On July 12, 1979, a radio DJ in Chicago held a promotional event at a White Sox doubleheader baseball game where attendees could bring disco records and pay to have them destroyed in a fireworks explosion during the seventh-inning stretch. The event ended in an explosion much larger than planned with riots of drunk, staunch rock music fans yelling proclamations like “Disco Sucks” and “Death to Disco.”
It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan was elected a year later. This “Disco Demolition Night” was part of a movement of reactionary politics that bled into people’s relationship with popular culture. You can’t separate the hatred of disco from politics, because to do so would be to deny the indisputable truth that popular culture is always in some way a reflection of political zeitgeist.
Although this event became known as “The Day Disco Died,” the sounds and ideologies of disco have remained present in popular culture to this day.
Disco gained its initial popularity among gay, black, and immigrant communities in the United States in the late 1960s. But like any musical trend originating within these communities, disco was inevitably snatched up by the mainstream white audience in the ’70s and packaged for mass consumption.
Disco clubs emerged in cities across America, and radio DJs ditched spinning rock records for the more popular disco tunes in order to gain more publicity and ad revenue. The movement against disco branded itself as a reaction against materialism and mainstream music, but it’s not hard to see that the anti-disco movement was at least partially born out of racial prejudice and homophobia so prominent to the reactionary political climate of the late ’70s.
And so the phrase “Disco Sucks” prevailed as a pejorative.
Critics cited the reason for hating disco was the overly positive encouragement for escapism. Disco tells us to ignore responsibilities and keep on dancing. And while that appears to be true on the surface, when you consider the origins of the genre, there is a power to escapism. The pioneers of the of disco genre, artists like Stevie Wonder, Nile Rodgers and Donna Summer, knew the pain of discrimination. Disco is not born out of ignorance to the political turmoil and strife of the late ’60s, but instead as radical optimism in the face of an uncertain world.
In 2017’s political climate, the celebratory ethos of disco feels more relevant than ever. We see these ideas repeated in contemporary genres such as R&B and hip-hop, and the legacy of disco lives on.
Understanding the origins of disco and other forms of music pioneered by minorities reminds us that there is something inherently subversive about those who have been disenfranchised and discriminated against refusing to be kept down, instead standing up and proclaiming, “come one and all, and have a real good time.” (Le Freak – CHIC)