Disco Didn’t Actually Suck: Racism, Homophobia and Intersectionality in Music We’re Taught to Hate

December 2, 2020

One of my guilty pandemic pleasures (besides watching 90 Day Fiancé) has been making playlists on Spotify. I’ve made playlists that chart Prince’s album chronology and playlists loaded with songs about denim (“Forever in Blue Jeans”). I started doing month-based playlists, beginning with cuts from albums released in January, 1973. I was traipsing through 1979, month-by-month, reliving all the LPs I bought, borrowed or stole in my 15th year on earth. My top three favorite bands that year were, in order, The Who, Blondie, and The Police. It was the year of new wave.

It was also another year of disco.

While 1979 gave us The Cars, Gary Numan, and Nick Lowe, the radio was still dominated by dance tracks by Chic, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer. The summer radio of ’79 was an ongoing battle between “My Sharona” and “Ring My Bell.” I was deeply into my “Randy Ramone” phase by that point. Even though I camped out for tickets for the 1979 Kiss Dynasty tour, I had already sold my soul to punk rock. But whether you were a mod or a rocker, a Clash fan and/or a Ted Nugent fan, all guitar disciples could agree on one thing, disco sucked.

In 1979, I sported a t-shirt that said, “Disco is Dead, Rock is Rolling” that I ordered from the back of Rolling Stone magazine. I was full of theories about how musicians were losing gigs because clubs were hiring DJs instead of bands (even though I wouldn’t get my fake ID until 1980). I graffitied “Disco Sucks” on the bathroom stalls at Redan High School and dreamed of burning copies of Saturday Night Fever.

I wasn’t the only kid hating on disco in 1979. Chicago rock radio station WLUP organized a “Disco Demolition Night” between games at a White Sox doubleheader. Over 50,000 rock fans showed up with their kid sisters’ Sister Sledge albums. The plan was to blow up the albums on the field. The explosion caused a riot as the rock fans stormed the field and proceeded to destroy the stadium, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the cancelled game to the Detroit Tigers. I had heard about it next day and thought it was a glorious blow against the disco empire.

Looking back on that era from over 40 years later, there certainly was some super crappy music (Who let Elton John make a disco album?). There was also some crappy punk and metal and “arena rock” records. But a lot of those disco tracks are now on replay, like “Get Up to Get Down” by Brass Construction. I’ve even warmed up to 70s-era Bee Gees. It wasn’t the cock rock of Van Halen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexy. But the hatred of disco was vicious. The Chicago riot was just part of the disco backlash. Was this a just a fanatical devotion to “any guitar and any bass drum,” as The Jam sang, or something else?

I don’t doubt there was some real imbedded racism in the “Disco sucks” trend. Disco had its roots in black and Latin dance clubs in New York. Soul music became R&B, then became the most banal disco. Somehow Barry White went from make-out music to the Hustle, with actual dance steps. Early Saturday afternoons in 1979 spotlighted white couples on American Bandstand who were trying to mimic the steps of the black couples dancing on Soul Train later in the afternoon. White rock fans in ’79 could dig Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin channeling ancient blues cats, but somehow Chic’s “Le Freak” was too much. Dance music was about black and brown bodies moving in choreographed synchronicity while individualistic white bodies were either head banging or slam dancing.

But there was black music that was off limits to the anti-disco hate in 1979. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall LP, with it’s Quincy Jones horns workin’ day and night, was dynamic in the way that rock sought to blow your head off. Prince’s debut single, “I Wanna Be You Lover” was so provocative, it was punk. (I’ll never forget his performance on American Bandstand, sporting a very small tiger print Speedo and thinking the 70s were officially dead.) And there was this weird hippity hop music coming out of the Bronx. But rock fans would still rather blast AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” then sort out what “Rapper’s Delight” was all about.

There was also a healthy dose of homophobia reflected in disco hate. After all, those dance clubs in NYC that birthed the coked up disco scene were mostly gay clubs. Few things seemed gayer in 1979 than the Village People and dancing with your hands in the air. Real men kept their hands at waste level to play air guitar to Aerosmith. Working class boys, terrified of revealing any feminine attributes, were required to bash anything that wasn’t macho macho, man.

But there was plenty of gender-nonconforming in rock in 1979, from David Bowie (“Boys Keep Swinging”) to Queen’s Freddie Mercury (“Don’t Stop Me Now”).  The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” was a big ol’ southern gay dance party and Lou Reed was femming as Patti Smith was butching. The rednecks in my high school would harass me for liking “that fag music from England” (usually referring to Devo, who were from Ohio) which gave me the privilege of being gay-bashed without actually being gay. I was bonded the mythical urban queer (I imagined him/her walking into CBGB’s while “Walk on the Wild Side” played), but I still hated disco.

Best I can figure is the Disco Sucks crusade was an example of intersectionality. Both black and gay were devalued in 1979, but tolerated. Everyone was convinced Bowie was “queer” but Freddie Mercury was “straight” (figure that one out). But they knew how to rock. Bands with black members, like Thin Lizzy, Mother’s Finest, and the Doobie Brothers cranked the guitars above the bass. Black or gay could find a place in white boy culture. Black and gay could not. Disco was black and gay and that was a bridge too far. Play that funky queer music white boy. Or bash it.

The hatred was all contextual. Rock acts were allowed to release disco-ish records. (Kiss’ “I Was Made for Loving You,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Wings’ “Goodnight Tonight,” The Kinks “Superman,” and Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” to name a few.) But if the act had any connection to the dance club scene (think Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Night Life”) it was deemed “disco” and must be blown up at a baseball stadium. Disco sucks wasn’t really about the intersection of black and gay, it was the intersection of racism and homophobia.

I’ve missed out on a lot of great music because of learned bigotries. (Why didn’t anyone tell me that Mariachi music was 100% brilliant?) The 15-year-old me would have been musically richer and ethically deeper if I had been open to disco in 1979. It was a time of discovery but somehow small town culture stopped me. Two years later (at 17), I would be hanging out in Atlanta gay bars with the other misfit punk refugees from suburbia, but in 1979, anything without a power chord was a threat to my forming masculinity.

It’s been fun discovering these songs over the years. A lot of it is the worst culture human civilization has ever produced (Humanity should have cancelled for “Disco Duck” alone), but much of it is a joyous release. (Currently playing, “Beat of the Night” (1979) by Fever.) It didn’t all suck. Racism and homophobia suck. Shaking your groove thing will set you free.

We’re all intersectional (just some more than others).

July 6, 2018

I mentioned that I was developing a workshop on intersectionality on Twitter and one of my social justice-minded followers replied, “Why do you see yourself as a person who is qualified to lead a workshop about it?” The implication was, what would a straight white male know about intersecting forms of oppression? I deleted my snarky defensive reply that I almost posted, reigned in my white fragility, and worked her valid question into my workshop.

Intersectionality refers to the way forms of oppression can combine for people to create obstacles that are missed if we just look at things like racism or agism or homophobia in isolation. I’ve been lecturing about it for 20 years but recently learned it has an illustrative origin, which, like many important theoretical ideas, was born on a factory floor.

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Kimberly Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor was reviewing a discrimination suit filed against General Motors by a group of black women. GM had the case dismissed because they argued that they actively hired both African-Americans and women so, you know, they were good. But Crenshaw learned that the African-Americans that were hired were black men on the factory floor and the women that were hired were white women in the clerical pool. Attempts to remedy racism and sexism didn’t help black women. Their experience was something else, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Sometimes I will ask my students to describe the experience of Asian-Americans. It’s a prompt that is not meant to have a response. There is no Asian-American experience because there is no monolithic Asian experience in America. To equate the lived experience of a fourth generation Chinese-American to someone whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s or a Muslim from Malaysia or a Shinto from northern Japan is just silly. There are too many important variables to conceive of for even one unifying theme. Throw gender into the mix and it gets even more complex.

Speaking of, the roots of this idea were in the 2nd wave feminist movement when it became clear that “feminist issues” were really just the issues of middle-class white women who wanted to take on sexual harrasment in the workplace and the empty promises associated with suburban housewife drudgery. When women of color said, “Hey, we want to talk about our experiences, too, so we need to discuss racism!” the core (white) feminists said, “No, this is about sexism not racism. That meeting is down the hall.” This led scholar bell hooks to write the founding text of the issue in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In it she points out the convergence of racism and sexism was a key weapon of the slave traders to further devalue black women and persists to this day.

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Intersectionality has all kinds of dimensions beyond race and gender. Class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration experience, and many other measures add to the mix. Think of how a poor white male experiences white privilege or masculinity differently than a rich white male. Is a gay person with a physical disability going to experience their sexuality the same way as a non-disabled gay person? I can tell you that an undocumented immigrant who is white (like the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America) have it a hell of a lot easier than the undocumented people who are brown. Think of it as a complex Venn diagram where each intersection produces something unique, like the varied ingredients of a smoothie. And typically that smoothie tastes like multiple forms of oppression.

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There’s a lot of blowback on the topic, mostly from white men. Just put “intersectionality” into a YouTube search and see the dumb videos dedicated to “debunking” the actual experiences of others. They scream “Identity politics!” which is a common refrain among those trying to keep the playing field uneven and privileging themselves. Intersectional thinking is actually the opposite of identity politics. It recognizes what is unique about each of our struggles. A first-generation South Asian immigrant who is also Muslim, female, and gay is not served by being put into just one demographic box and should not have to pick any single identity. (“On Mondays I’m an immigrant. Tuesdays are gay days…)

The reason this matters is that marginalized people who have these intersections are even more marginalized because of them. People want to be seen and heard not pushed into the shadows even further. I’m doing these workshops because this has a real impact in the workplace. One study found that people who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are three times more likely to say they are proud to work at the company or agency and more than four times likely to say they feel empowered to do their best work. Being intersectional is good for business! That should get straight-white-male capitalist’s attention.

It’s easy for straight-white-males to dismiss this important issue. What a hassle to have to learn all these new feminist terms, right? I mean, it doesn’t affect them. Or does it? Good news, fellas, everyone is intersectional. Oppression intersect but so do privileges AND oppressions and privileges.

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In this workshop I used myself as example of the intersection of three identities; white, male, and Southern. As a child I learned being a southerner was devalued and did my best to lose any hint of a southern accent. (If you want to hear it, buy me a shot of Jack Daniels.) My whiteness intersects with my Southernness – Southern whites are supposed to be racist and pine for “Dixie.” My maleness also intersects with my Southernness – Southern men learn violence and anti-intellectual posturing at an early age. So you can imagine the learned identity when you put all three together. And that is my struggle that a white male from Oregon might not see.

We’re working at the next level of anti-racism and bigotry here. This isn’t about segregated schools and lunch counters. When we get to addressing micro-aggressions, implicit bias, privilege, and intersectionality, we’re making real progress. There will be the usual pushback from those who have a vested interest in not making equity a reality (“Hey, they had Obama for eight years!”), but I think even those folks can be brought into the conversation. When people are allowed to exist in their own skin, as complicated as it might be, everyone is happier.

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