June 6, 1979
It's a little late to debate the merits of disco music as if it were something that we could think out of existence if we want to. Particularly in the pages of a paper like IN THESE TIMES, which expresses an interest in where the American public is at. Because disco has become one of the dominant forms of American and trans-Atlantic pop music
Nevertheless, let me list what I think are some of disco's selling points, reasons besides its incredible popularity that should make it interesting to readers of ITT.
First: disco is the first pop music music in a long while with a multi-racial appeal. Elvis may have topped the pop, country, and black charts when he started, but that was 25 years ago. Since then there's been borrowing between black and white music, and some crossing-over of performers from one audience to another, but the lines of racial segregation could always be drawn. Disco, however, is sung, produced, danced and listened to by whites and blacks (as well as Latins, but that's a more complicated case).
There is, naturally, disco music that appeals more to one audience or another, and non of this signals the end of racism. But disco has created a common cultural ground for whoever wants to use it, even if just to thrown a successful dance party or disco fund-raiser for black and white friends or fellow workers-- something that would have been hard with the segregated music of five years ago.
Second: disco is the first pop music with an openly gay component. It originated in the urban gay subculture and the trend-setters and taste-makers of disco continue to be gay. This doesn't end sexual repression, but it does mean that an interesting, even encouraging space exists that includes both straight and gay.
Finally: disco, like punk rock, encourages energetic public action, unlike the music of the laid-back singer-songwriters who dominated the early and mid '70s. For every beautiful people gossip column gold mine like Studio 54, we should keep in mind the hundreds of discos and disco parties where the rest of us escape our work-a-day lives. Whether this leads to stupor or euphoria is still an open question, but it beats nodding off in private. A culture that tries for some sort of public ecstasy, if only on a Saturday night, is at least aroused enough to respond to alienation in a group. That's a first step.
There's a connection, largely ignored, between the return to dance and the return to mass public demonstrations. People have energy again. No matter how tentative that connection is, one would guess that populist left-wingers would try to make it as strong as possible, the way the anti-war movement tried to connect to rock 'n' roll.
Yet many leftists feel free to dismiss disco as "mindless" or "watered down" or "plastic," and leave it at that, using the same narrow minds their leftist parents used to dismiss swing music and their leftist older siblings used to dismiss rock 'n' roll.
It's just pop music and there's no reason to feel obligated to enjoy disco if you don't. But any political person should be interest in the space and energy it creates.
In These Times
The first Village People album had a black and white cover photo taken on a late summer night somewhere around the gay bars in west Greenwich Village. Inside on the record Victor Willis' soul-music solos emoted over an all male chorus on songs about various gay hot spots. Disco music had come out of gay male nightlife, so why not an all-male disco group that sang about it? The whole thing felt inevitable.
What didn't seem as inevitable was the way straight audiences, either ignoring or completely missing the gay content, picked up on "San Francisco," the hit cut from the album. Here was a group that could appeal not just to the gay sub-culture, but to the vast straight horde as well. Jacques Morali, French creator and producer of the group, saw the possibilities and took it from there.
The next two albums, especially the two big hits, "Macho Man" and "YMCA" played the game of being gay to those who wanted to see gay and straight to those who were happier ignoring it. They also gently mocked both scenes with their over-stated fake wide-eyed innocence.
But something more than a novel appeal to two cultures was happening. Their combination of simplified Otis Redding, the Sing Along With Mitch Gang, a disco beat, and male narcissism was making them the hottest selling group in the country, as the prominent display of all their albums in any record store will prove.
Maybe, as one of the Village People suggested in Rolling Stone, they gained this popularity because they gave disco a face at a time when the music was intriguing Mid-America but disorienting in its anonymity. Disco had and has few recognizable media stars.
Maybe they reveal a new similarity developing between straight and gay, a sharing of the same male beauty standards. Stephen Holden argues in a recent Village Voice that they signal a new interest by straight males in their own sexual appeal, making them more like gays. A scared-of-women-male-buddy tradition exists in America, with repressed homosexuality that's the source of much anti-gay and anti-women energy in straight men. Is it finally falling apart? Or just being reworked?
Some gay men see the Village People as a rip-off. They never identify themselves as gay anymore and appear content (on the Merv Griffin show, for instance) to be taken for straight. And it's easier to see how a woman dancing to "Macho Man" in a straight disco where the straight men aren't in on the joke might find it less than pleasant. But it's hard to resist, or at least not stand in awe of their absurdly exhilarating pop exploitations. Who would have dreamed, ten years ago, that we would be dancing to what sounds like the chorus from South Pacific singing about "ups and downs" (the pills) or chanting "body, body, feel my body"?
Actually, on their new album Go West their real problem is not in ripping anybody off, but in becoming what much of their straight audience imagines them to be--and nothing more.
"In the Navy," the new hit single, like "YMCA" uses a straight institution with special meaning for gays. But the Navy doesn't lend itself to naivete as well as the YMCA did. No one's sung this chirpily about the Navy in 30 years. Furthermore, the gay double meanings have all but disappeared--there's little subculture implied in these lyrics--and what's left sounds closer to a march than to disco. The beat remains, but there's non of disco's ebbs,build-ups, or propulsion. It isn't good to dance to.
In just two years, have the Village People moved all the way from the gay bars of Greenwich Village to a patriotic pop mainstream even John Wayne can't find anymore? Maybe. But it's still hard not to laugh at how far they dare to go in their happy simplifications. And it's hard not to hope they'll find something new to mine or undermine in our tradition of he-man song. Who knows, maybe their next album will contain a disco version of the Red Army Chorus sings Meadowland.
In These Times