Yesterday morning, I was making a beat incorporating elements indicative of late 1970’s dance music better known as Disco. The more of those elements I added, the more I enjoyed what I was making. Then I contrarily thought about the phrase, “Disco Sucks.” I thought back to what was coined Disco Demolition Night and all that transpired… or at least what was televised.
It was Thursday, July 12, 1979. I was only alive eight days and most likely crying or eating or doing whatever babies do at that age. But, almost 800 miles away, there was something far more developed happening. A Chicago shock jock by the name of Steve Dahl had organized a promotional event at a White Sox/Tigers game. This event would not only showcase Dahl’s disdain for Disco, it would seemingly put the final nail in the coffin of the genre.
What happened that night?
For starters, baseball fans were treated to a doubleheader that would only cost 98¢ and a Disco record to be destroyed between games later that night. Not bad, right? Myriads of fans and anti-Disco devotees alike attended. The place was packed. The first game was over and now it was time for what would become one of the most infamous moments in pop culture and sports history. Dahl brought a large container full of records to the middle of the stadium to reenact his shtick of “blowing up” records but this time with real explosives rather than sound effects. The crowd was into it. Dahl counted down. He blew the records up. Then, all hell broke loose. Patrons rushed the field. They flung records to and from all directions. They tore Comiskey Park up. This eventually led to the White Sox forfeiting the second game and the decided death of Disco.
But, why all this for a genre of music? Did Disco suck that much? Why did Disco suck? Was it the banal 4-on-the-floor drumbeats, syncopated rhythm guitars, and falling strings? Was it Disco’s rising popularity thanks to the release of Saturday Night Fever two years prior? Or was it something else?
Let’s see what Disco is and maybe we can find some answers.
At its core, it’s dance music. It’s soul music. It’s Black music. Sure, many non-Black musicians have done it and some have done it well. Hell, even anthropomorphic cartoon characters joined in on the fun but it’s still undeniably Black music. It’s also music loved by members of the gay community. The freedom and decadence of the time translated into the music and those who participated in such freedom and decadence were galvanized by it. Disco catered to a demographic far different from those who listened to 70’s Rock music, specifically Rock music that surely lent itself to the identity of Straight Male Whiteness. Now, we’re getting somewhere.
Remember Rock music was at the top of the food chain during the mid-to-late 70’s. Now, here comes this “other” music dominating the charts so much so that the radio station where Steve Dahl once worked changed its Rock format to an all-Disco one to capitalize on the latter genre’s growing success. Imagine witnessing what is near and dear to you get replaced by something you don’t know or care about. It’s most likely a “what the fuck” feeling and not a good one. That’s how Steve Dahl must have felt, as we would soon find out. Though, Dahl may not have said it (aloud or at least in public) but I’m sure he and/or like-minded individuals asked themselves, “How could this Black/gay music replace that good ol’ (White) Rock and Roll?” Well, when you have a White guy with (pretty decent) Black dance moves on the big screen, something like that is bound to catch on.
Suddenly, musicians who were previously successful in other styles of music tried their hands at Disco. Everybody and their mamas were Discoing… literally. To be fair, a lot of that music was trash due to a flood of cheap assembly line attempts to cash in. But, Disco Demolition Night tells a tale of something more than a mere dislike for Disco music because the people at Comiskey Park that night weren’t just average baseball fans. They were mostly White guys looking for an excuse to act out and this was their chance to do so. This was Whiteness at its, for lack of a better word… best?
This music, Disco music, Black music, that lent itself to the identity of Blackness (and coincidentally homosexuality) had overshadowed music that was synonymous with Straight Male Whiteness and they weren’t having it. The effect of that night in Chicago was so grand, major record labels wanted nothing more to do with the genre. A victory was had. But, if you ask me, Disco shouldn’t have gone out like that.
Though I previously spoke on the wackness of Disco, not all of it sucked. There was some really good Disco music out there and I’m sure there would’ve been some more to come had it no been for that one fateful night. But, technically, the genre never died. It was just repackaged as House or EDM or whatever it’s being called nowadays. But back to my point…
On the surface, Steve Dahl’s antics were just a result of him being himself, a shock jock who loved Rock music. Beneath the surface was extreme pushback based on a perceived threat to one’s own identity as it relates to what’s dominant in pop culture. Of course, there were no lynchings or whippings as a result but that energy was in Comiskey Park that night and ready to attack. The victim? Not Black people but Black music. Disco music. So, if you say Disco sucks then what you’re really saying is Black music sucks and that says something about you.
Having said all that, I’ll end here and go back to my beat…