Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gay or Eurotrash: Thoughts on Disco After the Proposition 8 Overturn

Here in the United States, the ban on gay marriage has been ruled unconstitutional once again, and so the long debate continues--astonishingly, since the arguments against gay marriage are among the most irrational, illogical, and (despite arguers' insistence to the contrary) obviously bigoted I have ever seen in print.

Of course, there has been a long and sorry tradition of homophobia in America. One aspect of that worth exploring is the relationship between gay and dance music culture.

Over the last year or two, the BPMs of American R&B have risen. This might be the result of a larger cycle; R&B and hip-hop beats were faster in the mid-to-late 1980s, then slowed down to appropriately dirge-like rhythms during the depressing 1990s when MCs were getting killed left and right. Lady Gaga's success with her Euro-influenced pop-dance sound deserves some credit for encouraging Americans to hit the dancefloor, but the growth of U.S. Latin culture over the last decade is perhaps of more significance (Hispanics became America's largest minority in 2003, and faster dance beats have long been a part of Latin pop music tradition).

Whatever the causes, it seems we are becoming a dance nation at last. Our new-found fondness for the 130 BPM song is the latest in a long line of Euro-pop-culture injections that (like the reality TV shows we have cloned from Dutch, Swedish, and UK ones) have taken hold of America over the last decade.

It's about time. After all, Americans invented disco, house, and techno music. But as soon as disco took off we crowned a European champion: Giorgio Moroder, the "Munich Machine" who produced all of Donna Summer's 1970s hits. Ever since, dance music has traditionally enjoyed a far higher level of popularity in Europe, both chart-wise and culturally, than it has in the United States.

Why? Well, you know why, because you know I began this essay with the subject of homophobia.

Disco music emerged from America's gay club scene. "During the late 1960s various male counterculture groups, most notably gay, but also heterosexual black and Latino, created an alternative to rock'n'roll, which was dominated by white — and presumably heterosexual — men. This alternative was disco," states Kelly Boyer Sager's in her general treatment of The 1970s. And so in its very conception disco was associated with sexual, as well as ethnic, minorities. And while a perhaps overly self-aware straightness prevailed over the popular 1977 movie hit Saturday Night Fever, that film explored a minority scene of its own--New York City's Italian-American culture, as the New York magazine article the film was inspired by demonstrates.

So despite its general popularity, disco remained a scene strongly associated with gays (Village People), gay blacks (Sylvester), Italian-Americans (Saturday Night Fever), and other American minority groups.

In 1979, a "Disco Demolition Night" was hosted by a radio station at Chicago's Comiskey Park during a baseball game. The publicity stunt called for disgruntled rock fans to bring disco records to the stadium; the records were to be blown up on the field. A crowd chant of "disco sucks" led up to the explosion. Afterward, rock fans took to the field and a surreal riot (of sorts; no one was injured) followed.

Wrote the New York Times in a reflective piece, "[Chicago DJ Steve Dahl] and his followers resented how disco threatened rock ’n’ roll." That thought is left undeveloped. How did disco in any way threaten rock 'n' roll? How does any genre of music threaten another? Craig Werner, in his book A Change is Gonna Come (as quoted in this Independent article) summed it up: "The Anti-disco movement represented an unholy alliance of funkateers and feminists, progressives and puritans, rockers and reactionaries. None the less, the attacks on disco gave respectable voice to the ugliest kinds of unacknowledged racism, sexism and homophobia."

In other words, disco was logically as much a threat to rock 'n' roll as gay marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage.

Disco remained popular for a few more years in Europe before it gave way to other sub genres of electronic dance music. But in America, the stigma of disco as a gay- and other minority-based counter-cultural movement warped and distorted white America's perception of the club sound for three decades. While America's gay scene rallied around house music, and more underground-minded sorts sniffed out warehouse raves, average Americans missed out on a lot of the fun enjoyed in the UK--no acid house summers of love, no sight of worried television reporters bemoaning the dangers of the drug-infused hardcore techno rave scene, no Gatecrasher style Euro-trance explosion in 1999. But if the latest crop of U.S. dance pop singles are any indication, perhaps we are finally putting that bigotry behind us. Put on your dancing shoes, America.

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