Feature

Book of the week: Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols

Echols makes a compelling case that the disco music of 1970s America played a meaningful role in helping women, minorities, and gay men realize dreams of equality that were born in the idealistic ’60s.

(Norton, 338 pages, $26.95)

Nobody hates disco like they used to, said Melissa Anderson in Newsday. Thirty-one years after Chicago’s Comiskey Park entertained spectators by blowing up a mountain of disco records, there’s hardly a wedding or bar mitzvah that goes by without a joyous, seat-clearing resurrection of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Historian Alice Echols isn’t the first author to consider disco’s cultural contributions, but her judgments feel uncommonly sound: She’s right to note, for instance, that the Village People still merit listeners’ scorn. In bringing “a scholar’s acumen but a fan’s ardor” to her study of disco, she makes a compelling case that the dance soundtrack of 1970s America played a meaningful role in helping women, minorities, and gay men realize dreams of equality that were born in the idealistic ’60s.

Disco’s ties to gay culture have been well documented, said Michaelangelo Matos in Bookforum. The gay liberation movement was inspired, in part, by anger at raids made on bars that allowed same-sex dancing. In the ’70s, gay men took to dance floors with revolutionary zeal, creating a market for a beat-heavy new sound. But Echols notices story lines that other writers haven’t, perhaps because she was a deejay in the ’70s. Disco provided a strings-saturated new R&B for an aspiring black middle class, said Warren Pederson in the San Francisco Chronicle. It also became the party music of women “seeking an outlet for their increasing sexual awareness.” Time calculated that, on the extended mix of the 1975 hit “Love to Love You Baby,” Donna Summer moaned and groaned her way through 22 simulated orgasms.

One of Echols’ “most vivid” chapters dissects Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 film that pushed disco’s popularity to its apex, said James Gavin in The New York Times. The John Travolta movie successfully “heterosexualized” disco, but it and other attempts to capitalize on the music’s appeal also provoked critics. Echols points out that disco was simultaneously attacked for being too mindless and too calculated, “too black and too white, oversexed and asexual.” The music suffered so much at the hands of critics because it “was never intended for close listening” but instead for hot, dark clubs and inebriated dancers. Even so, Echols’ “fond, insightful history” should convince many that it “wasn’t as trashy as people said it was.”

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