Hairy Chests and Proto-Twerking: Why the Disco Era Deserves Another Look

saturdaynightfever
Emptiest dance floor ever.

Recently I’ve been listening to an album that most teenagers probably wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: the 1977 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. You know, the one with the Bee Gees on it that’s been collecting dust in your parents’ attic for the past forty years? Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Noah, why would you listen to an album that only exists to give old people something to dance to at Bar Mitzvahs?” I’ll tell you why.

A good number of the tracks on this album are mind-blowingly incredible. Seriously, the Bee Gees were able to construct some timeless pop masterpieces back in 1977. “Jive Talkin’”? “More Than a Woman”? These are great songs! While the cheesiness can be overbearing at times (there’s a song called “Open Sesame” about getting down with a genie) and the instrumentals are a bit unnecessary (looking at you, “Night on Disco Mountain”), the truly enduring tracks easily overpower any tackiness. And what’s more, Saturday Night Fever has come closer than just about any other album in capturing the essence of a time period. The lush string arrangements and Barry Gibb falsetto featured on the album scream “1970’s” more than an all-day marathon of The Brady Bunch.

brady_bunch
Pictured: My parents’ childhood.

But that is precisely why many modern listeners spurn the album, and disco in general. Saturday Night Fever (the album and the movie) defined mainstream white pop culture in the late 1970’s. The album went fifteen times platinum in the United States, and it continues to be played on the radio so much that I guarantee anyone reading this will recognize at least five songs. But mainstream white pop culture in the late 1970’s was, well, kind of lame. Hairy chests? Polyester suits? The “Travolta” dance? My dad said that he was taught how to disco dance at his high school prom. Bust out the Travolta in the middle of a prom in 2014, and you’ll be booed off the dance floor. Rock fans in the late 70’s initiated a bitter backlash against disco, which came to a head when, in 1979, a Chicago baseball stadium held a “Disco Demolition Night” in which spectators brought their disco records to be blown up in a giant crate. We look back at the disco dance craze with about as much favor as the Macarena or the line dancing of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart”.

billyray
Or maybe it was just the mullet.

And I know many of you will be heartbroken to hear this, but twerking is bound to fall out of popular favor at some point. However, Saturday Night Fever has staying power beyond the silly fads that it was associated with. And I’m not alone in thinking this. Saturday Night Fever is ranked as the 132nd best album of all time by Rolling Stone, and is Pitchfork’s 34th best album of the 70’s. The quality songwriting and sheer melodic power behind these songs is nothing to scoff at. This one album was able to popularize a genre that had been associated with the gay underground for years, and the entrance of gay culture into the mainstream helped instigate the fight for gay rights that continues today. And lest we forget, disco has been massively influential to other genres of music. Modern dance music would be virtually unrecognizable without disco as a touchstone. The synthesizers on disco songs such as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” popularized the electronic sound that would morph into EDM. The mastermind behind “I Feel Love”? Legendary producer Giorgio Moroder, who is credited with pioneering early synthpop and electronic music. Some of you may recognize him as the subject of “Giorgio by Moroder”, a song from Daft Punk’s newest album.

ClassicTracks_01
The dynamic duo.

The disco classic “Good Times” by Chic (featuring another Daft Punk muse, guitar player Nile Rodgers) formed the basis of the very first hit rap song, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, which entered the Top 40 in late 1979. It’s fair to say that rap music was an outgrowth of disco, however much hip-hop heads may not want to admit it. Michael Jackson spent the first few years of his adult career as a disco artist, and his most disco-ish album, 1979’s Off the Wall, is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. New Wave acts such as Blondie, New Order, and The Human League incorporated disco into their music, keeping the genre alive well into the 80’s. It’s time the young generation stops viewing disco as a ridiculous relic of a bygone era, and starts seeing it as an example of dance music done right. After all, who would want to live in a world without this song?

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1 Comment

  1. Really interesting piece– made me want to give the Bee Gees another look. Some of their early songs were my favorites, like “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You.” Thanks for offering a new perspective on disco.

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