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ALICE ECHOLS: Disco Fever

Dr. Alice Echols, author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Re-making of American Culture , chronicles Disco’s evolution and the extensive social implications the genre has had on minority communities since it’s debut.

Words: Anna Graizbord

Though I was aware of the existence of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Re-making of American Culture by Dr. Alice Echols a few months back after its release in March, my enthusiasm and curiosity were re-ignited by cultural critic Rich Juzwiak of FourFour. As Juzwiak elaborates, one of the most engaging aspects of this book is that Echols not only chronicles the rise and fall of Disco in a purely musical sense, but traces it as a cultural phenomenon that played a part in shaping and being shaped by a variety of American minority groups—as well as minority groups within those minority groups.

For example, in a few chapters Echols discusses the significant division within the Soul genre, and by extension, a segment of the African-American population of the time, over whether or not in the context of Disco’s emergence that people like Isaac Hayes were too “safe” or “soft” (read: White-friendly) in comparison to the more aggressively “Black is Beautiful” James Brown. Similarly, in gay communities there seemed to be a divide over how critical or progressive performative macho masculinity actually was, and if it valued that particular aesthetic over more old school foppishness and femininity. (It really puts Pacino’s Cruising more in perspective, doesn’t it?)

What really sets Hot Stuff apart is that Echols doesn’t fall into re-hashing any over-glorified or overly-villianizing simplistic sentiments we’ve heard ad-nauseum on say, a basic cable documentary on Studio 54. Rather, she very carefully unfolds the often-complicated and conflicting perspectives on what we know as Disco.


How did you become interested in the subject of Disco? I know you go into it a little in your book, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Re-making of American Culture, about how you first encountered Disco, but can you speak more on exactly how you were you drawn to personally?

First of all, I had been listening to R&B most of my life, and so when R&B musicians and producers began making this music that amplified the Motown tendencies within R&B, well, it made sense to me. I was ready for that shift, in part because growing up just outside of Washington, D.C., listening to soul stations, I knew that the sweetness of Motown and of some other African-American artists, such as Dionne Warwick, were understood as soulful in their own right, despite what some (mostly White) critics assumed. So I was already listening to what I would characterize as very early Disco music—Eddie Kendricks, Barry White, George McRae—on the radio. I was also listening to a lot of fusion—Weather Report, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea—and this was very funky music, very bass-heavy, which was one of the draws for me of Disco.

However, what made Disco so important to me was that it coincided with my own coming out. Although Ranchera music often played at the only “women’s bar” in Albuquerque, where I was living at the time, Disco ultimately won the battle of the jukebox. When I moved to Ann Arbor, shortly thereafter, Disco—played on sound systems by a DJ, not on a tinny-sounding jukebox—was all that one heard and danced to in gay bars. And so, for me, the high of going out and coming out—of dancing late into the night, hitting an all-night restaurant, and staggering to bed at 3 a.m. and thinking, “Hey, this is a pretty great life, nothing tragic at all about it”—well, [for me] it was very much wrapped up with Disco, which I found relentlessly danceable.

Living in Ann Arbor, I also saw discophobia close up and personal. As a DJ I felt the hostility it generated. And the hatred it elicited has always interested me, and was indeed a motivating factor in writing the book.

I know you’re a Gender Studies professor at USC and you touched on a number of intersectional elements in the book (the many factions of the gay community, Funk and R&B genres, etc), which of these do you find the most interesting with regards to Disco?

Disco had different constituencies. There were straight bars that attracted people of different income levels, different ethnicities and races, and the same applied to gay and lesbian bars. And then there were some, such as the one where I worked in Ann Arbor, which drew a wonderful hodgepodge of people, which could get tense, but with the pay-off that sometimes peoples’ heads would get turned around. No one has really studied heterosexually oriented discos because they are harder to study. How do you find people who danced at a mainstream, heterosexual disco in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1978? I have no doubt that you can, but I also suspect it would take forever to locate those folks. So really interesting changes may have been happening in these discos, but someone is going to have to do the work. My own research suggested that in some cities, especially NYC, these sorts of discos were indeed sites of change. The book’s focus is on gay men in large measure because this was the group that was, I think, most affected by Disco. And for me those shifts that I chronicle in Hot Stuff were pretty fascinating.

What were you most surprised to learn as you were conducting your research?

I think I had not taken on board at the time the shift away from effeminacy in gay male masculinity during these years. This was a shift with enormous repercussions, some of which were problematic, but it was only through studying the fiction, plays, films and essays of the time, particularly what was being written by gay men coming out of gay liberation that I began to understand the significance of this change.

Again, you touch on this a bit in your book, but what’s your opinion on current popular dance music (disco nouveau?)—people/groups like Lady Gaga, Hercules & Love Affair, Roisin Murphy, etc?

I have enjoyed the music, and especially the videos, of Gaga in particular. I appreciate what a lot of these Nuevo Disco artists are doing. But, much of it is, for my taste, too faithful to the original sound, and in the end, too on the nose. These days my taste has been pretty eclectic, which perhaps mirrors Pop music more generally. I’ve enjoyed Fleet Foxes, the Black Keys, My Morning Jacket, Paul Simon. Umm, distinctly not Dance.

Who are some of your all-time favorite Disco or Dance music artists?

All-time favorite tracks are easier for me to identify: Diana Ross’s “Long Hangover,” Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s “Running Away,” Teena Marie’s “Behind the Groove,” Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls”…are a few.

What about non-Disco/Dance music artists?

All time faves include Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Bjork, Fiona Apple, the Dandy Warhols, Bob Dylan and of course, Janis Joplin about whom I’ve written a book [ed note: Scars of Sweet Paradise, to be exact—definitely on my reading list!].

What are you currently reading?

Right now I am immersed in the world of 1930s Colorado Springs, which was the site of a financial scandal with which my grandfather was rather intimately involved. So at the moment, I am on Ancestry.com a good part of each day, and I’m reading old newspapers and The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth, who was trying to practice law in Youngstown, Ohio during these years.

I know you’re an expert on the 1960s, do you watch Mad Men? What’s your opinion on the show? What do you like best/not like at all about it?

Mad Men is one of those shows I know I should like, but I don’t. I find it very depressing.

What’s coming up for you? What are you working on now?

My new book is about the aforementioned financial scandal, which I use in large part to discuss class, a category that I think is much in need of resuscitation in America during this Great Recession.

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