That’s a lot of action for one little dance club music genre, but it all boiled down to that one word, love it or hate it: disco. The overwhelming glamour of disco is directly tied to the overwhelming success of Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 release, “I Will Survive,” a tune that topped pop charts all over the world, became the women’s empowerment anthem of its day, and almost singlehandedly turned disco into a mainstream genre.
What’s that, you say? Disco was never mainstream in the first place? What about the Village People?
It’s back to basics time, Shmoopers. These days, it’s easy to think of disco as background music or light.fm fodder, a basis for dance music from Madonna all the way up to Lady Gaga, an expansive and ubiquitous genre whose fingerprints show up in the work of pretty much everyone in new millennium pop. But in the 1970s, disco was a phoenix rising from the ashes of the smooth pop music of the 50s and 60s, which had been buried by the overwhelming success of rock and roll and the forceful distractions of politics and social change.
It all started in New York City. As Shapiro claims, “disco was born, maggot-like, from the rotten remains of the Big Apple.” Maggot, phoenix, whatever—disco was an animal that wouldn’t be kept down..
New York City in the 60s and early 70s was plagued by a surge of inner-city poverty and urban unrest. Once a sign of the great prosperity of the U.S., New York had become “a short-hand code for everything that was wrong with America,” writes Shapiro (4). The 1960s had been an exciting time, but the thrills and successes of the Civil Rights Movement had devolved into political backlash, violent outbursts, and race rioting. The great prosperity of the 1950s had dissolved into a new recession. The U.S. was caught in a horrific and seemingly never-ending war, and no one could remember why we were fighting it in the first place. As the economy tanked in the early 1970s, despair, rather than excitement, ruled the day—particularly in urban areas. Luckily the United States would never let that kind of thing happen again, right? Right?!?
Even more than today, political organizations and gangs clashed with corrupt police. New York’s notorious party culture, previously a symbol of hedonism and decadence, began to seem volatile, even dangerous. Punk rock was naturally one of the social entities to rise out of these ashes, but strangely enough, so was disco.
Disco was a dance club trend that blended steady beats with funk, soul, jazz, and even classical sounds. The music we recognize today as disco first began to appear around 1970. After a few hot years circulating the underground party scene, disco began to evolve into the $4 billion industry that it would become by the end of the 1970s. The movement, which had originated in a few private dance clubs in New York and Philadelphia, spawned a type of music that would influence hip-hop, R&B, house, techno, and neo-soul in the coming decades.
Of course, there were problems with the new dance club fusion whatever it was. One was that, over time, disco culture became heavily focused around cocaine. The most famous clubs associated with disco were glamorous but escapist, ultimately known as much for their entertainment of celebrity addicts whose ships were sinking fast as much as for their interesting musical legacy.
It wasn’t all drugs and troubles, though. Disco emerged as an accessible, racially integrated, dance-driven musical form at a time when rock and roll was becoming increasingly segregated, a white form of expression despite its roots in black music. Some of the negative reactions to disco were reactions to the racially integrated, gay-friendly environment created in the disco clubs—an environment that some saw as emblematic of social progress and others of social decay.
Whatever your feelings were, it was at the very least clear that disco parties were not sit-ins or political campaigns—they were parties. “Disco was about escapism, but it became inescapable,'' said Rolling Stone editor Barry Walters, looking back on disco in a 2002 New York Times article about disco history. He added that disco was not just a racially integrated movement, but a sexually integrated one, too.
''Unlike rock music, whose ideal audience is teenage white male,” he said, “disco brought together young and old, black and white, gay and straight…It didn't follow any rules other than it had to be danceable. A lot of it was driven by sexual liberation, including the availability of the pill.”
Gloria Gaynor broke into this exciting and idiosyncratic scene in 1975 with the release of her first album, Never Can Say Goodbye. A New Jersey native, she had been a recording musician since the age of 19, singing jazz and pop during the era of Motown dominance in the late 1960s. By the time she became a star of disco, she was also a veteran performer (at least by pop standards). “I Will Survive” capped her victorious climb to the top, and the song remained her claim to fame throughout her career (and what little time disco had left).
“Disco is dead” was a famous saying in the 1980s, but the broader scene known as disco did not so much die as assimilate, becoming such a normal part of pop music that these days we rarely even think about disco as a distinct category (unless we’re considering our next Halloween costume). Some have claimed that the AIDS epidemic killed the original disco scene because so many of the gay participants became warier of such a party atmosphere in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Others suggest that greed overcame integrity in the increasingly extravagant club scene, taking much of the fun out of the experience, obviously a problem that is not unique to disco. But no one can deny that the influence of disco extends far and wide even today, scattering its glittery remains right into our faces and onto our radios. Disco survived, and Gloria Gaynor is still touring over three decades later. Heck, if we made it through the 70s, maybe the 2010s have a fighting chance of survival, too. Let’s just listen to “I Will Survive” on repeat for the next few years and call it a decade.