Cultural Historian Alice Echols on Reappraising Disco

From the DJ History archives: the University of Southern California scholar on changing the disco narrative

Alice Echols Peter Zhaoyu Zhou

Few academics can boast of an alternative career as a disco DJ, but Alice Echols can. Now Professor of History and the Barbara Streisand Chair of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, Echols was once the resident DJ at an obscure Michigan nightspot.

She took to the decks after her friends encouraged her to approach the owners of the Rubiyat, a now-closed LGBT bar, while she was studying for a Masters degree at the University of Michigan. After a successful trial shift, she became the venue’s resident DJ.

Although her DJ career was relatively short-lived, it gave Echols an insight into disco and club culture during a key period in the story of American dance music. In 2009, she turned her attention to disco in a much more academic manner, publishing the acclaimed book Hot Stuff: Disco And The Remaking Of American Culture. In it, Echols deconstructs disco and re-examines many of the long-held assumptions about its history and culture.

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Early the following year, Echols spoke to DJ History’s Bill Brewster about the book, disco’s immediate influence and the sound’s changing legacy.

Why write another book on disco? There have been several written recently.

Yes, one critic asked the same question of me when I contacted him about a possible interview for Hot Stuff. 2000 saw the release of Mel Cheren’s memoir and Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, the book you co-wrote with Frank Broughton. By 2005 Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day and Peter Shapiro’s Turn The Beat Around were in bookstores. By the time I got to work on my study, there already were these wonderful books, and other noteworthy contributions to what I call “disco studies,” including several very important articles. Indeed, I wrote a journalistic piece about disco in 1994 and another more substantial one for my collected essays, Shaky Ground in 2002. But I am trained as a historian, specifically a post-1945 US historian. In my discipline, no one ever really has the last word. As I write, there are other scholars busily penning dissertations and articles that will illuminate features of disco that I either overlooked or chose – wrongly or rightly – not to emphasize.

But to answer your question more directly, as I surveyed the emerging field, I came to think that, too often, in disputing the usual arguments that disco culture was celebrity-driven, narcissistic and the very apotheosis of commercialism, writers sometimes romanticized the early disco scene as a democratic underground, and overemphasized its purity, its insulation from the dominant culture. The corollary was that once disco became commercially successful, it did indeed suck, and nothing so much so as the movie, Saturday Night Fever.

We tend to assume that rockers were always opportunistic late-comers to disco, but that’s just not so.

The resulting narratives could be boiled down to: “good” gay disco was supplanted by “bad” mainstream disco. This is very much what I myself believed when I set out to write Hot Stuff. However, as I began to listen to the music again, read the music and cultural criticism of the ’70s and the secondary literature, and watch Saturday Night Fever again, I grew dissatisfied with this narrative, which was too often contradicted by the evidence I was turning up. That said, I want to emphasize how important the emerging work on disco has been to my own.

You challenge a lot of assumptions about disco, including revelatory stuff about disco’s crash in the US. Were you aware of all this before you began writing or did you discover it while researching?

My own views about disco certainly shifted as I worked on the book. I had not known that Bowie’s “Fame” and the Rolling Stones Black and Blue had been characterized as “disco” by some critics at the time of their release. Indeed, I had not understood, really, the extent to which the early ’70s was a time of cross-racial and, especially, transatlantic collaboration, which then became a foundation for what came to be called “disco.” Think of Stevie Wonder’s collaboration with Jeff Beck, Bowie’s with Carlos Alomar and Luther Vandross, and Rufus’s pioneering efforts to push past the boundaries of R&B and rock. Of course, Sly Stone was the innovator, in this respect. This is important because we tend to assume that rock and disco were always antagonists, and that rockers were always opportunistic late-comers to disco, but that’s just not so.

David Bowie - Fame

What new and interesting things did you discover about disco during your research? Why had everyone else missed them?

Others had written about disco culture emerging out of gay clubs, for sure. I think what I did – and this was to some extent through my years of teaching gay/lesbian/queer history – was to connect disco to gay macho, to reveal the profundity of this shift, which had the effect of transforming gay masculine self-presentation, even subjectivity. More and more gay men came to feel, “we’re the men we’ve been looking for,” as novelist Edmund White put it, not the trade that some gay men had been pursuing.

As for race and disco, well, I think, again, my analysis owes a lot to the work of scholars of African-American Studies who’ve emphasized the problems that come with identifying “blackness” as street and hyper-masculine. Likewise, I have been doing gender studies for a long time, so the chapter on women and disco – which explores divas’ sometimes ambivalent relationship to the genre – was one I was in a position to explore. Basically, what it comes down to is this: I work in these areas and I teach in these areas and that gives the book depth. So does my background as a DJ, and not in NYC, LA or San Francisco, but in a small Midwestern college town.

Why do you think that, ultimately, America rejected disco?

America rejected disco for all kinds of reasons – its dominance happened at the precise moment when white males felt under attack by feminism, gays and lesbians, and racial and ethnic minorities; disco challenged the ethos of rock naturalism, which elevated spontaneity, ART and “realness.” Disco culture, when articulated in a straight setting, also made some straight, white guys feel as though they were being asked to adopt a decidedly different masculine style – for example, tucked-in shirts and pleated pants rather than tees and jeans, greater attention to grooming, and a willingness to dance. Scary stuff. Really, it was a style that presaged the metrosexual in some ways.

Why has the USA never really embraced dance music subsequently when the rest of the world has?

Americans did embrace Motown! But that was during a different moment of US history. And disco also amplified the slickness and sweetness of Motown and in ways that seemed to go against expectations of soul music. For most of those who had danced to Motown it seemed real, in contrast to the “artificial shit” that they took disco for. That said, I think America is finally catching up with Europe. Even rap has made the dance music turn. But to answer this question requires more space than I have.

Gay culture was at the forefront of almost all dance music developments arguably until the last 15 years. Why do you think it no longer innovates in the same way any more?

I really don’t know how to answer this. I mean, I don’t think that gay people were ever at the forefront of disco’s aural innovations, except – and this is a pretty big exception, I know – insofar as their own experiences in gay bars – the police raids, the surveillance that interrupted dancing – meant that they were keen on keeping the beat going and on the ever-expanding song length that kept the beat alive.

What does disco mean to you now?

Well, I think classic disco has become, for some artists who complicate gender and sexuality, almost the taproot of transgression, precisely because of its queer past.

Disco’s impact on modern musical culture has been huge and widespread yet few people would either realize or acknowledge it. Why do you think that is?

I think that disco’s influence is slowly coming to be acknowledged. Do I think that it will ever generate the interest that, say, Bob Dylan’s music does? No. Part of this has to do with disco’s lyrical slightness. Dylan, gee, writers can speculate on the meanings of his music forever. So I see some shifting, but not as much change in this respect as I would like.

This interview originally appeared on the DJ History website in 2010. © DJ History

By Bill Brewster on January 14, 2019

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