Depicts the Disco Craze Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Disco, a musical form rooted in black and gay musical subcultures, became a national fad in the United States in the 1970’s, culminating in the sound track for the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever.

Summary of Event

Seeming to emerge from nowhere in the mid-1970’s, disco came to dominate popular music in the United States, a phenomenon that crested with the nationwide release of the film Saturday Night Fever on December 16, 1977, along with the film’s sound-track album. A fierce backlash ensued, and by the early 1980’s, disco had become a target of ridicule and had disappeared from the music sales charts. Disco music Music;disco Gibb, Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Edwards, Bernard Rodgers, Nile Summer, Donna Moroder, Giorgio Casey, Harry Wayne Jones, Grace

According to legend, disco originated in gay discotheques in the New York summertime resort of Fire Island and nearby Manhattan. Homosexuals who could not find live acts to perform for them at parties turned to professional disc jockeys to put together musical sequences suitable for dancing. The compilation of such sequences became an art form in itself, and disc jockeys played a dominant role as disco began to reach wider audiences.

Disco’s musical origins were in African American traditions. Singer James Brown Brown, James boasted that he was the father of disco, and given the rhythmic and percussive elements that dominated his work in the 1960’s, many would assent to the claim. The work of Sly and the Family Stone Sly and the Family Stone in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s is also widely considered a precursor of the form. More directly, soul groups such as the O’Jays and seductive singers such as Barry White White, Barry developed styles that would be widely adopted by a variety of disco performers.

Disco emerged as a presence on the pop charts around 1974, when the Hues Corporation’s Hues Corporation “Rock the Boat” and Gloria Gaynor’s Gaynor, Gloria “Never Can Say Goodbye” reached the top ten on Billboard magazine’s pop music sales chart. The Jackson Five’s Jackson Five success with their hit “Dancin’ Machine” that year suggested disco’s potential for established acts that were willing to extend or adapt their styles to reach a burgeoning audience.

In its first few years, however, disco was primarily a vehicle through which new performers found national recognition. Among them were K. C. and the Sunshine Band, K. C. and the Sunshine Band who enjoyed a string of hits including “Get Down Tonight,” “That’s the Way (I Like It),” and “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty.” Also notable was the group Chic, Chic (disco group) which virtually defined the disco aesthetic with the hits “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” and “Le Freak.” At the heart of that aesthetic was a fascination with repetition, technology, and seamless musical transitions that often gave producers a prominent role in the making of disco records. Among the more famous disco producers were Jacques Morali, Morali, Jacques who helped the gay musical group the Village People Village People enjoy a series of tongue-in-cheek hits that included “Macho Man,” “Y.M.C.A.,” and “In the Navy,” and Giorgio Moroder, who produced singer Donna Summer’s records.

Summer, dubbed the “queen of disco,” proved to be the form’s most durable performer. Her 1975 single “Love to Love You Baby,” which featured a long orgasmic interlude, created a sensation in the musical world. For the rest of the 1970’s, Summer was the premier female singer on the pop charts, best known for her hits “I Feel Love” (1976), “MacArthur Park” (1978), and “Hot Stuff” (1979).

Disco’s greatest success story, however, was the Bee Gees. Bee Gees As a Beatlesque pop group, the Bee Gees had known some success in the late 1960’s, but Maurice, Barry, and Robin Gibb (the name Bee Gees came from “Brothers Gibb”) had released a string of flops in the early 1970’s. In 1975, after working with a new producer, the group returned to form with their infectious disco hits “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights on Broadway,” which were followed in 1976 by “You Should Be Dancing.” It was in this context, as the comeback group of the decade, that the Bee Gees were asked to contribute a few songs for a forthcoming motion picture that would feature disco acts.

John Travolta strikes a pose in the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

That film, Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham, Badham, John traced the life of a working-class Brooklynite (played by John Travolta) Travolta, John and his struggle to find release from his mundane existence. Although the film had a gritty, realistic edge that won praise from some critics, it was the dance sequences—buoyed by the sound track—that attracted audiences. Saturday Night Fever became one of the most celebrated films of the 1970’s, and the sound track became the best-selling album of its time, with sales in excess of thirty million. It was followed in 1978 by Thank God It’s Friday, another disco film sound track that spawned Donna Summer’s Grammy Award-winning “Last Dance.”

Saturday Night Fever inaugurated disco’s utter dominance of popular music in 1977 and 1978. Leading the charge were the Bee Gees, whose “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “Night Fever” each topped the Billboard magazine pop chart. At one point in 1978, the group had either performed or written five songs in the top ten, a feat surpassed only by the Beatles. Bee Gees protégés Yvonne Elliman Elliman, Yvonne and Samantha Sang Sang, Samantha were among those to ride the tide.

Meanwhile, nondisco acts began to climb aboard the bandwagon. David Bowie, Bowie, David ever sensitive to musical trends, had released his disco-inflected single “Fame” back in 1975. Rod Stewart Stewart, Rod underwent a musical facelift with his 1979 smash “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” Blondie Blondie (rock band) combined its New Wave sensibility with a disco beat in “Heart of Glass,” which topped the pop music chart later the same year. Even bastions of the rock aristocracy got into the act; the Rolling Stones’ Rolling Stones 1978 hit “Miss You” had unmistakable disco accents, and Queen unabashedly embraced the form with “Another One Bites the Dust,” which became an instant classic in 1980.

A backlash had been building against disco, however, and the reaction began gathering momentum at the end of the decade. The most obvious example of antidisco sentiment was a record burning hosted by a Chicago disc jockey at a baseball stadium in 1979. For many rock traditionalists, the popular slogan “Disco sucks” became a rallying cry, and the phrase appeared on T-shirts, stickers, and posters. More articulate listeners decried the musical and emotional superficiality that disco often uncritically purveyed and celebrated.

Meanwhile, other musical movements, including punk and New Wave, began seizing the musical spotlight. By 1982, disco had virtually disappeared from the charts. To many, in retrospect, it was an amusing (or irritating) fad, yet disco defined a moment in popular musical history, and it continued to have an influence long after that moment passed.

Significance

For its critics, and even for many of its fans, disco was little more than fluff, a form of entertainment devoid of any larger meaning. Indeed, to a great extent, this was the source of its appeal to some (and a source of unease to others). In retrospect, however, some observers have noted a series of cultural and intellectual influences that led disco to appear when it did. In this view, disco worked because it provided some compelling answers for Americans facing confusing questions in the social climate of the 1970’s.

It was not the best of times. The Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the energy crisis had engendered grave doubts among many Americans about the ability—or even the willingness—of government to solve some of the major problems facing the country. The idealism of the 1960’s, epitomized by the enthusiasm surrounding the Civil Rights movement, had disintegrated amid the factional infighting and political defeats of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Under such circumstances, many young people sought diversions free of the false hopes and broken promises of the previous decade.

Popular music reflected this state of enervation. Some of the major acts of the 1960’s—the Beatles, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—had either broken up or died. Rock and roll, which had once seemed a vehicle for political liberation, now seemed little more than a vehicle for commercial gain. In England, which was suffering even more than the United States from economic malaise, the state of affairs helped to produce punk rock, which would have a notable, if less pervasive, impact on the United States. In a very different—but related—way, disco represented another response to cultural frustration among young people.

Like many forms of expression in the nation’s history, disco was a product of subcultures working at the margins of the mainstream. Drawing on the symbols and strategies of the Civil Rights movement, gays in the United States had won a modicum of acceptance and freedom by the 1970’s, but they were still largely considered outsiders. Similarly, black Americans had achieved some important social and political gains, yet blacks and whites were still largely segregated in revealing ways (such as FM radio formats). With its pulsating beat and emphasis on public display, disco began as a means to foster community among people alienated from the culture at large.

To a great extent, disco’s growing appeal to a mainstream audience can be explained by the musical innovations of practitioners such as Donna Summer, K. C. and the Sunshine Band, and Chic. Disco was also increasingly attractive, however, for its celebration of the moment—the sense of release it offered from the workaday world and the central role that expression (especially sexual expression) played in its world of costume, dance, and, in some cases, drugs. This was not music for changing the world; that had proved too difficult. This was music for having a good time.

Like most cultural movements, disco had many facets. Groups such as the Bee Gees—and movies such as Saturday Night Fever—made the music attractive to mainstream, heterosexual audiences. Overseas, a variant on the form called Eurodisco further emphasized technology and the role of the producer. Meanwhile, performers such as Grace Jones kept the unorthodox, sexually aggressive aspects of disco alive for its original audience.

Indeed, disco never altogether lost its early racial and sexual accents, and one can make a case that hostility to disco was often a veiled form of racism or homophobia. Although the Chicago record burning of 1979 was widely seen as a joke, some saw a much darker subtext. In any case, the more conservative social climate symbolized by Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 may have been a factor in disco’s precipitous decline.

Nevertheless, disco continued to influence the direction of popular music throughout the 1980’s. Michael Jackson’s Jackson, Michael dominance of popular music in that decade was to a great degree built on a disco foundation. Similarly, Prince fused dance rhythms with traditional rock to produce an innovative sound that attracted a wide variety of adherents, and in the mid- and late 1980’s, too, Madonna Madonna essentially captured much of disco’s old constituency. Even into the 1990’s, British acts such as Lisa Stansfield Stansfield, Lisa demonstrated the continuing mass appeal of the form. Disco elements, particularly the prominent use of percussion and repetition, were also incorporated into rap.

A good deal of the disco music produced in the 1970’s was instantly—and sometimes intentionally—forgettable. In subtle and sometimes lasting ways, however, the music epitomized its time and became part of a usable past drawn on by subsequent generations of performers. Disco music Music;disco

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dannen, Fredric. “Casablanca.” In Hit Men: A True Tale of Power, Money, and Mayhem in the World of Rock and Roll. New York: Times Books, 1990. Profile of Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart offers a revealing picture of an archetypal disco lifestyle. Casablanca was largely a disco label, and its collapse illustrates what some of the music’s harshest critics were talking about.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dyer, Richard. “In Defense of Disco.” In On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin. 1990. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2000. An intelligent partisan reading of disco by a gay man. Makes an unorthodox, but compelling, case for the music from a socialist perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. Places disco within the larger context of what was happening in popular music and dance culture in the United States throughout the 1970’s. Includes photographs, discography, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. New York: Faber & Faber, 2005. History of disco music and culture by a journalist and music critic. Describes the influences that came together to create disco and discusses disco’s impacts. Includes time line, discography, bibliography, and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Arnold. Black Popular Music in America: From the Spirituals, Minstrels, and Ragtime to Soul, Disco, and Hip-Hop. New York: Schirmer Books, 1986. Informative volume is helpful for understanding disco’s origins. Carries the discussion forward from the disco age into the era of rap.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smucker, Tom. “Disco.” In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke with Holly George-Warren. Rev. ed. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1992. One of the most incisive and readable pieces ever written about disco. Smucker writes as one who participated in the disco subculture, and he makes its appeal intelligible to outsiders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Ken. “Outsider Art: Disco and Funk.” In Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1986. Provides a good brief discussion of the musical origins of disco. Places the form within the wider context of the popular music of the time.

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