The Joy Of Disco Cultural Studies Essay

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This report will describe and evaluate the importance of the disco revolution, the effects of which can still be felt within today's society. We will explore the external factors - political, social and technological - to which disco was immeasurably influential. We will look at the musical features - lyrical style/content, instrumentation and rhythm - which defined disco in the early days and how this progressed with time. Lastly, we will cover the major contributors to the disco genre - artists, dj's, record labels and clubs - all of whom played their part in disco's rise from the underground clubs to a global phenomenon.

2. External Factors

When disco burst onto the music scene in the late 60's early 70's, the world was a vastly different place to that in which we find ourselves in now. The sexual revolution of the 1960's meant that sexual relations before marriage, between heterosexual's, was now more socially accepted than previous times. If you were homosexual however, you were perceived in the mainstream, to be suffering from a mental illness and you were therefore a danger or menace to society. In actuality, you could be arrested and face capital punishment for being gay in some American states. This oppression led to the gay community remaining largely underground, however the gay rights movement had started to find their voice. Disco was not the catalyst for this movement but it gave homosexuals, and also African Americans and Latino's, an outlet from the daily oppression of society - African Americans and Latino's were still largely the victims of racial discrimination during this time. At the same juncture, the Feminist movement was gathering momentum and women, who were sufferers of gender and political inequalities, embraced disco with open arms. Women's liberation coupled with the sexual revolution facilitated a new social identity for women. This was the age of the sex toy and the expression of female desire. The political and social shifts that took place during this time heralded a new era for society and disco was firmly viewed as being significant in the facilitation of these changes.

Disco, being mainly a social endeavour, also gave birth to a new kind of culture. A culture where racial, sexual and economic barriers were transcended and people, from all areas of life, were unified by the music. Today, we call this clubbing culture, which has now grown into a worldwide behemoth, but disco is where it all started. For a start, it redefined what it meant to be a disc jockey. Before disco, the DJ was someone who stood, played records and spoke to the audience. There was no beat matching - the technical term for synching the tempos of two records - or seamless mixing. However the rhythm of the disco groove, predominantly four to the floor, meant that DJ's could now seamlessly mix over from one record to another, with no breaks in between. This was a revolutionary concept and helped place the DJ as the centre piece of a highly exuberant crowd. The fusion of this energy and the music was, in some circles, heightened by the use of illegal substances. The disco scene of the 1970's was renowned for psychedelics, poppers, cannabis, cocaine, stimulants and many other forms of hedonistic, thrill-seeking pleasures - it was a time where sex in clubs was acceptable between clubbers and endorsed by club owners. Disco not only provided a new soundtrack and voice for Feminists, Homosexuals, African Americans and Latinos but it also brought forward its own fashion sense. Revellers would dress in the most outrageous costumes and wear the most brazen hair styles. It was a time where you could put on your glad rags, be yourself and escape social pressures. This was sexual and social liberation at its finest. It was also the first time in popular culture that women were sexually explicit and they were regularly eroticised on the front covers of numerous disco singles and albums.

As disco progressed and evolved through the 70's it began to wield more and more influence over mainstream culture. The film Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977 and it was a massive commercial success - the soundtrack became one of the largest selling soundtrack albums of all time. On the back of this, disco themed programmes and novelty items began to surface everywhere and disco tracks were commanding the majority of airtime on radio stations. Before long the market was saturated and in 1979, disco would be met with a firm resistance. Rock music, in its various guises, had been the market leader for the past decade or so and disco was now perceived to be a real threat to that dominance. In response to discos rising popularity, the 'Disco Sucks' campaign was created as a means for people to show their contempt for disco music and culture. Unfortunately, due to the high preponderance of homosexuals and ethnic minorities within the disco scene this movement quickly became fuelled by homophobic and racist tendencies. It all reached boiling point in July 1979 where a protest against disco descended into a riot. The event was heralded as the night disco died, however disco would continue - just not to the same degree of commercial success or mainstream exposure that it had previously enjoyed. Over the next couple of years disco's popularity was dealt a final blow. Aids, which surfaced in 1981, had far reaching implications for the gay community which in turn had disastrous consequences for the already waning disco scene.

In its early incarnation, disco's DNA can be found in a style of music called Philadelphia Soul. The music was an infusion of soul and funk which featured sweeping strings and piercing horns. As technology advanced, disco matured into a synthesised and sequenced beat-driven electro monster. The key to this transformation was the evolution of electro synthesis and the creation of the sequencer. Unlike previous times, producers could now record a track without the requirement of a full orchestra and band. It would be this new kind of electro-disco which was the birthplace for today's dance music, especially house and techno. As previously mentioned, the turntable and mixer setup, which was used by dj's to play records, was exploited to its fullest potential by early disco dj's. It propelled disco into new territory as it was the first time people could dance to recorded music without any breaks in between. Without breaks, the energy of the dance floor could be maintained indefinitely, which is the single most important part of today's club culture.

3. Musical Features

The musical make-up of disco, in its early days, consisted of an orchestral sound which included instruments such as the violin, viola, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, flute and French horn. Along with these there would often be an electric bass guitar, electric guitar, drums and African/Latin percussion. Organs and pianos were also used heavily during these times. As disco evolved however, the sound migrated from the old 'Philadelphia Soul' to an altogether new style of music. This new sound began to rely more heavily on electronic influences with instruments like the synthesiser, sequencer, vocoder and drum machine all becoming common place on disco tracks.

The lyrical style and content of early disco - Philadelphia Soul - was very much in the pop vocal tradition. As disco pushed into new sonic territories, especially with the inclusion of the various electronic gadgetry, the lyrical style and content also changed. In 1975, Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder collaborated on the track "Love to Love You Baby". It was slow, ethereal, haunting and beautiful, however it contained numerous simulated female orgasms. It was subsequently banned from the airwaves by many radio stations as it was deemed to be too risqué however, it was a major success in and around the discotheques - so much so that a 17 minute extended version was released. The following year, this theme continued with the release of the song "More, More, More" which starred Angela True - a female pornographic star - on vocals. Both of these disco tracks were influential in projecting the expression of female sexual desire into popular culture.

One thing that has never changed however is the underlying rhythm. Most disco songs are built on what is known as a four to the floor drum beat and are mainly written in a 4/4 time signature. Other rhythms can be found in disco with Latin rhythms and Latin polyrhythm's being used throughout disco tracks. To compliment the drum section, disco used heavy syncopated bass lines which would help to drive the music and give it a sense of groove - this is especially true with the influence of synthesisers.

4. Major Contributors

As previously mentioned, early disco was a style of music called Philadelphia Soul. The main record label to produce this sound was Philadelphia International Records, which was run by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The strings, horns and grooves that were created, played and recorded on these early tracks were done so by a group of musicians known as M.F.S.B. These sophisticated, black musicians - especially the drummer Earl Young - would lay the foundation for what was to become disco.

Casablanca records was another label which contributed greatly to the disco genre throughout the 70's. It was one of the most successful labels with a roster of artists that included Donna Summer, Kiss, Village People, Cher and Parliament. In 1975, it would release the controversial track "Love to Love You Baby" by Donna Summers and Giorgio Moroder, which pushed sexual boundaries in popular culture. In 1977, the hugely successful "I Feel Love", produced by the same two individuals, was released. This was the first time that a fully synthesised backing track was used within disco as up until this point, most disco songs were recorded by acoustic instruments. This track single handedly propelled disco into a future soundscape of synthetic bass lines and electronic bleeps. It was heralded as the Zeitgeist of its day and was highly significant in the creation of Techno.

Another contributor, for an entirely different reason, would be David Mancuso. He was responsible for creating the 'invitation only' parties in New York City known as "The Loft". This would become the inspiration for many, soon to be, famous nightclubs throughout the 70's and 80's. The Paradise Garage and The Gallery - both hugely popular within the underground disco scene - were modelled on Mancuso's idea.

As far as influential disc jockeys go, there is one who seems to stand out from the crowd. Nicky Siano, known as the Jimi Hendrix of the turntables, would light up the dance floor with his beatmatching and seamless blending of disco grooves. He could be found applying his turntable wizardry at The Gallery, which along with his older brother Joe Siano, he opened in 1972. This was basically the creation of the DJ, which in today's dance culture has now achieved superstar status.

One band who seem to be immensely important for the rising popularity of disco in the late 70's was Chic. A joint musical venture by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, they blended together elements of funk, soul and R&B to create a commercially successful minimalist disco sound. They were so popular that their track "Good Times" managed to achieve number one status in the immediate aftermath of the 'Disco Sucks' campaign.

Finally, disco could not have evolved, in the manner in which it did, without the innovative mind of record producer Tom Moulton. Borrowing ideas and techniques from dub music he challenged the basic four to the floor rhythm that had become synonymous with disco. He was also responsible for the creation of the first continuous mix album, the 12" vinyl record and he produced numerous disco singles and albums - most notably "More, More, More" by Angela True. He is widely known as the "father of disco mix".

5. Evaluation

From the information I have digested and presented here within this report, I am of the opinion that disco was more than just a passing craze or fad. More than just glitz and glamour. It was a social and cultural revolution which changed the mainstream perception of long established beliefs and values. It appears to have been both the influencer of society - gay rights, women's rights and civil rights - and the beneficiary of influence from society - technological advancements in music creation and production. From its early manifestation as a form of escapism from oppression, disco transformed into a lifestyle - a counter culture to the counter culture. It encompassed the world with its crossover appeal and mainstream exposure. This wasn't without consequence though and firm resistance was met with the 1979 'Disco Sucks' protests. Disco survived this attack by returning underground and reinventing itself as dance music. Today, clubbers the world over can thank disco for the creation of the superstar DJ, and the club scene in general, as house, techno and various other forms of dance music have all spawned from the genre.

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