In Brazilian Portuguese, there is a verb: travoltar. A loose translation would be: to do a Travolta. As in, to dance like John Travolta. To put on a white polyester suit and dance some disco.
This is a blog post about disco. If you haven’t listened to disco in a while, like since 1982, I put together a YouTube playlist that you should go to now.
Do not hate me for this. I understand that disco may not be the music that really sets your heart on fire. Your soul may not thrill to drum machines and repetitive rhythms. I am asking you to bear with me for a moment. In exchange, I promise revolution.
I am coming to love disco. But I also know that disco is anonymous, repetitive, commercial, contrived, and formulaic. As Ken McLeod, a musicologist at the University of Toronto, writes, disco was “the height of effete snobbery and the ultimate in mindless narcissism.”
Disco may be the most inauthentic music humanity has ever produced. Have you ever listened to the disco remake of Beethoven’s symphony number five? It’s called “A Fifth of Beethoven” and it is stellar. Also, appalling. Listening to disco makes me think that all those things people keep saying about my generation, they’re all true. I was born in the disco era and I am a void.
And we are making the world void. When disco hit Argentina, wrote Pablo Vila in 1988, “The discotheque replaced the concert. The dance replaced the song. English replaced Spanish. Lack of communication replaced communication.” Argentina was under military dictatorship. Disco was western expansionism gone way wrong, a great globalizing force wiping out local culture and voices of dissent. This is what the culture industry does. It locks us in an endless, navel-gazing, polyester-suit-wearing disco beat.
Okay, now turn off The Bee Gees and switch over to the music video for the Village People’s song “Go West.”
disco is cultural difference
I’ve been reading a lot about disco lately, and it’s a better story than I ever expected. In the United States, before Saturday Night Fever happened, disco originated in the dance parties of east-coast Black, Latino, and Queer communities. Disco was homogenous, in that it erased differences. It brought marginalized people together in a safe dance space. Rock music was white, middle class, individualistic, and authentic. Disco was cheap to produce, easy to learn, communal, and celebratory.
For example, early disco includes songs like “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroon artist Manu Dibango; “The Sound of Philadelphia” by MFSB; “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta’s character gives up the disco prize to his “Spic” (that’s Hispanic) competitors because they are better dancers. You probably forgot SNF is about racism. (Another time, we can discuss what that movie does to women.)
For example, discotheques were the first public spaces in the United States where gay people could get together to dance publically, just for a moment, before renewed public masculinity and the AIDS epidemic led to a whole new level of fear. Also in 1970s Brazil, under the dissolving but still repressive military dictatorship, “doing a ‘Travolta’ [that’s travoltando] became an indispensable activity for any gay man who considered himself ‘with it.’”
Take a good look at that Village People video. It’s western expansionism, queered; it’s about embracing sexual liberation and moving to California.
disco is resistance
Disco fell out of favor in the early 1980s. Because it’s bad music, I thought. My mistake. In 1979, disco was a $4 billion/year industry. Disco fell out of fashion because that year an angry radio host held Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Disco Demolition Night was an album-burning party that turned into a brawl. Don’t think for a minute that it was fueled by aesthetic fury. Gillian Frank writes, convincingly, that the anti-disco campaign was a homophobic effort to reclaim manly music from the hands of queer people everywhere. The campaign was called, inappropriately, disco sucks.
Then in the 1990s, artists like the British duo Pet Shop Boys reclaimed disco as the sound of the gay rights movement. Susan Sontag calls this “camp”: the spirit of extravagance. She calls the reclamation of camp by the gay community the rise of the new aristocrats of taste.
You can switch over to the music video for their cover of “Go West” now if you like. It’s western expansionism, revolutionized: it’s about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Racism, oppression, homophobia, globalization; also resistance, revolution. We don’t talk too much about disco anymore in this country, but in the last decade it’s been appearing all over the world. You can find a critique of disco in the 2009 Chilean film Tony Manero, where Saturday Night Fever is a symbol of U.S. support for the oppressive and violent Pinochet regime. But you can also find it in Balinese disco dance, where, as ethnographer Jonathan McIntosh writes, it has become part of a totally new form that combines local tradition with global culture. And you can find it in videos from K-pop artists like T-Ara and the Wonder Girls. As one YouTube video commentator wrote, this music would make The Bee Gees proud.