Derived from the French discotheque, disco refers not only to a musical style but to a unique brand of dance-club decor, a sexy-synthetic manner of dress, a style of dance, and an attitude toward sexual promiscuity and night life, all of which came together during the 1970s as "disco," one of the most glitzy and celebrated fads in American popular cultural history. Between 1975 and 1979, the established sensibilities of rock and pop, which emphasized sincerity, emotion, and rebellion, gave way to the enchantment of dance floor rhythms, which colonized popular imagination as an alluring dream-scape of pleasure and sexual utopia. In disco, the boundary between commercial fabrication and real experience became blurred. Disco ushered in a new post-1960s concept of hedonistic weekends, holidays, and exciting after-hours activity that was open to anyone with a reasonable income, a basic sense of rhythm and a good body. However, for all its fashionable accouterments, what lay at the essential heart of the disco craze was the music. Characterized by an insistently repetitive base and a hypnotic beat, overlaid with teasing, sexy vocals, it captivated and mesmerized its adherents.
Though psychedelic dance bars had experimented with combinations of dance, music, and lighting since the 1960s ("oil wheels" and "sound-to-light" systems), it was during the 1970s that the technological, musical, and fashion elements that define the culture of the dance club were refined and popularized. In the early 1970s discos began expanding their equipment to include a wider array of musical and visual props. The "mirror ball," which could fragment a white spotlight into a million rotating dots, became the symbol of the new disco, along with synchronized lights that were matched to the bass track of a record. Later, with the appearance of the smoke machine and dry ice, came the "pin spot" light, which could stab through a cloud of smoke to cast an illuminated shaft across a darkened room. Throughout the 1970s, commercial dance clubs sprang up across the country, ranging from fashionable and exclusive big city venues like New York's Studio 54, to more modest hotel discos and revamped bars and clubs. The larger venues included advanced lighting and music systems controlled by a disc jockey, or DJ, who lorded over the collective euphoria from an elevated booth, cajoling the crowd to "get down and boogie." Disco fashions highlighted the tight fit, high heels, platforms, and the funky "gentleman's" three-piece suits, and displayed an unabashed preference for polyester.
Pop music had always been danceable and flamboyant, but what set disco apart was that it was not only music for dancing, but also music about dancing. The disco beat was the anthem of the dancers, the disco floor a wonderland of sexual promise where anything might happen, providing the perfect environment to indulge the pursuit of one's fantasy. Unlike the "be-ins," the pot parties, and other escapades favored by hippies, disco promised an experience of the exotic that could be easily slotted into a well ordered working week and coordinated with a regular pattern of one night stands. Film titles such as Thank God It's Friday and Saturday Night Fever reflected the compartmentalized nature of this package-tour utopia. Though disco's dreamland of sexual fulfillment is often remembered as the longing of the heterosexual male libido, the real origins of disco's sexual imagery lie in the gay club scene of New York and San Francisco, where its camp atmosphere of sexual reverie was first born. This fact was largely obscured from disco's audiences at the time. With hindsight, it is astonishing that middle-class, heterosexual listeners were oblivious to the homo-erotic suggestions that permeate the songs of such widely accepted groups as The Village People—songs such as "Macho Man," "In the Navy," and "YMCA." As it matured, disco sanitized and commercialized itself and, at its peak, it was targeted at an age group too young to be admitted to a real dance club, let alone have any clue as to what separated gay from straight dance culture.
Disco's real ground zero, however, was not the concert hall or even the dance floor, but the AM radio dial. Mainstream radio started playing disco music in the mid-1970s, and by December 1978, 200 disco-only formats aired across the country. Six months later, the number had increased by a further 50. In 1974 and 1975 respectively, George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby" and Van McCoy's "The Hustle" introduced the sounds of disco to AM radio, though it was a few years before artists such as Kool & The Gang, Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, KC and The Sunshine Band, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, and the Village People rode the wave of disco enthusiasm. By the time disco dominated the airwaves in 1979, even Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones were among those who had hopped onto the bandwagon.
No group stands out as more emblematic of the period than the Bee Gees, who began the 1970s as a British-Australian pop phenomenon with moderate sales, and made a sensational break through on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. The film, which made a star of John Travolta, focused on a working-class youth who escapes the mundane reality of life by becoming a demi-god of the local disco scene. The soundtrack was originally released as a double LP in 1977, becoming the industry's biggest selling soundtrack album and producing ten singles hits from its 17 tracks, of which "How Deep Is Your Love," "Stayin' Alive," and "Night Fever" dominated the pop charts in 1977 and 1978. The famous image of Travolta, wearing a white polyester suit, his pelvis thrust forward and his finger raised skyward against a background of disco lights, came to define the decade, an emblem of disco's garish eroticism. The Bee Gees, whose thumping, squealing ballads of sexual enterprise saturated the film, typified disco music for the remainder of the decade. Ironically, both Travolta and the Bee Gees later fell victim to the fickleness of fads and fashion, and became easy objects of ridicule for some years to come.
By the end of 1979, disco's celebration of the fanciful and the fake was beginning to wear thin. After a stream of "one-hit wonders," disco seemed to be more the product of producers and promoters than of the artists themselves. One of the problems was that disco music seemed to lack talented performing musicians: electronically manipulated sounds replaced the bass, drums and guitar that had typified rock, and in live performances disco stars came to rely increasingly on recorded tracks and off-stage musical support. The Village People, largely a stage act, kept back-up singers entirely out of view of the audience. More than this, disco proved notoriously adaptable to a variety of commercial marketing devices. A record called Hooked on Classics, whose cover featured a Mozart-like character mimicking Travolta's famous pose from Saturday Night Fever, mixed well-known classical music hits to a disco beat. Novelty songs like "disco duck" climbed the AM charts, and even the theme from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was re-recorded as a disco hit.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about disco was its strange demise and long disgrace. Its commercialism, its ersatz sexuality and its reliance on radio to reach an average music consumer—rather than record sales to reach a "fan" market of countercultural listeners—seemed to violate everything rock stood for, and provoked a powerful backlash from fans of "real" rock. Hostility came to a head in 1979 when a "Disco Demolition Derby" was organized by radio DJ Steve Dahl at a baseball game at Detroit's Tiger Stadium. Anti-disco fans burned more than 100,000 albums, hoisted "disco sucks" banners, and rioted, forcing the cancellation of the game. The precise nature of this backlash remains unclear: Dahl's event, which has since been compared to fascist book burnings, may have been homophobic, sexist or racist, or it may have expressed a widespread disappointment with the increasing commercialism of a supposedly rebellious musical form. It was most likely a combination of these factors, but, whatever the case, not since John Lennon's fateful remark about the Beatles being more famous than Christ had there been such a widespread consumer revolt against the music industry. The reaction against disco's commercialism, cheap sentiment, and faux sexuality fueled the emergence of other more "authentic" expressions of youth culture, punk and heavy metal. By 1981 the disco boom was bust.
Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York, William Morrow, 1997.
Disco is a form of dance incorporating various aspects from several dance styles, including swing, samba, mambo, cha cha, merengue, fox trot, and tango. It became an American dance sensation in the 1970s and was glorified in the 1977 box office smash Saturday Night Fever. A disco, short for “discotheque,” is also the place, usually a club, where people go to dance.
In the 1950s, a time of transition in the history of music, nightclubs began hiring DJs to spin records. It was a cheaper alternative to hiring live bands, and the music could be more varied and current. The first disco club opened in Paris, France. Called the Peppermint Lounge, it would spur the establishment of other discos over the next couple decades. The first American disco, the Whisky a Go Go, opened on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, California , in January 1964.
All the rage
A dance called the Twist took the nightclub scene by storm in the 1960s. New York City opened its own Peppermint Lounge and hired DJs. Many clubs followed suit, adding dancers in cages to the entertainment stage. In Florida, home to a large Cuban/Latin population, dancers began experimenting with salsa and swing. Thanks to the invention of the synthesizer, 1968 marked the beginning of electronic music. Cuban dancers used this new music to create disco. By 1970, disco swing was being danced all over the United States.
As disco's popularity increased, nightclubs became fancier and more tech savvy. The sexual revolution of the 1960s contributed to an image of disco as celebrating sexual freedom and drug use, with a focus on urban nightlife. The most sophisticated disco to crop up was New York City's Studio 54. Opening its doors in April 1977, Studio 54 was unlike many other discos, which were mere warehouses. With its lavish decorations and extravagant dance floor, it became the place for celebrities and trendy New Yorkers alike to dance until the early morning hours in the late 1970s, and it remained a hot spot until it closed in 1986.
In 1977, actor John Travolta (1954–) starred in a movie that would become a cultural icon. Saturday Night Fever heavily influenced and popularized the disco culture. Travolta played a poor urban youth who escaped the drudgery of daily life by visiting the disco, where he honed his dance skills. The film's music was written and performed by the Bee Gees, a pop trio from Australia who gained a second career through the sounds of disco.
Other influential and notable disco-era musicians include Donna Summer (1948–), Chic, Gloria Gaynor (c. 1949–), Patti LaBelle (1944–), KC and the Sunshine Band, and the Village People. One of the earliest disco songs to hit the number one spot on music charts was the Hues Corporation's 1974 smash single “Rock the Boat.” Other memorable tunes include “Le Freak” (Chic), “Fly Robin Fly” (Silver Convention), “I Will Survive” (Gaynor), and “That's the Way (I Like It)” (KC and the Sunshine Band).
As is often the case, musicians who find stardom in music trends often fail to maintain their success. Groups such as the Village People, Chic, and Silver Convention had records at the top of the charts throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. But as the disco sound morphed into hip hop, techno pop, and the “dance sound,” many disco-era stars were forgotten by all but die-hard fans unless they were able to cross genres. Earth, Wind & Fire and Chaka Khan (1953–) were two artists who successfully mixed their disco sound with funk and rhythm and blues. This versatility gave them staying power, and they continued to sell records even after disco had died.
End of an era
Disco reached its peak in 1978, and in June of that year, New York declared a National Disco Week. It seemed as though the entire entertainment industry had been taken over by disco. Weekly television shows such as Soul Train and Dance Fever attracted millions of viewers. Fashions changed to reflect the sexy attitude of disco as women wore fluttery, clingy, short dresses and men wore wide-collar button-down shirts, polyester suits, and gold jewelry.
Not everyone was enamored of the disco craze. There can often be a general cultural backlash to a style that permeates every part of society. The influence of disco was everywhere—in movies, clothes, and music—and many felt overwhelmed. With the growth of a harder rock and roll sound and image, many embraced this new style and rebelled against anything disco, often burning disco records and mocking disco on the radio and in rock songs. Also helping usher out the disco era was the resurgence of country music and style as shown in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy, which starred John Travolta as a dancing cowboy, excitable and sincere. Tight polyester pants were replaced with tight blue jeans, and what was once recognized as disco swing suddenly but subtly became rodeo swing, or cowboy swing. These country-western dances were easier to master, so even nondancers who had felt left out in the 1970s could now participate. The combination of these factors led to the demise of disco.
In the twenty-first century, those too young to have experienced the disco era often see it as strange and somewhat dated, while those who took part in it often look back on the era with nostalgia. Comedians and television sitcoms may make fun of disco, its styles and its dancers, but there is no denying that disco left its mark on the history of American music and social style.
Disco holds the distinction of being one of the most popular, and most hated, musical styles in the history of pop music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3). When it emerged in dance clubs in the middle of the 1970s, many people could not resist the steady pulse of its beat, and they hit the dance floors in droves. More than just a new kind of music, disco created new styles in fashion and dancing (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1), and it defined the glitzy nightclub life popular in American cities, especially at such clubs as Studio 54 in New York City, in the 1970s. Although many embraced the positive messages in the music, others feared that disco's focus on dancing, and not on the key rock themes of rebellion and personal expression, signaled the death of pop and rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) music.
The sound of disco emerged in the mid-1970s in such hits as "The Hustle" (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4) by Van McCoy (c. 1940–1979). "The Hustle," propelled by a prominent bass guitar and a steady drum beat, combined elements of soul and funk (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4) music. As the sound caught on, both on radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) and in dance clubs, disco became more prominent. That sound went hand in hand with changes in dance clubs. Many clubs added lights that flashed along with the beat of the music, mirror balls that sent spots of light spinning around the room, and smoke machines that added a dramatic effect. Disc jockeys (see entry under 1950s— Music in volume 3) controlled the music and worked the crowds
into a frenzy. Groups such as Kool and the Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band, and The Village People, and individual artists such as Donna Summer (1948–), Gloria Gaynor (1949–), and Alicia Bridges (1953–) had numerous disco hits. Disco's biggest success came with the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever (see entry under 1970s—Film and Theater in volume 4), starring John Travolta (1954–), and featuring disco music by the Bee Gees and other groups. The Bee Gees had huge hits with "Stayin' Alive," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "Night Fever." The Saturday Night Fever songs seemed to be on every radio station in 1977.
Saturday Night Fever was disco's high point, but by 1979 the sound began to grow tiresome in many people's minds. Classic rock sounds began to push more disco music off the airwaves, and new forms of rock music, punk (see entry under 1970s— Music in volume 4) and new wave, reenergized the original spirit of rock music that many felt disco ignored. Although disco's popularity was at its height between 1975 and 1979, it continues to enjoy a solid fan base in dance clubs worldwide, a testament to people's love of a good dance beat and a good time.
For More Information
Andriote, John-Manuel. Hot Stuff : A Brief History of Disco. New York: Harper, 2001.
Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York: William Morrow, 1997.
Jones, Alan, and Jussi Kantonen. Saturday Night Forever: The Story of Disco. New York: A. Cappella Books, 2000.
Lopez, Bernard F. Disco Music.com.http://www.discomusic.com/ (accessed March 26, 2002).
Miller, Jim, ed. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1980.
During the 1970s rock music dance clubs became extremely popular. Young people, wearing polyester bell-bottoms and platform shoes, lined up outside popular clubs for a chance to enter dance floors lit with bright, pulsing lights and dance to recorded music with a pounding beat. Disco was the word that described the clubs, the music, the dance style, and the fashions that grew out of the scene.
A discotheque is a dance club that plays music on records, or discs, rather than having a live band. Discotheques got their start in Paris, France, during World War II (1939–45), when France was occupied by the German army. In an effort to control rebellious young people, the Germans made popular jazz music illegal, so many French youth gathered in secret clubs to dance to recordings of the music they loved. One of these clubs was called La Discotheque. In the 1960s Paris was also the home of another internationally famous discotheque, the Whiskey a Go-Go, which loaned its name to go-go boots, short, white boots popular among mod women, and go-go dancers, who performed in nightclubs.
Disco dancing gained tremendous popularity during the 1970s. Young people of the times often felt overwhelmed by the social problems around them, and they sought a more carefree lifestyle. Dancing became a favorite leisure activity. Unlike the dance clubs of previous times, disco dance clubs attracted people of mixed racial and sexual orientations. People of color and whites, gays and heterosexuals alike danced to driving rhythms, often created by drum machines. Disc jockeys, or deejays, mixed the records on two or three turntables to make each song last as long as possible. As the popularity of the dancing clubs grew, major record companies began to seek out and record disco artists, even releasing long-playing records to duplicate the deejays' long versions of songs.
In 1977 the film Saturday Night Fever was released, starring John Travolta (1954–) as a young working-class man who seeks love and success on the disco dance floor. The popularity of the movie Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack with songs by the Bee Gees helped spread the disco craze around the world.
When disco grew to mass popularity by the late 1970s, those who wanted to be hip turned to new forms of music. An anti-disco craze began at the same time, with rock radio stations leading a "Disco sucks!" campaign. By the early 1980s most experts declared that disco was dead. Though many people lump disco in with bell-bottoms and leisure suits as another tasteless 1970s fad, disco has survived into the twenty-first century in different forms of driving dance music such as electronica, techno, house, and Latin freestyle.
disco, style of popular music that flourished during the 1970s. Originating in the United States, it evolved mainly from funk, soul, and salsa and became popular worldwide. Characterized by a heavy, thumping rock and roll beat, a soulful singing style, and surging orchestrations, disco was primarily dance music, and it became the dominant musical feature of clubs throughout the country as the 1970s progressed. The music was particularly popular in the gay community, where its songs became anthems for new freedom and visibility. The first disco song is said to have been recorded in 1972; the style's heyday ran from 1973 to 1979. Among the major stars of disco were Abba, the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor, Labelle, Sister Sledge, Donna Summer, and the Village People. In the 1980s a strong counterreaction emerged to disco and its dominance of the pop music scene, but the style has exerted a lasting influence on pop music.
See studies by A. H. Goldman (1978), E. Haas (1994), J.-M. Andriote (2001), A. Jones and J. Kantonen (2001), A. Echols (2010), and P. Shapiro (2010).
DISCO refers to both the dance music and the nightclubs that became popular after the 1977 release of the movie Saturday Night Fever. The Bee Gees, Village People, Donna Summer, and Gloria Gaynor were among the top music acts whose recordings were danced to in discos (or discothèques). The most important American disco was Studio 54 in New York, which attracted a glamorous clientele that included movie stars, artists, and "Eurotrash" and spawned a generation whose drug of choice was cocaine. Disco also incorporated such fashions as platform shoes and white leisure suits for men.
Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York: William Morrow, 1997.
See alsoMusic, Popular ; Nightclubs .
dis·co / ˈdiskō/ inf. • n. (pl. -cos) 1. (also di·sco·theque / ˈdiskōˌtek/ ) a club or party at which people dance to pop music. 2. pop music intended mainly for dancing to at discos, typically soul-influenced and melodic with a regular bass beat and popular particularly in the late 1970s. • v. (-coes, -coed) [intr.] attend or dance at such a club or party: for the next three hours he discoed nonstop.