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Disco music - what were we thinking?

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 2005



NEW YORK

One of the more entertaining elements of a newly opened disco exhibition is a kiosk of recordings that highlight the genre at its worst. Listening to Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, and the Muppets try their hand at a style of music that originated in hip New York gay and minority nightclubs makes the backlash against disco a bit more understandable.

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How society arrived at the moment in 1979 when a stadium full of people rioted and trashed their records is made clear by "Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights," which opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts earlier this month. Even a casual visitor to the show will leave with a better sense of how disco evolved from its underground roots to a $4 billion industry, and how its spread to every corner of popular culture - thanks in part to "Saturday Night Fever" - ultimately did it in.

The multimedia show offers an overview of the disco movement, including membership cards for the early clubs, how-to guides for disco dancing, and costumes that would make David Bowie jealous. Its kitsch and upbeat music ("We Are Family," "I Will Survive") are tempered by discussions of the pioneering work in sound and style disco brought with it. Disco died when the 1980s arrived, but it paved the way for Madonna, hip-hop, and today's dance music.

The traveling exhibition is from the Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle, where curators used the recent acquisition of memorabilia and thousands of disco records to create an intriguing presentation. Their vision for the project was to move the genre beyond America's view of it as a joke and a cliché. The exhibition aims "to reclaim this much-maligned music," says Ann Powers, a curator, in a phone interview, "and ... to tell a story that had many different aspects, that visitors could enter in many different ways."

Others involved in the show praise the organizers for taking a broad approach to the subject. "It would have been incredibly easy for the curators to simply focus on the glitzy, showbiz side of disco - 'Saturday Night Fever,' [New York's] Studio 54, the glittery dresses and the oversized pop personalities," says Tim Lawrence, a London-based consultant for the project, in an e-mail interview. "All of these things were an important part of disco, but they really represented the tail end of the culture."

Mr. Lawrence, author of the book, "Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79," is glad to see the exhibition tackle disco's origins, particularly the lesser known, predominantly gay underground culture that spawned it. From the show, visitors learn that in New York, where disco began, laws in the 1960s required that there be at least one woman on the dance floor for every three men. In the early '70s, the clubs that disco grew out of offered no such restrictions and allowed minorities to socialize freely, too.

"In a sense, the dance floor became a key social space where these groups could mix and mingle, forming new relationships and developing new identities," says Lawrence.

Along with its focus on gay culture, the show highlights how DJs evolved from spinners of discs to educators of the public. Pioneers like Nicky Siano and David Mancuso sparked styles that influence music today. The exhibition points out that disco began with DJs who "combined innovative turntable techniques with a thirst for African, latin, funk, and soul rhythms to create a new way of experiencing music."

The term "disco" was coined by the media. Music magazines used it to mean music that could be played in a discothèque, "pretty much anything with a danceable beat," Lawrence explains. Around 1974, record executives narrowed it into certain generic characteristics.

As disco songs became more popular, they diversified not only dance floors, but the charts. Women had more voice in the predominantly male-oriented pop music scene. And black music and European records made the Top 40 in greater numbers than in before.

"To a great extent, I think disco helped open the charts up to a different kind of music. Even when disco was over, that effect didn't really go away," says Vince Aletti, a journalist, now at the Village Voice, whose record collection inspired the show.

Disco was a natural evolution from progressive black pop, he says, whose artists were pushing what had become routine R&B in a new direction. Many of those records became the first disco hits.

By the late '70s, as Donna Summer and groups like Chic - whose hit "Le Freak" was the bestselling single ever for Atlantic Records - helped move disco forward, the country became saturated with the music.

After "Saturday Night Fever" was released in 1977, disco was everywhere - in TV shows and commercials, in movies, in the news media. Rock radio stations were being converted to disco formats, and rock musicians were finding it difficult to find work. In the US, there were more than 15,000 discos.

That, combined with record labels producing bad disco, is what led to the backlash.

Mr. Aletti says he kept those bad albums because they were part of the story. "I knew, as with any phenomenon, the downside is often as representative as the hits," he says.

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