This post is part of a month-long Friday series promoting the Radical 80s Prom on 12/3. If you’re in New York on December 3rd, please come by the Bowery Poetry Club from 10PM-2AM and dance to some great 80s tunes, for a good cause. If you are coming, I’d love to get an RSVP from you on Facebook.
When people think of the culture wars, they think of abortion, gay rights, guns, or Sarah Palin shoving cookies on innocent children. But they don’t often think of what I think of as one of the most interesting cultural happenings in the past 40 years, the disco riot of 1979, which was a culmination of the baffling Disco Sucks movement of the late 70s. Not baffling in the sense that people were tired of disco, which dominated the airwaves, but baffling in how angry it was, how semi-organized. Enough, apparently, to kick off a riot. Cultural critics with more heft that I have analyzed the entire thing, looking over the way that Disco Sucks movement channeled of lot of straight white male resentment at women, people of color, and GLBT people—groups that culturally dominated and defined disco, especially in its early days. Disco Sucks was supposed to be straight white men reclaiming the radio dial that was rightfully theirs.
If you think this reading is overwrought, I refer you to Roy Edroso, who discovered that culture warriors are still angry about disco flooding the airwaves with singing divas carefully elevated by gay DJs. In a rant that also implied that Roots is a horrible stain (presumably for overruling decades of post-Confederate propaganda suggesting slavery wasn’t so bad), Ed Driscoll flipped out on, of all things, Saturday Night Fever.
A minor example, also from the mid-1970s, was Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever. It was sold to the public as being an adaptation of a magazine article on the real-life exploits of disaffected Brooklyn youth, when it reality, it was basically Quadrophenia with better dance moves, updated clothes, and cockney accents replaced with Brooklynese:
His larger point seemed to be that the cultural touchstones of liberalism from the 70s were all lies—lies I tell you!—leading people down the wrong path towards thinking badly of Watergate and slavery, and thinking that even straight white dudes from Brooklyn could enjoy disco.
If that doesn’t convince you, think about this: how many of the anti-disco rioters grew older and crabbier, moved to the suburbs, and now consider themselves members or fans of the Tea Party? See what I mean?
What does this have to do with the 80s? Well, on the Facebook page for our Radical 80s Prom, we got into a small query of why nostalgia for the 80s began immediately and never died. It’s a particularly interesting question, because the 80s were sort of a shit decade in many ways. The 80s are assumed to be an era of triumph for culture warriors. Disco was dead. Reagan was President. The anti-feminist backlash was effective, killing the ERA and getting Newsweek to threaten women that they’d never get married if they didn’t give up on their careers and their standards. All of this is true.
But I put to you this argument: we cling to certain artifacts of the 80s because they reminded us that these horrors were simply setbacks, and that progress was marching on and would not be stopped. Yes, disco died. And then it came back with a vengeance. All the things that were hated about disco were immediately and dramatically reborn into other genres that spun off from it. The synthesized nature of it that was derided came back triple time in New Wave and started to dominate rock and roll. The beats and the licks and especially the culture of DJing laid the groundwork for hip hop, a genre that still sends culture warriors spinning off to Angry Town. Gender-bending became even more mainstream, with men in make-up playing keyboards broadcast on MTV in the middle of the day for all to see. The biggest stars of the era—Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson—all flouted the strict masculinity norms insisted on by the disco rioters. Unsurprisingly, this was also the era that country music went big time and became the official music of culture warriors everywhere, much to the chagrin of those who see more possibilities than that in country western.
I think that’s why we love the 80s, on top of the childhood and adolescent nostalgia of the Gen X-ers. The music we cling to from that era was about perseverance and eventual triumph, even when the lyrics themselves were pablum.
With that in mind, I thought I’d play some disco triumphant music.