Are disco haters racist homophobes? Readers debate Stephanie Zacharek's review of Peter Shapiro's new book "Turn the Beat Around."

By Salon Staff
Published June 10, 2005 3:29PM (EDT)

[Read "Disco inferno," by Stephanie Zacharek.]

Excuse me, but what sort of defensive blinders is Stephanie Zacharek wearing in her attacks on those of us who hated disco? Has she looked at any of the pop culture histories of the era that frequently turn up on places like VH1? History has come out on her side. The commonly held assumption now is that the only kind of music anyone listened to in the '70s was disco, with maybe a little punk thrown in at the end. It's easier to forget that acts like Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, David Bowie and the Who, to name just a few non-disco artists, were out there making brilliant musical statements. But I guess those of us who preferred this kind of music must now recognize our status as ignorant crackers.

In retrospect, there are some disco songs I find myself listening to with some nostalgia, and certain acts I have gained new appreciation for. But I resent the implication that my failure to appreciate the genre at the time had something to do with being racist or homophobic. When disco was becoming popular, it was not something I associated with blacks, Latinos or gays, but with the working-class kids I grew up with, the wannabe Tony Maneros from Brooklyn and Queens. These kinds of guys were not exactly big proponents of cultural inclusion. They reveled in their ignorance and wore it like a badge of honor. They considered the kind of music I listened to to be too intellectual, not masculine enough. It maybe required them to think a little, and this concept was probably a little too effeminate for their tastes. These were the kind of guys I was trying to escape from.

I was and am a music nerd. Sorry, Stephanie, but that was my defense mechanism against the '70s and I am entitled to it. To my mind, living through the era, disco music was just a beat that required no brainwork and that only existed to get coked up to and to gain access to some anonymous sex at the end of the night. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but as a geeky, shy white kid who couldn't dance to save his life, I did regard disco as a kind of elitist culture, one that only welcomed the cool, the hip, the invited, whether that got you into the stratosphere of Studio 54 or acceptance among the local Travoltas. In my experience, disco wasn't some escape from repression, but in fact represented a new form of cultural fascism that demanded complete compliance. That may not be your experience, but it was definitely mine. I guess it's all just a matter of perspective and how one chooses to romanticize an era.

-- Jim Chadwick

Stephanie Zacharek's article about disco makes some key points about the relationship of disco to identity politics in the '70s and early '80s. If something helped break down racial and sexual barriers, it should be acknowledged for that. But one can appreciate the importance of disco to the gay community and at the same time still think that the overwhelming majority of its "contributions" to pop culture and pop music are undeniably bad. I personally resent the argument that someone is a bigot if they dislike disco. Not only is the argument offensive, it doesn't make any sense. I hate club music, which in many ways I would consider the progeny of disco, but that's because I don't like going to clubs. I believe there is an important element missing from the recent romanticization of the disco years, and that is that disco was in many ways successful because of the drug culture and self-absorption that proliferated in the '70s as a result of the cynicism that washed over American culture after the failed hopes of the '60s, Vietnam and Watergate. While we can appreciate and understand the desire to tune out a world gone mad, we should be a little more evenhanded in our assessment of disco as a positive or negative indicator of social change. Furthermore, the notion that because disco was so overwhelmingly popular that it deserves to be recognized for its musical achievements is utter bunk. A music's popularity can be an indicator of quality, but more often than not there is no correlation between sales and quality or creative genius. Finally, I think it's a little foolhardy to believe that drugs and self-absorption didn't have just as much to do with, if not more, breaking down racial and sexual barriers in the disco era. The mindless drone that was the disco beat allowed everyone to tune everybody else out and stay within themselves, which can be both good and bad.

-- Robert Chester

Stephanie Zacharek asks her disco-hating friends, "So are you a racist, a homophobe, or both?" Isn't it possible that most people who hate disco do so for purely musical reasons?

There was a VH1 special about the rise and fall of disco and some of the interviewees made the same accusation: Hating disco means you are a gay-bashing racist. But by definition a genre is a collection of works with similar characteristics. Disliking those characteristics means disliking the genre. I don't need to know the history of disco or its demographics to decide whether I like a song or not.

Every genre from acid rock to zydeco has its ups and downs. Disco is not special or unique in that regard and its fans need to finally realize that.

-- Mike O'Leary

Salon Staff

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