Is It All Over My Race: Disco's Perpetual Gentrification
In April of 2011, LCD Soundsystem delivered more than three hours of their much-hallowed nu-disco sound to 18,000 fervent devotees at Madison Square Garden. This sold-out crowd was the culmination of a rebranding of disco that has its roots in the post-punk era, but gained considerable traction in the mid-90s. Thirty five years after ireful, white rock ‘n’ roll fans drove disco out, one of the world’s most well-known arenas was radiant with people celebrating it. The original disco—propelled by labels like Salsoul and West End—and built by a mostly gay community of color, suffered a devastating coup de gråce in 1979 at the hands of disdainful white rock fans. But in 2011, it was mainly young, white people dancing to it.
The nu-disco jubilee had been brewing for at least 10 years. Many alternative music fans encountered their first dalliance with disco with Roger Avary’s 2001 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction. The Rapture’s Out of the Races And Onto the Tracks, which the film featured prominently in a party scene, landed like a collective gut-punch that helped ignite said rebranding within a community that traditionally held dear the mantra: “disco sucks.”
Disco’s latest reincarnation parallels the death of punk. In the late 90s, punk was over. Depending on who you ask, it had been dead and buried for years. Bands like !!!, Radio 4, and later, LCD Soundsystem were tired of “standing around at shows” and wanted to make music they could play in a club. Taking cues from bands like Gang of Four and Liquid Liquid, they combined their punk attitude with danceable rhythms. The resulting disco-punk changed the so-called “alternative” music fan’s perception of the once disdained genre. These predominantly white bands wiped away the campy stigma of disco’s yesteryear by cleansing it with a punk sensibility. Disco became safe for straight, white masses in thrift-store tees and skinny jeans. This wasn’t the first time disco had been the subject of an attempted gentrification.
1977’s Saturday Night Fever marked a turning point in disco’s popularity. A genre that defined itself by creating a haven of expression for gay youth of color was “pulled out of the closet,” so to speak. John Travolta and The Bee Gees—straight, jockish stars—introduced the suburban masses to this new obsession. But despite its wide acceptance, the gay and black elements remained surprisingly intact. Openly gay artists like Sylvester and the ornate Village People shared in the chart and club domination with their white, straight counterparts. The mainstream’s attempted sterilization of the culture didn’t fully take. That’s why in the eyes of many, the sanitized rendition of the edgy movement needed to be put to rest.
In the late 70s, rock ‘n’ roll was rapidly losing its foothold to a flamboyant genre steeped in queer and brown roots. Nevermind that for every Village People, rock had it’s own overblown character like a cape-wearing Rick Wakeman. But rock ‘n’ roll was America’s music—a straight, white (funny considering where it came from), testosterone-fueled genre. There was no room at the top for a fringe culture that required primping and dance lessons.
Music critics and historians have begun to accept that blatant homophobia and racism had a heavy hand in the “killing” of disco in 1979. As its impact widened, so did resentment from the rock ‘n’ roll community who saw their favorite artists like KISS and Rolling Stones hopping on the bandwagon. Steve Dahl, a rock DJ on Chicago’s WDAI, was the opposition’s messiah. When low ratings caused the station to change formats to disco, Dahl lost his job, and an enemy was born. His initial displeasure turned into a full-blown vendetta that would later culminate in one of the most bizarre and out-of control mass-displays of intolerance in recent American music history: Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, where rock fans were given reduced entry in exchange for a disco record to burn.
This display of hate marked the seemingly overnight decline of disco’s grasp over the airwaves. As disco’s popularity waned, so did budgets for promotion and production. Labels shut down, and disco slowly died—at least on the mainstream level. With only the occasional disco success towards the end of the 70’s (like Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall), rock fans saw this as a win for all that was good and right in America.
Dahl now claims it’s academically lazy to assert that the disco backlash had roots in racism or homophobia. For rock fans, he says it was a moment in time to fight for the music and lifestyle they loved. But why not celebrate rock instead of deriding another genre? Especially in a city as segregated as Chicago, it’s incredibly suspect to violently advocate for the silencing of an entire genre that also happens to be the most far-removed from the whiteness of the rock ‘n’ roll they were defending. A rock ‘n’ roll no one is terribly concerned with defending in 2017.
Although, it’s not like disco sat dormant for 25 years waiting for a white savior to rescue it from rock’s crushing blow. It continued in different forms—it even intermingled with punk on occasion—and birthed house music out of necessity. Young bedroom producers like Vince Lawrence, Jesse Saunders and Frankie Knuckles filled the dance void with their brand of electronic disco. House thrived both in underground scenes and within pop-music. But eventually it, too, suffered from a severe whitewashing.
The multi-billion dollar industry that has popped up around EDM leaves almost no trace of its origins intact. “Now there's so many average suburban white kids at house music festivals that you hardly see any black kids at all,” claims Vince Lawrence, one of house music’s pioneers in Red Bull’s documentary about Disco Demolition Night. The pyrotechnics, massive light shows and cakes in people’s faces are a far cry from the scene at David Mancuso’s loft, where balloon-covered walls were at times the only decorations for the late night/early morning dance worship sessions.
There will always be a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Inspiration is complex. It’s not always fair to criticize musicians who choose to celebrate a culture they admire through their own music. Daft Punk’s “Teachers” and LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” both acknowledge their inspiration. It’s even arguable that LCD Soundsystem, Disclosure and many of dance music’s recent wunderkinds are some of the most important artists of our time. Undoubtedly, many green-to-disco LCD fans were turned on to older dance music artists as a result of their affinity for the latter. It’s through reexaminations of the past that people like Chic’s Nile Rodgers are pushed back into the spotlight, or relatively unknown artists like Arthur Russell enjoy a posthumous uptick.
Still, in 2017, with infinite access to music and its history, the music industry and by proxy, consumers, continue to sweep originators under the rug. Disco was rebranded as nu-disco or “electro,” House became EDM, dancehall and afrobeat are considered “tropical house.” Rebranded terms that often erase its cultural origins.
How can we get to a place where the general public doesn’t have to be tricked into tolerance via an auditory trojan horse? It seems as though the obvious lessons of the past (the Elvises, the Led Zeppelins, etc.) would have taught us to look a little deeper by now. But all we can do is continue the conversation, and shine a light on the true inventors. Then one day, maybe it won’t take a musical gentrification to normalize them.