Disco: not all subcultures are created equal
As I write, " Funkytown," by Lipps, Inc., a song that can only be described as disco, has topped the charts for the last month. The only concession to what's supposed to be current post-disco rock-revival pop music taste is the absence of romantic or pretty orchestral coloration. Otherwise it's a classic: anonymous but soulful black singing of simple, chant-like vocals; funk with a glossy surface; r&b riff variations rather than strong verse-chorus-verse-chorus melody; an unpredictable one-man concoction from, of all places, Minneapolis, that broke first in the disco clubs (yes, they still exist) and hit much later on the radio and in record stores catering to non-disco fans.
But didn't disco die? Didn't it collapse like the house of cards it always was a year ago, after threatening to overwhelm good old rock and roll? Not quite. Actually, disco was pronounced dead when it failed to deliver on the awesome potential of the Bee Gees-dominated soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, the best-selling record ever, and when the all-disco radio stations that sprung up in belated recognition of disco's popularity began mixing in other music when their ratings started to slip. In other words, due to a couple of breaks in timing, the disco audience was mistaken for being larger than it was, and was then pronounced non-existent. But it's still there.
It was also mistaken for being easier to manipulate than was true. But with its lack of certifiable stars and with its quirky tastes, disco doesn't lend itself easily to initial investment and then long-term dividends. There's simply no disco Paul McCartney who you can pay a zillion dollars to sign with your label and then make a million dollars a month off of forever.
And so we have disco, a sub-culture once more, sputtering along without much recognition, widely influential, (look at the success of recent disco-influenced albums by Michael Jackson, Kool and the Gang, and Diana Ross, or Blondie's disco-influenced single "Call Me"), but largely ignored.
Just the sort of unjust situation that would attract the sympathy of leftists, particularly IN THESE TIMES readers, who will pick an ignored folk singer, blues legend or jazz genius over a pop success any day. So what about all those obscure disco hits recorded far from the seats of power that aren't getting the recognition they deserve? What about all the unsung Funkytowns?
I'm not holding my breath. Leftists prefer their blacks to be old, poor, and rural. Slick urbanized black music that speaks to any experience more recent that the '50s (Chicago Blues) or '60s (Motown) is best ignored, at least until it's old enough to lie safely in the past. Remember when electric blues and then the Supremes were considered corrupt by leftist purists? And gays -- they're best dealt with when they're lesbian-feminist separatists singing folk songs, because that's a political concept. While music that reflects the potentially explosive drive for liberation and turn toward complacent gentrification is best ignored. Even if it reflects a social reality.
Part of the left's problem with mass culture is due, oddly to its good fortune. One pop culture giant--as influencial in the long run, I believe, as Chuck Berry or the Beatles--was Woody Guthrie, who worked in the idiom of folk music. So the left has the most experience with this style. As the left shrank in the '50s, another genius, Pete Seeger, helped fashion this music into an oppositional culture, ready for the taking when the '60s began. And so banjos are folk music. Synthesizers are not.
But what about those folk who dance to synthesizers and not banjos? Here's a more disturbing question: Is it possible that the minority left in this country attracts people who like participating in a minority sub-culture? And for all the talk in IN THESE TIMES and elsewhere about different organizational and ideological strategies for breaking out of isolation, is there a cultural pull on the left towards isolation? Do leftists secretly fear mass acceptance the way sub-cult beatniks of the '50s preferred that to the mass bohemianism of the '60s?
I'm a big fan, and have raved in print to prove it, of Seeger, both Guthries, blues, gospel, and punk. But I wonder. Why does a music that articulates, no matter how unclearly, the yearning for upward mobility and good times, and frequently expresses a lack of faith in political change while embodying change in its racial and sexual mix--why does this music draw so much fire from the left? Could it be because it too successfully embodies in its contradictions what's Out There, or even hidden Somewhere Inside Us?
In These Times