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STAYIN' ALIVE

Why disco music is making a comeback

Revelers dance at the silent disco during the Firefly Music Festival in Dover
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This is a full transcript of the sixth episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast season two on disco. Here’s a lightly edited transcript if you prefer. 

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Kira Bindrim: What do you think of when you hear this song?

[plays “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees]

Maybe you’re picturing a young John Travolta strutting down in New York City street, or dancing on a light-up floor in that iconic white suit. Perhaps you’re visualizing flared pants or sequin jumpsuits or big hair. You are definitely thinking about a big mirrored disco ball. But what you probably aren’t thinking is, ‘Boy, this sounds cool.’

“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees became a number one hit after it appeared in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. For many people, it’s the most iconic example of the musical genre disco. Known for its celebration of glamour, vice, and dancing, disco was wildly popular 50 years ago, until a double punch of cultural backlash and commodification supposedly destroyed it. Today, disco is ‘dead.’ It’s the stuff of costume parties and 70s memorabilia. It’s the ultimate fad.

But what if I told you that everyone is wrong about disco? That today, in 2022, disco is actually more relevant than ever, its influence all around us. And what if I told you that within disco’s rich history are lessons, not only for the rest of the music industry, but also for human connection?

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: disco, the most misunderstood musical genre.

I’m joined now by Camille Squires, who covers cities for Quartz and we are together here in the studio. Hello, Camille.

Camille Squires: Hey, Kira.

Kira Bindrim: I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but do you see a connection between your coverage and the genre of disco? Is that how you got into this?

Camille Squires: Uh, you know, one could draw a connection. I mean, to be cerebral about it, I think the environment of cities kind of created the right conditions for disco to grow and thrive. But for me, the most immediate connection is that I just love disco because I’m a dancer, I love to dance. I am trained as a dancer, but I also consider myself a dancer in the sense that I just love to move on the dance floor. It’s embarrassing sometimes. But it’s also a lot of fun.

Kira Bindrim: There’s that natural progression from dancing to journalism.

Camille Squires: Yup.

Popular disco music

Kira Bindrim: All right, we have a lot to get into here. But I think it would be insane to not kick off this episode by listening to some disco.

Camille Squires: Got to.

Kira Bindrim: So let’s pretend that you are Quartz’s official professor of disco studies—which is an available title if you’re interested—and I am a new student in disco 101. I’m hoping you could give me three songs that you would put on my syllabus, and why you would categorize these songs as emblematic of disco.

Camille Squires: Okay, song number one, let’s start at the roots. Let’s go to some kind of proto-disco I’d say with“Love Train” by the O’Jays.

[song plays: People all over the world / join hands/ start a love train / love train]

I think this is a kind of key part of the disco syllabus because it marks the transition from earlier waves of American music, the sort of soul and funk era from the 60s, and sort of brings it into this next decade. And I think the O’Jays as a group are sort of emblematic of that, too. I think their work spans a few different eras and a few different styles. And so “Love Train” is a good crossover disco.

Kira Bindrim: The lyrics just come right back to you.

Camille Squires: Right. It’s also something I love ,as cities and transit enthusiast, love the idea of a train being a place of love, just, you know, throwing that out there.

Kira Bindrim: Not often is the train in New York City considered a place of love.

Camille Squires: Oh, no. Not my train this morning.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, what is song number two on the syllabus.

Camille Squires: Song number two, I’m going to choose “Le Freak” by the band CHIC.

[song plays: Freak out! / Le freak, c’est chic / Freak out!] 

Nile Rodgers is a genius, and I think it comes through in this song. So it’s right at that 120 beats per minute pace, tempo that disco is at, it’s really good for dancing, includes a lot of sonic elements that I think are iconic to disco. And again it’s also really well-known, easy to sing along to and dance to.

Kira Bindrim: I truly thought the name of that song was “Freak Out” up until this exact moment. Okay, what is song number three?

Camille Squires: Song number three. This is by the queen of disco, Donna Summer, “Bad Girls.”

[song plays: beep beep / bad girls / talking ’bout the sad girls]

Ms. Donna had a few different disco hits that were out in this era. But I think “Bad Girls” is, again, pretty iconic among her entire work and easy to dance to, sing along to. And it expresses some of the cultural themes that came out with disco: similar to “Le Freak,” just, sort of, being yourself and expressing yourself and not being super concerned with social mores and etiquette. And so, you know, it’s easy to brush some of that off in the phrase “Bad Girls.” But, you know, it’s also possible to I think see it as an expression of empowerment.

The history of disco

Kira Bindrim: So where and how did disco start to emerge?

Camille Squires: Yeah, it has a long history, but it is also very much of its time. So, going back as far as the 1940s, the word “disco” comes from the French discotheque, which referred to the secret underground clubs that existed during World War II and Nazi-occupied France where gathering and getting together and live music was not allowed. So in order to circumvent those rules, people would get together and play their record libraries—discotheques—for each other and get together that way. And then over time, this way of gathering with music that was recorded, as opposed to played live, continued to evolve into the 50s and 60s, and made its way across the pond to the US. Also, over this time, and by the time we get to the 70s, the music itself is evolving, right? It’s moving from the sort of R&B and Soul of the Motown era, and getting longer, getting stretched out. At the same time in cities, especially New York City, LA, a few other places, you’re starting to see more outward expressions of community among certain marginalized groups—I’m thinking of queer people, you know, I’m thinking of racial minorities, Black people, Puerto Rican people, who have always existed, but I think as their cultures evolve, they start to evolve disco as well. And so when you’re thinking of people getting together to just to have a good time, have a party on Saturday night, someone has the record player on, they put on a record, they put on the next record. Next thing you know, they’re in charge of the night, they’re in charge of the sound, of the vibe of the whole night, and sort of facilitating people dancing and having a good time. And so there’s a lot of ways in which these subcultures and the music of disco evolved side-by-side.

One of the things I learned that really stood out to me in doing this research was learning about how the way that the flow of a DJ set in disco was really conducive and created a safe space for a lot of queer people. So when you think of the DJ seamlessly blending one song to another, so you can just sort of keep on dancing, keep on vibing—that’s a lot more comfortable than that awkward moment in between songs when the lights come up, and you look around, and everyone can see who you were just dancing with, and you’re sort of taken out of the vibe. You know, that’s kind of annoying, maybe, for anyone, but if you like are dancing with the same sex partner, that could potentially be dangerous in some places. And so part of just the way, again, the music was curated, and the entire environment was curated, created a sense of safety and possibility, in addition to a good time for a lot of people.

Kira Bindrim: That is so interesting. So you have this merging of DJ culture taking over for big band culture, faster dance music coming off of Motown and Soul, and then almost like a musically-created safe space in the way that people are listening to music.

Camille Squires: Yeah.

Kira Bindrim: Why would you say it got so big? Like, it was so big in the 70s—what do you think is behind that beyond just, you know, people who doesn’t love a good dance party?

Camille Squires: Part of my theory of why that is, is that it is just good. But, you know, to some degree, I think it does follow a tradition of music, or just culture, created out of maybe somewhat of a pressure cooker situation having mass appeal. I think you can trace a similar line with the blues and with rap from two completely different eras. And I think part of the reason that is is because a lot of the themes of disco were somewhat escapist, especially at a time where that wasn’t always positive socially, economically. You know, a lot of the themes are literally just about going out and having a good time, which is a nice mental break from, you know, the rent is due and gas is expensive. And I think that’s something a lot of people could relate to. It was also a big celebration of decadence—you know, you get to dress up and go out to the club with your friends. And so I think it touched on a lot of universal themes that just made it appeal to a lot of people.

Kira Bindrim: Once disco was really big, you know—we’re talking about this almost like cultural cachet of otherness, do we see that in who is successful? If I think about Motown and Soul, there’s sort of two stories. There’s Black Americans making really great music, and then there’s white Americans taking that music and repurposing it for themselves. Do we see something like that in disco? Are the biggest stars, do they still tend to be white people?

Camille Squires: You know, it’s interesting, I will say I think disco is a pretty big boat and there’s sort of room for everyone. In a lot of ways, I think a lot of the people who were there early on the movement do enjoy real success, sort of throughout the whole disco era. So I’m thinking of Nile Rodgers. I’m thinking of Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, but then, you know, it was you know, sort of adopted by people to whom the culture wasn’t necessarily native. One of the biggest disco groups in the world was the Bee Gees from Australia. And, you know, the music itself grew enough different sort of tentacles out in different directions that lots of people could enjoy it—I’m thinking as well of ABBA. And so, you know, one can make the argument that there is an element of appropriation that we’ve seen, I think, in other areas of American popular music. But I think some of that is just evolution and joining a big tent as opposed to theft.

Cultural backlash to the disco genre

Kira Bindrim: It’s just a big, sparkly boat, and there’s room for everyone. Let’s talk a bit about the backlash to disco. And I’d argue here we kind of have two backslashes: We have the short term one in the late 70s when it starts to fall out of favor, and then we have the larger one that has led to discos reputation today as sort of this fad of its time. Tell me about that first backlash.

Camille Squires: Yeah, definitely. So this is as much a part of the legend of disco as its popularity. A lot of it is encapsulated in this one epic night in Chicago, the night that disco died.

[recording: 30 of the fans are scattering off the field now while they fight the police…security numbers are joining the police, which are now about 40 or 50. And they’re slowly, now rapidly walking out to center field where the fire is burning.]

[recording: didn’t take long for the realization to set in that rock fans under the influence of beer and drugs and armed with disco records they had been invited to destroy, don’t mix with baseball.]

Camille Squires: It was at a Chicago White Sox game, a local rock DJ, Steve Dahl, hosted Disco Demolition night, where the cost of entry to the White Sox game that night was a disco record to come to be destroyed. And so lots of fans came—I think there are over 10,000 people there—and they essentially collected all of these disco records into like a huge container and blew them up on the field. It seemed to be like this incredibly rowdy night that like, I’m not even sure how it was allowed to happen. Like, the police had to be called at some point. It was, like, a surprisingly violent event, and like a surprisingly passionate event about music. But in a lot of ways, I think it was emblematic of what was happening in a certain part of the culture that sort of got blown up, much like the records themselves, right. So I think there was a lot of resentment and animus amongst some rock-and-roll DJs who were kind of sick of disco supremacy on the radio. And among rock fans, I do think there’s evidence for a sense that they saw disco as a part of a cultural takeover that they weren’t entirely comfortable with. Now, there’s also evidence to show that a lot of this backlash was sort of coordinated by record executives and people who stood to profit from disco being dead. But I think they sort of tapped a nerve amongst a certain subset of people. And it blew up.

Kira Bindrim: Rock fans get so salty about other genres of music. I feel like they are the most precious about anything else emerging to take over whether it’s like pop or disco or rap. Get over it, rock fans. You’ve survived this whole time, it’s fine. Chill.

Camille Squires: Yeah.

Kira Bindrim: After the break: Where disco went when they said it was dead.

[ad break]

Kira Bindrim: Would you say that that tension between American-ness—which is a very diplomatic way of saying whiteness—and otherness—which is marginalized groups and international groups becoming popular—is the thing that’s held through to today that keeps disco being unpopular? How has that evolved, sort of the backlash of today?

Camille Squires: Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, I think another axis of the disco backlash that has a lot more staying power, is that at the same time, it was sort of being called out for being too weird and too other, like, it was oversaturated. I think as it evolved in its later years, you got a lot more sort of like unoriginal disco, and it was kind of on every radio station. So, you know, it kind of like, burned itself out. And so I think because it died so dramatically in that moment, that helped leave it stuck in that moment. I like to think disco didn’t quite die, it just sort of like went underground. Because you know, you see its continued influence in popular music, but with that disco label removed, so it’s almost, as I see it, I think part of the long tail of backlash is like, it got so big, everyone just sort of like lost their taste for it, even if they really didn’t, but it just like can’t be called disco anymore.

Kira Bindrim: It also did that thing where genres get so big that they start showing up in commercials. And then it’s like, you hear disco. And there were a lot of commercials at that time, from the late 70s through today even, where this music is considered so generic, that you can play it while you’re advertising a Whopper or something.

Okay, so one thing that’s interesting, I went down rabbit hole on disco commercials. And, yes, there’s a McDonald’s one, there’s Intel, there’s—Budweiser was really, really into disco for a while—they often don’t do any talking, they just let the music stand for the commercial and there’s words on screen. And I feel like that’s almost a blessing and the curse. It’s like the music is so great that you don’t get mad when you’re hearing it in a commercial. But now also you associate “Stayin’ Alive” with Big Macs or whatever.

Camille Squires: Exactly, it really kind of becomes like a blank canvas for whatever you need it to be. Which I think in the context, again, of like a Saturday night on the dance floor is great. You can project whatever you want onto it because it has such mass appeal. But the other side of that is that it can quickly become generic and be used for anything, including selling hamburgers.

How disco influences the music industry

Kira Bindrim: So I said at the beginning that disco is more relevant today than ever. And part of that argument is that disco’s influence is actually all around us, and that some elements of this musical genre never really left to begin with. And it’s my understanding that you have a list of the areas in music or the world today where I might be seeing the influence of disco. Is that right?

Camille Squires: Yes, I have a list. Disco lives on.

Kira Bindrim: Give me the disco list. I’m excited.

Camille Squires: Okay, so first of all, importantly, DJing. That is just a fixture of how we consume music today and how we enjoy music, and that started with disco. And I think it’s gone off in a million different directions right? But it all kind of started in that element. Relatedly, just the culture of clubs, right—how we dance today, on a dark dance floor, not necessarily with the same partner the whole time, not in a hyper-formal space. It’s not to say that in an alternate universe that couldn’t have happened some other way, but I think a lot of it can just be traced back to the way that disco popularized dancing in that way. And of course we can continue to hear it in popular songs and popular artists today. In some ways it never left—again as I’m saying you can sort of trace descendants of disco throughout music, but also in a very real way I think we’re experiencing a bit of a disco renaissance in popular music. I think the influences are really clear and songs from people like Doja Cat, from Dua Lipa. Madonna had a recent disco era. And even things like Silk Sonic, the new project from Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak is very much kind of like an homage to to an earlier time. And then, of course, the music of disco itself is making a resurgence on TikTok. I think TikTok is like the best current fertile ground for the disco renaissance.

Kira Bindrim: I totally see that through line with Tiktok where you have this other, you know, it’s a very visual format, it’s about togetherness, it’s about intersecting with people who you might not otherwise based on your interests or the reason you’re coming together. It’s extremely based in dance. And it’s extremely based in like hooks and and silly choreography. So I see like a real parallel with the things that made disco popular and the things that make TikTok as addictive as it is.

Camille Squires: Yes, I feel like they’re similar flavors of bubblegum. They’re frivolous, but they’re also really life-giving and induce creativity in the same way that the disco trend sort of took the country, and the world, by storm back then. It’s so easy for dances, a lot of them with disco tracks as backing tracks, to go viral around the world on TikTok today.

Disco’s lessons to other music genres

Kira Bindrim: I want to talk about the lessons of disco. Because at a higher level, I think there’s an argument to be made that we’re looking at a lot of the same challenges of society today as we were in the 70s. There’s turmoil in the world, and we’re looking for reprieve. We love to dance. There’s a desire to create stronger communities. And there is, I hope, a bigger focus on inclusivity than there has been in the past. What are, first, some lessons that you think disco has to offer for other musical genres?

Camille Squires: That’s a good question. Disco as a genre is good at centering the people like, in the sense that I think the music is conducive to the activity of dancing and gathering, and not the reverse. It’s sort of heavy on like the beat and the feel and like, disco songs are so long and just kind of flow into each other so well, that it helps create an environment that is both physical and spiritual. And I would like to see more of that in music today. I think on maybe another level, it’s nice to just not take yourself super seriously. I think that’s another key element of disco that provides real relief in times of turmoil. As you mentioned, art can do a lot of different things—it can challenge us, it can encourage us to think differently about the world, but it can also just like, be a warm blanket. And so, I think that is something that’s necessary right now.

Kira Bindrim: It’s like disco is perfectly designed, the best thing you can be doing when you’re listening to disco is dancing in a room with other people. And that’s not true of a lot of genres. And you would like more of that.

Camille Squires: Yeah. I would like more of that, you know, pandemic allowing.

Kira Bindrim: I think the other thing, going back to TikTok a little, is, when when I hear you talk about disco, I’m hearing like a democratization of the places that music can come from, or who can create it, and who can bring people together. And for better or worse, social media has done a lot of bad things to our society, but it has democratized the creation of content. And so your ability to create or tap into a subculture or a community is totally different online than it was before the internet. And it sounds like there’s a parallel with disco that like your ability to connect to a community that you might not stumble into in your day-to-day, more circumscribed life is easier when there’s a club you can go to, and a bright mirrored ball, and a DJ playing music that gets you up in other people’s faces in a good way.

Camille Squires: Definitely. Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it, too. Yes, the democratization element is always important to the I think growth and success of a new art form. And I think we saw that with the beginning of disco and sort of the best parts of disco came from that democratic people-centered energy. One of the things I was really excited to learn about learning this history is how DJs in New York started, like music pools in the early days of disco, where, if I’m a DJ, and I have my like collection of albums, but I want the newest ones, it’s hard for me as an individual to, like, go to the record labels and get the the latest releases or even before the release. But like when people pull the resources and all DJs came together, like the record labels paid attention, and would give them early access to tracks in exchange for feedback. To me, that is an example of the sort of just like creativity and growth that can come from a really democratic environment. And I totally see a lot of the same things happening with the way that social media has allowed creativity to flourish.

The ‘philosophy of disco’

Kira Bindrim: What are you see as the lessons and disco for people, for humanity, if I could get quite grandiose?

Camille Squires: I mean, I would love to kind of start a philosophy of disco, I don’t know if that’s up to me. There’s nothing I can say that isn’t even a little bit cheesy, but I think it’s cheesy because it’s true. But I think it’s the idea of sort of like meeting people where they’re at, and on the dance floor, grabbing a partner for a song, and changing partners the next song, and sort of being willing to embark on a common project of fun together, I think is a lesson that’s applicable to having a good time on the disco dance floor. And also choosing joy in the face of circumstances that aren’t inherently joyful always, but sort of taking time to experience delight in spite of that. I think that was a big aspect of what people were looking for with disco culture and what it provided. So that’s a good lesson, too.

Kira Bindrim: I feel like there’s also a way to take the corniness and make it an advantage. Which is, the same way since we’re talking about Halloween parties, if I’m in a costume around other people, I am being vulnerable. I’m going to be sillier. We’ve all acknowledged that we are doing something silly together. And there’s an element of that with disco—if we’re going to be on the floor doing, I don’t know what the moves are, the shopping cart, together with a light-up floor and a disco ball as grown adults, we better be having fun. You know, we are all here for the same reason.

Camille Squires: Oh yeah, it’s so silly. Yeah, it’s like it’s absurd.

Kira Bindrim: I have one last question for you, which is a fun one. What is your favorite disco fun fact? It can be in supportive this thesis, like something that you would whip out when you hear someone talking crap on disco? Or it could just be something fun that you can’t get unstuck from your head?

Camille Squires: Yeah, that there’s a few of these rattling around in my brain. I learned that at some point in the Saturday Night Fever craze, it made its way to Sesame Street. So there’s like a Sesame Street version of Saturday Night Fever somewhere that I need to find. Sesame Street is incredible, and I love that it was so in touch with the culture that disco made it to Sesame Street.

Kira Bindrim: Thank you, Camille. This was a fascinating conversation, I have so much disco to go listen to.

Camille Squires: Yes. All disco, all day.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Camille Squires in New York.

If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! And visit Quartz’s profile page on Spotify to listen to our disco playlist. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.

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