The Professor on the Dance Floor



 When I was in grad school at Vanderbilt in the ‘90s, Thursday night was “Disco Night” at Nashville’s Underground dance club. One particular night, working my boogie shoes to the Bee Gees’ classic “You Should Be Dancing,” I finally understood the lyrics: “What you doin’ and you’re laying on your back? You should be dancing!”

Now, granted, that call to action is not exactly the stuff of Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan, but it is a question worth considering. And, understanding the lyrics and gyrating among a sea of fellow-partiers, I was proud of myself for not being home laying on my back—I was dancing! And dancing and disco, it turns out, are not trivial things.

Scholar and former DJ Alice Echols has given disco three-hundred pages of consideration in her absorbing, entertaining bookHot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (Norton, $26.95). Echols blends the scholarly with the appreciatory: she is here to praise disco, not to bury it. She sees it as playing an important role in the important social transformations in the 1970s. Disco comes straight from the places of America’s biggest cultural anxieties: the feminist movement, race relations, and especially gay liberation.

“The central paradox of disco,” she says, “is that, for music so lyrically slight—‘get down tonight’ being typical—it packed such a cultural, social, and political wallop. Disco destabilized racial, gender, and sexual conventions and rules, yet unlike so much '60s music, it did not strain to be meaningful.”
But behind the music, other things were happening. “Disco offended people across the political spectrum,” Echols says. The title, Hot Stuff, is meant to “signal disco’s ‘hotness.’ It was attacked for being both too gay and too straight, too black and too white, oversexed and asexual, leisure class and leisure-suited/loser class. While many on the left disparaged its open embrace of commercialism, social conservatives like Anita Bryant attacked it as ‘pornographic’ and pro-gay.”

Echols lived through this era as a participant and a budding cultural studies scholar. “In my own experience, walking into a lesbian bar in Albuquerque in 1973 was one of the scariest things I had ever done, but it was also terribly exciting. It’s where I began to see the possibilities, where I experienced the exhilaration of coming out, of being gay. This consciousness wasn’t forged at a march but at a bar!” Then, a few years later, while she “was practicing dissertation-avoidance” in a PhD program at the University of Michigan, Echols took her interest in music and put it to work. She started DJ’ing at the Rubaiyat, which she describes as “a flytrap for the fringe” with a crowd that included “flight attendants and librarians—a good number of them gay men—and lesbian-feminist bus drivers, some of whom moonlighted as prostitutes at a nearby massage parlor.” With a crowd like that, how could what was going on inside the club not have been transformational?

How does Echols locate social and political significance in disco, given its admittedly superficial elements? She digs deep and goes through the music into the times. And the music was in the dance club, where these changes were occurring—changes in look, in individual behavior, and in community. These changes, Echols argues, moved from the dance floor into the streets. “One can see, viscerally and palpably, the way disco transformed the lives of gay men in that era—the ways they experienced each other and themselves.”

[Here are some of the most enduring disco anthems]

Tags: Books