The Great Saturday Night Fever Hoax
This week, in anticpation of the upcoming WAM Prom on Friday, I’ll be blogging some thoughts on music and culture by the way of our mash-up theme of hip-hop and disco.
One of the myths about disco, one that I think that contributes to a lot of misunderstandings about it, is that it was a brief trend that collapsed as quickly as it rose up in the 70s. In reality, disco was just another step in a long 20th century evolution of dance music, and it ended for the same reason a lot of musical trends do: it morphed into other forms. If anything, disco had a larger impact than most music trends do, as elements of it came out in techno and all other electronic dance music, post-punk, New Wave, and most importantly, hip-hop (which is why we’re doing a dual theme for this year’s WAM Prom.) But one reason I think there’s a sense that disco was its own thing in a way that other trends aren’t is that the kind of dancing people think of when they think of disco is this elaborate, ballroom-style dancing that has no relationship to the bouncing and writhing that is most dancing people do in America, whether at a rock show, hip-hop club, or rave. You know what I mean. People think “disco” and they think of John Travolta playing Tony Manero.
Or Travolta’s solo style dancing in the same movie:
Nothing against Travolta’s unbelievable dancing skills, but this wasn’t actually how people (at least prior to this movie) danced to disco, which was, from what I understand, much like they’ve danced to everything since, which is mostly formless bouncing and writhing. Now, all sorts of music trends have movies that exploited them to make semi-musicals with elaborate dancing, but Saturday Night Fever became synonymous in the public imagination with disco in a way that hasn’t happened before or since to a musical form. Why?
There’s a lot of reasons: the dancing is really that good, the music is that much better, a zeitgeists was hit. But I think one reason is that Saturday Night Fever purported to be based on a true story, giving the audience the feeling that they really were taking a peek into the Brooklyn disco scene by watching this fictional film, in much the same way that 8 Mile got a little extra boost because it’s so well-known that Eminem did in fact scrape his way up through rap battles like the one portrayed in the movie. But while I think Eminem’s life is pretty well-documented, the “true story” of Saturday Night Fever is actually, well, a hoax.
The whole thing started with a New York Magazine story by Nik Cohn in 1976 called “Inside the Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night“, a story about the elaborate disco lifestyle of the Italian-American regulars at a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn disco. The story was a hit; it seems it must have gone into development as a movie in record time. The only problem wiht it is that Cohn made the whole thing up.
For an article in the December 8 issue celebrating the 20th anniversary of the movie, Cohn tells of a disco deception born of frustration. The British writer describes how he went to Brooklyn’s now legendary 2001 Odyssey searching in vain for a flamboyantly dressed fellow he had spotted in the club’s entrance a week earlier. “I didn’t learn much…I made a lousy interviewer: I knew nothing about this world, and it showed. Quite literally, I didn’t speak the language.
“So I faked it. I conjured up the story of the figure in the doorway, and named him Vincent…I wrote it all up. And presented it as fact,” Cohn confesses. “There was no excuse for it…I knew the rules of magazine reporting, and I knew that I was breaking them. Bluntly put, I cheated.”
The culture and specifically the emphasis on dancing skills was a mish-mash of Cohn’s own imagination and what he observed in the Northern soul clubs in Great Britain in the 60s. It’s one of those stories that has drifted under the waves, because most people don’t really think it’s that important (though why not in our James Frey-bashing era, I don’t know). But while it’s far from the most important story of journalistic misinformation, I still think it’s not something that should be waved off. After all, Cohn’s imaginings supplanted the more reality-based portrayals of disco, most of which I think are far more interesting than the image that Cohn painted. To make it all worse, if people had a better idea of how disco actually was in the 70s, I think it would be easier to see it as part of the larger quilt of American pop music, which is always mutating as different genres swap and steal and morph into something new, yet still familiar.