What – or better yet, what has been-disco?
Groovy music, big hair and dance moves all had the hallmarks of a fad: hugely popular in their 1970s heyday, then lost to history as the culture shifted. But disco was as much a product of its place as of its time, and the cities where the genre debuted (New York, notably) created the conditions to build and amplify its culture. The elements of city life – clubs, cultural diversity and class stratification – were all fuel for disco hell.
In this regard, disco is part of a long history of culture that takes off in cities. Wherever there is a large concentration of people living in one place, art, music and other creative works follow. And while disco itself has evolved over the past 50 years, these truths have not. Cities still shape culture today, often at a much faster pace. This is why the history of disco is rich with modern lessons on how a movement is born, thrives and dies as a result of economic, social and technological changes.
The subcultures that created disco
Throughout the 20th century, powerful forces such as racism, homophobia, and economic opportunity drew oppressed groups in the United States to urban centers, where they sought to earn a living. When black Americans emigrated from the Jim Crow South and Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in the United States, they settled in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago in search of opportunities, creating cultural enclaves. Without these “bases” of culture, you don’t get disco.
In its heyday, the sound of disco was enjoyed by people around the world, but the genre has its roots in these black, Latina, and queer communities in the United States. Disco fits neatly into the larger legacy of black American influence on popular music: the genre evolved in the late 1960s and 1970s from earlier iterations of black musical traditions like 1960s R&B, soul and rock, while also being influenced by Latin sounds. like salsa, brought to the United States by Puerto Ricans from New York.
People of all stripes enjoyed disco, but it became especially popular among black and Latino gay men, who danced to disco in self-identified gay clubs without fear of persecution. Lowlights and long DJ mixes that seamlessly blended one song into the next created a safe space to dance the night away with a same-sex partner, without having to worry about prying eyes or awkward moments between songs.
The spaces that built disco
In addition to the music itself, disco was defined by dancing and loud clubs where people gathered to hear DJs spinning records and getting lost on the dance floor. One of the first and most revered nightclubs was The Loft, created in New York by the famous DJ David Mancuso.
What would become one of the city’s most legendary nightclubs began as a classic tale of city life: the rent was too high. In 1970, Mancuso was a young man living in a large loft in midtown Manhattan that he couldn’t afford, so to make rent at the end of the month, he threw rental parties — for a small fee. Admission ($2.50 the first night), people came to dance and party in the loft while Mancuso played his extensive record collection on the speakers. Mancuso’s idea was not new; rent parties were a common community solution to the high cost of living for city dwellers, especially in urban black communities (pdf), dating from the 1930s and 1940s.
Mancuso’s rental parties quickly became the hottest ticket to town, in part because they were spaces where everyone was accepted, regardless of identity. Before long, loft parties were formalized in The Loft, which operated in various Manhattan locations for the next 20 years.
Lifestyles celebrated by disco
If The Loft told the story of disco’s popular beginnings, Studio 54 was its pinnacle. In 1977, the club, also in Manhattan, was one of the most popular and exclusive clubs in the city, known as much for turning people away at the door as for the A-list celebrities it let in. The club was busy. by people like Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli and michael jackson.
Studio 54 encapsulated a kind of idealized city life in the late 70s; it was home to New York’s wealthiest and most powerful class and celebrated everything that went along with that lifestyle: decadence, fashion, music and drugs. The club was infamous for allowing the open use of illegal drugs, namely cocaine, which burst onto the scene in New York through the Medellin Cartel from Colombia.
The other cultural touchstone of the disco era was the hit 1977 film Saturday night fever. The film stars John Travolta as a young man from Brooklyn who hits the disco dance floor on weekends to escape the trials and tribulations of his working-class life. The film was based on a new York magazine article—itself more legend than fact—that profiled the disco scene at the time.
The author of the article, British journalist Nick Cohn, later admitted to having manufacturing the story and most of its main characters, relying heavily on working-class New York stereotypes and observations, combined with his own childhood memories of gangsters in London and Northern Ireland. All of this created an image of tough city life where opportunity was scarce, but disco offered an escape.
How cities shape culture
As the late 70s gave way to the 80s, disco declined almost as rapidly as its rise: overhyped and overplayed on radio stations across the United States, it quickly fell into disuse. But the genre never really “died”. It evolved to give birth to other successive genres such as house music and eventually techno, and experienced a revival of popular music today, almost 50 years later.
At this time, the townspeople continued to produce new music and cultures; movements like hip hop, neo-expressionist art, grungyand K-pop all debuted in major global cities. In each movement, many key environmental elements remained in place: many different people gathered in close proximity, the development of a particular social or political consciousness, the economic pressure to create art and a creativity that inspired more than creativity.
In turn, these cultural products become essential for the cities that create them: local music and art shape a city’s identity and, in doing so, feeds its economy attracting residents and increasing property values. Places like New York, Seoul and Berlin have become world capitals as much for their cultural cachet as for their economic power. The advent of the Internet and social media has only supercharged the capacity of hypercrowded urban centers to create and expand their influence. Today, Amsterdam DJs can connect with kids in atlantaand designers in Paris can talk to models in Rio de Janeiro.
Perhaps the greatest test of cities’ cultural influence has been the pandemic, when lockdowns, travel restrictions and ‘remote’ living inspired lots of speculation about changing cultural trends, and where would land the identity of the cities. Fortunately, any obituaries on the cultural influence of urban centers appear to have been premature, meaning that many of the ingredients that have helped disco thrive – escapism, inclusivity and physical unity – can be put in place to re-inform the next musical phenomenon.