Thirty years after the "death" of disco, 1970's dance music has made a comeback.
Gay author John-Manuel Andriote, who followed his "serious" history of AIDS (Victory Deferred) with the more cheerful (and readable) Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco, called disco:
the Hot New-Old Thing.... Almost everywhere you looked at the start of the new millennium, twentysomethings were running around in seventies clothes. Oldsters over thirty and youngsters under twenty alike were crowding into dance clubs for 'retro' nights to hear disco music. ... Disco is still tremendously popular throughout the world among gay and straight and every hue of the human rainbow, and vast quantities of disco-style music are sold each year.
In short, people who get down tonight (or any night) are no longer ashamed to admit it.
At first, interest in dance music was limited to queers, Blacks, Latinos and other minorities. Then, all of a sudden, straight white Baby Boomers put on their boogie shoes and came out of the disco closet.
Proof of this revival was a recent PBS Special with a long but very descriptive title: "KC and The Sunshine Band presents - My Music: Get Down Tonight - The Disco Explosion." Hosted by KC (Harry W. Casey) himself, this was the latest in a series of PBS oldies concerts produced by the cuddly T. J. Lubinsky. Taped at the Asbury Park Convention Hall in New Jersey, "The Disco Explosion" sounded its funky horn for a sold-out studio audience that wouldn't stay in their seats. But while watching 50-year olds in polyester pants and platform shoes shake, shake, shake their booties was a sight not to be missed (or believed), it was the presence of so many bonafide queens (and kings) of clubs that made "The Disco Explosion" just the way (uh, uh) we like it. Artists like "the First Ladies of Chic" (Norma Jean Wright and Lucy Marti), Heatwave, Peaches and Herb, Leo Sayer, A Taste of Honey, The Trammps, Frankie Valli, The Village People, Martha Wash (of The Weather Girls) and Wild Cherry kept it coming love for well over an hour. Even better is the fact that the show raised more than two tons of much-needed money for PBS, proof that disco is still alive and profitable.
Even the intelligentsia got wind of disco and its cultural significance. A couple of years ago the Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center gave us "Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights," the first major exhibit "to explore the historical context and continuing influence of the rich, complex world of disco as it has affected the musical, social, cultural (and polyester) fabric of America and the world." The disco exhibit's New York run followed an equally successful run in Seattle. It featured more than 200 artifacts from the disco era, as well as a dozen video monitors and listening stations where disco freaks enjoyed everything from Manu Dibango's trend-setting disk "Soul Makossa" (1974) to the cringe-worthy Ethel Merman Disco Album. They admired the drums that Earl Young used to invent the four-on-the-floor disco beat, some of the sound equipment that gave birth to the disco mix, tons of 12-inch singles, and "the suit" - the white suit worn by John Travolta in the film Saturday Night Fever (though the sight of Travolta wearing black bikini briefs left a more indelible impression in my mind).
Another sign of disco's new-found legitimacy as an art form was the creation in 2004 of a Dance Music Hall of Fame. According to the Hall's Web site,
The Dance Music Hall of Fame will recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution and development of dance music and will celebrate the history and significance of dance music. Artists and others that helped shape the dance music industry become eligible for induction 25 years after their first contribution or record release. Criteria include the influence and significance of the nominee's contributions to the development and perpetuation of dance music.
Though disco Web sites have featured "halls of fame" for some time now, the creation of the Dance Music Hall of Fame was proof positive that disco, like country music and rock and roll before it, had come of age. Alas, the Dance Music Hall of Fame was not long in this world, a victim of "financial differences among its Board members." But while it lasted the Hall honored such disco icons as the Bee Gees, Chic, Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, Sylvester and Barry White.
As a boogie man who never gave it up or lost his youthful love for disco, I can only say that it's about time that 1970's dance music got the r-e-s-p-e-c-t that it deserves. After all, as Andriote put it, "disco music...still moves us and we still listen to it because it speaks to two of our deepest, most primal needs: the need to play and the need to dance. Disco taught us to take those needs seriously." "Disco," wrote critic Marty Angelo, "the long neglected child of the '70s has reared its head again, but this time [there is] no one around to burn it, abuse it, or call it names. It is there to bask in all its glory and eloquence, for the entire world to behold."
In the words of Gloria Gaynor, disco will survive.
Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and dancing fool who gave up the night life for married bliss in the suburbs but still listens to dance music when the mood is right. Reach him at email@example.com.