They say there are no guilty pleasures, but they probably have never checked out a disco CD from the local library, one with the archetypal silver ball coruscating on the cover iand featuring hits like “Celebration” (after Kool & The Gang tired of releasing unprocessed funk butters and turned to low-grade take-out), “Que Será Mi Vida” (possibly the cheeriest anthem for Studio 54 nose candy connoisseurs), and “YMCA” (I cringe thinking about all those tipsy grandmothers who’ve tumbled on wedding reception floors trying to spell it out with their dance moves).
The previous paragraph was difficult to write because: 1. There are so many fun slang terms for “cocaine” to choose from! and 2. I actually like disco music.
Of course, the problem with disco is universal to all genres mainstreamed and diluted for profit by corporate labels (you’ve caught this same lecture from aged flower-children, hiply-dressed teens who rock Ray-Bans, Nirvana fans, etc.): disco became a bad parody of itself. John Badham’s film, Saturday Night Fever, hurt, as did Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Disco was inherently a music of homosexual expression, but it was perverted into something vapid through heterosexualization and compounded layers of (decaying) cheese. Imagine the catharsis experienced by every man and woman who shouted the lyrics to “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross on packed dancefloors. Now imagine granny breaking it down to “Shake Your Groove Thing” in the VFW hall rented for the wedding reception. Note the disconnect?
DJs were already cutting out the kitsch before disco’s “death” in the ‘80s. Re-edits to alternate versions of disco songs already spliced from reel-to-reel tape, emphasizing the funky parts, bass, and drum breaks over the glitzy parts string flourishes, and lyrics, were made by DJs like Danny Krivit, Frankie Knuckles, and Larry Levan and spun in nightclubs like NYC’s revered Paradise Garage. These have evolved into the sleek, animatronic disco edits and “nu-disco” of the 21st century.
For a good sense of the stuff, check out Late Nite Tuff Guy, the Razor N Tape label, and the still-unclaimed New York Edits series with the skull imprint on the label of every record. Punchy basslines lifted from techno, Lysol-clean digital sound quality, vocal snippets splashed like aural graffiti in place of lyrics communicating actual human emotions—these characteristics form a glossy sub-genre ideal for loft parties sponsored by Smirnoff and attended by hip 20-somethings.
It’s not that I don’t like disco edits. Most of them are heat. Restyling dated music for modern dancefloors and listening standards is practical and generates creative perspectives on worn notes, maybe even getting closer to the “perfect” song. My beef will never be with the act of sampling; my beef is with the quality of the music.
There’s nothing wrong with stripping the frills. But what happens when you carve out the heart in the process? Example: The Baron Von Luxxury (note the unnecessary double x, a sure sign of coolness) edit of the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever”. Luxxury slowed the tempo, nixed the key changes, and reduced the Gibb brothers’ vocals to stabs of echoed melody weaving amongst those nightdrive keyboards. The track is a series of loops with subtle variation, a flawless exercise in music-as-atmosphere. But imagine yourself at a loft party dancing to an entire set of these unblemished reworks. Where’s the catharsis?
I’m down with house music, disco’s loopy, drum-and-synth-programmed offspring. I even attended an EDM show once. (An admission: people at EDM shows apparently don’t go apeshit like you’d expect; almost everyone crammed inside that photosensitive-epilepsy-inducing playground preferred staring at strobe lights to moving their bodies in rhythmic fashion.) I’m not implying that disco is somehow more authentic or real than electronic, 4-to-the-floor styles of dance music. It’s just that disco is defined by its flamboyance and gay overtones; that’s what it has going for it.
Stripping away the defining characteristics and referring to the songs as disco edits seems wrong. Top 40 radio stations play hyper-masculine, violent, misogynistic rap on the regular. These motifs are embedded into the genre’s mass-marketed model, and America seems to accept that cutting them out would leave sterilized slush in place of art. N.W.A. gets a box office flick for making music that was “honest” and “real”. Why can’t we feel the same way about disco?
In an XLR8R interview, John MacLean, a.k.a. The Juan Maclean, an electronic dance music producer, shared his opinions on modern disco edits and the hipster audience they’re directed at:
In this crossover of, like, indie people into the dance music scene, I still feel like there’s this weird undercurrent of homophobia, where it’s a group of people who would consider themselves the most sort of like open-minded and liberal people and whatnot, but when things get too overtly gay it makes them uncomfortable… In the indie, sort of hipster world, you can’t be direct like [original disco]. Like, you have to either employ irony or be really clever.
MacLean seems to imply that disco edits are created and enjoyed by the same demographic: the hipster, whereas I bet a lot of these edits are made by DJs who sincerely love disco in its purest form but are utilizing a section of the market they would otherwise never touch with classic disco: the hipster. I have non-hipster friends, though, who avoid gay clubs but enjoy a hint of disco flavor in their uptempo electronic dance jams to keep things from becoming staid. But not too much disco flair. Don’t change the keys or pick up a violin or bust out the falsetto for some lines about “coming out”, ‘cause then shit gets weird.
In Grant Tyler Peterson’s essay “Clubbing Masculinities: Gender Shifts in Gay Men’s Dance Floor Choreographies”, he calls disco a “secularization and appropriation of Black church music by gay men” and “a popular church of the orgasm.” If we accept this interpretation, it’s clear that disco was, at its purest, aimed at dancefloor/sexual liberation and that gay disco clubs were meant to be spaces where this release was socially acceptable. Despite straight couples catching on to disco as a “sophisticated” trend, the genre was not meant to be hip, similar to how church is not meant to be hip (although church can be very hip if the congregation does backflips to funkified gospel songs). Disco was meant to have soul, which transcends coolness.
Although the “gay parts” of disco songs, as MacLean refers to them, are decidedly unhip, they are what give the music its soul. DC Larue’s “Indiscreet” is the perfect example of an absolute banger with its soul ingrained in its gayness. The only non-gay part of the song is the b-boy-friendly drum break that made the song popular among hip-hop heads. You’ve got celebratory horns, lush strings, the auditory equivalent of twinkling stars, and the chorus chant of “all I need is love!” The song is a fucking spectacle, an exemplification of the power disco wields through its flamboyance. Do I need to point out the title? Any attempt to make a sleek, Smirnoff-sponsored-club edit of “Indiscreet” would fail. From what I can tell, no one has tried.
But maybe straight hipsters secretly want a little gayness, a little seemingly superfluous cheese, in their dance anthems? EDM has moments of catharsis through decibel amplification, bass drops, and auditory disorientation/mind-fucking. But it has no soul. It has no feelings. Or politics. EDM would benefit from a potent intravenous Appletini injection of gayness. Techno could use some gayness, too; no amount of MDMA will cause someone to burst into tears at a DJ Tiesto concert. Perhaps hipsters everywhere know deep down, somewhere underneath their flannel button-downs, that the release of pent-up human emotion is what dance music—not always “respectable” or “hip” or even “good” dance music, but meaningful dance music—is all about. And then maybe deep down they realize that meaningful music, regardless of taste, is the only kind that matters.
Of course, there are plenty of straight people in 21st century America who can wholeheartedly embrace disco, especially shitty disco. I recently attended a disco party in the basement of a local dive bar. The idea of a disco party in this particular bar is a fascinating subject itself. The walls are covered with promotional stickers for rock bands with names like Wallcreeper, Ellen Degenerate, and Supercorrupter. The bathroom has a trough in place of urinals, cup holders attached to the wall, and the fluorescent light is always flickering. I would be disappointed to learn that fist fights aren’t an accepted form of conflict resolution in this establishment. At a friend’s punk show there, a guy busted his head open and laid bleeding on the floor. The owner was upset that someone called the paramedics.
Anyway, for the disco party, the “stage”, which is really just a corner of the basement, was bordered with silver tinsel. A miniature disco ball hung in front of the DJ booth, and those plastic, rotating orbs that shine different-colored spotlights around the room were somehow attached to the walls, probably with industrial tape. The walls sparkled. This must have been what prom looked like in 1978, aside from the pool table and Pabst Blue Ribbon posters.
One middle-aged couple—an attractive blonde woman in a sequin, skintight, bell-bottomed jumpsuit, and her mate, wearing a fake white suit that outlined his gut, white sweatpants, and an afro wig—kept on doing this thing where she would get on her knees and crawl underneath his outstretched legs. Then he’d pick her up and hold her in mid-air while she straddled him. Pre-game cocaine ingestion appeared likely.
Then I watched the crowd rhythmically point their fingers to the ceiling during “Disco Inferno”.
I had expected this, though. The show’s flyer was a picture of John Travolta in his iconic white suit, pointing his finger to the ceiling of a glimmering Hollywood nightclub set. The crowd that night was there to revel in stereotypical, heterosexualized, Saturday Night Fever disco. This must be the popular perception of what disco was about, which explains the widespread disdain for the genre.
At least the dancing was more stylish than what I’ve seen from EDM trippers and college kids grinding to gloomy trap music. And, despite the self-aware cheesiness of the occasion, some of these people were truly enjoying themselves. There was a faint sense of release in the atmosphere, although it was probably just a release from work week stress, something they would have done at any bar, no disco necessary. This wasn’t the essence of disco.
Of course, in a world that treats disco as a ridiculous bygone trend, or digitizes it into muscular electro defused of any gay overtones that once embodied the music, it’s hard to come to an understanding of what the true essence of disco was, especially for a straight, 24-year-old kid who grew up two decades removed from its heyday. The closest I can get is this quote from DJ David Depino describing Larry Levan spinning records one night at the Paradise Garage: “We went onto the dancefloor. I heard these tweeters playing a song that sounded familiar to me, and suddenly the bass popped in, and my heart almost exploded through my mouth, and I felt like I saw God. I said, ‘I belong here.’”
That was disco. And doesn’t that sound like all you’ve ever wanted? It does to me.
So bring back the divas. Liberate your Chic records from the storage closet. Work on hitting those high notes in “Rock Your Baby” during the morning commute. Keep disco’s collective unconscious alive and unspoiled. We must celebrate the unabashedly emotive juices of our most underappreciated and over-abused genre before the world forgets what it was meant to be.