Disco inferno

Forget tacky polyester and the cheesy Village People. It's time to recognize the gender-bending, fabulous music movement of the '70s for the revolution that it was.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published June 8, 2005 7:07PM (EDT)

Whenever any of my allegedly liberal music-nerd friends tell me how much they hate disco, I always like to ask, mischievously, "So are you a racist, a homophobe, or both?" Because to wholly dismiss disco as a genre -- and whether or not it brings you pleasure to listen to it is another question entirely -- is to denigrate what's possibly the most democratic form of popular music ever conceived. The rise of disco brought with it a flowering of gay culture, and hastened that culture's acceptance in the mainstream. And although by the '70s white kids had already been listening to, and dancing to, black music for decades, the merging (and recombining) of soul, jazz, Latin and R&B that disco represented -- not to mention its role in the genesis of rap and hip-hop -- was more than just a co-opting and repackaging of music made by minorities for the consumption of privileged whites. Born of the social and economic devastation of 1970s New York, disco was as much a political statement as punk would later be (maybe even more so), a movement that slashed across boundaries of race, class and sexual orientation. You can hate the trappings of disco (there's not much good to say about those polyester suits). But to trash it without even attempting to grapple with where it came from and what it means amounts to an insidious form of bigotry.

With "Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco," Peter Shapiro has, with meticulous research and deep affection, finally written the book that defenders of disco have been waiting for, and the one its many detractors need to read. There are few forms of popular music so universally despised, or so misunderstood, as disco. Punk and hip-hop have had, and continue to have, their enemies, but hatred of disco crosses all lines of class and taste, if not sex and sexual preference. Like the best books about music history -- Jon Savage's "England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond" springs to mind -- "Turn the Beat Around" is also a social history. Instead of tracing disco's history with a series of straight lines, Shapiro untangles the delicate web of threads -- events, attitudes and minor miracles -- that caused this strange and wonderful phenomenon to come into being, beginning with the underground dance parties of the "swing kids" in Nazi Germany, moving through the racial unrest of the 1960s to the glittering gay discos of the 1970s, and beyond. He explains how the explosive growth in immigrant populations, happening just as the manufacturing industries that had long provided work for unskilled workers were beginning to decline, caused an economic downturn (further intensified by the recession) that affected New York more drastically than any other American city. Shapiro loves disco, both as a genre of music and as a pop-culture movement, but he's bracingly unsentimental about its origins: "Despite its veneer of elegance and sophistication, disco was born, maggot-like, from the rotten remains of the Big Apple."

But Shapiro also understands that that's exactly what makes disco so vital: He hears it as a defiant, joyful response to the worst possible circumstances. What do you do when your city is falling apart around you? You dance -- why not? Shapiro describes how "young kids at outdoor parties in the parks and the Bronx would find their own nirvana by isolating the two or three bars of utter musical perfection on obscure albums, and extend the pleasure indefinitely by manipulating two copies of the same record on a pair of turntables that were usually powered by illegally tapping into the city's power grid. And, in fading hotels and former churches, gays, blacks and Latinos were feeling the exaltation of the damned as they danced to a new style of syncretic music that was being pieced together by the clubs' DJs."

Although disco is often thought of as an elitist genre, one in which beautiful people were courted and the only-average were shunned (and Shapiro, rightly, spends a great deal of time discussing both the glory and the snobbery of Studio 54), "Turn the Beat Around" makes an irrefutable case for disco as "populist music par excellence." And as a writer, Shapiro is an anti-snob himself: With wit, smarts and good common sense, he parses the significance of even some of disco's junkiest, most crassly commercial subgenres. (I'm still reeling over his sane, perceptive defense of roller-disco, a pastime I sheepishly admit I partook of in the '70s.)

But then, part of what makes "Turn the Beat Around" so fascinating is the way Shapiro puts disco not just in the context of the time in which it flourished, but in the context of the other music around it -- punk, rock 'n' roll, country, all types of R&B and hip-hop, and even Southern rock. Disco was, and is, often considered music for "sissies" -- the sort of thing that any red-blooded straight American male should be ashamed to like. We define our identities by the kind of music we respond to, or, more specifically, by the kind of music we profess to respond to: We've all been caught humming along to some bad song on the radio, even though we claim to know better. But while Shapiro, appropriately, lavishes a great deal of time and space on the way disco flourished in gay clubs in New York, such as the famous Flamingo, he's just as interested in the ways disco thrived in environments steeped in machismo: The hustle, for example, came from the Latino sections of the Bronx, and even gang members would get dressed up and go dancing at night, competing in contests (sometimes even in gay clubs) as well as, of course, striving to outdo one another. Disco was sensual music and sexual music, but it had more subtle political components as well, and Shapiro explores them from all angles: Most notably, he includes a fine section on Philly soul and its brethren, explaining how the black community's feelings of "resignation and despair" over its voicelessness and repression were channeled into the "paranoid soul" of the '70s. And he writes beautifully about one of the finest and perhaps most unsung outfits of the disco era, Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band (which would later spawn Kid Creole and the Coconuts), calling their self-titled debut album "one of the most fully realized, dazzling artifacts from the black bohemian intelligentsia."

But what makes "Turn the Beat Around" such an exciting book, as well as a valuable and important one, is that Shapiro allows himself (and us) the luxury of recognizing that not all disco music has to mean something. There is intelligence (and, yes, musicianship) at the heart of many of the biggest disco hits. But they also existed to give pleasure. Or, as Shapiro puts it, "the goal of the best dance music is to get you to think with your entire body." Shapiro can be impish on the topic of pleasure: In writing about Van McCoy's superhit "The Hustle," he refers to that "infernal flute line boring into your skull" and defines the song as "the kind of record that crawls under your skin, subliminally taking root to the point where you find yourself whistling it while masturbating." As hilarious as that observation is, there's more than a grain of good sense to it, at least in the way it recognizes how music can get to us, in ways that are either subversively sneaky or blaringly obvious, even when we try very hard to shut it out. "Turn the Beat Around" is a serious book that belongs on the shelf of anyone who cares about pop music, or, for that matter, pop culture. But ultimately, it's a book about delight and joy -- joy in the face of disaster, or even just for its own sake. Maybe the point of dancing is not necessarily to lose yourself to the music but to find yourself in it.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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