Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. By Alice Echols.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, March 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-393-06675-3, $26.95; paper: ISBN 978-0393338911, $16.95. 368 pages.
Review by Joseph E. Morgan, Brandeis University
After dominating American popular culture for the lion’s share of the 1970s, Disco suddenly lost its chic. This once liberating music and culture was abruptly derided in the American mainstream for its shallow consumption and crass embrace of lavish glitz. More recently, the pendulum has swung back as scholars of popular culture have erected a romanticized view of the glitterball culture. In her new book, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, Alice Echols stops the pendulum. With a nuanced interpretation of disco that recognizes the movement’s ability to accommodate the diversity of the American experience, gay, straight, black, or female, Echols has written a sophisticated and thrilling investigation of this oft-simplified music and culture.
One of the best aspects of Echols’s approach is the way she integrates the musical and social aspects of disco culture. In her first chapter “I Hear a Symphony: Black Masculinity and the Disco Turn” which takes us from James Brown to Barry White, and tracks the emergence of Disco from the insistent and whomping beat of Detroit’s Motown through the sumptuous Philadelphia sound, Echols locates a new form of Black masculinity as well as the prototype for disco’s 4/4 thump in a single track—Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft.” This example is telling of Echols’s style; the strength of this text is not its comprehensive coverage of everything disco, but instead its interpretive focus and ability to unpack the multiple meanings built within individual cultural moments.
Chapters Two, “More, More, More: One and Oneness in Gay Disco” and Four “The Homo Superiors: Disco and the Rise of Gay Macho” focus on the role that the music, clubs, dance floors, and culture played in the outing and evolution of gay culture. From the club managers who left the air conditioning off to encourage men to remove their shirts on the dance floor, to the D.J.s who accommodated their playlists to the “week’s drug of choice,” Echols identifies the interactions that facilitated the liberation of the movement. Particularly interesting is Echols’s description of the fashion that characterized the new gay macho. A coded “uniform of the plaid shirt and bomber jacket,” the look emerged both as a pragmatic necessity, “to identify ourselves to other gay people in a populace that wasn’t gay” and in reaction to the traditional image of the homosexual (126).
However, her view of gay disco is neither simple nor uncritical. For example, unlike most modern writers that emphasize the inclusive aspects of Disco culture, Echols also points to the racial segregation in New York’s fashionable Tenth Floor club where “the vibe was if you’re white you’re right, if you’re black stay back.” Her nuanced approach to the culture is refreshing, neither romanticizing nor vilifying. She closes her discussion with an all-too brief account of the arrival of “Saint’s Disease” (later known as AIDS) in the popular Saint’s nightclub in New York City, ending with a strong introduction to the effects of the epidemic, and the common interpretation of the disease as (at least) a moral imperative against gay culture.
Echols’s chapter on women in disco “Ladies’ Night: Women and Disco,” sandwiched between her chapters on homosexuality in disco, argues that by foregrounding female desire, disco was essentially progressive for the women’s movement, this despite the irony that “for many women the biggest problem with discos was not sexual harassment but gay men’s sexual indifference” (78). For example, she points to at least two critics who describe the typical form of a disco song’s instrumental break as a musical imitation of the female orgasm. She locates this characteristic in the instrumental break from what is perhaps the first disco track, Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind.” Echols’s narrative then shifts to the emergence of the black diva in disco, and traces the roots of disco’s black feminism (as she had with disco’s black masculinity) from the R&B artists from the early seventies. Thus the public personalities and musical identities of artists like Donna Summer and Labelle are shown to be influenced by the work of Sylvia Robinson and Jean Knight.
The sixth chapter, “One Nation under a Thump?: Disco and its Discontents” describes the fall of disco. The blanching and suburban commodification are cited as the primary death blows, but the contribution of reactionary “discophobes” and the broader conservative movement are also given their due responsibility. However, her coverage of the “Disco Sucks” movement and its orchestration by rock d.j.s is also given nuance. Indeed, Echols breaks new ground in disco literature when she acknowledges that “the rhetoric of discophobia suggests that anti-disco rockers were also critical of what they saw as disco’s perceived innocuousness and conventionality” (213). This viewpoint resists the common trope in modern scholarship that writes off the entire anti-disco movement as stereotypically based on homophobia and racism. The chapter ends as Echols attempts to come to terms with the influence of disco, citing the disco-rock hybrid that comprised so much eighties dance music. One example of this influence is found in the androgyny of Madonna, Prince, Grace Jones, and Annie Lennox, who built upon the “implicit queerness of seventies’ disco” for their looks (229).
In all, the book is a wonderful read. Echols’s account is that of an informant, and although she is quite aware of her own bias, it is when she is describing the progressivism of the Disco movement that her narrative sparkles. The perfect combination of fan and scholar, Echols’s account of the era and the book is very well researched (with over 50 pages of notes) and will go a long way towards fairly documenting the history and impact of Disco on American popular culture.

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