Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Turn the Beat Around

I've just finished reading Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco by Peter Shapiro. The book examines disco as an art form born of a particular context--primarily the economic, racial, and sexual world of New York City in the 1970s--but also locates it within the broader spectrum of black pop. It's the kind of book I'd love to write if I had the attention span for it.

It occurs to me, however, that there's still room to discuss the history of disco as it appeared to people not located in New York City. Shapiro disparages the latecomers to the party, such as those of us out here in the Midwest, as terminally uncool wannabes who were following a trend we could never understand--but that's not really our fault. While disco may have made sense in a particular way to New Yorkers, who lived each day in the economic, racial, and sexual context that made disco possible, those of us out here in the Midwest couldn't help but understand it differently.

Shapiro makes clear that disco can't be understood without an understanding of the growing liberation of gays and lesbians in the early 1970s. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 represented the Rosa Parks moment for gays. After that, the gay pride or gay liberation movement snowballed--and disco was its musical expression, just as surely as gospel and soul were musical expressions of the civil rights movement.

But what if you lived in a place--as many Midwesterners did--where there was no gay community to be liberated, and/or few gays at all? Then you were left to understand the disco "movement" in other ways that made sense to you. In my case, it was as an extension of the black pop music I was already familiar with. I was not an especially vocal disco hater. I tolerated it, although I found a lot of it fairly boring. I sometimes wished that other forms of black pop, which I'd been enjoying since I was 10 or 11, would find their way back onto the radio. Other people understood disco through the lens of celebrity. Disco was important because famous people were seen in disco clubs, and many people who perceived it as a pastime of the rich and famous wanted to emulate it. Still more people experienced disco as yet another fad that started off cool on the coasts and ended up cliched in the Midwest, by rushing to disco clubs and adopting disco styles long after the heat of both was starting to cool in disco's birthplace. That's not our fault out here either--that's just the way it is, and not just with disco.

During my last couple of years in high school, my friends and I DJed some postgame dances. Being teenage boys, we didn't play much disco at the first few shows we did. Toward the end, in the spring of 1978, we started getting more requests for disco tunes. (As I recall, I was happier to oblige them than some of my friends were.) For us, DJing was a matter of playing one record after the other. While we had a rudimentary sense of flow (we knew not to play play "Cat Scratch Fever" right after "You Light Up My Life"), the idea of mixing records of similar tempos into a seamless flow, which Shapiro considers an absolutely essential characteristic of disco as an art form, never occurred to us.

In the spring of 1979, I became a more vocal disco-hater. The music director of my college radio station was one of only a handful of African-American students on campus, yet he elected to take the station in an urban contemporary direction. While he avoided programming a great deal of straight disco, what he did program was more than enough, and so a lot of the jocks were eager to rebel. I can still remember the afternoon I played 15 minutes of crunchy rock and roll and back-announced it by saying, "Let's see 'em play THAT at Studio 54." The crack brought the music director racing into the studio to lecture me on my attitude, and to imply that I was some kind of racist.

During the summer of 1979, between my freshman and sophomore years, I was on the air (at my paying radio gig in Dubuque) on Disco Demolition Night, the famous riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Given my growing animosity toward disco, the whole thing seemed kind of funny to me. Later that summer, when the Knack's "My Sharona" came roaring out of nowhere, it was like water to the parched. My college-radio friends and I were glad to see rock and roll make a comeback. That fall, the music director didn't come back to school, so our college station swiftly abandoned its urban-leaning format for album rock. For me, disco returned to the place from whence it had come--a black style on the radio, not one I especially enjoyed, but one I could tolerate if I had to.

So: Regardless of your own experience with disco, you'd probably find Turn the Beat Around a worthwhile read, if you enjoy cultural history.

Lots of people have made their peace with disco since the 1970s--some because you can be branded as either anti-gay or racist if you criticize disco too harshly. I've made my peace with it because, like everything else we were listening to back then, some of it sounds pretty good now. (And some of it doesn't.) Coming later this week, if I get around to it, a list of disco records that do not suck.


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At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just like urban and rap music today, disco's popularity was a result of young white poeple listening to it. It certainly didn't hurt that "Saturday Night Fever" had a predominantly white cast and groups like the Bee Gees, KC & The Sunshine Band, and even Kiss ("I Was Made for Loving You") had disco hits.


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