moments in 20th-century American popular music have been quite so maligned as the disco years. They are inevitably characterised as a tasteless age defined by testosterone-charged men strutting peacock-style to a relentless rush of disposable songs in the glitterball euphoria of the discotheque.

It was, apparently, an era bereft of style or substance. No wonder the moral majority of the rock world challenged and eventually defeated disco's dominance with a cringingly self-satisfied "Disco Sucks" campaign - a so-called movement that climaxed with a "Disco Demolition" in July 1979, in which rock fans were urged to bring unwanted disco records to Comiskey Park in Chicago. The records were collected and blown up in the interval between baseball games in a defiant rallying cry for all things authentic, honest and pure in rock'n'roll - and against disco's white suits, hairy chests and gold medallions.

This vision of disco is, of course, wildly simplistic, and yet the notion that the scene and sound was somehow defeated by a rock audience unified by its rejection of disco endures, in much the same way as punk is wrongly seen as the nemesis of progressive rock. Scholars of music history should understand that nothing is that simple, whatever the music press says.

However, that all-too-simplistic analysis has crept into the academy, too. Among the very few authors who have explored the era, most have researched the phenomenon in terms of its supposedly "anti-black" sound, or the centrality of gay culture to the genre.

Yet all too often these accounts have failed to question the view that disco was funk with its blackness removed, or that it was a soundtrack to gay nightlife that became appropriated and resold to the heterosexual market. These arguments may be easy to make, but that does not necessarily mean they should be left unchallenged.

In this account, professor of American studies and one-time disco DJ Alice Echols takes the accepted map of disco culture and overlays it with new routes and paths that offer fresh perspectives on an era that has been largely overlooked by a rock-obsessed academy.

Hot Stuff looks at disco from a variety of perspectives and interweaves them with painstakingly researched detail that speaks to the author's love of her subject. With chapters dedicated to questioning the accepted position of black sexuality, gay nightlife, women in disco, the rise of the gay macho, the impact of the film Saturday Night Fever (1977) and the legacy of the era, Echols successfully reconsiders many of the oft-told tales, adding a few twists along the way.

At her best, Echols explodes myths with as much pleasure as those baseball fans sent vinyl flying. Particularly strong is her analysis of the subject of black masculinity, which debunks the notion that disco represented both a betrayal of soul and funk's blackness and an emasculation of black men as blackness became "reduced to commodity".

In the process, she challenges Greil Marcus' much-echoed view that the age of disco "reflected a period of persistent racism, internal fragmentation and the unravelling of the black freedom movement, largely through government repression". Although this may have been true, Echols argues, that view disregards the "important cultural transformations that were the legacy of civil rights", namely affirmative action, growing electoral power among black communities and their increasingly less stereotyped representation in film, television and music.

The era may have become defined by numerous negatives for African-Americans, but those facts have, she says, "blinded critics and historians to the heightened sense of possibility that also characterised those years". This is a thoroughly entertaining account of the music and the era, and a worthy addition to the growing body of work on dance-music culture.

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture

By Alice Echols. W.W. Norton. 288pp, £19.99. ISBN 9780393066753 Published 16 September 2010

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