Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In Defense of Disco by Richard Dyer

I had just recently come across this excellent article on the blog History Is Made At Night, completely by accident while searching for something else (something on Isaac Hayes, I believe it was). Originally published 1979 in a London Socialist journal called Gay Left, it's apparently one of the first and most important articles in the serious documentation and examination of disco.

Although the language is somewhat academic, as per these sorts of journal essays/articles, it's well worth reading for his analysis, especially on the physicality of disco (vs. rock), as well as his three characteristics of disco - eroticism, materialism, and romanticism. For me, one of the things I found especially interesting about this essay was the way the author examined disco in terms of 'capitalist music' and the hostility around it which flowed from that mode of thought.. In other words, analyzing the criticism of disco as inherently and irredeemably capitalistic while effectively deconstructing the basis of those very criticisms..

Some choice passages:

...The second kind of argument based on the fact that disco is produced by capitalism concerns music as an ideological expression. Here it is assumed that capitalism as a mode of production necessarily and simply produces ‘capitalist’ ideology....

... What all this boils down to, in terms of disco, is that the fact that disco is produced by capitalism does not mean that it is automatically, necessarily, simply supportive of capitalism. Capitalism constructs the disco experience, but it does not necessarily know what it is doing, apart from making money...

Read the full article at History Is Made At Night or as a .pdf file at the Gay Left issue archive.

There are also some other very interesting articles at History Is Made At Night relating to disco (see "The House the Kids Built: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music") as well as other subjects (see "Privatized sound? - from the Walkman to the iPod") that are all well worth a read..




M.E. Grant said...

That's a great discovery. I never thought of disco as a capitalist movement, probably because I don't associate it with corporate manipulation of the masses. That assessment is probably more appropriate for hip-hop. Disco was a release from at least a decade of societal trauma (in America, anyway). How does anyone assign opportunistic motives to that? We certainly can't blame the musicians.

Anonymous said...

I'll read the article in a little while - thanks. I'm reading Turn the Beat Around - The secret history of Disco by Peter Shapiro - while Im not learning a huge amount of new things - there's some fresh perspectives on the societal aspects and influence that disco had and were had on disco particularly around the defining and then destruction of masculinity from disco.


Tommy said...

Hey M.E. Grant - Thanks for the comment.. Good point also about hip-hop today. I think despite the obvious difference between the genres, there are some definite parallels between disco and hip-hop today, namely in the way they have been co-opted by corporations and in turn by the mainstream. Not sure if we'll see a similar hip-hop backlash on the same scale today, but I do think there are some interesting parallels.

Anyway, although my own political beliefs are firmly left-of-centre, I listen to disco and think about how remarkably prolific it what was largely a short time in the last half of the 70s and how excellent some of it was and wonder whether this would have been possible in a non-capitalist system... Let's just say that sometimes I feel like listening to, say a Philly record, a Moroder/Munich disco record or the dramatic complexity of a really good Costandinos record is probably the best defense of a capitalist system out there..

Hey Darryl, thanks for the comment. I'm glad you're enjoying Shapiro's book. I first read it some two years back after finding a copy at a public library here. I recently bought a paperback copy for myself and I think it must be one of the most interesting and well-written books on disco out there.

T said...

yeah interesting about the hip hop comparison. But it seems like tables have turned since disco. With critics now contemporary black music has become so canonized that it's almost as if they are overly reluctant to critizise it? In fear of repeating the feeding frenzy that disco faced, nobody within the predominatly white male critic community dares to critise hip hop (when sometimes perhaps they should).

Tommy said...

Hey t,

Thanks for the comment and sorry for the late reply. I'm a little behind replying to some of these older comments..

You probably have a point there though. I think with regards to canonizing of black music, I think it probably has more to do with a sort of pervasive masculinity/machismo in hip-hop that I think renders it relatively immune from some of the same criticisms that were levelled at disco, both overtly and not so overtly. Not that that aspect of hip-hop hasn't been criticised before, but society being what it is, those sorts of criticisms don't really have legs, where the general public is concerned.

That said, I don't want this to come across as a diatribe against hip-hop or a dismissal of it. Admittedly, I'm not so well versed in it, but I have a great deal of respect for the genre. Like any other, it has it's good and it's bad, high points and lows...

Search this blog