By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)
Remember the disco era? I try not to. Yeah, I was one of those long-haired rocker dudes walking around brandishing a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt and turning his nose up at anything that smelled of Bee Gee or polyester back in the day. What can I say? I was going through my tribal phase (I think it’s commonly referred to as “being in your early 20s”). Now, that being said, I sure loved me some hard funk back in the mid 70s. A bit of the Isley Brothers, War, Mandrill, Funkadelic, etc. oeuvre managed to infiltrate my record collection at the time (in betwixt the King Crimson, Bowie, Who and Budgie).
But I had to draw the battle lines somewhere around the release (and non-stop radio airplay) of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (ironically, I love the film itself). In retrospect, I think what offended my (oh so rarified) sense of music aesthetic was that while “disco” plundered R&B, funk, soul (and even elements of rock’n’roll) it somehow managed to expunge everything that was righteous and organic about those genres; codifying them into a robotic, repetitive, and formulaic wash. But hey, the kids could dance to it, right?
Now, I am extrapolating here about disco music itself, as one would reference “blues” or “jazz”; not “disco” as a cultural phenomenon or political movement. What did he say? “Political movement”?! Actually, I didn’t say. Director Jamie Kastner is the person who puts forth this proposition in his sketchy yet mildly engaging documentary (mockumentary?) The Secret Disco Revolution. I think he’s being serious when he posits that the disco phenomenon was not (as the conventional wisdom holds) simply an excuse for the Me Generation to boogie, snort and fuck themselves silly thru the latter half of the 70s, but a significant political milestone for women’s lib, gay lib and African American culture. He carries the revisionism a step further, suggesting that the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” riot (ignited by Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl’s 1979 publicity stunt, in which a crate of disco LPs was blown up at Comiskey Park in front of 50,000 cheering fans) was nothing less than a raging mob of racists, homophobes and misogynists. Hmm.
Kastner uses the aforementioned 1979 incident as the bookend to disco’s golden era (kind of like how writers and filmmakers have used Altamont as a metaphor for the death of 1960s hippie idealism). For the other end of his historic timeline, he (correctly) traces disco’s roots back to early 1970s gay club culture. How disco morphed from a relatively ghettoized urban hipster scene to arrhythmic middle-American suburbanites striking their best Travolta pose is actually the most fascinating aspect of the documentary; although I wish he’d gone a little more in depth on the history rather than digging so furiously for a sociopolitical subtext in a place where one barely ever existed.
Kastner mixes archival footage with present day ruminations from some of the key artists, producers and club owners who flourished during the era. The “mockumentary” aspect I mentioned earlier is in the form of three actors (suspiciously resembling the Mod Squad) who represent shadowy puppet masters who may have orchestrated this “revolution” (it’s clearly designed to be humorous but it’s a distracting device that quickly wears out its welcome).
So was disco a political statement? When Kastner poses the question to genre superstars like Thelma Houston, Gloria Gaynor and Evelyn King, they look at him like he just took a shit in the punch bowl. Hell, he can’t even get any of the guys from the Village People to acknowledge that their wild success represented a subversive incursion of gay culture into the mainstream (they’re likely toying with him because he’s belaboring the obvious…”The Village People were camp?! I’m shocked! Stop the presses!”).
Well, here’s how I look at it. Dion singing “Abraham, Martin and John”? That’s a political statement. James Brown singing “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud”? That’s a political statement. Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman”? Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay”? Those are political statements. KC and the Sunshine Band singing “Get Down Tonight”? Not so much. And as for Kastner’s assertion that anyone who wore a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt back in the day (ahem) was obviously racist, homophobic and misogynistic, I would say this: I have never particularly cared for country music, either…so what does that make me in your book, Mr. Smarty Pants?