Saturday, May 19, 2012

What Disco Wrought

The recent death of Donna Summers got me thinking about the significance of disco in musical and cultural history. Growing up in suburban Detroit during that era I was surprised not by the popularity of disco but by the vehement backlash against it. One radio station started a club whose sole purpose was to express hatred of disco. Then there was the demonstration in between games of a baseball doubleheader involving a pyrotechnical destruction of disco records that went horribly wrong. The second game had to be postponed.

No other modern musical genre had generated that kind of active hatred. Then again no other musical genre was at its core urban, black and gay and that widely accepted by the public. If disco had remained in the clubs of urban areas, no one would have said a peep. Thinking back on it, the violent reaction to disco, like most violent reactions, was a product of fear and panic. The main participants of the anti-disco movement were white, suburban males. Before disco made it into the musical mainstream, popular music was dominated by what we know as "classic rock". While there was some musical variation that fell under this moniker, it had its roots in blues-based, guitar-centered rock and more importantly it was dominated by straight, white males.  The fans of "classic rock" probably sensed consciously or subconsciously that its domination was coming to an end.

They were right of course despite their desperate attempt to thwart the perceived "enemy". After disco no single musical genre dominated the musical mainstream. "Classic rock" morphed into grunge or various forms of metal or "alternative rock" (a horrible moniker), but never was as popular as it once was. It shared the airwaves with rap, R&B, electronica, and other musical genres.

I can't but help hear echoes of this musical history in recent events playing out on a wider stage involving the election of a black President, the over-the-top reaction of the Tea Party, and the heated battles over immigration and gay marriage.

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