Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sister Disco

This past Sunday's New York Times Book Review contained a review of a book called Hot Stuff, a sociological examination of disco, and the chosen reviewer, one James Gavin, makes the all-too-common error of marginalizing the very music he comes to praise. I'm not a huge fan of disco, but at its best it was pretty good - like Blink-182-style punk-pop two decades later, melody was surprisingly well-honored in the genre, and melody is what I first listen for in a song - and the subject is surely ripe for cultural exploration.

The problem is, Gavin appears to know nothing about pop music. He seems to think that the only thing that makes music substantive is socially conscious lyrics, lamenting that Labelle was one of the few disco acts for whom "substance crept in." This right after a brief discussion of Chic, which is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and whose members were quickly snapped up by white icons like David Bowie and Madonna and Robert Palmer to lend some disco propulsion to their works. Not so coincidentally, Chic's anthem "Le Freak" also celebrated the outsiderness endemic to many of disco's fans. Gavin didn't notice, though.

But he wants to revel in the music's outsider status, complaining that "Rock radio boycotted it, and 'Disco Sucks' T-shirts were a common sight." He doesn't seem to notice that disco ruled the radio for a long time: The first five Number One singles of 1978 were "How Deep Is Your Love," "Stayin' Alive," "(Love Is) Thicker Than Water," "Night Fever" and "If I Can't Have You." (OK, I left out the awful "Baby Come Back," which everyone wants to forget.) Other Number Ones that year included "Shadow Dancing," "Miss You," "Boogie Oogie Oogie," Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park," and "Le Freak." So who cares whether K-Rock played "Dim All the Lights"? Rock radio never plays Frank Sinatra or Porter Wagoner either, but you don't hear me whining about it.

Gavin's notions of the relationship between gay culture and disco are bizarre as well. He writes of the Village People, "The members played it safe by staying coyly evasive about their sexuality." I was in elementary school in Tennessee at this point, and even I knew the Village People were supposed to be gay. If that Indian was playing it safe, I'd hate to see him going out on a limb.

Actually, Gavin is probably not so much ignorant of these things as he is trying to tell a story that ever existed. Disco started as outsider music, but it was hugely popular for a while, then - like most pop genres from doo-wop to grunge - its popularity faded. And some of the songs in the disco genre are quite good, and even substantive.

That apparently wasn't enough for Mr. Gavin, who needed to create an alternate history. The book under review, though, appears to be much better than the review. Let's hope it's at least more honest.


  1. The problem is, Gavin appears to know nothing about pop music.


  2. I would have written "James appears to know nothing about pop music," but that would have elicited nasty comments from Etta James.