This lesson will describe the development of disco as a genre and its relationship to the space of the dance club. The disco backlash of the 1980s will be placed in context, as will disco’s overall significance.
Disco is one of those tricky terms that means different things to different people. Part of the problem stems from the huge backlash in the United States, complete with ‘Disco sucks!’ buttons and the mass destruction of disco records. Many in the United States associate disco with the film Saturday Night Fever and a phase of popularity isolated in the 1970s, but this perception does not give disco the credit it deserves. Disco music is a part of the ongoing story of electronic dance music, one that evolved into something else rather than ending abruptly in the early 1980s.Disco music and culture developed in numerous different cities in North America and Europe beginning in the late 1960s.
New York City was particularly fertile ground for disco, but Berlin, Paris, and many other cities also played deeply important roles.In Europe, disco took on a more distinctly electronic sound with influences from avant-garde groups, like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. In the United States, disco was much more deeply rooted in funk, soul, blues, and R;B traditions, with close ties to both the African-American community and gay culture.
American and European disco would influence one another, while also moving in different trajectories.
Discotheques as Recreational Spaces
The word disco is an abbreviated form of the word discotheque, or dance club. This makes perfect sense because the dance club as a social and cultural space was as important to disco as the music itself. In Berlin or New York City, small clubs or private party spaces could acquire a sound system, hire knowledgeable DJs, and throw late night dance parties without having to worry about a live band.Particularly in New York City, these kinds of disco clubs were important for the gay community, who needed a space free from violence and harassment. The context of discotheques was just as important as the music that would emerge from these spaces.Because these were dance clubs designed for all night dancing, the music needed to be consistent, beat driven and intended specifically for dancing.
This pushed disco music away from traditional ‘verse-chorus-verse’ song structures into long, expansive, open ended tracks that could be remixed by DJs.This tendency would progress in some circles until culminating in the house and techno genres of the 1980s. In Europe, electronic dance music would see success by going in the opposite direction and reformatting itself into the more pop friendly synth pop genres of the 1980s.
The Rise of Disco in the 1970s
Although disco began very much as an underground phenomena, it would emerge into the mainstream by the mid 1970s.
Disco stars like Gloria Gaynor, the Bee Gees, and Abba would enjoy massive success throughout the 70s, bringing disco out of the clubs and onto pop radio, while also making the space of the disco a popular recreational area for millions of people outside of the original underground scene.Studio 54 in New York City was probably the most famous (to some, notorious) disco of the 1970s. Celebrities would flock to Studio 54 from all over the world to dance to the latest disco records, do illegal drugs, and enjoy the pinnacle of American decadence. Clubs like Studio 54 came to symbolize both the over-the-top glitz and glamour of 1970s disco and the era’s excesses, superficiality, and hedonism.In the United States, disco emerged quickly, enjoyed wild success, and then abruptly fell out of fashion. As scholars, like Kai Fikentscher, have observed, the American backlash to disco in the 1980s was very much motivated by its associations with gay culture and African-American culture.
In Europe, disco never experienced the sudden loss of popularity that it experienced in the U.S., but rather it morphed into other genres, like Italo disco, synth pop, and eventually house and techno.
The Legacy of Disco
In the 1980s and 1990s, it became part of the popular vernacular to describe anything that had gone out of fashion as, ‘dead as disco.’ In the 21st century, this no longer seems like a fair assessment.If we listen to early hip-hop tracks, like the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ the disco influence is unmistakable.
When we trace the history of house, techno, and what is today called EDM, we see disco as an obvious point of origin. Today the influence of disco pioneers, like Giorgio Moroder, can be felt in everything from avant-garde synth music to 80s inflected pop music to the international popularity of French house duo Daft Punk.
Disco music reached its pinnacle of popularity in the 1970s by rooting itself firmly in the context of urban dance clubs. Influenced by funk, soul, and synth-driven electronic music, disco can now be understood as an important step in the development of numerous forms of dance friendly popular music.