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Back in the Day

When the Dancing Stopped

Platform shoes, pounding beat, and sex--was that disco? Alice Echols reviews the recent past.

Book Cover While I assign to the film Saturday Night Fever the role of token/emblem of the worst decade in my lifetime, I have never enlarged that judgment to include the whole of the most prevalent music of the time, disco. In the main because I admired the talents of the writing and producing team of Philadelphia’s Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their legendary Sound of Philadelphia (O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, etc.).

Alice Echols (Scars of Sweet Paradise), American Studies mentor at Rutgers University and a former disco DJ, has delved deeply into disco and written Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (WW Norton), which, as the title suggests, establishes disco and its coincident culture as a transformative element, especially regarding “the emergence of ‘gay macho,’ a rising black middle class, and a growing, if equivocal, openness about female sexuality,” not to mention a new and improved celebrity culture via venues like the immortal disco pantheon, Studio 54.

Whatever your tolerance for this kind of cultural analysis, Echols does cover two of the more interesting episodes of the disco era—which ended as one TV comedy character claimed, “The day Barbara Streisand touched it.” The whole Saturday Night Fever story is recounted, from Nik Cohn’s heavily imagined magazine article to script writer Norman Wexler’s more complex portrait, which attempted some broader statement about fame and ambition.

And, of course, Echols writes of the 1979 anti-disco demonstration at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, which sparked a riot after a radio station blew up a crate of records and thousands of people rushed the field. Which she posits as a prominent marker for the anti-disco backlash, which some historians eagerly and facilely connect to racism and homophobia.
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