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Disco’s Deeper Meaning

February 18, 2011 – Show Note: Today we’re rebroadcasting this show. Join the conversation with comments in the comment section below – but no calls please! Many thanks.

Singer Donna Summer in 1979. (AP)

They say disco is coming back, with Lady Gaga and Kesha up on the charts. For those who lived through the first disco fever, that may mean a cringe, or a smile.

Disco was a love it or hate it affair. But everybody danced.

Historian Alice Echols says it was more than glitter balls. Disco, she argues, opened up American culture for gays, for blacks, for women.

This hour, On Point: we’re looking back at disco with Echols and disco queen, Donna Summer.


Alice Echols, professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. Her new book is “Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture.”

Donna Summer, the 5-time Grammy Award-winning “Queen of Disco.”  Her latest album is “Crayons.”

Web Extras:

Read an excerpt from “Hot Stuff.”

See Alice’s playlist of dance-floor favorites.

Hear some of Donna Summer’s new work.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Todd

    Disco? Uhmm, couldn’t we just do Tiger Woods again.

  • whodoo

    ok, so Todd is officially excused from listening.

    For the rest of us who enjoy music and its history:

    I am reading the book excerpt. What gave the author the idea that the OJ’s “Backstabbers” was “chronicled white America’s “broken promises” and black America’s “faded hopes.”? The lyrics clearly paint the “backstabbers” as the unscrupulous guys out to “out to get your lady”. Otherwise, the chapter is interesting!

  • jeffe

    A show on Frank Zappa would have been better.
    Like him I hated disco and still do.

    What did disco do? It gave us wide lapels and bad hair.
    Deeper meaning? Hmmm, since when does a commercial music fad have any deeper meaning than money.
    Tom are you a dancing fool?

    Frank Zappa

    Disco boy

    Zappa on SNL 1978
    Dancin’ Fool…


    Dancin’ Fool…one more time.

  • frank

    Donna Summer is and will always be the ultimate diva, talented, beautiful, and so many great songs!! See her in concert and you will be blown away. She sounds better today than any other time in her career!! Can’t wait to hear some new music!

  • Mark

    I typically like your posts, but I don’t agree with you on this particular one.

    I don’t think disco was a fad. It was the predecessor of dance culture and electronic music, which since the mid to late 80′s has absolutely thrived. Dance culture is a giant part of popular culture, and it wouldn’t have been so were it not for the disco era.

    Disco gave rise to the Club Kid scene in NYC in the late eighties, early nineties, which gave rise to rave culture, and so on. Now we’re hearing this music in the pharmacy when we’re getting our prescriptions filled.

    It provided an environment for gays in the 70′s to be out and proud of who they were.

    Furthermore, people like to have a good time, and that’s what that scene was. I have a hunch that the millions who burned records and denounced were also the kids in high school who were too afraid to get out on the dance floor at their school dances. It sort of takes confidence to go out and dance in front of others.

    I could go on (drug culture, club culture, gay culture, fashion, etc.).

    You may not have liked the disco scene, but you can’t deny that it had a profound impact on our culture, even to this day.

    Now Work!

  • Mark

    That is not to say that I’m not a huge Zappa fan.

  • http://bruceguindon.com bruce guindon

    DISCO was a joke while Music got its act together the idea that disco had any impact is only valid if your trying to sell a book. Thanks for keeping the news fluff going

  • Jo Barstow

    This week there were two college basketball tournament finals, men and women.
    You mentioned the men but omitted the women’s game, which included breaking a couple of records: 1. the bad: lowest first half scores for a championship game, Stanford 20 to UConn 12, about the worst half anyone has ever seen; the good: UConn’s redemption in the second half to win by 7 points (having led by much more than that during the half and holding Stanford to only 33 points) 53-47. This was their 78th consecutive win and the first women’s team to win back to back championships.
    Doesn’t all this merit at least a mention?

  • M.J. Young

    As much as some might want to disparage disco, the influence of disco in disseminating across genres is undeniable. One need look no further than Queen’s 1980 hit, “Another One Bites the Dust,” to pick up on the trickling potency of disco’s steady rhythms into rock and beyond.

  • Dee

    Donna Summer has a beautiful voice; Disco is just one of the genres she excels at. I enjoy her music!

  • http://www.,lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Todd ~

    You didn’t live during the ’70s with Saturday Night Fever. and the greatest decade in American history. Pity.

  • Thomas

    Disco gave voice to many female “rockers,” I don’t think you see Blondie, or The Blackhearts without Donna Summer and others briging the gap between them and The Ronettes….

    Springsteen even tangled in that world being heavily influenced by girl band’s of the 60′s and then writing songs for Summer and the Pointer Sisters, etc.

  • Minky

    The intro disco music to the show just got me moving. I was born in late 70s and did not live through the disco period but the music, purely on its own, gets my body moving. I am not ashamed to say I like the music for what it is. Purely fun and infectious!

  • Adam S.

    Disco’s clear legacy is House music, with has owned the programs of dancefloors, worldwide, for 20 years. Only now, as the more abstract sounds that are coming out of London in the form of Dubstep, is House music’s pre-eminence being challenged.

  • Todd

    Disco is surpassed only by rap/hip-hop in aural repulsiveness—ear poison.

  • Peter Lake

    I worked at Casablanca, with Donna, in the heyday of disco and it’s certain that without her and Neil Bogart and Bill Wardlow at Billboard there would have been no disco.
    She’s one of the great artists of our time and Neil was one of the great promoters.

  • Tom

    I love hearing the author say “funk” or “funky”. It’s cracking me up. She was a DJ?

  • JacFlasche

    Disco was such a relief for all the superficial people who had to keep under their rocks during the sixties when the truth about their concerns would have been seen for what they are:trivial, self-centered, and ignorant or worthwhile values. Part of the slapback of against the real liberation of the sixties.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Somebody please name that piece (beige music) dissed by James Brown and giggled at by Tom and guest. (Might have been by Percy Faith … need the title for reference in one of my short stories Please, if you can).

  • Tim Lemire

    One of the main things I like about Disco is that it captured and expressed what early ’50s rock and roll did: “Let’s dance, let’s have a good time, and life is great.” As for the accusation that Disco lyrics are vapid and “meaningless,” I submit: Wop Bop A-loo Bop Ba-Lop Bam Boom!

  • Maura S.

    GREAT TOPIC! And yeah, for a Friday! I moved from a Dry County in Tennessee where I attended college to northern New Jersey in 1978. It was a great, eye-opening experience to go to NY discos, dance with other women, and with the Italian studs bearing their gold horn pendants around necks with shirts open to the navel, etc. etc.

    The best memory of that time was going out for halloween dressed as a nun. Needless to say, I was the most in-demand cookie on the dance floor making lots of schoolboys dreams come true!

  • peter thom

    Though appreciation of art boils down to subjective takes, I would opine that to describe almost any representative disco song as more sophisticated than the music of James Brown is risable. Compared to the complexity of the bass and drum interaction heard on the James Brown cut you played, the relentless “four on the floor” thumping of a standard disco song is a bore. The string arrangements on Barry White songs don’t hold a candle to Brown’s horn arrangements. If you poll musicians I would bet most would say disco is the antithesis of sophistication. Black music had been sophisticated for half a century before disco began. Armstrong through Duke. Disco was a big step down from their brand of sophistication.

  • Todd

    “Todd ~
    You didn’t live during the ’70s with Saturday Night Fever. and the greatest decade in American history. Pity.”
    Posted by F. William Bracy

    @ F.W.B.
    You didn’t either; because it wasn’t.

    Because I DID live during the ’70s, I know it was one of the worst decades in American history. And by the way “Deputy Fife,” I can also remember the ’60s. Your assumptions are a pity.

  • BJ Larson

    I was into disco in highschool, never had a clue that the Village People were gay!! But then in college, got it, and had a blast… Also, you have to mention amil nitrate… Poppers? Big part of the disco scene. I am fortunate to survive it….

  • Deb qureshi

    I feel disco music brought all cultures together. No one cared who sang the song, just that the song was a great tune to dance and sing along with.

  • Teddy Schultz

    I was not into disco- way too cool, but when I went overseas (china) in 1985, I was shocked to see how popular with African students- we all danced to disco music at parties, and the foreign students were happy with music they recognized and loved, and the American and British teachers got up and danced, smirking the whole time… Disco music is still well regarded amoung those of a certain age in North Africa…

  • http://outpatientclinic.blogspot.com/?zx=61507ee5f16bd092 Skip Shea

    I owned a few albums, Donna Summer, Kool and the Gang, etc but was an angry youth and listened to punk like The Clash.
    I was recently at a wrap party for the Massachusetts Film Office and heard a band play “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” by McFadden & Whiteheada nd saw the place erupt on the dance floor!
    And thought, how the hell did I miss this?
    It looked like so much fun! I’m sorry I missed out on it.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/ftitzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Yeah, rap (crap) grows out of disco, alright. It’s just that rapcrap grows out of a movement called, “musical talent not required.”

  • http://onpoint artur robidoux

    Disco has been a big part of our family life.Tom Mouton is my brother who had great success in Disco.His love for music has continued and is still working in the business

  • Jeanne Lambkin

    Every generation thinks their “coming of age” music is special but Donna Summer was THE voice for young women. I feel sorry for all the girls who have had to find their way to the Britney’s, Miley’s and everyone else who isn’t Donna!
    She’s awesome – thanks for the discussion!

  • Terri

    I’m just back from my packed Zumba fitness class. (Latin/hip hop/fitness combo). Many of us suburban housewives at class where shaking it to Donna Summers hits in the 70s. It is so fun to dance and move, I like old Funk better than a lot of disco but I owned as many Donna Sommer’s hits as my babysitting $ would afford!

  • http://www.fireiceglass.com Deborah Goldhaft

    I was disco dancing in 1973-74 in NYC at a precursor to studio 54 called Le Jardin. Disco was cutting edge at that time in NY and San francisco, and was gay and black mostly. I was a woman dating and dancing with a man who had just come out as “bisexual” which at the time was how a lot of gay men were coming out. We danced the hustle, to music like Barry White and the Spinners way before it became more commercial and mainstream. By 1977 I had moved to London and was into Punk Rock, wich came into the US in the early 80′s. Mainstream disco was the direct result of the gay and black communities being cutting edge. As a woman in the early 70′s it was a whole new thing to be overt sexually on the dance floor instead of being a go go dancer. What fun it was! I miss it.

  • Dana Franchitto

    “Deeper Meaning” of disco? Get real. Disco was nothing but ready-made just add water pop. If I were Black, I’d be insulted by the associatins of disco with being Black. Disco is mere wonder bread compared with the whole grains of Rythmn and Blues or genuine Funk. Disco is counterfeit compared to them and it is not to the credit of “ON Point” to waste an hour on it.

  • frances

    Tom, you keep mentioning Lady Gaga and Ke$ha, but not the hipster disco movement that’s been going for a couple years like MGMT and Hercules and Love Affair. Can you guest talk about that scene?

  • Tim

    I grew up in Ann Arbor and went to U of M in the late 70s. My friends and I loved getting away from campus and dancing at the Rubaiyat. My boyfriend and I were a biracial couple who felt comfortable at the Rubaiyat every night of the week. Much more comfortable than in some of the disco clubs we visited when we moved to Boston in the 80s which seemed more segregated. 30+ years later, we’re still together and happily married. We might go to the opera more often than dance clubs these days, but we still love listening to disco, funk, the Motown sound and the fusion of all the styles that happened in the 70s. And, when you’re a certain age, there’s nothing like Sylvester on the headphones when you’re working out a the gym. Enjoyed Alice Echols DJing in college and her commentary today. Thanks for the show.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/ftitzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Right back at you, Gomer Pyle! I lived during the ’50′s and the ’60s and the ’70′s, and Viet Nam … and the unrest … the assassinations — JFK, MLK, RFK … decades where America actually grew up. We left you behind in that regard, obviously.

  • Cadillac Mike

    Didn’t Pink Floyd really rock some hardcore disco basslines? Would some of their songs have been played in the clubs and considered disco?

  • Blake

    I am a House Music DJ and producer in Boston.

    When disco went underground in the late 70s and early 80s it morphed into the Chicago House Music. Chicago Disco/House DJs would sample old disco tunes turning them into the house music we have today. Many DJs and producers (including myself) still sample those old disco tracks and turn them into current club tracks you hear today.

    Today all over the world the feeling of the 70s disco scene in USA is still alive. I play in a club in Boston that has white, black, gay and straight people all dancing together all night to a 4/4 beat to House music that has its roots in disco.

  • Doug

    from new wave in the 80s with The Cars and Talking Heads, to the 90s with the rave and electronic scene led by the Orb and Orbital, all the way up to the latest retread of 70s sounds with bands like Cut Copy and Junior Boys, they owe it ALL to disco.

    Tampa, FL

  • BETH

    My husband and I spent every Fri. night @ a disco venue in rural Vermont dancing the night away. It was fabulous! To this day we still listen, enjoy and MOVE to those great tunes as do our 24 and 26 year old kids. We fondly remember chaperoning their middle school, high school dances and parties, and watched with pride as the disco music drew the entire student body out to the middle of the dance floor! If disco is coming back, we’ll be so “on it”!

  • Betty

    Disco was such a natural extension of R&B and Funk, which I loved growing up outside of NYC. I am compelled to dance when I hear Disco, R&B and Funk. What was joyful and fun dancing however, meant sadness for all of my Berkelee musician friends. Disco liberated clubs from hiring live musicians. It meant that all of these musicians did not have place to play. All they needed was one person to spin discs.

  • Todd

    “Somebody please name that piece (beige music) dissed by James Brown and giggled at by Tom and guest. (Might have been by Percy Faith … need the title for reference in one of my short stories Please, if you can).
    Posted by F. William Bracy

    @ W.F.B.:
    Uh, that piece was the Love Unlimited Orchestra playing the (Barry White) Love Theme.

    Too many decades, not enough memory?

  • terri

    Lady GaGa would go in the “bad disco” category. Before MTV and without all her visual theatrics she wouldn’t have made it b/c the sound is boring.

  • Ed

    Isn’t it ironic that the day after Malcom Mc Laren died, we are trying to give intellectual currency to that which in part – and it must be said less on the part of the performers than the “disco clowns.” That’s right – it is was and always will be fast food. If this is a taproot of “authentic transgressiveness,” it is to the end of our ability to embody the basics in our politics, economics and social mores. I am terribly sorry, but supply siders and – curiously enough – social conservatives, took their mnajor cue during this time: that it was a “me” centered universe and you are somehow demonizable for telling me otherwise. I can’t give this any more thought because I may start eating my desk if I do. Long live Malcom and all the folks in garages who are doing “three chords and a cloud of dust” music.

    PS – Disco was “three chords and a cloud of dust” also -
    except for the two chords and the cloud was cocaine.

  • Betty

    Favorite Disco/Funk live music experience. My father was in a wheelchair due to a stroke. However, he and I loved to dance. So when we were attending a formal reception for NJ Man of the Year. A full funk band came on the stage…a whole horn section. They struck up a Kool & the Gang song and I wheeled my father to the dance floor; passing folks that looked at him with pity. THEN, we started dancing! I would push, pull and spin him around in his wheelchair, he was waving his one working arm with as much funk as he could muster. We had a blast!

  • art robidoux

    My brother is Tom Moulton ,who had great success in Disco.He always enjoyed all forms of music and continues working in the industry

  • jeffe

    Man this woman is trying to say David Bowie made disco.
    Fame was not a disco tune. Funk is not disco. James Brown’s music is so much more sophisticated than any of the relentless march beats of disco.

    Disco was invented by record producers, it’s a canned music. To mention this in the same breath as Bootsy Collins and George Clinton is kind of silly.

    I grew up in this period, I was in high school and I always hated this music as I have said. It had nothing it do with dancing for me it was just the pure bubble gum aspect of it. As Jimmy Heath once said disco was dressed up marching music.

  • Todd

    “…decades where America actually grew up.”
    Posted by F. William Bracy

    @ W.F.B.:
    You call a country that still measures its history in DECADES grown up? Ha!

  • Doug

    you knew that when the Stones, Kiss and Rod Stewart were making disco albums, that the movement had a pretty significant impact.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/ftitzwilliam F. William Bracy

    Thank you, thank you, Todd. You try hard in these posts. I’ll put in a good word to God for you, since I’ll obviously get there first, and you’re probably going to need it.

  • jeffe

    Betty you hit on one aspect of disco it killed live music.
    I was taking music lessons in those days with a great jazz and session musician in New York. He once made this very comment about disco how it was killing the session scene.

  • Kathleen

    No mention of Michael Jackson? Beat It? Thriller? Where does he fit in?

  • Damon Jasperson

    Love the show; but wanted to throw out there that there are ALOT of young, new bands touring with the Jam Band scene that are explicitly disco. And I love them! I’m a musician and have a healthy appreciation for all music; but any tune that makes me shake my butt is ALL GOOD. Don’t disparage it if you don’t like it, just dance to it already! :-)

  • Damon Jasperson

    Oh yeah, check out “My Dear Disco”. My wife and I have a wonderful relationship and it is accentuated because we groove it together to music like this!


  • Todd

    “Thank you, thank you, Todd. You try hard in these posts. I’ll put in a good word to God for you, since I’ll obviously get there first, and you’re probably going to need it.
    Posted by F. William Bracy

    @ W.F.B.:
    You’re very welcome! Yes, I probably will need a good word; and I sincerely hope its your providence to put one in for me.

    Be Well!

  • Norm

    During the mid-1970′s, I was working on radio. One of my side jobs was spinning discs at dance clubs, because we couldn’t make much on-air. I especially recall DJ’ing at a disco between Fall River and New Bedford. What I liked most there was the mix of blacks and whites who got together and got along to have a great time. I would climb up a ladder to get to the “bird’s nest” overlooking the dance floor and a sea of bodies displaying their moves. Yeah, some of the cuts were boring — just play the good part, the great hook. I worked hard to stay ahead of the music trends, mixing dance beats with some rock to keep it all interesting. Once, a black guy there leaned over to me and said, “You know, for a white guy, you play the BADDEST jams.” That connection means a lot to me to this day.

  • http://ravenatyournextevent.com Greg

    The specific genre of bow-chk-a-bow-bow guitar sound that was populared in the 70s was merely a moment in time on the disco continuum. It didn’t start there and it certainly hasn’t ended. The first I know of it is the UK’s Northern Soul scene in the 60s, where drug fueled all night parties were the norm. (They were dancing to uptempo Motown b-sides and no-name artists.)

    I discovered what was being called “filtered disco” at raves in college (15 years ago). Those were the original “disco” tunes, sampled and filtered and set on top of the fat club beats of today. In other words, house music.

    I wish I knew of some ethnomusicological reason to give for why this music is important. It’s important for the same reason any other music is- it brings people together. Club music is the common ground on which so many of my friendships have been built.

  • Todd

    “No mention of Michael Jackson? Beat It? Thriller? Where does he fit in?”
    Posted by Kathleen

    @ Kathleen:
    Not to overlook the Jackson Five, but MJ properly fits into the decade of true pop-music genius: the ’80s!

  • Matt J

    thing is, kinda strange saying ‘it’s making a comeback’ because, through out faddy dance music uprisings, those temps and grooves appear every couple of years since the 90′s. It’s about the tempo and a ‘funky’ edge = Dee lite, “Groove is in the Heart” to Daft Punk “Around the World”. Those fit that tempo, otherwise, define disco, kinda open ended.

  • Mark

    Doborah wrote: Disco was cutting edge at that time in NY and San francisco, and was gay and black mostly.”

    This is precisely why disco was, and continues to be, disparaged. More so homophobia than racism, but not by much.

  • Brett

    I have been a professional musician since 1974, and Disco did definitely change music. I hated it at the time (to play it or listen to it in my car, but I also went out dancing and kind of liked it in that way; I had a lot of social fun). Many Classic rockers began to bow to its power in the late ’70′s and produced Disco-flavored records. It did also set the stage for ’80′s music (of course, I didn’t really like most of that either). I can’t say that there was anything interesting in the music, yet I can’t deny its allure to so many and how much it influenced Pop culture.

    To me, it also represented the final nail in the coffin for the ’60′s, and it was inclusive to many young people who were much more conservative in their views. I can remember going to dance clubs (in Washington, D.C.) and many “young Republican” types were there, doing coke, having sex in the bathrooms, talking about the failed idealism of the ’60′s, etc. Of course, they helped to usher in the Reagan era soon after. There was a kind of conformism in Disco, and there was a reactionary quality to it, that it had a traditional quality. Women could be more feminine and men could be more masculine.

    Also, when I went to New York, there were many working-class Italian-American people in the Discos from the burrows and from Jersey. They seemed very conservative, they talked about life in conformist terms. They also displayed a pride about New York being a cultural center and about iconic celebrities whom they felt represented them.

    The era saw a kind of pendulum swing in culture and socio-political sentiment. I didn’t know what to think about what was going on, really. Dylan became a born-again Christian, The Stones were playing Disco, later Lennon was murdered, and Reagan was elected. It became increasingly difficult to play music I wrote and believed in and make money doing so (I had to play really commercial stuff to get gigs).

    I can’t say I look at those times fondly, although I did have some fun going out dancing and getting laid! When I am in a situation where there is dancing, now, and a Disco song comes on, I enjoy it, and there is something in hearing it now that has a retro-ironic quality. I can parody many of those “Saturday Night Fever” moves and can have a good laugh, although they don’t seem to get me laid anymore…;-)

  • Brett

    peter thom,

    I didn’t listen to the show, but if they said anything like Disco had more sophistication than James Brown’s music, then that is laughable! It’s the kind of drivel one hears from music academicians/historians who don’t play.

    I’ve been a drummer since I was four and am 55 now. You correctly identified the typical Disco beat as a “four-on-the-floor,” meaning the drummer would hit the bass drum in quarter notes in every beat of a 4/4. The snare drum would hit on the backbeat on 2 and 4 and would play 16th note shuffles on the the high-hat (basic stuff, nothing innovative). In Brown’s music, the drummer would HEAVILY emphasize the ONE! This was revolutionary! There were also 8th note rests followed by 16th note taps followed by diddles and all kinds of variations on the snare. The bass drum would hit on all kinds of interesting rhythms and polyrhythms (also revolutionary). Brown’s bass lines were legendary, as were the horn arrangements, etc. Disco had nothing groundbreaking (aside from electronic technology, but that was not the structure itself). The bass lines were ALL 8th-note pulses with the first 8th note, in a 4/4, being a rest.

    As much as Disco influenced a lot of Pop music in the ’80′s (and even today) it also served to dumb it down quite a bit.

  • lovedtodancee

    So many heated comments from people who hated/hate disco. Back in the day I remember that the usual sources for those comments were the bigoted (chiefly homophobic, but also garden variety racist) types who made the 70s so delightful for those of us not born white and straight.

    For those of us not straightjacketed into bigotry or–yawn–terribly serious about music, disco was a lot of fun. Sure there were drugs (as there were everywhere) but there were also lots of scenes of gay, latino, black and other young people getting together for the joy and fun of dancing, strutting our stuff, preening, and generally being young and just having fun. And dancing. Always dancing.

    For the “disco sucks” crowd I ask: Is that a bad thing?

  • jeffe

    Mark that’s quite the accusation. I don’t like disco but love James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin,Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, I can go on but…

    For it has nothing to do with race or gays, I never connected with this music it’s pretty simple.
    It was, is designed for dancing, not listening.

    Swing music, which was hugely popular in the 30′s and 40′s with both black and white populations was a dance music as well, but you can still listen to it as an art form without dancing. Lindy hopping was a African American dance originally Disco seems relentless to me.

    Now these people can dance, and the music is great.


  • Keith

    I love a lot of disco music and there is a good chunk I can’t stand. That being said, I think you could replace the word disco with any other genre and the sentence would still be just as valid.

    Just because you don’t personally ‘vibe’ with the sound doesn’t make it any less relevant. Music exists to tell a story of who we are, what we’re thinking, wearing, saying, protesting, or escaping. All music is necessary. Music is connected to our emotions and our souls.

    Disco made me happy as a kid. It showed that the men and women in America from different races, social classes could interact without fear and prejudice. It taught me through it’s fusion of so many styles of where these styles came from and from an appreciation for them. When the whole ‘disco sucks’ campaign began that it really sent out a threatening message that the things I learned and felt were judged against me, were considered unacceptable. It showed me another side of humanity that didn’t agree with these ideas and instead of letting it be, it had to be attacked. It had to be destroyed. From that point a wedge was forced back into race, music, and politics.

    Nothing makes me happier sometimes than going back in time and playing some great disco tracks to just let go and feel free.

  • Hal

    Man, oh, man. I loved disco because I could get out on the dance floor and be with girls. Once I started dancing, the girls would notice me. It was great fun!
    As a 17-year-old and 18-year-old, it was the best way to meet girls!
    I couldn’t believe the other guys calling dancing close with a good-looking girl you just met, “gay.”
    I always thought that the guys that were too wimpy to get out on the dance floor were the jerks who started the “disco sucks” backlash.
    I’d see them many years afterward as the married guys going to the strip joint with the rugby club or the bachelor party who couldn’t understand why the bouncers beat them to a pulp after touching a dancer – in other words idiots.
    Disco was the best way to meet girls. How “gay” is that?

    In my mind

  • lovedtodancee

    @Mark: I agree, that the “disco sucks” campaign was based largely in the homophobia and racism you describe. That’s how it felt to me then.

    @Jeffe: You write, “Swing music … was a dance music as well, but you can still listen to it as an art form without dancing.” It’s all about taste, Jeffe. Swing sets my teeth on edge and leaves my hands itching for the off switch when I hear it. And Parliament Funkadelic was, for us, straight up disco in that the DJs played it and we danced to it, regardless of where music snobs feel the need to categorize it.

    @Hal: Amazingly well put. I didn’t want to dance with the girls, but my straight buddies did, and we all had a great time going out and doing just that. It was fun.

  • don mooradian

    I can understand practically all of creation from the Big Bang to the cooling of gases, to the formation of planets, the lightning spark that jazzed chemicals into some crazy dance the resulted in amoeba, then dinosaurs, then the monkeys and then us and the birth of farming communities, the pyramids, the Greeks and the Parthenon, the Romans and their Coliseum, the Dark Ages, the rebirth of the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery with men setting off into uncharted seas of the physical world followed by The Enlightenment with men setting off into the uncharted realms of the mind and the greasy, grimy Industrial Revolution and the arrogant Colonialism of the Western Europeans and the two world wars and the Cold War and The Fifties and The Sixties but I’ll be damned I will ever comprehend how disco ever became popular.

  • KC of the Sunshine Band

    Although it has affored me a professional life, please do not pour Disco into the same stew as Funk!!

    Totally different genres even though they became popular during the same era. Disco stole Funk’s backbeat using a synthesized loop.

    In the generation since, disco has died its expected death (thank God), except in mainstream summer events. Heard on Oldies tour for sure, which also feature one hit wonders of 60s and 70s Pop.

    Name current music outlets that play Disco to younger generations?

    Funk has lived on outside black R&B into a variety of current music.

    Don’t believe me? Then check out a recent version of Chic’s Le Ferak with Slash (past of metal punk’s ‘Guns and Roses’) playing a guest guitarist role!!!



    Just sayin’…and see you this summer at a car lot opening near you.

  • Ahmed Artegun

    How can you play Chic’s “Le Freak,” Bowie’s “Fame” and accept this commentator’s insistence to merge the two.

    Rock and R&B coming together = NOT Disco

    Gloria Gaynor = Disco

    Rolling Stones laying in the funk = NOT Disco

    Donna Summer – Disco

    Parliment-Funkadelic = NOT disco

    How can you base a show on the ‘intellectual’ examination of Disco when the premise is based on the author’s assertion of using contemporary commentary understanding of ‘disco.’

    History is based on analyzing events of the past not parroting the contemporaries impossible.

    By the way, “bad disco” is an oxymoron

  • Jim Rose

    For every Donna Summer, Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, Chic there were 10 no-name artists churning out mind-numbing corporate disco that flooded the airwaves and dancefloors…which provided a cover of sorts for anti-gay, anti-black sentiment.

    Also of note, Donna Summer in particular was putting out iconic music in the late 70′s and early 80′s …….Last Dance, Hot Stuff, Bad Girls, I Feel Love, Love To Love You Baby, On The Radio, She Works Hard for the Money. She is still woefully under-rated as a vocalist simply because she came into prominence during the disco era.

  • Dana Franchitto

    “brings people together”? at best very superficially. somehow I can’t see disco closing racial or class disparities Please!It’s simply pre-fab corporate music to raise a fast buck

  • Hanny Herbcox

    I don’t think it is clear to many of the folks posting comments above that this author is offering a sociological perspective, not a musicolgical treatise.

    The simple distinction between Funk and Disco is this: the bass and drum section of the former bases its licks on jazz, working through variations of rhythms (not strictly R&B), while the latter takes a simple funk lick and repeats it over and over again layered within a pop formula.

    Funk is simply hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic! Or so said Issac Hayes.

  • jeffe

    Parliment-Funkadelic was, is and never will be disco.
    If you can’t hear that then you are tone and rhythm deaf.

    lovetodance I think your point about you not liking jazz or swing music is just silly way to prove that you liking disco and thinking it is some kind of art form is alright.

    Disco is many things, being an art form or having deeper meaning is absurd. Jazz, blues, R&B are original American musical art forms and are one of the only ones besides comic books. Disco is a product of the music producer.

    It is not a bunch of kids practicing rock or punk in their parents garage. It did not come out if that. It was invented to make money. The only thing it has in common with funk is ripping off some of the beats.
    As KC said, and if this is the real KC he should know, disco was a few things but funk was not one of them.

    That being said there is nothing wrong with dance music, but trying to make it out to something it is not, is absurd. Disco is to Funk what Lawrence Welk is to Count Basie.

  • Ken

    Donna Summer = Transcendence

  • Brian Chaput

    I was an 11 year old gay (obviously closeted and not even knowing that there were others who were like me) boy growing up on a small dairy farm in northern Vermont in 1976. I was exposed and enjoyed to every genre of music but when I heard Don’t Leave Me This Way I was hooked, not knowing that it was called disco and of the gay association, I just loved the song. While I was buying Donna Summer records, I also bought AC/DC, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac, Dolly Parton and Dottie West.

    I have been to many weddings when I have requested Knock on Wood and Hot Stuff and the DJ was resistant thinking it would clear the dance floor – instead it was filled with everyone, even the guys I knew who used to claim to hate it, they were all smiling and next thing you know it became an evening of disco.

    For all of the crap, you also had Stomp by the Brothers Johnson, Chic, Sister Sledge, Bee Gees, Diana Ross, France Joli

  • Russ

    Donna preceded the Disco movement and she is still around making new music. She is an icon. Her voice is a marvel. Anyone who disses Donna has never listened to her albums. She was and IS a true artist.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/fzkny Fernando

    Disco faded in the early eighties, giving way to new wave and other music syles. But Donna, with her talent and brilliance, has endured. She can sing any genre, and has!

  • Tim

    I had no idea that disco was such a gay thing until I heard this podcast. I just know I hated it – those were my high school years, and rock music was my passion. Disco really was just horrible…….that point she made about the anti-disco movement being so strong by ’79 being fueled by heteros not wanting to keep up with gays – uh, no – it was because the music was horrible and keeping great rock songs from being hits by cluttering up the charts.

  • Tim

    PS Donna’s 1983 song Unconditional Love was great. I don’t think that would be considered disco….I predicted it was going to go to number one, and it didn’t even get close. So much for my predictions….

  • Mark

    jeffe – Duke Ellington said it best when he stated, “if it sounds good, it is.” Obviously his point was “do your thing.” I think we’re overly analyzing this. The show was not “was disco good,” but rather, “what was it’s cultural impact?”

    There’s nothing everyone agrees on. However, one of the foundational characteristics of music is whether or not it brings people (and not all) joy. Disco did. Not for all, but enough to carry it forward in various ways into our present day culture. This is just my opinion, but it seems to stand up.

    We could have similar discussions about other “fad” genres (80′s metal, new wave, etc.). It ALL moves forward in some way or another. Whether it be some kid in his bedroom listening to records, being influenced and changing the music world as we know it (John Lennon – Skiffle), or your or I being moved enough to post on this great message board.

    What I greatly dislike are people who, rather than state what THEY LIKE, waste their time stating what they dislike (“disco sucks,” “I hate the Grateful Dead,” “Hip-Hop is not music.” Tell me what you like. Don’t show me “who” you don’t like. Because when someone says they hate a genre, what they’re really saying is that they hate the “scene,” which is comprised of actual people. So when they said “disco sucks,” (actually back in the 70′s – I’m not commenting on how people view it today) what they were saying was “I don’t approve of gays. All these brown happy people challenge the status quo. I don’t like that.” That’s what “disco sucks” means.

  • Tim

    To Mark in reply to this:

    What I greatly dislike are people who, rather than state what THEY LIKE, waste their time stating what they dislike (“disco sucks,” “I hate the Grateful Dead,” “Hip-Hop is not music.” Tell me what you like. Don’t show me “who” you don’t like. Because when someone says they hate a genre, what they’re really saying is that they hate the “scene,” which is comprised of actual people. So when they said “disco sucks,” (actually back in the 70’s – I’m not commenting on how people view it today) what they were saying was “I don’t approve of gays. All these brown happy people challenge the status quo. I don’t like that.” That’s what “disco sucks” means.

    I’ll gladly tell you what I liked in the late 70s – Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, the Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd and I can go on and on.

    Like I said in my earlier post, I didn’t even know it was a gay thing. And, I have no idea what brown happy people are.

    All I knew was the music was just horrible, and truly disco sucked.

  • justanother

    Music can be very subjective just like anything else. I enjoy all kinds of music genres. Having said that, I can be picky within genre itself. I like “rock”, but I don’t like “arena rock”, so same thing goes to disco. But overall, disco offers me so much fun, it is just fun fun fun all the way!

  • jeffe

    Duke Ellington also said it don’t mean a ting if don’t have that swing. I’m not begrudging people the fun factor at all. I said that’s what it was, party music for a time when people needed to have some fun. I was into a different kind of music from jazz to Zappa. I hated late 70′s and 80′s rock as well. REO Speedwagon anyone???? How about all those bad hair metal bands…
    Who can forget the Eagles, now that music sucked.

    What I remember of this period, having grown up in Long Island near the Queens city line was that disco was more of a working class night out, ala Saturday Night Fever.
    I don’t remember anything about it being a gay scene, not where I lived. One thing I do remember was that summer when the Son of Sam was terrorizing the city and how this affected the disco clubs in the areas he was committing the crimes. I remember the late 70′s as a time of high crime and a city that almost was bankrupt. Then came crack…

    My comments were based on the premise of the shows thesis which I thought was flawed. As far as your tagging gay bashing to the disco sucks crowd, well I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, but I can see why some would think it would be tied to it.

  • Emily Corwith

    I was lucky, now I realize privileged, to live in the West (Greenwich) Village during the mid/late 70s, early 80s. What a fantastic time it was … this music was part of the freedom. But let’s not forget it was pre-AIDS & part of the fun was an innocence that we later lost.

  • Ed

    Fr. Glen Sudano.

  • SquishDish

    very happy to listen to this today. I grew up listening to disco, it holds a very special place for me. And yes, an otherwise cultured person can enjoy Disco music, it doesnt mean you cant also love classical, jazz, soul, r& b, funk, etc. I hate seeing all these comments disparaging this genre. It was fun, sexy and got you to move on the dance floor.

  • Tina

    So many people love the Beatles — not me. Except for when they first came on the scene, my general sense was and remains that they WRECKED dancing! I started to write a longer treatise on my impression of the years in between when the Beatles first showed up & the Disco Era, but instead, I’ll just say that I WAS IN SEVENTH HEAVEN WHEN DISCO CAME ALONG!

    Can anybody sit still even hearing these tidbits of song??!!

  • jsm

    Something missing from this discussion is how the development of synthesizers and other electronic musical gear, studio production techniques, etc. helped forge the disco genre. It’s a relevant topic that pertains to more recent and evolving musical genre.

  • John

    While On Point is being nostalgic, remember how much better the old format was?

  • PattiA.

    Nostalgia is nice, but I’m sorry… disco sucked in the 70′s, and disco still sucks in 2011.
    This has nothing to do with race or homophobia. I think it has more to do with that incessant robotic drum beat, and the empty lyrics.

  • Arl5all

    Have tried calling 800-423-8255 and it doesn’t go to your show but rather to a “BU voice messaging service”

  • Joyce M

    Welcome back Disco! Singers that can carry a tune. Music that makes a body move. Joyful sounds that made me smile. Melodies and harmonies. What fun.
    Wish we had been young enough to do the moves in the 70s. We were not, but we tried and had fun and the memories are all happy.

  • Julie

    I grew up in the disco era and to this day (I’m now 48), it’s still my favorite music! Love it and always will!

  • Tina

    One night, during the Disco Era, people were leaving a dinner party to either go see Star Wars OR Saturday Night Fever. I begged for SNF! I loved it, others could take it or leave it. The very next day I went searching to buy the soundtrack.

    My husband at the time did NOT dance. But, we DID live in an apartment that had long, sliding glass doors at the end of the living room. I used to turn on that 33 1/3 disco soundtrack and dance my heart out, watching my own moves in the reflections off the windows at night, those reflections spurring me on to better & better moves!

    Rhythm is my very favorite musical attribute! I was LOST, LOST, LOST during the Punk music era!

    (I wonder if I told this story before, when this show first aired?? — sorry, if so!)

    • JGC

      Sorry  you felt lost during Punk, but do appreciate your Disco reminiscences!

  • Ray

    The Beastie Boys revived disco camp as cool for Gen Xers with their “Hey Ladies” song and video by both poking fun at the genre, celebrating it and showing its connection to popular radio rap. My college experience in the early 90s was fraught with disco tunes on the dance floor and people exaggeratedly emulating the Travolta-style of dance. It was a fun part of our celebration of everything 70s. Every genre has its place as far as I’m concerned. We grew up in the era of Madonna, whose door was opened by artists like Donna Summer.

    -greater Boston mom

  • Tina

    “What did disco do” — ahhhh —- it MAKES you a brilliant dancer, because it is a FANTASTIC Dance Partner!

    I’m glad you like Frank Zappa. I like Disco, Swing, Tango, Cajun, Zydeco, All Waltzes, Polkas!!!!

    • Tina

      How could I forget my VERY favorites, Samba and Mambo (that’s not just my age, I said mambo, not salsa, because I prefer the Cuban style!)

  • Tina

    Mark, I love your comment. Just one thing, tho, and this is ONLY from my own POV: you say, “It sort of takes confidence to go out and dance in front of others.”

    Actually, dancing is the ONLY time that I do NOT have to HAVE confidence to “go out…in front of others”. It is the ONLY time when my self-consciousness disappears! The music, especially if the rhythm is great, IS a fantastic Partner who protects and leads me. I’m otherwise a “reformed shy person”, meaning that I’ve matured into acting less shy. But, with music, rhythmic music, it’s not about “acting” for me, or “having” confidence — instead, it’s like the music leads me out onto the dance floor because IT wants me to be happy, AND the music, the dancing, GIVES me confidence!

    Thanks for helping me think about that! By the way, by way of the lyrics, I’m extremely BAD at ever being able to hear & decipher the lyrics of anything, even of my FAVORITE songs!

  • Stephen, Roslindale

    In the late 70s/early 80s when I spent a fair amount of time around Kenmore Sq in Boston, Rock/Punk and Disco faced off just down Commonwealth Ave from WBUR where you’re having this conversation. These were the halcyon days of punk/underground rock in Boston and I remember the reception to disco was akin to Boston’s reception of the NY Yankees. Rathskeller vs. Lucifer’s/Narcisus, Boston vs NY, White vs Black, urban vs suburban, gay vs straight. I’m sure teeth were lost and blood spilled on the pavement around Kenmore Sq. At this year’s Grammys there were no nominations in the disco category while the Ramones got a lifetime achievement award but I’m not sure how much to read into that.


  • Steve

    I think it’s Lady Gag-Gag … just a completely unimaginative rehash of old gimmicks. I see nothing new in her act: just a bad madonna impression.

    Disco was just commercial marketing that was used to sell a lot of crap. There were a very few extremely talented people who were branded as disco whose careers ended when the disco phase ended. IMHO it was mostly trash.

    steve in nashville

    • Pointpanic

      here here Steve. yet leave it to sell-out nPR to dress it up in “deeper meaning”

  • Erik

    Speaking of crossing boundaries… I’ve been exploring the countless “Mash-ups” that deconstruct and reconstruct so many Disco-era recordings in often very creative and sometimes rather well-done “Frankenstein’s Monster” recreations.

    – Erik / Boston

  • Parkerchuck

    The gorilla in the room is the fact that disco spelled the disconnect between live music and subsequent generations and the high gear shift of the music machine and industry run by non musicians.

  • Tim

    I was trying to call give props out to Candi Stanton’s “Young Hearts Run Free”–this was truly a feminist song. Wish you had played it–one of the best disco songs eva’.

  • Tmrobins

    I thought she said that their was an influence of disco on Bowie’s Fame because
    1) they slowed the track from the disco song “Shame” (Shirley and Company)
    2) the musicians who played on “Fame” were also involved with the music of Chic….

  • Tina

    Some of the first 45 rpms I bought were the music of my slightly older contemporaries, the girl bands. Thematically (which is NOT why I loved their music — I loved it for “the sound” each song had! As much as I loved “home”, these were not the sounds of my home where I grew up. These were music that came from another world that I seemed to be moving into by going to junior high school which was a much farther walk away from home, and outside of my neighborhood, tho not outside of my prior range of places we’d go to on our own. But, on my own, without my younger brother, I’d be entering this new place where they played this new music, with its emotionally poignant tonalities, at the school dances) , anyway, thematically, the girl bands were NOT very “feminist” — they preceded that, coming years before Betty Friedan’s FEminist Mystique, at the very least. The girl bands lyrics were often about being a sad victim. That was okay, because sometimes girls ARE young, and do become victims. Then, came the years when “rock n roll” was becoming “rock”, and rock had a lot of girls who were “chix, or chicks” — I never knew how to spell it, I just knew that it was a deceptively high standard set for being a “girl”, or, as the term was morphing into, for being a “woman”. Chicks were no less victimized, but they often went along with stuff their guys expected of them, as if they did not disagree, as if it were not against their own best interests or sensibilities.

    So, Donna Summer et al, when she (& they) came along, had a spirit that was the natural culmination of these earlier ways of being female. I won’t give it words, because her music does!

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Disco’s Deeper Meaning | WBUR and NPR - On Point with Tom Ashbrook -- Topsy.com

  • Livy

    Got to disagree with you Mark. It is about the music. Disco was danceable, campy, kitsch and glamorous (in a cheap way), but musically it was shallow, sterile and vapid. In the show they compare a James Brown “Get Up Off That Thing” to Barry White’s “Love’s Theme”. One is gritty, sweaty and “real”, while the other is… well… disco. Being anti-disco is not anti-black. Whites loved funk, soul, Motown etc., and proved it with their pocketbooks. They also purchased piles of disco records. As Alice Echols points out, the vast majority of people did not equate “disco” with “gay”. If they did, they they must love gay culture because people bought piles of disco records.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/CallMeJeffMike Jeff Ducharme

    RIP Donna Summer!! 

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/PQOCSU3NJ5J6SSQBEM5YBFCPZY Jason__A

      Well said. Donna, we will miss you and always loved to dance to your songs…you go “bad girl”!

  • JGC

    My eye kept seeing this show in the margin, and I kept ignoring it for the “bigger issues”…finally, I need to recall that time…  I went to Penn State in the late 70′s; my brother had gone to Cornell during the social unrest of the late 60′s, and later on my parents were determined that the rest of their children would do their university years in the relative peace and quiet of central Pennsylvania.  

    After the high school years of heavy metal and ABBA and Casey Kasem Top 40 and the rest, disco and Donna Summer really made me take notice of alternatives in music.  At Penn State, we all tried with varying degrees of success to descend into the disco basement of Mr. C’s.  At that time, Pennsylvania was the outlier in demanding I.D. showing you were 21 years old (Most state drinking ages at the time were less than 21).  So to get into Mr.C’s was truly disco heaven. And Donna Summer could be heard there, and of course the BeeGees…So much fun.  It took me a few years to realize after the fact that I was a beard for my gay boyfriends from the frat houses, because at that time, I had no idea there was anything such as being attracted to one of your own; so naive, but what a great time of discovery! 

    Another friend in my dorm (female) later said what a bitch it was to be stuck at Penn State during Disco Fever when she would have preferred to be there a couple of years later during the New Wave (it always took isolated Penn State a few extra  years to clue into the next fashion).  And I had to contrast the implications of my brother’s draft generation with their anti-war marches and anti-Nixon protests and taking over their college administration buildings after the bombing of Cambodia, with my own post-draft, utterly secure time at Penn State 9 years later, where to my recollection the only protest was “anti-Disco”, resulting in some folks burning a stack of disco LP’s (including Donna Summer’s).   

    Yep, RIP Donna Summer, and Robin Gibb, too…Love to love you, baby…      

    • JGC

      And come to think of it, did I really see Rick Santorum (Penn State graduate) dancing à la John Travolta in  Mr. C’s basement, or is it just a Summeresque hallucination? 

  • JGC

    Here is an interesting article about the cross-pollination between gospel and German techno-pop from Summer’s years spent in Germany in the late 60′s.


  • Pointpanic

    Disco-the Wonder bread of music.

    • JGC

      Yikes, I never dreamt in a million…O.K.,30, years ago  that I would become a disco apologist.  But this program when it aired a couple of years back (I remember listening to it while stripping wallpaper off our bathroom walls), and then with just last week the deaths of Summer and Gibb, icons of that moment in musical time, gets one thinking. It is absolutely the anti-Wonderbread of music, in that it kept people moving and dancing; I am sure those pre-diabetic kids could benefit from a disco workout instead of eating another PB&J Wonderbread sandwich.  It had its moment; for sure I cannot totally appreciate that doo-wop stuff from the 50′s; but I guess all of music builds upon itself until some hybrid breaks out, that is its due.  See, if you can, the Globe and Mail article referenced below for the influences of Donna Summer that made for her unique sound. It just makes for an interesting footnote in tracing musical history. 

      • Pointpanic

        well, to me ,it’s like husking the nutrients out of rythymn and blues so you have a mere shell of “dance” music. With so much great R &b and real funk around among other things ,it’s sad that only disco gets people dancing?

        • JGC

          I get you!  I do prefer to listen and dance to R&B; I guess disco evoked a certain mood and certain time; and was itself just a moment in time, sort of like doing the minuet to the harpsichord a few centuries back. 

          Thanks for your insight; good night! 

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