Is disco ancient history?
Like a politician whose “views have evolved over the years,” my feelings about disco have undergone a transformation. The rallying cry of my adolescent cohort was DEATH BEFORE DISCO. Our obsession was hard driving, often British rock. A new release from Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, the Police, the Clash, or the Talking Heads meant sitting on the floor for repeated listenings, immersing oneself in the record jacket (often black or florescent pink or green), memorizing the lyrics (often cynical), discovering who played bass (why on earth did I care who played bass?). We listened to this music as if our lives depended on it; we defended this music as if it were under attack. Other rock and pop —the Stones, Steely Dan, Linda Ronstadt— was practically in the water supply, and didn’t require one to actively seek it out or pledge allegiance to it.
Joe Jackson Band, Beat Crazy, 1980
But the soundtrack of the time, keeping everybody’s booty shaking, was the pulsating glitter of disco —tacky, vulgar and unavoidable since Saturday Night Fever, a movie whose preening, strutting misogyny made a deep and unwanted impression on me.
The thinking teenage feminist’s logical antidote
DEATH BEFORE DISCO was the only appropriate response to the heaving, ecstatic moans of Donna Summer (Love to Love You, Baby), Diana Ross (Love Hangover) and Thelma Houston (Don’t Leave Me This Way). All these masochistic divas gyrating their pelvises and moaning about “love” was part of my problem with disco. The implicit idea that one was at the disco itself looking for sex was another issue. Looking back on it, the New Wave aesthetic —angry, angular and cerebral— was the thinking teenage feminist’s logical antidote to the mindless orgy at the disco.
Donna Summer, in her heyday, dressed to moan
Many years, many pounds later: I have discovered that disco is an excellent motivator at the gym. Mind you, I don’t want to listen to it unless I’m suited up in lycra and strapped to a piece of equipment, when the mindless repetition of the music (Shake Shake Shake, More More More, Boogie Oogie Oogie) actually helps with the mindless repetition of the body on the machine, and drowns out whatever thumping techno yowling is currently pelting the gym. There is no better soundtrack to the skating machine than Keep It Coming, Love (KC and the Sunshine Band), Shake Your Groove Thing (Peaches and Herb), or More Than a Woman (the BeeGees), the very music I once disdained so strenuously. In fact, as tawdry as I found disco culture at the time, the music itself, and even the swaggering that surrounds it, retains an odd sweetness lo these many years later. The youthful bounce found especially at the intersection of disco and soul (e.g., Al Green, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5) is very helpful when one has to kick one’s own ass around the gym. Here’s a great collection, if you need one. And check out To Disco, With Love, a kind of yearbook featuring all the ridiculous and over the top record jackets, recently published.