What is—or better yet, what was—disco?
The groovy music, the big hair, and the dance moves have all the characteristics of a fad: extremely popular in their 1970s heyday, then lost to history as culture moved on. But disco was as much a product of its place as its time, and the cities where the genre got its start (New York City, especially) created the conditions to build and amplify its culture. Elements of urban life—clubs, cultural diversity, and class stratification—were all fuel for the disco inferno.
In that respect, disco fits into a long history of culture that takes off in cities. Wherever there is a large concentration of people living in the same place, art, music, and other creative works follow. And while disco itself has evolved over the past 50 years, those truths have not. Cities are still shaping culture today, often at a much faster pace. That’s why the history of disco is rich with modern lessons—about how a movement is born, thrives, and dies as a result of economic, social, and technological changes.
The subcultures that created disco
Throughout the 20th century, powerful forces like racism, homophobia, and economic opportunity drew oppressed groups in the US to urban centers, where they sought out a living. When Black Americans migrated from the Jim Crow south and Puerto Rican immigrants came to the US, they settled in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago in search of opportunity, carving out cultural enclaves for themselves in the process. Without these “home bases” of culture, you don’t get disco.
In its halcyon days, disco’s sound was beloved by people all over the world, but the genre has its roots in those Black, Latinx, and queer communities in the US. Disco fits neatly into the larger legacy of Black Americans’ influence on popular music: The genre evolved in the late 1960s and 70s from earlier iterations of Black music traditions like R&B, soul, and rock from the 1960s, while also being influenced by Latin sounds like salsa, brought to the US by way of Puerto Ricans in New York City.
People of all stripes enjoyed disco, but it became especially popular among Black and Latinx queer men, who would dance to disco in self-identified gay clubs without fear of persecution. The low lights and long DJ mixes that seamlessly blended one song into the next created a safe space to dance the night away with a same-sex partner, without having to worry about prying eyes or uncomfortable between-song moments.
The spaces that built disco
In addition to the music itself, disco was defined by dancing and the raucous clubs where people gathered to hear DJs spin records and to lose themselves on the dance floor. One of the first and most revered disco clubs was The Loft, started in New York City by famed DJ David Mancuso.
What would become one of the city’s most legendary disco clubs started off as a classic tale of urban life: The rent was too high. In 1970, Mancuso was a young man living in a large downtown Manhattan loft he couldn’t afford, so to make rent at the end of the month, he threw rent parties—for a small admission fee ($2.50 on the first night), people came to dance and party in the loft while Mancuso played from his extensive record collection over the speakers. Mancuso’s idea was hardly novel; rent parties were a common community-oriented solution to the high cost of living for urban dwellers, especially in urban Black communities (pdf), dating back to the 1930s and 40s.
Mancuso’s rent parties quickly became the hottest ticket in town, in part because they were spaces where everyone was accepted, regardless of their identities. Before long, the loft parties were formalized into The Loft, which operated in various locations throughout Manhattan for the next 20 years.
The lifestyles that disco celebrated
If The Loft told the story of disco’s grassroots early days, Studio 54 represented its apex. By 1977, the club, also in Manhattan, was one of the most popular—and exclusive—clubs in the city, known as much for turning people away at the door as for the A-list celebrities it let in. The club was frequented by people like Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and Michael Jackson.
Studio 54 encapsulated a sort of idealized urban life in the late 70s; it was home to New York City’s most rich and powerful class, and celebrated everything that went along with that lifestyle: decadence, fashion, music, and drugs. The club was infamous for allowing open use of illegal drugs, namely cocaine, which had burst onto the scene in New York by way of the Medellin cartel from Colombia.
The other main cultural touchstone of the disco era was the hit 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. The film stars John Travolta as a young Brooklyn man who takes to the disco dance floor on weekends as an escape from the trials and tribulations of his working-class life. The movie was based on a New York magazine article—itself more legend than fact—that profiled the disco scene at the time.
The article’s author, British journalist Nick Cohn, later admitted to fabricating the story and most of its main characters, leaning heavily on stereotypes and observations of working-class people in New York, combined with his own childhood memories of gangsters in London and Northern Ireland. All of it created an image of hardscrabble urban life where opportunities were few, but disco provided an escape from it all.
How cities shape culture
As the late 70s gave way to the 80s, disco experienced a decline nearly as swift as its ascent: Overhyped and overplayed on radio stations around the US, it soon fell out of style. But the genre never truly “died.” It evolved to give rise to other successive genres like house music and eventually techno, and is experiencing a renaissance in popular music today, nearly 50 years later.
In that time, urban dwellers continued to produce new music and culture; movements like hip hop, neo-expressionist art, grunge, and K-pop all got their start in major global cities. In each movement, many of the key environmental elements remained in place: many different people gathered in close proximity, the development of a particular social or political consciousness, economic pressure to create art, and creativity that inspired more creativity.
In turn, those cultural products become essential to the cities that create them: Local music and art shapes a city’s identity, and in doing so fuels its economy by attracting residents and raising property values. Places like New York City, Seoul, and Berlin, have become global capitals as much for their cultural cache as for their economic power. The advent of the internet and social media only hyper-charged urban centers’ ability to create and spread influence. Today, DJs in Amsterdam can connect with kids in Atlanta, and designers in Paris can talk to models in Rio de Janeiro.
Perhaps the biggest test of cities’ cultural clout was the pandemic, when lockdowns, travel restrictions, and “remote” living inspired a good deal of speculation about changing cultural trends, and where the identity of cities would land. Fortunately, any obituaries on the cultural influence of urban centers appear to have been premature, which means that many of the ingredients that helped disco thrive—escapism, inclusivity, and physical togetherness—may be set up to once again inform the next musical phenomenon.