Why Don't We Go Back to Calling All Dance Music “Disco?”

Disco never really died, but it’s definitely been divided
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Disco never really died, but it’s definitely been divided
Disco Ball Michael McKennedy 2010

Image credit: Michael McKennedy.

Congratulations, music fan, you’ve at least managed to start reading this piece before responding to its title with a vitriolic, knee-jerk tirade in the comments section of wherever you found it. You're already a cut above most of the rest of of the internet, whatever that's worth.

Let’s go ahead and address the title, because it’s obviously why you’re here. In case it wasn’t obvious, that’s a rhetorical question up there in that big, bold font. We will never call all dance music “disco.” We’ve been exclusively calling disco “disco” since the ‘70s, and I’m not quite narcissistic enough that I expect my little rant to divert four decades of cultural inertia.

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I am, however, narcissistic enough to assert that I can list off several reasons why “disco” still makes more sense as an umbrella term for the entire spectrum of our esteemed musical movement than phrases like “electronic music,” “dance music,” or (heaven forbid) “electronic dance music” ever did. Who knows - if you can tolerate the next dozen or so paragraphs of terse, self-indulgent pretense, you might even discover that you agree.

Nothing’s more pretentious than a writer writing about etymology, so let's go ahead and get that out of the way early. The word “discothèque” is a portmanteau of the French words “disque” and “bibliothèque” (which translate to “record” and “library,” respectively) used to describe Paris nightclubs in the 1930s. It got abbreviated to “disco” in the ‘70s when it came to describe a fusion of jazz, funk, pop and salsa that emerged from Philadelphia soul and grew popular amongst gays and minorities who danced at private clubs like The Loft and Paradise Garage in New York City.

The Loft in New York City

Seminal disco club The Loft in NYC.

Disco would not be as eagerly welcomed by the rest of American society. July 12th, 1979 marked “Disco Demolition Night,” a demonstration at Comiskey Park in Chicago in which radio DJs more partial to rock and roll amassed a crowd in the middle of the field and set fire to a heaps of disco records, ultimately inciting a riot. As Magnetic Magazine founder David Ireland recently put it during a conversation of ours, “Disco didn’t just die - it was tarred, feathered, and burned at the stake.”

This happens to be a point of contention between David and myself: I don’t consider disco to have died. Even a passive fan of electronic music can tell you that although it suffered a major blow, disco didn’t just cease to be - it simply went underground. If you’ve been around, you’ve noticed that dance music does that from time to time. It often happens as the result of a political legislation of some sort, or in the case of the recent EDM bubble burst, because of overzealous corporate interest.

In the shadows of the mainstream, disco would go on to birth house music - a style largely pioneered by the late Frankie Knuckles characterized by “tight mixes” of obscure disco records. Around the same time, technological advancements also made actual music producers less dependent on instrumental samples, and the emerging sound of house music would be shaped by the proliferation of analogue synthesizers. Fast forward 30 years, and whether you listen to techno, trance, drum and bass, electro, dubstep, downtempo or hardstyle, you’re hearing something derived from house music.

Frankie Knuckles. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

Frankie Knuckles. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

By extension, then, aren’t all of those genres also all direct descendants of disco? Really, couldn’t all the subsets of electronic music (aside from the few groups like Kraftwerk who operated lateral to this sequence) be considered members of an extended disco family of sorts?

For some reason, you’re not really supposed to ask that question from what I've gathered. David, for example, follows up his argument that disco’s largely instrumental nature clearly distinguishes it from anything that stemmed from house music by warning me that making claims like the one I’m making will discredit me as a music journalist as I open myself up to the scrutiny of more tenured music historians.

Well, dear reader, if the case I've made so far has already made you think so little of my opinion, then you won’t mind if I speculate that you’re only jealous that you didn’t come up with it yourself, will you?

After all, if the differences in production process between disco and its descendants are the sole basis of your argument against the term as a catch-all, keep in mind that its method of delivery has more or less stayed the same - and its greater ethos has remained intact as a result. In a University of Illinois Press article titled “Beyond the Hustle: Seventies Social Dancing, Discotheque Culture and the Emergence of the Contemporary Club Dancer,” Tim Lawrence writes: “The DJ was central to the ritual of 1970s dance culture, but the dancing crowd was no less important, and it was the combination of these two elements that created the conditions for the dance floor dynamic." Only with electronic music's most recent commodification has its constituency forgotten that the DJ is no more important than the crowd.

Moreover, consider the terms “rock and roll” and “hip-hop” as analogies. “Rock and roll” was an African American slang term for sex that was adopted by musicians like Little Richard, and “hip-hop” was appropriated from the first sing-songy verse of Sugar Hill Gang’s 1980 single “Rapper’s Delight” - but as fanciful as the origins of either term may be, neither is associated with a single genre alone. On the contrary, they both refer to much larger, all-pervasive movements whose cultural tropes extend far beyond music and came to symbolize American pop culture on a global scale. Keep in mind that ‘80s hair metal, for instance, is scarcely similar to what The Beatles released on their 1969 album Abbey Road, but both fall into the category of rock and roll nonetheless.

More importantly - especially when you consider the fleeting, intangible essence of music itself - neither “rock and roll” nor “hip-hop” are literal definitions of the movements that they describe. They’re just words that make you feel something, and so is “disco.” At least, I feel something when I hear it, anyways.

And what are our alternatives? Well, in my own writing I tend to alternate between using the labels “electronic music” and “dance music.” Were I really out to discredit myself, I would resign myself to calling it all EDM; the initialism has been so widely condemned by the tenured tastemakers of our movement over the past few years that you almost have to feel sorry for it. 

While it’s now so closely associated with our scene’s recent excess that using it will render you a pariah in certain industry circles, my gripe with it is much simpler: It doesn’t make me feel anything. Any combination of the words “electronic,” “dance” and “music” carries such a sterile textbook tone that, in my opinion, it falls short of capturing the understated elegance of this music.

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So what happened, then? Why is it that by simply having been born before its time, disco has been fragmented in a way that so dramatically contradicts its unifying nature? Hell, maybe we should just blame it on the drugs like we always do. Even if enough people agreed with me that a significant segment of the population adopted “disco” as the umbrella term for all of its successor genres, the confusion caused by doing so would not be justified by what merit the term may have. Besides that - and I’m sure this is a dismissal I’ll see time and time again in the comments - they’re just words, anyways, aren’t they?

No, actually, if you ask me, they're more than that. Language - much like music - is shapeless and fluid in the way it spreads, taking whatever form is necessary to its function while resisting our efforts to contain it. As such, if lifeless words have come to define our culture, I can’t help but feel that in some small way that’s a reflection of its present state.

Iconic disco nightclub Studio 54 New York City.

Iconic disco nightclub Studio 54 in New York City.

I suppose I just like to imagine an alternate timeline in which disco was never thought to have died. I find myself wondering what the world might be like as one big, continuous disco, and this music didn’t have to fall out of the public’s favor every five or so years just to regain its integrity.

It helps to remember that, disco or otherwise, the last 40 years have proven one thing - and that’s that no matter what happens, the beat goes on.