Following the powerful discrediting of disco across 1979, close to two decades passed before anyone published a book on the culture. Then, unfolding in fairly quick succession, Anthony Haden-Guest authored the Studio 54-centric The Last Party (1997), Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen traced the genre’s best-known artists in Saturday Night Forever (1999), Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton dedicated two chapters to the era’s DJs in Last Night A DJ Saved My Life (1999), Mel Cheren penned the autobiographical My Life and the Paradise Garage (2000), I published my own account as Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79 (2003), and Peter Shapiro followed with Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (2005). Even in 2005, Shapiro’s subtitle seemed a little melodramatic given that so much of the story had been told, yet that didn’t prevent Alice Echols, a professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, from beginning to research disco “in earnest” (xii) that same year. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2010, is the result. Once dubbed a “dreaded musical disease” by the backlash brigade (Love Saves the Day, 374), disco has evidently regained something of its contagiousness.
Echols (xvi-xxii) begins by describing the time she worked as a DJ in a Michigan discotheque shortly after the peak of the disco sucks campaign, and notes how the anecdote brings attention to disco as it unfolded outside of New York. But instead of developing that line of research, which remains the untold story of disco, she turns to a series of familiar themes, including the impact of “feminism, gay rights, and the struggles of racial and ethnic minorities” (xxiii), disco’s “one-Nation-under-a-thump impulse” (xxiii), disco’s “assault on the rules of rock music” (xxvi), disco’s “slick” and “synthetic” aesthetic (xxvi), disco’s “promiscuous and omnivorous” (xxix) propensity to absorb other sounds, and disco’s broadening of the “contours of blackness, femininity, and male homosexuality” (xxv). Apparently aware that these perspectives coincide with the way earlier authors have framed disco, Echols concludes her introduction by questioning the approach of earlier historians, or “disco revisionists,” who “in an effort to debunk the pervasive view of disco as crassly commercial, exclusionary, and politically regressive, have emphasized instead its subcultural purity, democratic beginnings, and transgressive practices,” which have in turn created their “own distortions” (xxvi).
Hot Stuff is organized into six chapters. The first recounts how soul, R&B, funk, soul, and European imports formed the foundation of what would come to be known as disco. The second outlines the impact of the Stonewall Inn, the Stonewall rebellion, and gay liberation groups on the opening of gay dance venues. The third traces the position of women and in particular the female diva in disco. The fourth continues the gay male thematic of the second, focusing on the rise of macho culture, the novelistic evocation of male gay disco, and the articulation of gay male sensibilities in disco. The fifth retells the story of Saturday Night Fever and the Bee Gees. And the sixth, describes the post-Saturday Night Fever commercial expansion of disco. Some narrative glitches emerge, such as the moment Echols discusses the onset of AIDS before she addresses Saturday Night Fever and the subsequent explosion of disco, but overall the writing is dextrous, engaging, and sophisticated.
Echols develops several important arguments. She explores the link that existed between funk and disco in greater depth than earlier chronicles, and in so doing sets up a powerful reply to authors who have argued that disco amounted to a watering down of that sound. She goes on to provide a detailed account of the dance floors of the Stonewall Inn and the Firehouse, and argues that even if the Stonewall rebellion of June 1969 didn’t directly inspire disco, it nevertheless created a general climate of liberation that fed into what followed. She adds depth to the argument that disco went much further than rock in foregrounding female desire, and develops her point with eloquent case studies of Chaka Khan, Labelle, and Donna Summer. “The seventies were the decade of the Big O, the female orgasm,” she notes (78) in a characteristically forthright and witty aside. She also maintains that earlier critics have wrongly maligned Saturday Night Fever for being a regressive film, and expands on Barbara Ehrenreich’s argument that Saturday Night Fever was written as a critique of masculinity to develop her point. “The hotness of seventies’ disco doesn’t just refer to its raunchiness or its rhythmic drive; it also signifies its politically incendiary quality,” she concludes with gusto (239).
Less convincingly, Echols refers repeatedly to the erroneous ways of the so-called “disco revisionists” who have attempted to rescue disco’s name by overemphasizing its radical roots and underestimating the potential of its commercial articulation. Because the job of the historian is to revise the past, the very evocation of the notion of revisionism indicates that the historians in question have done more revising than is appropriate, yet the critique is never deployed consistently because Hot Stuff traces a similar arc, admiring the way disco “snuck up on America”--here and throughout the reference is to the United States--“like a covert operation” (1) and “lingered below the radar” (2) before questioning the integrity of the “absolutely generic disco that record companies were cranking out” (211) across 1978 and 1979. The closest Echols comes to complicating the perspective of the revisionists is when she discusses Saturday Night Fever, but even if she is right in her ultimately contestable claim that the film’s challenge to established gender roles is progressive, there can be no doubting that the film popularized a model of the culture that elided the core demographic groups of early disco as well as the dance floor dynamic they helped establish--and that has always been the key point made by the “revisionists.”
Echols undermines her critique of the disco revisionists further by asserting that the culture’s two most important early venues, the Loft and the Sanctuary, were gay venues. Such claims were once the stuff of hurried journalism, and prop up the “straw man” binary model Echols is so keen to contest, but she returns to them to support her argument that the Stonewall rebellion was the key precursor to disco. Echols doesn’t interview anyone who went to the Loft or the Sanctuary--of six interviewees, she quotes from only one (Nona Hendryx of Labelle) in an otherwise quote-rich book--but cites two eyewitnesses to make her point, one per venue, even though these accounts were known to and ultimately contested by the “revisionists” because numerous other protagonists insisted upon the rainbow coalition complexion and ethos of the crowds that congregated there. In these and other instances, Echols displays an overeager desire to pick an argument where none really exists, and this becomes most problematic when she flips the research of the “revisionists” and uses it as evidence against them.[i] An otherwise rich, nuanced, and intelligent book is let down by the apparent desire of a critic to create academic space for an original argument in a surprisingly crowded field.
[i] Regarding Love Saves the Day (henceforth LSD) Echols (68) describes to me as a revisionist historian who is so “anxious to prove disco’s underground bona fides” I ignore complicating elements such as the exclusionary door policy of the Tenth Floor, even though I critique the Tenth Floor extensively in LSD (78-81). Echols (155) also notes that I adopt “a two-tier schema of ‘good’ gay disco versus ‘bad’ mainstream disco,” and quotes (156) disco commentator Vince Aletti’s comment that disco aficionados “were ready to be recognized” before she adds that disco revisionists “invariably disparage as conformist and politically regressive the new audience that Aletti was looking to win over.” However, the Aletti quote is drawn from LSD, where I have him explain how disco’s pioneers “wanted to spread their radical message” (LSD, 116). Echols (156) also maintains I consider the “commercial disco scene” to be “driven by faddish, hedonistic fashion,” but that comment was made in relation to Le Club, an elitist, private members jet-set club of the early 1960s (LSD, 50). In instances that are too frequent to cite, I also point repeatedly to the commercial imperatives and regressive elements that could ran through “‘good’ gay disco,” to the progressive potential of “commercial” disco, and to the overlaps that confounded simplistic notions of any “two-tier schema” of the “good” and the “bad.”
Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999.
Cheren, Mel. My Life and the Paradise Garage: Keep On Dancin'. New York: 24 Hours for Life, 2000.
Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Plume, 1994.
Echols, Alice. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Fikentscher, Kai. "You Better Work!" Underground Dance Music in New York City. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party. Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.
Jones, Alan, and Jussi Kantonen. Saturday Night Forever: The Story of Disco. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1999.
Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (1970-79). Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.
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