26 April 2012

Last Stop on the Groove Line

For this, the 34th anniversary of the opening of Studio 54, I toss up an off-the-cuff bit at the '70s blog.

Despite how it might come across in the piece, I didn't hate the song in question. It was a good tune to get stoopit to back in the day, and I guess it still if if you're inclined to do that sort of thing.

I can recall disco's gradual saturation of the mainstream in the years following the release of Saturday Night Fever; and I remember the backlash that eventually (inevitably) followed a few years later -- the increasing popularity of the "Disco Sucks" decrees, etc. But disco didn't exactly suck, not as such, not at the beginning. It just got more and more bland and formulaic as the years wore on and it became further and further removed from its funk and Latin roots. There was more and more of it hogging the airwaves, and the quality of it was getting annoyingly weaker as the cultural glut was reaching critical mass. Even if you didn't mind the music so much in the first place, that type of scenario was bound to breed resentment. And even if you didn't mind it so much in the first place, there was a good chance that you'd been waiting & ready to see it finally make its exit from the cultural landscape.

So the backlash that kicked in around 1979 was inevitable, in many respects. From the beginning, much of the anti-disco sentiment came from the blue-collar heartland. It's perhaps for that reason that the backlash has often been portrayed as hinging on racism and homophobia. Personally, I've often thought that's too limited and simplistic a reading of the situation. If anything, there was a big streak of anti-cosmopolitanism about the whole thing. New York was already the target of public derision at the time, with public attitudes in a portion of the American population falling firmly behind the feds' "drop dead" decision in refusing to bail the city out of its fiscal bankruptcy. And the scene at Studio 54 became something of a effigy for that animus. The country was in a major economic slump, so really -- who gave a fuck about what all the "beautiful people" were doing as they partied beyond the velvet ropes?*

Of course dance music didn't disappear after 1979, but it definitely changed course, perhaps following another arc of the backlash -- a musical one. The straightforward 4/4 thumpity-thump of disco became anathema in the years that followed. There was also, as the decade progressed, a tendency to steer things toward a very pared-down, almost metronymically minimal, beat -- a skeletal remnant of what had previously constituted "funk." Bass was likewise minimalized, and polyrhythms were out. And that style became pervasive across the spectrum -- from the top of the pop charts down to most anything produced by the likes of Bill Laswell -- throughout the early and middle 1980s. There were pockets of resistance to the trend, of course -- electrofunk (and it Southern cousin, the "Miami bass" sound), latin freestyle, and D.C. go-go. All of which helped stave off some of the malaise some listeners experienced in the face of the the new austerity plan. I expect it's why house and techno came about at the time -- as distinct locale-specific responses to a hunger, rushing in to fill a void.

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*  Add to all this that Jimmy Carter's chief political strategist Hamilton Jordan was alleged in many media reports to have engaged in questionable behavior at Studio 54 -- from snorting cocaine to engaging in sexual trysts with other clubgoers. A federal inquest failed to substantiate the accusations; but whether true or unfounded, the rumors played right into a lot of public cynicism at the time.


David W. Kasper said...

"If anything, there was a big streak of anti-cosmopolitanism about the whole thing."

True, and maybe not homophobic or racist per se, but anti-cosmopolitanism is usually very reactionary. In Europe at least (depression fascism was big on it). Reagan tapped into anti-cosmopolitanism in a big way, didn't he? Plus the 'fuck the disco fags and hippies with their conscience' wing of US punks got overtly racist at times (many of whom I assume were suburbanites reacting against the 'excremental city' they were trying to make a name in).

I'm not saying it was a concentrated social backlash, but 'disco sucks' appeared to converge with a lot of other reactionary trends that came to dominate 80s culture. Even though pop was still pretty much disco-derived, the name 'disco' remained mud for most of the decade.

Greyhoos said...

Yeah, there's a lot to that -- the whole matter of diffuse reactionary tendencies. And yeah, Reagan (& co) found a way to harness them, capitalize on them. After all, his whole campaign-trail anecdote about "welfare queens" was lifted directly from George Wallace's presidential campaign of the previous decade.

David W. Kasper said...

Have you read Peter Shapiro's 'Turn That Beat Around'? Makes a good case for disco's importance - and a very useful companion to 'Rip It Up & Start Again', not least on parts where those respective 'movements' converge.

Greyhoos said...

I did....read it a few years ago. Quite a good book, yeah. As I recall, though, Shapiro mostly wrote from the perspective of an "inside" history -- largely dealing with the music industry and nightclub end of things, from within the culture. Which he did a fine job with, but I don't remember him going much into the broader pop-culture end of things.

Greyhoos said...

And I guess the matter of a perspective from "within the culture" ultimately connects to disco as being part of a lifestyle, rather than a mere consumable cultural trend. And I'm guessing it's that lifestyle aspect that you were possibly referring to in your "utopian" comment elsewhere. But as I remember, Shapiro went to great length to highlight how one of the disco's biggest acts -- Chic -- were actually a bit skeptical about that same lifestyle, and were often lampooning or critiquing it in their music. I recall he quoted Nile Rodgers a fair amount, because Rodgers (as a former member of the Black Panthers) had a way of putting the whole movement into an interesting cultural context.

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