Why Disco? – A Mirrorball Manifesto For Evolved Ears

Thirty years after it was officially pronounced “dead,” it’s still considered a sin to love disco music.  Country and rap might attract a respectable amount of hate from certain quarters but disco is the belle of the ball when it comes to receiving unthinking, knee-jerk hatred from all corners of the music-loving world.  Oldsters are trying to forget that it ruled the commercial roost for a short time, rockists are frightened by its pansexual ethos, hipsters sneer with unwarranted disgust as they insist they only listen to “authentic” forms of soul music and guardians of culture will continue to toe the party line: “It was a fluke and an aberration – don’t take it seriously and forget about it!”

This is a crime because disco is a genre totally worthy of exploration by musical obsessives.  Forget the handful of pop-hit disco tunes that pop to mind, the “YMCA’s” and “Stayin Alive’s.”  Those bite-size favorites are worthy their own respect but they are the accidental byproduct of the real action.  Your Humble Reviewer is talking about the disco that got played in clubs, the complex and extended suites that captured the hearts and minds of club dwellers.  This kind of disco, the real disco, is a world unto itself and has much to offer those daring enough to ignore its cultural-blacklist status.

Schlockmania will be covering disco as a regular part of its musical coverage.  Through these reviews, you’ll be able to get an idea of why the genre is so special and deserving of more attention.  Until then, this essay will outline the three elements make the genre endlessly fascinating.  It comes down to three things:  eclecticism, showmanship and its hypnotic quality.

Eclecticism:  One of the great misconceptions about disco is that it all sounds the same, just a bunch of repetitive tunes with an identical thud-thud-thud beat.  It’s true that disco centers its sound around dance-friendly rhythms but the music floating over the top of that beat is capable of anything.  In addition to the obvious soul and funk elements, you’ll find orchestral arrangements and structural conceits drawn from classical music, hard rock elements (remember that searing guitar solo in “Hot Stuff”?), prog rock synth solos and world-beat elements, particularly of the Latin and African varieties.  Since the genre is all about creating a “bigger-better-faster-more” sensation, you’ll often get several of these elements in the same song.

Showmanship:  This goes hand in hand with the eclecticism.  Disco is an ambitious genre, often to a symphonic level, and this requires the focus and dedication of a true showman.  A dancefloor epic demands pristine and flawlessly timed arrangements, a larger-than-life persona to sell the lyric’s narrative and a producer who knows exactly when an element needs to be added or dropped in the mix.  The end results are often the purest, most finely crafted entertainment that popular music has to offer – and they are often brilliant headphone listening thanks to their unique sonic showmanship.

Hypnotic Quality:  A disco epic can be lushly orchestrated or aridly electro-minimalist but all great examples of the genre have one key attribute in common: a uniquely hypnotic quality.  It’s not just the beat or the bassline: in great disco, all the elements work towards a united purpose: to create a dreamy, euphoric feeling that pulls you right into the heart of the music.  World-beat and funk can create a similar feeling but neither can do it in the multi-tiered, senses-dazzling fashion that only disco can do.  The aforementioned showmanship of good disco allows it to add, subtract and shift layers of sound in a way that reaches beyond the conscious mind’s defenses.  It’s best experience on the dance floor with a skilled d.j. at the helm but a set of headphones and a stack of the proper disco tunes can take you to aural nirvana in a way that other genres can only dream of.

We’ll end by returning to the title question – why disco?  Why the hell not? It’s the last unexplored frontier of cultish-music pleasure left.  Anyone looking for a new thrill should wander into the mirrorball wilderness and revel in its glitzy, hedonistic wonders before it somehow falls prey to nostalgia or hipster-fetishism.  Schlockmania will gladly be your companion for this journey and you can expected a guided tour of all the genre’s hidden wonders.

7 Replies to “Why Disco? – A Mirrorball Manifesto For Evolved Ears”

  1. *Real* disco music was a big part of my childhood. Listening to it as a child made me happy — and it still does. Hell, I’m listening to Voyage’s ‘Fly Away’ as I type this!

    I look forward to your coverage!

  2. Great entry! Looking fowar to it. “to cre­ate a dreamy, euphoric feel­ing that pulls you right into the heart of the music” – that’s brilliant writing, and the perfect definition of what good disco music really is or should be.

  3. Feeling the need to be a young punk, I want to point out that I think my greatest problem with disco and certainly a problem that many who rebelled against it was not a musical problem, but a political problem.

    I won’t knock disco for lack of musical talent, compared to punk it was vastly superior musically, but when it came to a philosophy the punk movement seemed to stand for something (originally) more than decadence and dancing. Much of the rebellion or disdain towards disco comes from its over indulgence in superficiality. Later this problem would also bring down punk and many other genres. Still, the punk movement which sits in direct opposition to disco stood as a cold splash of reality in the face of disco’s fantasy. In disco vs. punk you had entertainment vs. information, off-the-rack vs. do-it-yourself, hedonism vs. nihilism, haves vs. have-nots. At its core disco was about music and punk was about a message, the music was just a vessel.

    What did disco have to say, other than “I will survive”?

    1. Thanks for the interesting comments. There’s plenty to respond to so I’ll just dive right in…

      Disco was generally an escapist genre but that didn’t mean it couldn’t carry the occasional message, particularly for the gay community. Songs like “I’ve Got To Make It On My Own” and “I Was Born This Way” became anthems for that community because they reference (and reinforce) the desire to be acknowledged as strong, self-sufficient members of society. Like the Hispanic and black contigents also actively involved in the disco scene, these people were not always the “haves” that one thinks of when considering the cliche, “Studio 54” image of disco. The real core of the disco scene represented a societal minority who created their own underground pleasure palaces to show they could live with the same amount of enjoyment and pride that more visibly accepted members of society enjoy. Seen in that light, I think saying “I will survive” is a positive and beneficial act. It’s not their fault that jaded, slumming wealthy types and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd co-opted their scene in a crass way.

      Besides, it’s very tough to dance to politics, Gang Of Four aside.

  4. The thing about it destroy the careers of great disco singers due the backlash that’s not right music is music it’s good music then there is bad music doesn’t the genre sucks .rock n roll is no different Im a rock fan but I enjoy listing to other genres of music but I have heard crappy rock myself too so why pick on disco? B/c one man hatred toward a music due his racism and scornful ways toward gays change how disco is view Steve dhal is no hero me but is godlike figure among the rock fans of that era it never died instead it gave birth to dance genres
    Like theco , house , trance etc that funny thing about and still is remember every year in July to embrace victory over something that never a war in the first he didnt stop people from kicking up their heels on Saturday nights even after the whole backlash

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