Discophobia: how Outrage Culture of the 1970s Translates Today
As we look at every decade, each one leaves its signature imprint on the cultural landscape: the rise of second wave feminism in the 70s, the birth of MTV in the 80s, supermodels of the 90s, and a low-rise waistline in the early 2000s. Each decade has its heroes, role-models that people we look up to. Some events, however, are not necessarily recognised at the time, but it’s them, which when all dust settles, define the time we remember. The year was 1970. Liberation of all sorts was flourishing, and so did the nightlife. After the frantic 1960s, the sexual revolution, Women’s Movement, and defence of Gay Rights it finally came the time to sit back, reflect on what happened and what still needed to be done. Naturally, rich cultural and social life affected the creative cluster and the new genre emerged. Disco music was the first to become a common ground for people of every nationality, race, and age group. It was a unifying medium after a decade of very serious music covering mostly political events and serving as a form of protest. Disco was aiming to break the boundaries and become accessible for everybody to enjoy. Nonetheless, for some it was considered unauthentic, homosexual, and highly commercialized (The Spinning Story, 2005). In my essay I am going to explore the most memorable phenomenon of the 1970s, ‘discophobia’. Using the works of Richard Dyer, Bradford Martin, Gillian Frank, and other scholars I will try to theorise how the disco music and the culture around it were tied with the gay identity, and how discophobia is closely intertwined with antigay prejudice, and the roles multiple media played to construct and police the expression of normative sexuality. Using the ‘antidisco discourses’ reinforced at the time I will try to explore disco as queer, gender transgressive, elitist, and socially threatening event, which will help me to understand cultural anxieties about gender and sexualities in the 1970s, and how the same patterns of denial affect us today.
Part I: Getting Defensive
After 1960s, where as I mentioned before, rock music was on the rise, the ultimate criterion for assessing any type of music was ‘authenticity’, its ability to convey the message of liberation movement and rebellion. By 1970, however, rock movement increasingly fragmented, dividing was rock into subgenres. It started to become an increasingly mainstream music, focusing less on political ideologies. The audience remained overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, male, and suburban and in many people’s mind rock still carried the weight of being a serious political art form. The rise of gay liberation movement happened at the same time as youth movement and rock music became more and more fragmented. The movement rendered gender and sexuality as another important site of struggle. Events like Stonewall Riots brought together the previous underground gay culture with the confrontational technic of the radical social movements of the 1960s – before the late 1960s, it was difficult for gays to congregate in public spaces without fear of police harassment; many gay clubs were controlled by mafia. After Stonewall, gay community began to claim more public space to dance and associate with each other, more gay political activism, culture, institutions were flourishing. Arguably, Stonewall Riots significantly contributed to the emergence, as well as its controversial reputation. Series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations from the gay community against a police raid in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village showcased as mafia, popular among the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: drag queens, transgender, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, homeless youth. Police raids on gay bars in the 60s, was a routine, situation and Stonewall Inn quickly lost control.
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Village residents, organised activist groups which led to Gay Rights organisations quickly founded across the country. In early 1970s, Disco music created primarily by LatinX or African-Americans, many of which were African-American women, served as a tool of being visible in the public space. These demographics received esteem and respect within the music scene at disco clubs, the latter becoming important venues for gay rights organisations to raise funds and awareness. All this significantly affected the overall perception of disco by the mainstream culture. What is that with a ‘fragile masculinity’ we keep seeing everywhere today. Historically living in a patriarch society it was innately considered dangerous when any sort of sexual or gender fluidity occurred. Not surprisingly, white male and middle-class of the 70s sees disco culture as limiting their ability to interact with women, excluding them from heterosexual spaces, imperilling their heterosexuality, privileging an inauthentic form of masculinity (Frank 287). For centuries the society has been trying to contextualise human behavior, put the frames around what is “right” and what is “wrong”. Interestingly, the values considered solid and invincible at a certain point in time have a tendency to change and even evaporate over the years. One of my favourite writers, the author of a celebrity-construction manual “Heavenly Bodies” and “Stars”, Richard Dyer opens his essay “In Defence of Disco” with a confession: “I have always been listening to the wrong music” – quite a strong statement to make. The question that it rises to me is can any music be wrong to listen to? In most of the works that I am familiar with, Dyer showed himself as a master of a deep social analysis. The essay at hand is not an exception: from a research question he breaks down the “disco” as not just the music, but a notion closely tied with a concept of Capitalism. Arguing his case Dyer touches on the idea of “authenticity” that has been the cornerstone to many scholars and philosophers for years. Regardless of a point of view you would try to look at it, it is hard to definitively tell if “authenticity” is actually possible. Particularly speaking about disco, or any music or artform for that matter, we can never find anything truly authentic.
Yet, what people usually confuse with it, is their nostalgia for an idea of the “simple, harmonious community existence” of the past, where art was produced fairly and easily, allowing the author to express themselves. According to Dyer, “that never even existed” and I hasten to agree – Michelangelo also had to sustain his living, which only helped him to play along with the Medicis afterall. My argument here, is that even the greatest artists of all time left their incredible legacy being not totally authentic, but adjusting to the cultural and social norms they have created in. Another important issue investigated by Dyer is representation: what cultural phenomenons are represented by disco. The author implies three characteristics of disco: eroticism, romanticism, and materialism. It is particularly interesting for me how the society interprets art in a certain cultural setting. After almost 40 years we do not necessarily think of disco as materialistic, let alone erotic. But at the time of its appearance and Dyer’s analysis, it probably was, therefore, a certain imprint of social attitude shadowed the genre. Curiously, that this attitude was negative because of the things disco represented: denying eroticism, I suppose people still secretly went through raunchy magazines; opposing materialism, I am sure everyone dreamed of a new car or a designer bag. Ironically, these were the same people complaining about inauthenticity. I believe Dyer’s defence of disco is not only an insight into the musical trend of the 1970s, but also a compelling research on ever changing people’s attitude towards representation of archetypical human qualities through art. In the end, any music can be wrong to listen to if you stick to a certain social or political ideology.
Part II: Litmus Test
The change in ideology happened in the mid decade, when disco began to cross over to straight community. It is very interesting to track how simple marketing tricks, like using a relatable prototype in the movie, can affect the public mind and almost change the ideology, much of which we are seeing these days. Two phenomena contributing to that cross-over are described in Gillian Frank’s Discophobia. ‘Saturday Night Fever’, the movie starring John Travolta and its soundtrack mostly written and performed by Bee Gees kind of took disco out of the closet, while WKTU-FM – New York’s first all-disco radio station, was conquering middle-class America, becoming the most popular radio station in the country by 1979. This made disco into a highly profitable commercial industry and enabled disco to spread quickly to white and straight communities across country. That, nonetheless, didn’t last as a highly popularised disco quickly faced backlash that primarily could be boiled down to an anti-LGBT.
In 1977 Florida antigay campaign ‘Save our Children Inc.’ that argued that homosexuality is contagious, and exposure to it may turn anyone gay, especially the male children, on the contrary induced more gays and lesbians to become politically active and come out. In the media – the rhetoric covering disco music echoed the antigay political discourse, which saw disco music with its origin among urban gay male and African Americans, going hand in hand with homosexuality spreading across the country, taking over mainstream white culture. What is particularly interesting to me, is how one thing could be used as a cornerstone of a fight against what is considered to be ‘wrong values’, creating an ‘outrage culture’, the term later coined by a pro- Trump activist Candace Owens. I will talk about that later in my essay, but it is captivating that similar social patterns could be tracked throughout history. Additionally, what contributed to the anti-disco outrage is a constant comparison of the latter to rock music. Rock was continuously presented as ‘authentic’, live, creating relationships between performers and fans, as opposed to exclusive and elitist, synthetic tunes made for cultivated clientele.
The argument here is that rock is easily produced by non-professionals, all that is needed is a few instruments and somewhere to play, whereas Disco music requires the recording studio technology which makes it impossible for non professionals (The kid on the street) to produce (Dyer, 1979). What was not paid attention to is that rock is also expensive and remained in practice largely preserved by middle class who could afford electric guitars and music lessons. More importantly, this kind of music production is wrongly thought of as being generated from grass roots (except certain key historical moments), non- professional music making, in rock as elsewhere, bases itself on professional music. Any notion that rock emanates from ‘the people’ is soon confronted by the recognition that what the people are doing is trying to be much like professionals as possible (Dyer, 1979). The notion that disco is the responsible for killing ‘real’ music, should be taken with a grain of salt as one must understand that it opened the doors to eternal possibilities in music and created a path to what we know today as electronic music. At the same time its importance to the formation of the gay male identity can not be underestimated (Hughes, 1994).
When it comes to terms of sexualization of culture disco is the one most commonly associated with the ‘coming out’ of gay man and the early rise of feminism. Disco contributed to the creation of one specific, highly criticised and publicised sector of the ‘gay community’, urban gay males, a construction obtained by the mass media and by the urban gay males themselves. Then again, we question ourselves, what is it about disco music that allows men to freely dance with each other and confidently represent their sexual identity to society? Women also obtained power in the sense that they didn’t need a man to dance, they didn’t need a man to celebrate, and they didn’t need a man for their own comfort. Women became expressive and straightforward. Disco music allowed women to become independent and confidently express their feelings. Diana Ross’s single Ain’t No Mountain High Enough released in 1970s celebrates the emotion of sadness, and with its expressive romantic lyrics such as ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough, Nothing can keep me, To keep me from getting to you babe’ many gay men were drawn into the genre due to the relation with their personal struggles and emotions. Seeing a heterosexual woman singing about her desire for men instantly becomes a trait for identification with gay males. Despite the fact gay culture was creating a blurriness in gender, whatever its limitations it was a culture to defend (Dyer, 1979). The fact that many of its most committed fans, deejays, and remixers were gay men encouraged this view that disco was not the real thing (Echols, 2010). Unfortunately, nobody defended this music apart from the disco fans themselves and certain writers. The epitome of disco hate happened marked with arguably one of the most notorious events of the 1970s is Steve Dahl’s ‘Disco Demolition Night’. What is particularly worth noting is the motivation behind it. Portrayed as excluding straight men and challenging hetereosexuality through women finding disco, or dancing to it ‘better than sex’, no longer desired heterosexual men, and disco-goers as unmanly, effeminate, disco-culture undermining gender difference and thus heterosexuality.
The ‘Disco Demolition Night’ was a result of build up feelings against disco especially from the middle class white men. The violent backlash against disco in 1979 transformed disco from a socially acceptable form of music and culture to one that was highly stigmatised. However, the backlash was directed not simply at the musical genre but at the identities linked to disco culture (Frank, 2007). The backlash against disco saw heterosexual men attack disco music because they believed that disco music limited they abilities to interact with women, excluded them from hetero- social spaces, and privileged unauthentic forms of masculinity (Jeffords, 1989).
Part III: Intersectionality
Whenever any cultural shift receives an active backlash, almost in every case we can find its reflection throughout almost every other social cluster. If disco was stricken by the mainstream society for being gay, I would like to now draw your attention to a very interesting phenomenon happening these days where feminists and LGBTQ community is attacking straight society. First, I would like to make it clear, that being a queer man myself, I am not trying to argue that straight white demographic can experience the same level of hatred and persecution, however, it is interesting to track same techniques of ‘overblaming’ certain tendencies for damaging the society. From this perspective it is interesting to examine how sexualisation of culture, started in the 60s, and picked up by disco in the 70s, is continued to be studied by feminism scholars today. In 2010 Adrienne Evans, Sarah Riley and Avi Shankar released a piece ‘Technologies of Sexiness: Theorizing Women’s Engagement in the Sexualization of Culture’, which I find extremely interesting in relation to how the male perspective is described towards women being liberated in representation of their sexuality. While reading it I immediately thought of the similar dynamics in terms of accumulating the argument around a notion that is not necessarily substantiated. Like disco was once blamed for spreading homosexuality, the authors of ‘Technologies of Sexiness’ argue that ‘male gaze’ is promoting a wrong type of sexuality. I offer a new perspective on why male gaze could be not that wrong.
The idea, which I find very problematic, is that female sexuality can be separated from any sort of any actual sexual activity as if ‘sexuality’ or female sexualization can exist on its own operated by non-physical, totally platonic rules. First is a quote by Rosalind Gill: ‘[women are] endowed with agency on condition that it is used to construct oneself as a subject closely resembling the heterosexual male fantasy’. When I analyse this statement I understand that by ‘heterosexual fantasy’ it is implied to be the stereotype of a young, fit, white woman with voluptuous forms. The immediate question I have: Can it be a fantasy of a gay woman as well? If the answer is yes, which I think it is, then the whole sentence becomes irrelevant. However, I do understand and agree with the point that the author is trying to make, that it is way more common for a heterosexual male to fantasise about a certain type of woman and that leads to this particular stereotype being perpetuated in the ‘female sexualization’, therefore neglecting other different types of ‘sexy’. Nevertheless, this leads me to a second notion, which is the concept of male gaze, male heterosexuality being referred to as toxic. In my mind this idea that swirls around the predatory intentions of the male, his desire to sexualise a woman, is hypocritical. What I find unsettling in that is if we consider this gaze let’s say not inclusive, can we then with great certainty say that sexuality can exist apart from ‘the gaze’ at all? The text often refers to female sexuality as liberating (from what exactly? Patriarchal suppression? The male gaze?) but doesn’t this creates another box of a ‘female gaze’, which lies within ‘a narcissistic neo-liberal self-policing gaze’ and is the latter really self-policing? Can this environment of women sexualization create another environment of women policing and judging each other? Of course, it has been argued that this peer judgement among women is created by patriarchy and the taught-in necessity to be conventionally ‘better’ and another according to male standards.
However, can this peer judgement appear based on some solely ‘female’ standards? On another note, does female sexuality lack the ‘predatory’ aspect of a male gaze? The authors say, ‘Such a resignification can be seen in relation to the popularization of pole-dancing, which has shifted from an activity typically associated with the sex industry to all female exercise classes.’ ‘Furthermore, since pole-dancing classes often take place in women only spaces, the male-gaze historically associated with pole-dancing is absent.’ – which is true as a fact, but what is implied by that? That females separated themselves from predatory men, and created a safe space for exploring their sexuality, but what is the core purpose of a pole-dancing class? Whether or not it is heterosexual, or gay, the point of sexualization is to eventually attract sexual attention to oneself and therefore ‘the gaze’ becomes valid, because it was the goal in the first place. A circumstantial proof to what I have said may be the idea of ‘alternative’ porno-chic aesthetics of the Nerve and SuicideGirls mainly female online communities, who represent ‘smart smut’ or subcultural pornographies.’ I understand that these aesthetics have been created apart from direct heterosexual male sexuality influence but they again don’t lack the universal sexual context of being desirable (regardless by a man or a woman). What further proves my point is a quote, ‘female sexual identities may be performed in ways that subvert traditional discourses of femininity, this subversion is tempered in two ways: by the limitations imposed on who may participate in these practices, and by how they are read by others/the media.’ To conclude what I tried to unpack above, I am trying to say that any sexuality in its core is so to say ‘predatory’. The very intent of being sexual is wanting attention and fantasising about intercourse to some extent. And what I find hypocritical is that ‘male gaze’ is considered ‘wrong’ when it is just different from a conventional female understanding of sexuality, the base of which is the same as a male one.
Conclusion: The Outrage Culture
In the world of social media it is really hard to stay away from opinions that sometimes go overboard. What started as political correctness sometimes grows into a cathartic excitement about being outraged. The society looks for and finds the instances to be angry about. Sometimes rightfully so, but mostly it goes from fighting for truth to moral policing and witch hunt. Candace Owens says: ‘You have to wait 48 hours if somebody hates you, and people will be on somebody else to hate’. The rage gets to you really fast, as fast as it goes away. Instead of entering a discussion and listening to other people’s opinions, it is more acceptable to silence people if their views go not in line with most ‘leftist’, ‘politically correct’, or ‘socially acceptable’ outlooks. In the pre-internet culture of the 70s it was more or less explainable, but it is baffling today to see the same blind outrage towards something uncommon. The case with Roseanne Barr, who was wrong, who exibited racism, but was never given a chance to explain herself, and most importantly the people who even tried to support her being boycotted, deserves a study of its own. We live in a ‘conversationphobic’ society, where we constantly find a new target to blame for the most recent political, economic, or social problem. Whether or not you agree with Roseanne, disco music, or destructive influence of male gaze on female sexuality, the idea that we can not have a conversation after someone voices a controversial statement is as outrageous as it gets. Disco music was a genre that represented an oppressed group. It gave sound, sparkle, and identity to the community of people striving for change. Despite the claims of creating a blurriness in gender and creating synthetic sound, disco was a genre that changed music industry and society forever. It sparked an important conversation about gender identity, body, sexuality, commercialism, and authenticity. The conversation that could not be silenced despite any attempt of being demolished. What is an important takeaway? Sometimes what is appears to go across your views, can be a life changing concept that will step up the world’s culture. If only it would be heard.
- Disco: Spinning the Story. – Part 1. (2005) www.youtube.com
- Dyer, R., 1979. In Defense of Disco. 1st ed., Routledge.
- Echols, A., 2011. Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. 1st ed. New York: Norton and Company.
- Evans A., Riley S., Shankar A., Technologies of Sexiness: Theorizing Women’s Engagement in the
- Sexualization of Culture. Feminism & Psychology (2010) SAGE (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC) http://fap.sagepub.com, Vol. 20(1): 114–131.
- Frank, G., 2007. Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash against Disco. Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 16, 276-306
- Jeffords, S., 1989. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and Vietnam War. 1st ed. Indiana:
- Rogan, J., Candace Owens on Outrage Culture (2018)