Gathered under the stars in Western Australia’s wheatbelt, hundreds of people wait for Kevin Parker to play his midnight DJ set at the 2020 Wave Rock Weekender. He has the world of music at his hands. House, funk, psych rock, even his own work from Tame Impala. Yet, he comes out and plays disco. For two hours straight. Donna Summer, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, CHIC. While the rest of the world locks down, the youth of WA sing their hearts out to I’m Coming Out and Good Times. “It just shows the genre of music really stood the test of time, so many young people of today who never lived through the ’70s love it, sing to it and dance to it,” Annabelle Jenkins says.
Jenkins was in the crowd that night. With her hands in the air and sequinned pants hanging to the floor. She let her young heart run free to the soundtrack of disco. “You just feel so young and alive when disco is playing,” she says. Jenkins is the creator and owner of Slow Dance Studio, a small clothing label with printed designs that celebrate and rejoice in the era of disco.
“I saw there was this real appeal to disco and ’70s themed events, music and fashion at this point in time, so I thought it would connect with people,” she says. Jenkins says the ’70s are perceived as a carefree and fun time in history and in today’s world of lock downs and hustle culture, young people find an escape and an identity in the sparkle of disco.
You don’t have to look far to see the prevalence of disco in today’s world. Rolla’s corduroy flares walking down the street; James Smith clogs clipping the concrete path; wide-lapelled shirts weaving through crowds on a night out. It’s everywhere. Parallel to this, pop stars like Dua Lipa have released Don’t Start Now, with a CHIC-like baseline and Anita Ward lasers. Kylie Minogue donned blue eyeshadow and a perm in her starry album cover for Disco late last year and Doja Cat dances in a Studio 54-like club in her Say So video clip. Disco is among us. Sparkling and shining its way through the uncertain and lacklustre social climate of Covid-19.
On a local level, no one is more exposed to the modern resurgence of disco than Michael Arangio. He’s the director of Middle Ground, a Perth-based event company who hosts Stripes, a modern-day disco. “A disco-themed event hadn’t been done with our target audience before and we saw an opportunity with the rise in popularity of disco music and fashion in Perth,” he says.
Yet unlike the word-of-mouth advertising of the underground discos of the early ’70s, Stripes relies on social media. Now almost every Stripes event is sold out, which Arangio says is a reflection of the electric energy of disco. “Disco is definitely still a popular and relevant scene in today’s society.”
While Arangio’s words ring true, before we side with the articles claiming 2020 as the ‘revival’ of disco, we can’t forget the marginalised trailblazers of the style who had to walk in danger for modern-day pop stars and partygoers to run carefree. A lot has happened in the 50 years between disco’s birth and resurgence. When we hold up a mirror ball to today’s society, what does our contorted, sparkly reflection say about how far we’ve come?
Jenkins says the disco we experience today is free from the discrimination, racism and homophobia it was birthed from in the ’70s. “Today we have all the fun of disco, all the fun music, fashion and dancing, but that version of disco is very different to disco back in the ‘70s,” she says. Enjoying disco the way we do today is a privilege. Disco in the ’70s was a necessity. It grew in underground clubs and parks as a safe space for marginalised communities to rejoice in partying without threats to their lives.
James Hall is a lecturer of media and cultural Studies at Edith Cowan University and says there was a need for disco to emerge when it did. “Disco emerged in spaces and within communities, usually racial minorities and gay communities as an outlet and a form of expression through dance and body movement,” he says.
It all started in the late ’60s with the emergence of DJ culture in underground clubs of New York and Philadelphia. Stages filled with live bands emptied to a couple guys spinning 40-minute dance tracks. The crowd dancing to these liberating tracks were comprised of marginalised communities. Mostly gay people and people of colour.
It was illegal until 1971 for two men to dance with each other and when the law was lifted in New York, discos were the place where the gay community could rejoice safely to a continuous beat. In 1972, songs like Love Train by The O’Jays exuded positivity, togetherness and acceptance, which encapsulated what disco was, within the walls of these clubs.
By the mid-’70s, production companies woke up to the power of the disco consumer and more disco songs were being released with syncopated basslines, string sections and synths. “It’s amazing to look at people like Diana Ross, Sister Sledge and Grace Jones, black women in that day that became so successful, despite being viewed as lesser than in society at that time,” Jenkins says.
Once the word of disco made its way to the mainstream, it spread like wildfire. Then 1977 happened. Saturday Night Fever happened. A film depicting disco: a black, gay and feminist scene. John Travolta played Tony Manero: a white Italian-American, straight, homophobic man, who danced in clubs filled with white people. The film became a misrepresented global emblem for disco. The style became whitewashed, over-complicated and inescapable.
“There was a lot of discrimination against people who went to discos, people hated it,” Jenkins says. Disco was too gay for homophobes, too black for racists, too poppy for rock-lovers, too sexual for conservatives and too mainstream for punks. What started as a counterculture scene, became saturated into a society that was looking for every opportunity to pick it apart.
Hall says the birth and death of disco from the late ’60s to the late ’70s was magnified through the strength of subculture at that time. “You had to curate what you listened to for financial reasons and accessibility, you couldn’t just try everything and listen to everything all the time, you had to make a decision what album you would buy with the $30 you had that month,” he says. The by-product of that strongly curated musical identity was a tribal attitude to the music you listened to and extreme dismissal to the music you rejected. “A discrimination in your music taste was kind of a necessity. It’s almost like you had to convince yourself that how much you liked rock would also be tied up with now much you hated disco,” he says.
This battle between rock and disco led the genre to its dramatic ‘death’. Disco Demolition Night in 1979: when Steve Dahl, a radio host of a rock-dedicated show got fired when the radio station became disco-centred. In anger, he hosted the Disco Demolition Night at a White Socks baseball game in Chicago. Tickets were 98 cents if you brought a disco record to blow up in the middle of the field.
“There was a period of time where disco and rock kind of symbolised a racial divide in the US,” Hall says. This racial divide was obvious when people showed up with Marvin Gaye and James Brown records. This was more than just a hate-crime towards disco. “Rock was a very white, masculine, heterosexual form of music traditionally and disco was an alternative to that,” Hall says. The banners held by the majorly white crowd with the homophobic slur of DISCO SUCKS are the embodiment of that. Nile Roger from the disco group CHIC said watching the footage “felt like a Nazi book burning.”
Obviously, disco never died, but why do we continue to romanticise an era where a racist and homophobic riot like the Disco Demolition could occur? Hall says the notion of retromania plays into it. Young people of today are nostalgic for a period of time they never lived through. “Disco has a lot of things about it, it’s liberty, it’s free, it’s dancing, it’s feeling good about yourself, you listen to that and think wow, being a 20-year-old when that was the music must have been pretty fun.
“These things are often detached from the reality that they existed in,” he says.
“There was a lot of discrimination against people who went to discos. People hated it.”Annabelle Jenkins
Jenkins says there is privilege in romanticising the era of disco. “I say I wish I could travel back then but if you’re not white or straight, it was not a good time for people and marginalised groups would remember that time differently,” she says. When we talk about disco in today’s world, we must remember the oppression it grew from in the past. Having disco resurge in public discourse is a luxury. It exists now because we like it, not because we need it. “I think labelling Kylie Minogue and Dua Lipa as responsible for reviving disco in 2020 completely disregards the whole history of disco.
“We really have black and African artists to thank for this array of music that we’ve come to love and enjoy and there has to be an appreciation for the past disco to enjoy it,” she says. While modern artists can produce disco-inspired tracks, they aren’t responsible for reviving what was originally black music. They’re simply following trends.
It’s a sad reality for disco-lovers like Jenkins to face, but the disco we have today will never be what it was in the era of Grace Jones and Earth, Wind & Fire. Hall says what were once subcultural scenes developed from oppression are now used as inspiration. “It’s like disco and punk and hip-hop, they’re not forms of expression anymore, they’re forms of styles that can be draw upon,” he says. We should find comfort in that. Perhaps the reduction in strong subcultural music scenes is a reflection of fluidity and diversity in today’s society. We don’t conform as strongly as we used to, but we don’t segregate ourselves as much as we used to either.
When we dance at festivals or clubs or house parties to the voices of the Bee Gees or Chaka Khan or Candi Staton, spare a thought for how we got here. Over the past 50 years, a lot has changed, but our need to dance to music that excites, includes and liberates us will forever stay. Gloria Gaynor singing I Will Survive or Sister Sledge chanting We Are Family, will always have a place in a society striving for equality and justice. We can be grateful for the original artists of disco for celebrating and reminding us that music and dancing should be free from discrimination. To this day, we love to love you disco.