Known for its celebration of glamour, vice, and dancing, disco music 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 ultimate fad.
But what if everyone is wrong about disco? In 2022, the genre is actually more relevant than ever. Within disco’s rich history are lessons, not only for the rest of the music industry, but also for human connection.
Executive editor and Quartz Obsession podcast host Kira Bindrim spoke to reporter Camille Squires about the disco revival. Read the full transcript of the episode.
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Where and how did disco music start?
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.
Why was disco music so popular in the 1970s?
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.
Who are the biggest stars in the genre?
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 Jees 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.
Why was there a backlash against disco music?
Camille Squires: 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. 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.
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.
How has disco influenced the music industry?
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.
What are some lessons disco can offer other musical genres?
Camille Squires: 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.
What are disco’s biggest lessons for humanity?
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.