The Night Disco Died

I like disco. I have to, I’m a bass player. Few of my students have gotten out of my practice room without learning the intro and verse parts of “Disco Inferno”. But I usually introduce the song as a left hand position exercise before saying it’s disco.

Disco suffered a blow to it’s reputation on July 12, 1979 from which it never recovered. Here’s a very good summary of the events shown on ESPN on the 30th anniversary of the Night Disco Died:

I think this really was a watershed cultural event of the late seventies. Wise people could have predicted the course of political events in the early eighties if they could have imagined what they might be.

The Disco Demolition riot was more about political and social forces than disagreements about musical taste. Really, if you don’t like a type of music, just don’t listen. No need to riot.

Many have written on the rapid demise of disco, and its causes. Most of what follows has been discussed at length by others. I’m just going to summarize each hypothesis about why disco died. There was almost certainly more than one factor in play.

Maybe Disco really did suck- Well, yeah. A lot of it did. This sort of thing happens when a genre of music becomes popular so fast. The worst were the disco crossover hits by artists from other genres. Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya I’m Sexy?” is pure musical hell. But the core artists of Disco, like Chic pictured in the title background image, were quite good. At any rate, I don’t think musical taste can explain a riot at a baseball game.

Racial resentment among white folks- Now we are getting somewhere. Did you see anyone but white people rushing onto the field in the video? The Demolition was a preview of a new politics of white resentment. Wages had been stagnent in the US economy for a few years by 1979 and the Rust Belt states were in decline. The 1980 elections would see the rise of a political narrative that the reason white folks didn’t have it as good as they thought they should was that undersiving black people anything at all. Black people had most of Disco, so Disco became a focus of resentment.

Your older sister liked Disco- I spent a week with my cousins Pam and Randy in the summer of the Demolition. Pam was 16 and loved disco, Randy was 13 and loathing disco was very important to him. I had just aged out of  the years of rigid childhood gender enforcement and was disappoinded to learn from my cousins’ example that my teen years would bring all that bullshit back again. I mention this personal anecdote because I think it was an instance of a larger sexist backlash against Disco. While there were some prominent women hitmakers in album rock, there were more prominent women in Disco than rock. I think racism was a bigger factor than sexism in the disco backlash, but you’re always going to get at least partial credit betting on sexism.

Disco was gay- Kinda, but Menergy wouldn’t make that clear until a few years later. Anita Bryant was on the prowl in 1979 fighting the first wave of gay political progress, but she never mentioned Disco. I think homophobia was probably at most a secondary factor in the Demolition.

Music Industry Conspiracy- Normally I don’t believe in this sort of thing but I worked in the business when the Spice Girls and Britney Spears rose to prominence as the women singer-songwriter stars of the 90’s lost all industry support. Poe and Fiona Apple have convinced me there was a conspiracy. But I don’t think there was a conspiracy against Disco. If there had been, I wouldn’t expect so many former Disco stars to become producers of 80’s pop. Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers became one of the top producers of the 80’s. Quincy Jones was able to rebrand Michael Jackson as a pop idol with Thriller after 1979’s disco-influenced Off the Wall. In any case, I don’t think the music industry was behind the Demolition at a time when disco was at peak profitability.

Disco was undemocratic- Yes, it was producer and industry driven. I got this idea from Patti Smith’s analysis of the music industry in the late seventies. She never specifically addressed Disco and all her criticisms would equally apply to album rock. Rock might seem more democratic because a group of kids can form a band, work hard, and hit the big time. Disco, with its large ensembles and studio polish seemed less accessable. Disco is hard for a working band to cover. But if you are a freaky jam band that rocks hard enough you can cover Disco with a small ensemble.  That’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers rocking the Bee Gees hard. They would later go on to found Chic the next year. Sorry to go so much about Chic, I’m just a huge Bernard Edwards fan. In any case, I doubt the “democracy” hypothesis was likely a cause of the Demolition.

I think politically engineered racial resentment was the primary cause behind the Disco Demolition riot. These forces led to the nomination and election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and are part of American political discourse to this day.




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